A short story by the associate professor of writing at Jindal Global University in Sonipat, India, from a new collection, The Tulip Nocturnes
The six-ten shuttle lumbered from the university to the Tulip residence populated with tired faculty and staff. The trip only lasted a few minutes, but it sometimes seemed to take longer. During that compressed time riders chatted quickly with each other in Hindi and English or escaped out the window to dream of distant places and people.
From his regular seat in the middle of the bus, 1409 secretly invaded the lives of other passengers whenever he could. He liked to eavesdrop on the conversations around him and take notes in a wire-bound pad when they were interesting. He was surprised at the things people were able to bring up (student confidences, urinary tract infections, damn housekeepers) in the shuttle’s brief amount of time. Lately he’d been trying to turn some of the notes into stories.
In the past he’d heard Vipul and Kalika, among others, talking quietly, but that evening, because they were animated, he strained to catch their conversation in front of him. They were recently married but sat across the aisle from each other, at Kalika’s insistence. Fourteen-oh-nine scooted a little closer as she gestured and spoke to Vipul about “chumminess.” Leaning in he understood her admonitions to mean if she didn’t bring it up, he would’ve been at her side every possible moment. And they were often seen together anyway: In the cafeteria, in the faculty lounge, at meetings, in the hallway — and even on the shuttle when she allowed it. But Kalika often shook her head, waved Vipul off, and put her hand on the seat, hypothetically saving it for someone with news or gossip, or who wasn’t Vipul. But after looking at sad Vipul poised across the aisle, very few people ever sat down with Kalika — or Vipul.
Fourteen-oh-nine had watched them at the little store, on campus, at the food court, and while dating (even once from his balcony on the fourteenth floor) and thought them a strange couple: Kalika was doll-like and petite, uniquely attractive, whereas Vipul was large and awkward, plain. Vipul worked in Finance and Kalika was one of the college recruiters. Everyone on campus was surprised when they announced their wedding: It was low-key at Kalika’s insistence. Those who knew her thought it was most likely because she’d been spurned by a handsome older man, one of the assistant deans of the law school, and her parents were becoming adamant. Vipul’s friends told him she was a great catch, that he was a lucky guy, and that it was a good match. His parents couldn’t have been happier.
But before long Vipul, good-natured Vipul, became the butt of jokes at the university: When faculty and staff greeted each other they began to imitate him by shaking hands nervously and asking “Have you seen Kalika, have you seen Kalika?” When a friend mentioned it to them, it embarrassed Kalika, but Vipul saw it as all in good fun and enjoyed the attention.
Some of the male teachers gathered on the cricket pitch on Fridays to watch the matches, and in talking they wondered whether Kalika and Vipul would ever have children, which required they be intimate — which most agreed was highly unlikely.
To say Vipul liked Kalika would be a classic understatement. He liked everything about her, even the unattractive things. He liked the way she said everything twice: “Do you think the shuttle is on time? Do you think the shuttle is on time tonight?” He liked the little hitch in her step and the way she swung her right arm and pointed her finger when she walked. He liked it when things flew into her thick tangled hair and he had to retrieve them. He liked the way her otherwise small backside stuck out. He liked it when she told him what to do, even when he didn’t need to be told. And he really liked ogling the beauty mark on the right side of her upper lip, even finding ways to inadvertently touch it.
“The American movie star Marilyn Monroe had a beauty mark on her lip,” Vipul told Kalika once to try to impress her. “Like yours.”
“Left, left,” she said.
“What was left, left?”
“It was on her left cheek, her left cheek.”
To more than a few people, Vipul pointed out Kalika’s beauty mark on the right when she was at a distance. It looked like a tiny chocolate dot, only with a ragged edge. Vipul told his closest friend, Sandeep, that he was looking forward to the day they’d kiss, and that at night he dreamed of licking the mark with his tongue. He also told Sandeep about seeing Kalika brushing the mole with mascara in the morning and how turned on he got. When she saw this she ordered him out of the bathroom.
On a recent shuttle, though, 1409 noticed that Kalika had begun flipping through home décor magazines and that Vipul seemed more relaxed and not as needy. They were still content to sit across the aisle from each other and they encouraged others to sit down next to them — which they now appeared able to do.
One long weekend they went away to Varanasi and stayed in a small hotel just up from the river. During the day they walked the narrow passage ways and along the ghats and by night they were on the river in boats watching the fire ceremonies and the last of the cremations.
On their final night, while they were on a boat, Vipul, in a burst of religiosity, dunked his head in the holy waters and washed his face with his hands three times. Kalika gave him a cloth and he wiped his eyes and mouth with it.
When they returned to the campus people seemed to smile at them more often and listen when they talked about Varanasi and the holy Ganga. Vipul told Sandeep about washing his face and how good he felt afterwards.
Sandeep stood close and looked at Vipul’s lip. “You have something on your mouth from breakfast.”
Vipul licked his finger and daubed at the place Sandeep was pointing.
“Still there,” Sandeep said.
Vipul found a tissue and went into the men’s room to look in the mirror. There was a small dark spot on his left upper lip. He wet the tissue and wiped it again, with no result. Twice more he wiped his lip, this time with pressure.
At first Vipul tried not to pay the spot much attention. He looked at it briefly when he passed windows, and resisted saying anything to Kalika. He wondered why she hadn’t noticed it or said anything about it. Their friends thought Vipul was trying to be funny and ignored him.
Then one morning when he was shaving too quickly, he trimmed off the top of the brown spot that had grown up into a small mole. It bled profusely and got all over the sink and floor. It took a few minutes for him to get it to stop.
When Kalika came to the bathroom to shower, she looked at all the blood and asked what happened, what happened? For the first time since Vipul had known Kalika, he got angry at her — but he only said “Kalika…” and didn’t complete the thought.
In the little store, when Vipul was looking for shoe polish, he came across a tube of wart remover on the shelf. The instructions said not to use it close to the eyes and Vipul thought his lip was far enough away not to be a problem. When Kalika saw the tube, she cautioned him not to get it close to her.
Vipul used it every day for two weeks, but it seemed to act like a stimulant. His friends looked at the growing spot furtively and didn’t say anything to him, but talked amongst themselves.
Sandeep convinced him to go to the clinic to see the doctor one evening when it was open late. Vipul told the old doctor about his wife having a beauty mark and that his seemed to sprout after he dunked his head in the Ganga. The doctor closed his eyes for a moment and crossed his arms as though deep in thought. When he opened his eyes he brought the tall lighted magnifying glass close to Vipul’s lip.
“Yes, hmm, yes,” the doctor said rubbing the spot with his thumb. “You say your wife has one of these as well?”
Vipul wobbled his head and said “Yes, only hers is much more attractive.”
“Yours reminds me of my wife’s prized zinnias. They are found mostly in the Americas and her sister brought the seeds from Peru.”
Vipul wobbled his head again and the two looked at each other.
“Yes, but what should I do?”
“Rub it with ghee in the morning and at night. Come back to see me in a month if it’s not better. Be careful shaving.”
“What did he say?” Sandeep asked when Vipul came out of the office.
“He said it looked like his wife’s prized zinnias and that I should rub it with ghee in the morning and at night.”
After Kalika had heard Vipul went to the clinic, she waited for him so they could ride the late shuttle together and sit next to each other. Kalika held his face in her hands and resisted becoming emotional.
“Oh, Vipul,” Kalika said, “Vipul.
“It’s nothing,” Vipul said looking away from his wife. “It will be finished in a month using ghee.”
Kalika had been to the food court and bought Vipul’s favorite take-away: tandoori chicken, rajmah, and basmati rice, with a good garlic naan. At the kitchen table, they talked about how their days had gone at work, but it felt forced. When they were finished cleaning up, Vipul announced he was going to start growing a beard. Kalika hated beards, but she kept her comments to herself.
That night Kalika suggested she daub alcohol on Vipul’s mole to clean it up and then slather it with warmed ghee. Vipul wasn’t sure but agreed to go along with it to make her happy.
At bedtime Kalika removed her clothes in a dainty but obvious way in front of Vipul and put on one of his t-shirts. Vipul shrugged his shoulders, tapped the mole with his finger and tried to ignore her. Kalika turned out the lamp and put his hands on her breasts. She kissed him all over the face and dragged her beauty mark across his chest and cheeks.
Vipul sat up and then walked into the guest bedroom.
“Vipul, Vipul,” Kalika called after him. “Where are you going?”
Vipul opened the sliding glass door to the balcony, stepped out, and closed the door behind him. Kalika pressed her face against the glass.
Vipul took off his pajamas, wadded them up, and threw them over the balcony rail. He stood on the eighth floor naked looking down at his pile of clothes.
“Vipul,” Kalika whimpered, “Vipul, please come in. I am sorry.”
When he came in she wrapped her arms around him and broke into a convulsive moan.
“Do you blame me?” Kalika asked trembling. “Am I to blame?”
Vipul clawed at his lip and angrily peeled part of the mole off with his teeth, then swallowed the remaining scab. It had doubled in size — it was now as big as a button - and it pulsed blood. The bright liquid dripped all over him and Kalika as well. He thought about the doctor and turned to the mirror to see if the ragged sore looked like a prized zinnia.
After the incident on the balcony, Vipul began calling in sick and wandering the flat naked. Sandeep came by and recommended he go to the nearby village to find a remedy.
“But you will have to wear clothing,” Sandeep said smiling. Vipul didn’t think it was funny.
The next night Sandeep escorted Vipul to Jagdishpur to see a traditional healer, a short, squat woman with big hands and missing teeth. When they arrived there was a queue and a mother holding a wailing baby in her arms at the front of the line. The child had a fever and was not consolable.
When it was Vipul’s turn, the short woman looked at the resprouted zinnia on his lip and touched it with a long, crusty finger. Vipul flinched and was ready to walk away.
“Ah,” the woman said, “does your wife have one of these on her face somewhere?”
“Yes,” Vipul said quickly, “a small one, on her lip, which I used to think was beautiful.”
In Hindi the healer said, “I believe I can take care of this. Do you have rupees today?”
When Vipul said he did she had him go outside and scoop up a bag of cow dung.
As everyone watched she pasted a dab of the brown-green excrement on Vipul’s lip.
“Morning, noon and night,” she said. “One month. No kissing. And no ghee.”
Early the next morning Vipul stood in front of the mirror in his pajamas trying to decide if there had been any change. He leaned over the sink two inches from the reflection of his face. It did look different. He removed the dried dung and thought the mole appeared almost wilted and rather than looking like a flower it looked more like a shriveled umbrella. But he wasn’t quite sure that meant it was healed, only that it had become unattractive.
That same morning, before they’d gotten back on the shuttle, Kalika complained about the pervasive smell of cow dung in their bedroom and all over the flat, the terrible smell. Vipul at first ignored her. But to humor her he double-wrapped the cow waste and set the bag outside on the balcony.
On the bus people began asking what the smell was and looking at each other. Kalika took Vipul to her office and before anyone arrived painted the dung-covered mole with lightly-scented make-up. In Vipul’s office his associates wondered where the smell was coming from and was there something dead in the a/c system. He didn’t say anything, but by the end of the day everyone knew and was angry at Vipul. In the faculty/staff lounge, after Vipul had drunk his morning coffee, people began greeting each other with ‘So, what’s that smell?’ But they knew it was Vipul’s dung treatment.
After enough people had complained, the director of HR sent Vipul an email asking him to stop by. The director wondered how things were going and as Vipul talked he looked at the mole and sniffed the air.
“People are complaining,” the director said interrupting, “you’ll have to do something. You’ll have to do something about that smell.”
“Do something like what?” Vipul asked. “It is traditional Indian treatment for serious skin condition.”
“Well, we just cannot have it,” the director said. “You will have to find a modern treatment, one with less odor.”
On the shuttle Vipul told Kalika the story of meeting the director and being told to change treatments.
“You see,” Kalika said, “I am not the only one. How about if we try aspirin or garlic?”
“I am allergic to aspirin and garlic smells strong too.”
“Will you change for me?” Kalika asked.
“Yes, Kalika, but help me find another treatment for my flower.” Vipul had begun referring to his efflorescing mole as “my flower.”
Just for Kalika,Vipul stopped using the cow dung, but almost as soon as he did the mark grew back. Vipul began using tiny sewing scissors to trim the petals of the mole and the mole itself, like a gardener, but every night after they’d gone to bed it began growing explosively.
One morning, before Vipul had woken, Kalika shook him and pointed at his lip. She held a hand mirror up so he could see. The flower had grown to the size of a saucer and was black.
Kalika ran from their bedroom, slammed the door and hid herself in the guest room. He could hear her crying through the wall.
That same morning Vipul decided to cut the flower close to his lip and put it in a bowl of water. He hid the bowl under the sink in the kitchen. Early the next day, before Kalika was up, he clipped his lip again and added another zinnia to the bowl, then another and another each day. Though he knew it didn’t work, he used ghee on the flower so Kalika could see.
One evening in a burst of affection Kalika kissed him on the mouth, hugged him tightly and proclaimed their troubles were over after looking at his lip.
“Vipul,” she said smiling, “Vipul, I love you.”
Vipul wondered if that was the right time to retrieve the bowl.
Kalika had ordered home delivery of butter chicken and spicy aloo gobi that evening. Vipul was glad to see that for the first time in weeks his wife was happy. That Saturday he called for a taxi and they went to look at rattan furniture out on the highway. They found a beautiful wicker table with a glass top and a set of four chairs. It was more than they could afford, but Vipul was able to borrow the money from his parents.
The furniture salesman agreed to deliver the table and chairs on Sunday morning and Vipul told Kalika he would make a big European breakfast for the occasion.
“I didn’t know you knew how to cook Western food,” she said.
Vipul said he didn’t but it would be mostly fried eggs and potatoes and toast anyway.
Sunday morning Vipul and Kalika expected the salesman to appear at noon and they began preparing breakfast. But he showed up early with two workers and a truck with the table and chairs. The table almost did not fit in the elevator and the workers had to wait and take the adjacent one. Bringing it into the apartment one of the legs banged the wall and knocked a chunk of plaster off. Kalika frowned and pointed at it.
The salesman could see that Vipul and Kalika were ready to eat and he hurried to set the table up and balance the legs. When he’d finished he sat down and the workers stood off to the side watching.
“What you need now are flowers, something in the center, to set this beautiful table off.” He unwrapped a gift for them; a terra cotta pot made locally.
Kalika didn’t know where she’d get flowers on a Sunday and shrugged her shoulders.
Vipul snapped his fingers and went to the kitchen. He opened the cabinet doors and retrieved the bowl of facial moles. They had wilted and gotten soft; two had sunk to the bottom of the glass bowl. The floral arrangement had a peculiar, fleshy stench.
Kalika put her hand over her mouth and nose and ran out of the room.
The salesman looked at them closely and said, “What the hell is this?”
“Zinnias,” Vipul said smiling at the dark collection. “Prize zinnias.
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