There are countless tea shrubs lurking outside. Each one, a half-painted face of a Kathakali dancer, ready to ensnare me with their eye movements. So, I don’t dare to stare through the window from my four-poster bed. Instead, I glaze at the elaborate carvings on the wooden ceiling; giant chocolate squares sprinkled with golden blobs. My stomach growls but I have no appetite.
For how long have I been lying here?
Days? Months? Years!?
No, it can’t be years, silly me! Though the gossamer ball gown on me belongs to another age. Am I the young wife of a European tea estate manager? Or… my bare brown shoulders shudder… a comfort woman - who picks white tea for her master during the day and wears gossamer gowns at night?
Dishes clatter somewhere in the bungalow. The insects drone outside. It is almost dusk.
I pull at the sheets and summon the strength to get up. My hands are covered in intricate maroon tendrils of henna. I prop myself up on the pillows. A turmeric-smeared thread with a gold pendant bobs in front of my face.
Am I a Persian princess in exile married to a European man in a Hindu wedding ceremony?
What the hell! I don’t feel good at all.
Just who am I?
Whoever I may be, I must escape. Before whoever put me here, comes back.
I hear footsteps followed by “Oh darling you are awake! Thank God!”. A familiar man in a tailcoat and an unfamiliar one in a white coat draw close to me.
I drawl, “Shell…fi…”. And faint.
We are in Munnar. By far, today seems to be the most action-packed.
It’s 9.30 in the morning and we are already in the basket of a hot air balloon. The gas-fed dragon nozzle throws fire into the belly of the kevlar-nylon envelope. We are given hats to cover our heads. If the dragon were to spew fire at us, will we fight it together or jump out leaving the other behind? The dragon takes us higher and higher, but there is something that is holding it down. Oh! it is those serpents, coiled like coir ropes. Should I cut them off? Just to test ourselves…By the time I come up with a plan to direct the dragon head to singe the ropes, we are already on the ground, safely. 5 minutes of flight; that’s what a ticket can buy.
The next activity is to go off-road by jeep: meander through undulating plantations, eat cacao flesh and pineapple slices by the side of a suspension bridge, suspend in the air zip-lining across a gurgling waterfall, and get a tubful of fish to nibble at soles, each one feasting on the dead cells or are they slicing the cells dead?
My feet surely feel dead.
The jeep guy drops us back to the sedan guy.
The sedan climbs uphill, winding through an army of tea bushes with silver oaks scattered like sentinels among them.
My heart flutters. This is not a planned activity. Will I be adequate?
The portico of a bungalow, at least two centuries old, is where we are dropped off.
“Surprise!” he whispers as he walks me through its arched doorway.
I am tired from the day’s activities. But the polite yet firm housekeeper informs us about the delights planned for us before serving us dinner-
A stroll in the garden in the morning, a lavish brunch at noon, a private exploration in the afternoon, and the coveted photoshoot befitting the splendor of the period architecture before dusk.
Once she leaves us alone with our dinner, he looks at me and grins like a Cheshire cat. Surely, places can affect people.
Is this where we are going to finally find each other or lose each other?
I am in a quandary. Is he being patient with me playing patient or am I being patient with him playing a loving husband?
Anyway, we check out of the boathouse. Lalo greets us with a smile and drives us to Thekkady. I have a sneaking suspicion he might just pull the trigger at any one of the hairpin bends and stuff me behind one of the cardamom bushes. He pulls over close to what appears to be a lot of bushes and declares,
“Spice garden and elephant safari!”
A wiry young man chaperones us to a curly-haired ayurveda specialist who gives us a tour of a one-acre demo farm. He points to various plants and lists their uses. There are plants that give you hair as dense as a bear’s and those that will remove the hair once and for all. There are spices of every kind, to boost the function of every gland. The mustards start sputtering in the oil as the onion dives into it calling out to ginger and garlic to save it and I choke in a dingy kitchen filled with smoke. I’m quickly ushered into the shop. The specialist offers me a glass of warm water with a spoonful of tribal wild forest honey. He puts together a trayful of products I should be carrying home and waves one more tiny container at me.
“Madam, Allspice powder?”
“Mmm…I have never seen my mom use it,” I shrug my shoulders.
“Ah, then we should definitely experiment with it. It may be my chance to come up with an impressive dish!” my husband chuckles.
As I said I am in a quandary. Even after meeting a cute elephant, and witnessing a striking kalarippayattu performance.
It is only after he gives up on the couple massage on sensing my queasiness do I feel a bit sure of us sticking together.
Well, last night was disastrous. Far from being romantic, it was more of him stoically cupping his hands together to catch my vomit in projectile motion and escort me to the restroom at least thrice, I think.
By morning, both ends of my digestive system seem to be in order, but somewhere up in the attic, the clouds are beginning to gather.
Lalu comes to fetch us from the hotel. We check out and proceed to Alleppey.
Paddy fields, backwaters, ducks and hyacinths, houses with slanting terracotta roofs surrounded by shrubs screaming flowers.
We stop midway for a drink of coconut water. My heart gives a tug as he holds up the tender coconut for me. I’m glad we move away before the vendor wields his machete to scalp me.
Lijo, Lalu, Lalo- whatever his name is… drops us near the dock at Alleppey. A long line of houseboats awaits the tourists. A man with a handlebar moustache and a heavy accent welcomes us aboard.
Another couple, who will be sharing this floating thing with us till tomorrow morning have already arrived. The girl looks thin and pasty and bubbles, “Hi, we are from Ahmedabad. What about you?” My eyes are transfixed on the teeming germs on the wooden floor trying to crawl into my skin. My better half answers, “Hello! We are from Bangalore. Nice to meet you.” The boy in an oversized khaki shirt who will be part of the crew that will cook, clean, and serve us during our stay, wheels our luggage into our allotted cabin. I see a couple of hawks coming out of his nose. They hover close to my ears and screech, “nasty newlyweds, I am sick of you!”
My husband is mindful of my need to recuperate and doesn’t make any romantic overtures as we settle down in the cabin with a window wall and an attached bath with running hot water. I think I love him a bit more today.
I really don’t have an appetite for lunch on the deck, I only pick at it.
A smaller boat takes us through the narrow canals in the evening. It’s early February and the air is humid. I see young purple mangoes jutting out of trees. A dragonfly rubs its nose on the floating wood. Bleeding blooms again. A cat meows and runs over a narrow bridge and a boy cycles along the bank, his wheels turning backwards, and a hand comes out of a cluster of unripe bananas and grabs me.
I am in the cabin again and it is dark outside.
“How are you feeling baby? You feel up for dinner?”
“O sorry, it must be the heat. I am all right now,” I mumble.
We walk up to the deck that has a candle-lit table. A candle, lit and stabbed in the heart of a brass urli oozing rose petals.
No prizes for guessing the menu. Seafood.
I slurp the soup. And float. Up and up, all the way to the full moon.
He and I, the newlyweds, arrive at Trivandrum airport. It looks disappointingly sparse, calling itself an international airport. Doesn’t matter. We are not here to explore the airport. We are here to explore… er… each other. I know it sounds gross. But that’s what the website of Divine Honeymoon Travels promised. And having met each other after our families met each other through a matrimony site that matched our horoscopes, I am half-convinced that it’s the right way to start our journey.
There’s a friendly balding man in a frayed collar shirt from the travel company waiting for us at the exit. He greets us with a smile, stows our luggage in the boot, and takes us to our hotel.
After a brief break for taking bath and changing into traditional wear, Lijo drives us to the temple. To seek the blessings of the deity in eternal yogic sleep. We come out feeling serene. So far so good.
In the passenger seat of the sedan, we hold hands and lock eyes as the car inches out of the marketplace.
“Would you like to go to the zoo or beach next, sir?”
“Nowhere! please drop us back at the hotel, we don’t want to be too tired,” he says with a naughty grin.
I am still a bit shaky, like jelly before it’s set. This er…matrimonial bliss is something I am still not completely prepared for. Maybe I will grow firm, with time.
Once back at the hotel, we do a bit of er…exploring, before he orders a seafood platter.
Seafood. Another first for me. So what? Cheers to new beginnings!
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Incredible visuals in this, Suma! I loved the way you worked the story backwards, very effective in general (and made me want to read it the second time, right-side up :) and particularly for Glitch prompt. Beautiful and intriguingly unnerving story! Fave: "The mustards start sputtering in the oil as the onion dives into it calling out to ginger and garlic to save it and I choke in a dingy kitchen filled with smoke." Wow!
Wendy, I’m happy you found the visuals striking. This one was pure experimental fun. Thank you so much for your kind words.
Marvelous, Suma! Your writing style is unique and compelling, always. The reverse order made a great suspenseful tone. As already mentioned, using actual reality works very well in this context. The beauty of your descriptiveness (even of unattractive imagery!) draws us right to the scene. I hope the MC has a happy marriage! : ) There’s an added element for me; that of the actual cause of “glitching”. Makes me wonder if you know from any personal experience. I’m severely allergic to certain shellfish. Most people assume it causes swelling...
Cindy! Thank you so much for your enduring warmth and generosity. At times I feel guilty of not reciprocating the same. That projectile incident is a personal experience 😂 But thankfully not because of shellfish. I’m sorry to hear you found out you were allergic to it the hard way. But there are plenty of other fish out there… so I guess we are good!
Ohhh I do like a journal; this has such a good historical sense to it too. I can picture this couple so clearly, navigating around on their honeymoon and thus learning how to navigate each other. Vivid descriptions really helped to capture their trip and I like how the tone shifted from queasy to naughty, very nice and befitting the couple! It all felt plausible and I would imagine it's easy to do it too much one way or the other (a bed or roses or all thorns). You definitely steered a firm and successful middle ground here. Lastly, I really...
Ah, you are just too kind, Rebecca. Capturing the complex dynamics of an unsure couple is one of my favorite things to do. Here, writing it in reverse chronology was added fun :-) Thank you for reading and leaving an insightful comment.
The reverse chronology is a smart touch, it makes the story seem like a mystery novel in miniature. That was a good read.
Thank you so much for reading and commenting. I really appreciate it!
Suma, I love this relatable - severely, wonderfully disjointed - frenzy of a tale. I recognized within it the very essence of a new marriage and those first steps into the unknown. You skillfully brought that fragility to life and turned it into a beautifully rendered piece of art. I so love what you do!
Thank you so much for your fabulous comment,Susan! It made my day. You captured the soul of the piece in a couple of sentences. Thank you!
The reverse chronological order is so captivating-love it!
Thank you for your kind words.
This is fantastic. I have to say, I lived in India for 5 years when I was a kid, and your descriptions just take me right back. They are very evocative, and poetic without being poetically overbearing. This prompt completely stumped me and I am very impressed with what you did with it because you created glitches in reality with actual reality rather than defaulting to sci fi or drugs or something. This reversed order creates a mystery for the reader (What is shell...fi...???) resolved once we've worked our way backwards. I did what Wendy di...
Oh, this is such a lovely comment! Thank you so much for your generous appreciation. I’m glad I could take you back to your childhood.
That's a hell of a trip! Looks like a serious reaction to shellfish. There's a strong sense of confusion here. Yes, the hallucinations are one thing, but the narrator doesn't seem sure of things - of her situation, of herself, of those around her. She strikes me as a bit of an unreliable narrator, and we're uncertain if these events actually happened over five days, or if they happened at all, particularly given it appears she's waking up from an extended sleep on day five. The other side of this story appears to be a freshly married coupl...
Hah, you got it right, as always! Marriage is a leap of faith…arranged or not, and one needs to have the stomach to digest the changes it brings 😂. Was the girl being selfish or was it just shellfish? This one was fun to experiment with. I’m just glad I could put it together. Thanks for the read, Michal.
Yeah, writing a story going backwards is an experiment I've thought about but never pulled the trigger on yet. It worked out well here, really digging into that mystery tag. She wakes up in such a weird state, we just have to find out how she got there :)
Suma, Those are quite the glitches! I really enjoyed the descriptive adventurous activities of Day 5-2. Day 1, however, is the best. New beginnings always have that element of fear and naughtiness to them. Such a great story. Vivid imagery coupled with such diction allows the reader to be pulled into the story easily as if being there with the couple. Thank you for the good read. LF6
Lily, Thank you for being so generous with your time to read and comment. I’m glad to know the descriptions worked for you and you found the story enjoyable.