“He didn’t marry me because I am not a Brahmin.”
“Ahhh. Yeah, caste in India tends to work like that,” replied the man.
At a yoga workshop they had attended a few days back, Vijay had said exactly the same thing. Sarah looked at him in awe. He was just in college. A little older than his peers, because he joined school later, ended up doing one year of pre-university science, and then pursuing arts. He wore cotton kurta pants and sported long hair. He had surprisingly kind eyes for a serious face. All her college years she had stubbornly clung to the idea that love would transcend the barriers of caste and religion in her relationship. How did this college kid know these rules that she seemed to have been entirely oblivious to for six years ?
“Didn’t you also break up with your girlfriend because she is Brahmin?”
“No, no … that was an entirely … no, that was something else.”
This is the first time she is talking to the man on the other end of the phone line. She doesn’t know how far this will go, and if she’ll ever find out what the reason behind his breakup was. She doesn’t think she cares to know.
This man, on the other end of the phone, has been replying to her texts, unlike him. Now, over the phone call, she is annoyed by how he giggles at the end of every statement. Trying to cover the chasm of unfamiliarity through a conversation filled with awkward silences and punctuated giggles. A testament to shared, yet separate anxiety.
She wonders if, one day, they will stand at the edge of Gandhikota and hold hands. He had never made it to Telangana while she was studying there for two years.
While she was doing her Masters in Communication, there was an exhibition put up by the Visual Communication students. They had photographed everyday moments of loneliness. In the amphitheatre of their college, there were photographs and sketches of women with curved hips and lost eyes against angry-toned backgrounds.
There was one of a woman she didn’t know by name. Her eyebrows, in the photograph, were dark against a soft grey light. She seemed to be gazing into nothingness.
Nihal was standing beside her. He studied Economics. A friend of a friend who became a sort of companion and close confidante through her college years. She thought of him as an abstraction. He never showed emotion, there was only the occasional smile if he was comfortable around you. And he always spoke in metaphors, or in quotes by German and French philosophers. As they walked away from the exhibits, he said that nudity was precision. The ability to apply the mathematics of colour and scale on a piece of canvas.
She had to pretend that her heart hadn’t skipped a beat. That her Catholic loins were intact, and she hadn’t even noticed breasts or dark triangular mounds in the sketches of nude women.
Three years later, in a museum by the old city – the one named after a dynasty – with another man – tall, with a side-saddle and full of love for city streets and The Beatles, she looks at the painting of Orpheus and Eurydice by George Watts and tells him, “She’s beautiful, no? So delicately strong, stoic even in sadness. Look at her breasts.”
He looks over at her and breaks into a story. The story of the ill-fated couple, Orpheus and Eurydice.
In another room, full of Indian contemporary paintings, they stare at the picture of a woman in a saree, wet from a bath.
“Tresses,” he says.
“Wet fabric against her cold body,” she says.
It is night. Kiran hasn’t responded after deciding to meet over at her place. Kiran of cold eyes, slow smiles and quick laughter. Kiran whose apetitite doubles her own. Kiran who looks equally sharp in a dress or a kurta. Brown long lines and curly, coloured hair. Kiran, whose fingers hold knives with an easy gait. And fashion mugs out of clay.
They have slept together once before. For the first time, she made love to skin that folded like hers, yet different – in belonging, in dimples and freckles, in sensitivity to touch. She discovered in leisure, the secrets of loving that transcended forms of social and moral code. Every gesture of lovemaking became a frame of light and sound.
Unhurried explorations, floating on forbidden territory.
Mutual sighs and limbs folding against crumpled sheets.
Memories for later.
She looks at the photograph that Kiran left her with after that night. Same city as the museum. How do you decide love through a photograph? In the creases of a smile that hides behind your cold eyes?
(Or in the crevices that open up to me in my dreams?
Yesterday, I touched you, we kissed the parts that were holy
And we anointed each other with the sinfulness of our shared history)
Patrick has a scraggly beard now. He was only sprouting facial hair, the last time they spoke at length. When he finally grew a beard, social codes at their church demanded that girls could not speak to boys. Especially if they had belonged to different schools and their families didn’t know each other beyond the Parish. He still twirls his hair around his finger and scrunches his thick eyebrows when he sounds earnest. He has curt eyes, but they hold her in tenderness. Aged by distance, by estrangement.
When Patrick tells her he is seeing other women, she’s terrified.
Of what it means for her.
They are meeting after thirteen and a half years. The comfort they shared discussing anime in front of the church altar before the catechism classes began, is still present.
“You mean, you’re polyamorous?”
If he notices the tremble in her voice, he doesn’t say so.
“So, Kiran and you are… ”
“When did you find this out about yourself?”
“About a year ago,” he says.
“Did you have a tough breakup at the time?”
“No, I just wasn’t seeing anyone in particular for a year, and then I met an old friend and we slept together, and then others followed. Some from Tinder, some friends of friends, others I met through the friends of lovers.”
“Oh wow, interesting.”
He places a hand over hers, squeezes her clammy palm. She looks up in terror.
“I know how it confusing it is in your head … and in your heart,” he adds after a pause, “Especially with all the crap they feed you about matrimony  and family. But if you feel otherwise, you know, you just do. Some people you love for the weirdness they carry in the way they hold their arms, others for the stories you can share, others for comfort during lonely nights that turn wild, and yet others because they happen to be. As long as you aren’t hurting anyone and you’re open and honest about it, it’s alright.”
When she looks back, there’s a lost look in her eyes.
“How do you … you know, approach it?”
“Be yourself, Sarah. Awkward smiles, empty silences, weird laughter, and all. It’s just a part of being human. Loving someone physically is never not awkward. Even if it’s a monogamous relationship. It’s only the comfort of familiarity that makes you think otherwise.”
So many feelings fall into place. The moths in her gut settle on a quiet meadow in her head. Still, there is the fear.
“But Patrick … what about, you know … ”
“Polyamory isn’t a sin, Sarah. Sin is the non-acceptance of who you are.”
She ran away to Hyderabad when her relationship with him overwhelmed her. He wouldn’t tell her that he’d marry her, but every time she tried to break their relationship off, he would come back.
“You know I love you. You know you’re my ‘other half’. Somehow our love is special,” he’d say
And every time, she went back. There was a promise of more, leaning against the stack of ten years. From stolen glances in school corridors, secret Nokia handsets and logging more than 20 calls between 1 am to 4 am when the house slept, to rushed meetings after college and promises, kept and broken. Sometimes in a drunken stupor, sometimes after a hasty breakup. Every time, she went back. The days and years stacked up. And lately, she was beginning to feel sorrier for the Sarah who used to dream of being in shorts, eating ice-cream on the floor, cigarettes poised on an ashtray, and a refrigerator stocked with white wine. Single. Not a traditional Hindu woman in a saree with sindoor on her head. Not a renamed wife, freshly converted, happy just to be married to the one she thought she loved. Because, of course, she knew only one kind of love. Toxic. His. Now she increasingly felt the need to be just a lone woman, with no particular religion, with the occasional person to warm her bed, with no particular Catholic guilt. Him just a bad, distant memory.
In Hyderabad, she confronted her need to love and be loved. She missed his smile between conversations and gestures while he explained things. She held back sometimes, she let go sometimes, in long text messages or phone calls full of salty tears. And during the day, she busied herself. There were so many edits to complete. Reports and mails to send. She steeled herself against it, chewing her nails in the contemplation of this toxic relationship. If it was so wrong and sodoomed, why did she desperately want him? She tried to look elsewhere – in the words of the tall man who loved city streets.
When the final rejection came, she wasn’t expecting it. She hoped it would go away like a bad stomach cramp. It didn’t. She became pregnant with the pain, until Lisa held her as she crumbled in ugly tears.
Lisa was the first woman she told she was bisexual.
And Lisa had said it right back to her. And they laughed hard, into the darkness.
Night hanging slyly over the walk to their shared Paying Guest accomodation. Bread and eggs for the following day in their bags.
Lisa had sharp, straight hair that framed her small face. She wore ‘sexy librarian’ glasses while she proof-read documents that she carried over from the law firm, where she worked. She loved autumn and winter, because it meant she could wear skirts and sweaters with boots to work. She was always dreaming of going away to New York, but she hid these details between little notes on her desk. She laughed showing little teeth and quietly assessed people before deciding whether she liked them. And through the years, Lisa stood by the dream with the cigarettes and the white wine in the refrigerator.
It was through Lisa that she met Kiran. They were friends from college and Kiran stayed with them while she was in Hyderabad, shopping for her wedding. On one of the nights when they were wasted-drunk, she made out with Kiran by the kitchen sink. She pulled apart in shock and shame, but Kiran pulled her in closer.
“Ajay and I are in an open relationship,” she said.
“Yeah, that’s why I’m doing my shopping all alone. The families don’t approve of our choices,” Kiran laughs a little. Sarah doesn’t probe. But she knows her family will never know of these trespasses.
And then she let herself go for the first time.
Kiran left her with a photograph taken a few years back. In the photograph, Kiran has a smile lurking behind her eyes. Sarah feels Kiran’s gaze taunting her. Was she good enough? Will she be compared to other women? Will Kiran want to see her again? Will she ever see Kiran again?
She had first read about polyamory in the newspaper when she was 16. It was a ‘new fad’, the article said. There was freedom in loving many people, one man said. Sometimes you have a primary partner and others you see for casual sex, for other kinds of affection and fulfillment, said another woman. All with asterisks against their names. She had hoped no one would walk into the room and catch her reading the article.
Later in the evening, she snipped the article and took it upstairs, carefully folded the creases and put it in her diary.
After his marriage, Hyderabad began to stifle her. Suddenly, it became a reminder of her guilt, of her willful sabotage of a failing relationship and of the numbing pain of losing someone she didn’t know whether she loved or she had got used to. She returned to Bangalore. Her work peers at Hyderabad were not very sad to see her go. Lisa kissed her on the cheek and reminded her of their dream.
She went back to life in an alien home, that felt unfamiliar for the years spent apart from her ageing parents. She cannot afford a place of her own with her teacher’s salary. The kids are great, young school girls oblivious to adulthood’sanxieties and the costs of living. At a workshop on yoga and wellness meditation, she meets Vijay and immediately likes him for the ease with which he carries himself. In unguarded moments, she spills the story of the sorrow on her face – something he noticed during his first class here, he tells her.
She isn’t too afraid, because she knows he will be a friend who stays. Someone she can admit her insecurities to. Someone who will not use them to gain sexual favours. Someone she can trust with the discovery of her sexuality. Someone who will share their own. So they have an evening of heart-to-heart and two bottles of Captain Morgan (250 ml) and she goes back home on a cold yet somehow sweaty night. Vijay introduces her work to a friend on Instagram. This man who wears bright solid coloured kurtas in his photographs and writes occasional poetry is also fresh out of a romantic relationship. Over chat, they debate online dating, they both discover a love for romantic comedies and horror films. They also enjoy drama reels that blame everyday disappointments on astrological phenomena. One day, they decide to speak over phone. The awkward, anxious phone call ensues. Even if it were to be a giggle-free date in Hyderabad with a follow up at Gandhikota, she is unsure of going back – to the city and to this man.
Nihal is busy with work and her other friends are all abroad now. She contacts Kiran with a moth fluttering in her heart. She needn’t have worried. Kiran is quick to laugh as usual. They meet a few times, and her sadness pours forth. Kiran is surprisingly caring in a no-nonsense way, listening to her and giving her practical advice. She never coddles her sadness. Somehow this is exactly what she needs and their relationship quickly becomes friendly. Now, Kiran is her only sort-of friend in the city, with promises of more always in the background. Paused, for her to heal. For later, when she feels a sense of stability in her mind. And then, on the day she decides to surprise Kiran at her house when Ajay is away on a ‘fuckbuddy night out’, she runs into Patrick.
At Kiran’s doorstep.
Patrick is her catechism friend. From all those years ago. He would tell her the story of Goku and Vegeta every Sunday. He knew she didn’t have a TV at home. When the Dominican Brothers came after cordial conversations with other parishioners, they turned towards the altar in prayerful silence. Patrick and she both knew the prayers by heart. Our Fathers and Hail Marys are easy, like scribbling on paper. It is the “Remember O Most Holy Virgin Mary” prayer (The Memorare) and Psalm 91 with its sixteen verses that are harder.
She and Patrick are always showing off. Never mind that he’s two years younger. Never mind that sometimes the Brothers favour her prayers against his. When it comes down to reciting all the mysteries of the Rosary (extra points for the Luminous Mysteries), she finally beats him.
A year later, she stops talking to him.
Another year later, they politely avoid each other as is the norm and custom in a small-town church.
Until that night.
“Uhhh … you know Kiran?” she asks him.
She is seeing him after thirteen years and five months. He swallows a little and turns pale in the light of the zero-watt bulb. A few seconds later, there is the sound of something scraping the floor, a curse and a loud call, and Kiran is at the doorstep.
“Weren’t you leaving … Oh. Sarah, you’re here!”
She’s entirely unsure of herself at that point.
Patrick makes a noise and they turn to look at him.
“Uh … I gotta go. Um … Sarah, right? Uh … nice to meet you. Okay, good night,” he says and leaves.
“You know him?” Kiran asks.
“How do you know him?” she retorts.
Patrick walks out of the gate. Sarah and Kiran look at each other.
Kiran laughs first. Sarah doesn’t know what would be appropriate or what the intended meanings are, so she laughs too, carefully.
“So, you’ve started sleeping around, finally?”
“No…” she says.
“Come on in, what are we doing out here in the cold.”
At the dining table, Kiran is pouring wine into a glass.
“Kiran, Patrick and I were friends at church … we studied catechism, together for two years.” she says, and pauses.
Kiran looks up at her. “Oh! Oh fuck! Oh, no. So, he’s not …”
She likes Kiran best in moments like these. She is awkward with the knowledge of what has transpired between a lost friend and a new lover. She is uncomfortable that she knows. She wishes she didn’t. She is always terrified of her own sexuality, because of the very possibility of such moments. But against her awkwardness and discomfort, Kiran is kind and curt. Steadfast against unsure anxiety.
“So, would you like to talk to him? Sort things out and get to know each other?”
“I don’t know … ”
“Trust me, I think he’ll like having a friend who knows what it’s like to break the traditions of indoctrination.”
Sarah smiles a little.
As they drink the wine, she taps Patricks number into her phone as Kiran dictates.
The girls reach out to each other. Sarah is filled with a hope for renewed catechism.
 Indian society is segregated by a caste system that has, for centuries, decreed occupation, social and religious traditions as well as strict practices of endogamy within castes. Even other religions like Christianity and Islam, have evolved their own systems of caste hierarchy. According to this system, Brahmins are at the highest rung of the Hindu caste hierarchy and impose endogamy rigidly in most societies.
 Popularly known as the ‘Grand Canyon of India’, Gandhikota is a village and fort located in Andhra Pradesh. It is a half-day journey by road from Hyderabad, and is an up-and-coming tourist spot for camping. The scenic view of the Ponna river flowing through the gorge is a popular site of attraction.
 Most works of art – specifically those that portray the human body, are drawn to a scale of proportion. Artists inculcate the use of scale within their forms of art, and play with different shades of colour to achieve likeness and the sense of beauty that artworks express.
 The Christian religion considers marriage to be a natural, holy order of life to be blessed in an official ceremony by the church. The religious terms for this ritual is called matrimony.
 Sindoor: vermilion mark, signifying marital status.
 In churches, children from middle school to high school are taught basic tenets of their religion, prayers and Bible stories. These classes are called Catechism classes or Sunday school.
Cover Image: Unsplash