Her hand absentmindedly picked at the crimson line of powdery sindoor that sat on her head, seemingly dividing her brain into a left and right hemisphere. Her eyes stared vaguely ahead into the distance, unfocused and cloudy, like beady black buttons that could switch on and possibly bring her back to reality.
Drops of salty sweat trickled down her neck as the world around craved for some respite from the unrelenting heat and humidity.
Her husband of twelve years, Mohan, had been out of town for the past two months for what he preferred to call 'business', but Aarti was convinced he was with his mistress in Chandigarh. She had mentioned to me a few times before how she had never liked the way Mrs. Khanna had eyed Mohan. Apparently her body language used to become serpentine and her voice turned a little too sugary at every instance that they met, which was usually at the annual Jamshedpur Mill Worker's new year's party.
"She makes my blood boil, that light-skinned Punjabi wench! What does she think? Stealing Mohan from me will take more than pink cheeks and slinky salwar suits. I am the mother of his children; he will think a hundred times before leaving me!" she said to me with angry vehemence as her hands rested on her hips.
"But Aarti, he's not even called you once in these past couple of months. Maybe you need to think about this with a clear head.." I tried to reason.
"Clear head?! Everything is clear here. He loves me. I am his family. He may do what he wants, but eventually he will come back home to me and the kids. He wouldn't dare leave us for that bitch," argued Aarti.
I have seen enough unhappy women to know when I ought to hold my tongue, and I noticed a solitary tear trickle down her face leaving a sad tortuous trail. She wiped the tear away with the back of her hand and just like that, I knew, the topic of this conversation had been changed.
"I learned the most amazing recipe for shahi paneer yesterday on that new TV show. You must try it!" she exclaimed animatedly and shuffled into her kitchen.
I was a little confused because I couldn't connect a cheating husband with a new paneer recipe, but I realized how strong this lady's will and conviction was. What struck me in equal measure was how women build up excuses for men who don't deserve them in the first place, and how living in denial is easier than confrontational domestic battles.
I stayed on for lunch that sultry afternoon at Aarti's place, and her cooking did not disappoint. I am fairly easy to please when it comes to food, but her food was the result of very accurate culinary alchemy.
We ate and chatted about mundane nothings like the new mall that was opening nearby and about how her son had picked up some rather choice swear words from school. She laughed a fairly girly, melodious laugh that, for an instant, made me forget that she was a thirty-three year old mother of two little kids who was possibly being abandoned by an unappreciative, adulterous husband.
God writes the screenplay to each of our lives with such attention to detail, such precision, such personalization, I thought.
It was almost four in the evening when I bid her adieu that day. "Aarti, I hope you know that you can call on me for anything that you need, at any given time? I wouldn't want you to think twice about that.." I said, as I fidgeted with my strappy sandals.
She just smiled and nodded at me, not making eye contact. My gaze fell once again on her sindoor and I had to positively bite my tongue in order to control myself from telling her to stop wearing it for that worthless, undeserving blob of a husband, Mohan.
Some wars need to be won on our own merit, without help from allies and neighbours, I realized. This was Aarti's war, and I hoped for the sake of her little kids that her husband would come back home; and for the sake of Aarti, who had the strongest grit I had ever encountered, and inarguably the most beautiful black eyes I had ever seen.