Liar

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Elections 2024
01 June, 2013

ABOUT THE STORY Marriage is indubitably about many real things, such as money, children, food and in-laws. But it is also a story jointly made up by two narrators, a story that is continuously being confirmed or contested by one or the other side. Marital conversation is often subtly martial.

In Aseem Kaul’s ‘Liar’, we see the imagined meanings of a small accident between spouses in bed begin to ramify unstoppably. Both husband and wife are completely well-meaning, but powerless when pressured by the structures and expectations of narratives circulating around them: narratives about gender, domestic violence, self-help, and confession.

Alongside Kuzhali Manickavel, Kaul is the most resolute and sophisticated minimalist in Indian writing in English today. His (implied) narrator is impatient with the traditional narratorial duties of introduction, explication and running commentary. By giving us only the two voices speaking to one another, he returns fiction to a space of dramatic intensity and jaggedness often lost in the plodding, over-explaining gestures of realist narration today. And in doing so, he also demands of the reader the kind of close attention, both horrified and fascinated, that children might summon when attending to the quarrels of their own parents.

“SO WHAT DID YOU TELL the doctor?”

“That I fell and banged my face against a doorknob.”

“And he believed that?”

“Well, he seemed suspicious, obviously. Kept asking me questions. But in the end he seemed to accept it. I guess he didn’t have a choice.”

“Wow! That old chestnut.”

“I know, right? But what else was I supposed to tell him?”

“You could have told him the truth.”

“What? That you hit me?”

“I did not hit you!”

“Uh-huh?”

“It was an accident!”

“Relax, baby, I’m just pulling your leg. But seriously, what was I supposed to tell him? That we were having wild sex, and you threw your hand up and accidentally hit me in the eye?”

“It’s what happened.”

“And you think he would have believed that?”

“I guess not.”

“And besides, I didn’t want to be talking to him about my sex life. Describing to him what I get up to in bed.”

“Oh, really. And just what do you get up to in bed?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?”

“Depraved things, no doubt.”

“How about you come and find out?”

“mmmmm”

“HI!”

“Hi!”

“So how was your day?”

“Fine. Yours?”

“Mine was a little weird, actually.”

“Why?”

“Because of the eye.”

“Oh. What happened? Did someone say something?”

“Not directly, no. But everyone was different around me.”

“Different how?”

“Nervous. But also kind of sympathetic. The way you are around someone who’s just received bad news.”

“But no one actually said anything?”

“Not directly. But several people stopped by to ask how I was doing, whether I was okay. And my boss called me into his office.”

“What for?”

“Supposedly to check on how the project was going. But he’s never done that before. And anyway he should have been asking Malini. I think he was just checking to make sure I was okay.”

“Oh, wow. It’s kind of funny if you think about it.”

“What is?”

“All these people being all concerned about you.”

“I think it’s kind of sweet.”

“Sweet?”

“I mean, you know, they’re all just trying to be supportive. And it’s nice to know they care.”

“Ya, but you don’t need their care or their support. It’s all basically a…what’s the word…a misapprehension.”

“Yes, but they don’t know that.”

“Which is what makes it funny.”

“I don’t see anything funny about it. Domestic violence is a serious issue, you know. Which is why it’s good to see them taking it seriously.”

“I’m not saying it’s not a serious issue. Of course it is. And you’re right. But you have to admit it’s a little funny.”

“I don’t see why. You realise there’s now a whole office full of people who think you’re a wife-beater?”

“I know, exactly.”

“And that amuses you?”

“Ya, of course. Because I’m not one.”

“Has anyone ever told you you’re weird?”

“No, but lately people have been saying I’m a wife-beater.”

“Cut it out, it’s not funny.”

“You don’t think so, huh? Well, maybe if I just knocked you around a little…”

“I’m serious.”

“Okay, okay, relax. I’m just kidding. Sheesh! Listen, you know I would never, ever do anything to hurt you, right?”

“I know.”

“And this whole thing at the office will blow over soon. Your eye will be back to normal in a week, and everyone will forget about it.”

“I guess.”

“I’m sure of it. Meanwhile, did I tell you what the guys on the fourth floor did…”

“HI.”

“Hi.”

“You okay?”

“What?”

“You okay? You look upset.”

“It’s nothing. I’m fine.”

“What is it?”

“It’s nothing.”

“Tell me.”

“It’s just this eye thing.”

“Oh?”

“It’s starting to get to me. I keep getting these looks in office. All the time. Pitying looks. Like I’m this pathetic, helpless woman. People never looked at me like that before. I hate it. I feel like a victim.”

“But you’re not a victim, love.”

“I know that. But they don’t. They’re all treating me like one and there’s nothing I can do to prove them wrong, to show them I’m not helpless.”

“I’m sorry, baby. It’s just people being people. It’ll be over soon.”

“And there was this woman today.”

“What woman?”

“You don’t know her. She works in accounting. Actually, I hardly know her. But she came up to me in the pantry today, started to talk to me about how I should get help.”

“Wow! Of all the nerve...”

“No, actually, that part was fine. I mean, okay, so I was a little taken aback at first, her being practically a stranger, but it was clear she meant well.”

“What did she say?”

“She was telling me how she’s part of this group. You know, for abused women. Apparently they get together every alternate week, talk about things, share information, that sort of thing.”

“And she wanted you to join?”

“Yes. She said it was all totally anonymous. She said it was a real help to know there were other people in the same situation.”

“So what did you say?”

“I told her what I’d told the doctor. The doorknob story. But she didn’t believe me.”

“What did she say?”

“She just kept saying it was okay, that I didn’t need to lie to her. The more I tried to convince her I wasn’t lying, the more she looked at me with pity, and kept telling me it was okay.”

“So what did you do?”

“Finally, I told her I’d come to their next meeting.”

“What?”

“Well, at first it was just so she’d stop asking me. But now I’m thinking maybe I should go.”

“Really?”

“Ya, I mean, what’s the harm?”

“But you aren’t being abused.”

“So?”

“So, I don’t know. It just seems wrong. I mean, the other women there, they’ve got real problems, they’re going through something terrible. And you’re going to be lying to them. Won’t you feel like a fraud?”

“Maybe. But maybe I could help them too. You know, give them some support. Maybe even bring in some fresh perspective. And besides, I won’t be lying to them. Not directly. I’ll just be attending the meeting. It’s open to anyone.”

“But won’t it be depressing for you? Being with all those women? Won’t it make you feel even more like a victim?”

“I don’t think so. I actually think it may make me feel like I’m doing something, you know, fighting back. I mean, yes, I know I don’t have anything to fight back against. But if I were being abused this group sounds like precisely the kind of thing I would want to join. Face up to my problems. Take control. And who knows? Maybe word that I’m attending the group leaks out and people stop looking at me like I’m so pathetic.”

“I don’t know. It still seems wrong to me.”

“Oh, come on. It’s just one meeting. I’m not hurting anyone.”

“And you really think it’s going to make you feel better?”

“I think it will. And if it doesn’t, well, I won’t be going back anyway.”

“True.”

“Only thing is, it’ll mean missing date night this week—they meet every Wednesday evening.”

“That’s okay.”

“You’re sure?”

“Ya, not a big deal. I mean, this is clearly something you feel you should do.”

“Great, it’s all settled then.”

“I’m glad. Feel better now?”

“Yes, thanks.”

“Good.”

“SO HOW WAS IT?”

“Horrifying.”

“I told you.”

“But also kind of incredible.”

“Huh?”

“I mean, it’s terrible to hear what these women have been through. Some of the stories I heard tonight were the stuff of nightmares. But it’s also kind of moving to see them all together, talking about their problems, sharing them with the rest of us. It made me feel like I was a part of something, you know, something important.”

“So you had a good time?”

“A good time is the wrong description. More like I felt good afterwards. Stronger. More empowered.”

“Empowered, huh? What did you do at this meeting anyway?”

“Nothing, really. We just sat around, and talked, and listened. You know.”

“No, I mean what did you do?”

“Oh, I didn’t say much. Almost nothing really. Just introduced myself—first name only—and said it was my first time there.”

“I thought you were going to show support, provide perspective.”

“I know, but I didn’t feel like I was entitled to. Like I belonged enough. Maybe next time.”

“Next time? Wait, I thought this was a one-time thing.”

“It was supposed to be. But now I’m thinking I might want to go back.”

“Why?”

“I told you—it was empowering. It made me feel good.”

“Okay, you do remember that you don’t belong there, right?”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning that it’s a group for abused women and you’re not being abused.”

“I know. But I felt connected to them somehow. They were so, I don’t know, welcoming, accepting even. How can I not go back?”

“So you’re just going to keep up the pretense? For how long?”

“It’s not a pretense. I mean, yes, so I’m not being abused. But I really do feel like I’m part of the group.”

“Sounds to me like you’re being overwhelmed by peer pressure.”

“It’s not like that at all. There’s no pressure. It’s not about what they or anyone else will think. It was, but it isn’t anymore. I just think this is something I need to do for myself.”

“So you’re going to keep going to these meetings?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Every Wednesday evening?”

“Every alternate Wednesday.”

“And what about date night?”

“What about it? We can always switch it to some other night of the week.”

“Okay.”

“You’re mad about this, aren’t you?”

“No, of course not.”

“Don’t be mad.”

“I’m not mad. You should do what you want.”

“Of course you’re mad. I can tell.”

“I’m not mad.”

“You are too. Just tell me why.”

“I told you. I’m not mad!”

“Don’t shout at me!”

“I’m sorry. I’m just…”

“Mad, I know. It’s okay.”

“I’m not mad, I just don’t understand why you want to do this.”

“I can’t explain it. It’s just something I feel I need to do.”

“Well, okay. I can’t say I like it much.”

“It’s just one evening a fortnight.”

“I guess. Every alternate Wednesday, huh?”

“Every alternate Wednesday.”

“Well, I suppose I could do something myself those nights. Hang out with Nick and that lot. We’ve been talking about doing a regular happy hour for a while now.”

“That’s a great idea. See, that way everything will work out.”

“I still don’t like it.”

“I’ll make it up to you.”

“Really? How?”

“I haf vayz.”

“Ooh! Now we’re talking…”

“HEY.”

“Hey.”

“So, how was your meeting tonight.”

“It was fine.”

“Did you have a good time?”

“Ya.”

“Good.”

“Listen, I need to tell you something.”

“What?”

“Something you’re not going to like.”

“Uh-oh!”

“I did something tonight.”

“Uh-huh?”

“Promise you won’t be mad?”

“Of course I won’t be mad. What did you do?”

“You know how in these meetings we’re all supposed to share our experiences, talk about what we’re going through? Well, it was my fifth meeting tonight and I still hadn’t shared anything.”

“So?”

“So, I did.”

“Did what?”

“Shared. Told them what I’d been going through.”

“But you haven’t been going through anything.”

“I made something up.”

“You did what?”

“I told them you hit me. And…”

“I don’t believe this!”

“I’m sorry, but I had to say something.”

“How could you?”

“It’s what they were thinking anyway. I mean, they all saw the bruise when I first started going.”

“But to confirm it! To actually tell a lie about it!”

“I’m sorry. I couldn’t see any other way out.”

“That’s it. You need to stop going to these meetings.”

“What?”

“You need to stop going to these meetings. You’re losing your grip on reality.”

“Wait, let me get this straight. You’re forbidding me from going to these meetings?”

“I’m telling you not to.”

“And just what the hell gives you the right to do that?”

“I’m your husband, remember.”

“I remember. But that doesn’t make you my master and it doesn’t make me your property. I’ll go wherever I damn well please and do whatever I damn well like.”

“Which apparently includes lying about me to your sorority sisters.”

“Yes, if that’s what I feel like. Besides, it wasn’t technically a lie.”

“Excuse me?”

“I said you hit me, and you did.”

“I didn’t hit you. It was an accident.”

“Was it? I’m not so sure anymore.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“And even if it was, there are other forms of abuse than physical violence.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing.”

“No, seriously, what are you trying to say?”

“I’m saying you never take me seriously. You’re always belittling me, always mocking me, even when I’m trying to tell you how I feel. It’s like you don’t care about my feelings at all.”

“How am I supposed to take you seriously when you turn a random accident into some crazy fantasy about being abused?”

“See, you’re doing it again.”

“And as for not caring about your feelings, I agreed to let you go to these stupid meetings of yours, didn’t I?”

“Oh, you agreed, did you? You granted your royal permission.”

“Yes, even though I knew it was a bad idea.”

“See, this is exactly what I’m talking about. You’re patronising me, even with this.”

“How else am I supposed to respond to this stupid playacting?”

“It’s not playacting. I have a real bond with these women. They appreciate me. They listen when I talk. They’re interested in my feelings.”

“They’re a bunch of pathetic women who’re clearly messing with your head.”

“You would say that, wouldn’t you? You want me to be isolated. It’s classic abusive behavior.”

“Oh, grow up. The only reason these women ‘appreciate’ you is because you’ve fed them a bunch of lies. Painted yourself out to be a victim, just so you can feed on their sympathy.”

“Oh, and I suppose you shouting at me like this doesn’t constitute abuse?”

“No, it doesn’t. You’re not a victim, you’re just a drama queen!”

“And you’re a bully!”

“Okay, okay, look, let’s try and calm down here. This is getting out of hand.”

“I don’t care. Let it get out of hand. I don’t want to be in your hand anymore!”

“Okay, listen, don’t cry. Look, I’m sorry that I was shouting just now. But you have to admit I had provocation. I mean you telling lies about me like that! But it’s okay. We can work it out.”

“I don’t want to work it out!”

“What?”

“I want a divorce!”

“You want a divorce?”

“Yes.”

“What brought that on?”

“It’s what they said at the meeting. They all said I shouldn’t stand for this kind of abuse. That I should just walk away.”

“Oh, and I suppose they’re all getting divorced too?”

“No, but some of them are financially dependent on their husbands, and some of them have kids.”

“While you, on the other hand.”

“Exactly.”

“Brilliant. Just brilliant.”

“You’re mocking me again.”

“Because you’re planning to divorce me on the basis of the domestic abuse that you made up!”

“I’m planning to divorce you because you constantly belittle and undermine me.”

“You’re serious about this?”

“Of course I’m serious about this.”

“Wow! Okay, look, why don’t we go to bed now and we can talk about it tomorrow, when we’re both feeling more calm and relaxed.”

“I don’t want to feel calm and relaxed. How can I feel calm and relaxed when I’m constantly threatened by your rage.”

“Oh, for crying out loud! I DID NOT HIT YOU! Will you please snap out of this fantasy already!”

“But you want to hit me, don’t you? You want to?”

“No, of course I don’t want to.”

“You’re just itching to slap me back to my senses.”

“I’m not. Though someone clearly needs to.”

“See, I knew it.”

“Look this is crazy. You’re getting worked up over nothing.”

“Oh, it’s nothing, is it? Which means it’s nothing to you.”

“Baby, please, let’s just talk about this, and…”

“No, I’m not going to talk about this. I’ve had enough. I’m leaving!”

“What do you mean you’re leaving? Where are you going to go?”

“To a friend’s place.”

“At this hour of the night? What friend?”

“One of my friends from the meeting. I’ll be safe there.”

“Oh, for god’s sake. You’re safe here! No one’s trying to harm you. I love you. I would never do anything to hurt you.”

“Ya, that’s what you always say. That’s what they all always say. But this time I’m not going to believe you.”

“But, baby, listen.”

“I’m going now.”

“But, wait, I…”

“Goodbye.”