Serious Men – An Excerpt

‘I am sorry,’ Acharya said, ‘I could not see you last night.’
‘There is some progress with the cryosampler,’ she said, and gave him a print-out of an email. And that was how she was in the days that followed. Something in her was dead. He could see it in her eyes.

The way she used to look at him, with the glow of new love, was now replaced by the silent hurt of betrayal and humiliation. She made him sad, but he also longed for this sorrow to arrive in his room as often as possible in that ascetic uniform of long top and jeans, the cassock of her platonic detachment. She spoke to him only about work, and she looked so strong and resolute in her martyrdom that he did not find cues to speak about himself or to blame the forces of virtue that stole him away from the basement.

But he found excuses to be with her. He asked Ayyan to send her to his room on flimsy pretexts. And she came every time he summoned her. Some days, when he thought that he had summoned her too many times, and feared that she might leave the Institute, unable to bear the sight of him, he called group meetings with scientists and research assistants.

His eyes would sweep across the assembly, and rest casually on her. She never looked him in the eye, but every time his carefully constructed perfunctory gaze fell on her he was certain that she knew he was looking. Her mask of detachment would slip a little: she would stare harder at the floor, or she would inhale unknowingly. So he devised a new way of looking at her.

He realized that if he adjusted the position of the cylindrical glass jar in which Lavanya’s ethereal agents still filled orchids every morning, he could see Oparna’s reflection. The vase was bought by Lavanya years ago as part of her failed attempt to make his office look beautiful. Now it was an accomplice in his furtive love. It had a reasonable refractive index, it seemed, and so her face was not too distorted. And this was how he would look at her during the long group meetings.

Sometimes, he noticed in the jar, she would look at his face in a fond way and turn away when she perceived the threat of being found out. This device consoled him until one afternoon when he saw Oparna’s reflection staring at him and then at the vase. She had somehow figured out the technique.

He got up in the middle of the meeting, even as someone was talking to him about the optimum dimensions of the balloon, and carried the vase to the far end of the room. He put it on the centrepiece that lay in the middle of the interfacing white sofas. He rejoined the perplexed group with an innocent face and threw a casual glance at Oparna for appreciation, but she was looking at the floor.

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Serious Men, Manu Joseph