I listen idly to the deep, resonant whoop of a solitary coucal and then to the throaty chorus of coucal calls that follow─each bird call starting when one ends. I sit on warmish grass dampened by freak autumn rains in September and try to discern their feathered presences among trees in the pale ribbon of the evening light. I look for their glossy bluish-black plumages, their chestnut wings and their black, loose, long, tails but they are so perfectly blended within the dense tree recesses that they remain hidden.
I am sitting in my rectangular garden. It that takes over the front of my cottage on the outskirts of New Delhi, with a line of heavenward-shooting trees running along each side and a copse of varied smaller shrubs on the inside. I get the feeling that it is the greenery around that is summoning me with its full tones.
As the leaves of the trees and the shrubs shimmer with the moisture of rain, I wonder what their heightened calls give notice of, what secrets they divulge. A part of the double-dealing cuckoo family, I believe ornithologists when they say, “these coucal calls are more about what they hide than what they say.”
I understand their theatrical masquerades as I understand myself. Dissembling has been among my early survival skills. The first marker of my oddness. The other being my lonely pursuit of choices that lie outside the norm.
Let me start with the smoke screen and the peculiarities of my current profession in the here-and-now of my life. In my early thirties, I work in an intimate market, in the business of buying and selling secrets. I was and still am hired by shocked, betrayed wives who find their husband straying. As a ‘mistress dispeller’, which is my official designation, I befriend the mistress, woman to woman, invade her life, uncover her weakness or her many damaging weaknesses to the wife so as to break up the liaison.
As I see it, I excel in my outlandish job, in the ‘private intel space.’ No one knows better than me of the unbridled excitement of forbidden attachments. If I know how to nurture such connections then I know as much about how to undo them with nonchalance. But more of my own earlier life of sensuality when I unwind the tale of my past from my tale of my today, the life of my yesterday from the life of my today: To a charming gossip columnist, Vidya Jain, who I gave an ’in’ to my world.
I confessed, “I, unwittingly and to my bemusement, also break up a medley of martial peculiar orders and family arrangements that have come to be in our city’s contemporaneity.”
Vidya, in her column, spoke of my innate sensibilities of a spy that aids me in my job. She said, “She has a keen sense of observation, a knack of idly engaging and finding common ground with anybody, the plusses of a natural liar (you really can’t learn to lie as you will trip up sooner than later), a clandestine, street-wise ability to press the limits of rules and regulations to test how much she can get away with, an artist’s (some would murmur a con artist) ability to talk her way out of trouble and a preparedness to be adaptive toward changing situations.”
To this, she added, “She even uses technology with élan, her spy pen being her most useful aide memoir and infected phones her best spyware, a giveaway of all secrets on her cloned screens.” She also put in what I reiterated in my talk with her. “I know with certainty that every application on the phone has a backdoor and that hacking tools are as easy to access as an Uber cab.”
I, understandably, did not give her permission to use my name. But I must admit she is as much of a deadeye as I am and as able to extract information.
Samir Kaul, a freelance entertainment journalist, was not so charitable about my work. My client foolishly gave him my details, as she was riding on the wave of petulance and peevishness about her husband’s infidelity. His piece said, “Her dishonourable undercover work is conducted using a footloose, freewheeling team─an assorted, deviant, group of hackers, fact-checkers, small-time sleuths, bush-league citizens with a kinship to the underworld, among many other such outliers─ who roam Delhi’s socio-economic borderline.”
I had the piece, which identified me by name, squashed. An editor I knew tipped me of its scheduled date of appearance. I put my rag a tag gang to work. They came up with lurid details of his life that I used to silence him and his piece. “Sweet revenge!” my team exulted.
In an odd-sort of togetherness with my team, I have managed many a coup d’état. For the past four years, I have been carrying my burden of deception lightly, and, as a few who think they know what I do, say, with animation.
Only my psychiatrist has a whiff of my uneasiness, of how, “I get divided within as I enter the troubled spaces of others and become part of the storm within their world,” and how, “the bizarre untruths and dubious acts make me unsure of the condition of my being, my inner core.”
What dragged me to her couch a month ago with this baneful job were the beginnings of small fidgets of anxiety in my mind that worked itself up into a lather of fretfulness. I now suffer from a permanent sense of inner discomfort and unease, impulses that are new to me. My old avatar being one of infinite self-assuredness. But, as I said earlier, more of that when I tell you of my past cocksureness.
Inclined, as a rule, towards guardedness, a dislike of having to share my private predicaments and given the nature of my job that calls for me not to be loose-lipped, it took me long to reveal bits of myself to her.
As I was advised full disclosure if I wanted to heal, I coerced myself to admit more than I wished. “Until now, I have had no qualms about the shape and order of my inner being,” I said, “as manipulating situations and people gets me what I want. As it is the nature of fire to burn, it is my nature to hide what I am.”
I suspect knowing who I am as opposed to who I appear to be disconcerted her. I also suspect that she, who was to render no judgement, did not have kind words for me in her copious assessment notes. As it was only her medicines, not she, who could soothe me somewhat, I discontinued my visits very soon.
Take my last assignment for Leela Sahani as a test case of what I do for a living and as a kind of explanation for my being in this lady’s lair. Leela came to my office on a cold, foggy morning, in ire, determined “to chargrill her husband’s lover into juicy smokiness”. “Stop at nothing to uncover the truth of my husband’s carousals,” she instructed me. “Spy, catfish, break security codes, procure bank records under false claims, read personal correspondences, keep tabs on gifts, install spy cameras and eavesdrop in all manner of speaking. Do what it takes,” she ordered.
In my world that is lived a lot off screens and technology, I did most of what she asked for and some more on the ground with the help of my unholy team. My most invasive technique was to intimately befriend the young, radiantly voluptuous, Ria Mathur, the ‘other’ woman, feigning similar passions and reciprocal altruism.
I went about it with the thoroughness of a method actor, by ‘accidentally’ bumping into her and starting an animated conversation that continued as banter for months on our cell phones where we glittered on thus. I, in my contrarian puckishly charismatic way, and, she, in her typical, abrasive, unrestrained, lippy, narcissistic Delhi way, coating her tongue with an unbearably coarse accent each time she spoke to me.
She believed I found her immoderately charming.
She bargained her way into my affections and onto what she called my “classy way of life” buying sweaters for our iPhone (her iPhone was gifted by Leela’s husband), Guci bags (as she could not afford the missing c in the name) and oily edibles, all of which found its way into my bin. I threw some baubles in her direction.
Our relationship almost took on the contours of an all-absorbing romance. She was hyper-verbal about everything in her life. “I love gol gappas (round, hollow, deep-fried crisp crepes filled with a mixture of flavoured water) and could eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.” (Yikes!) “My Pomeranian Pinky is my soul mate.” (A breed that is an apology for a dog, if you ask me) “My boss loves my button nose and to peek at my cleavage.” “My family is very strict and I am terrified of my brothers and father but otherwise, I never dodge fights, hold my tongue or mind the rules with anyone.”
She mistook my attentive listening for empathy.
Her candour about her boozy, seductive liaisons with Neel─Leela’s husband─was equally cloying in its details. “I was so open and mast (flamboyant) while his responses were dara hua (scared and tentative). I love the way I melt in my insides like a maum (candle) in the heat of his mohhabat (passion)and the nasha (intoxication)of his tone when he callsme his jaan (life).”
I began to dread her phone calls, their clichéd dreariness and the sheer triteness of her conversations.
It took me no time with my dark art to know her vulnerability. It was as banal as money. I turned in her details and the jigsaw of my team’s findings to Leela who instantly bartered money in lieu of her soiled husband.
Of course, my tidbits on Ria’s family life helped. Leela told me, “I fisted Ria and my husband’s romance in the stomach, once for all, by threatening to tell of the affair to her family of three giant looking brothers and I-can-give-complex-to-a-rhino kind offather. I said to her this is my one-time payment to you and I want you to never contact my husband.”
The outing of infidelity is rarely simple or dignified. The exposed are utterly unshelled which is what happened to Ria and Neel. While I, in my perfect disguise, got to keep my camouflage as armour. They never knew the leak came from me, a fact that holds for all the cases I have handled so far.
I was, however, not completely exempt from downsides. I had to continue to hear Ria’s inane chatter and despairing wails of being discovered for some more time to keep my work’s tell-tale features hidden. For ‘plausible deniability of involvement’, as we call it in our professional parlance. And, two, I had face up to the fact that my head was no longer as steady, no longer as inured to the risks and the insanity of my profession, its masterful puppetry of plying and pulling of others’ life strings. Just to be clear, I was not bothered with my subterfuges being uncovered.
My insecurity arose from my hair-trigger paranoia of my psychological stability. I was assailed by a sense of losing myself, of having gone too far down the void of a rabbit hole, of not being in control of my life and my person, something very unfamiliar and frightening for me. I would never have believed such a thing probable in my life when in my twenties and would have laughed in anyone’s face if they said I would be seeing a shrink in my life.
I have always found camouflage to be a wonderful thing as I am sure you have inferred by now. My seeming to be someone else while concealing who I really am has been a captivating game for me from childhood. I have lived in my shadows of subterfuge for so long that my disguises are now a part of me. They have never felt wrong or dysfunctional but fun like play-acting.
In my early years, my father often worried about me growing up without a mother, the lack of her influences and anchoring. He would point me to a picture of the wheel in our drawing room, say that it should remind me of living my life from the centre. “When we live our life from the rim of the wheel, we focus on externals, what you can see with your eye or hear with your ear. Externals will never make you strong in your inner core,” was something he repeated to me often.
Did he sense my secrecy and cover-ups even then? My little manipulations and the small contradictions in my stories? Was he worried that what he permitted could turn into what he promoted? A number of times, I felt in my bones that he seriously disapproved my lack of a blood bond to him and my tenuous attachments to friends. His constant urging me to “grow more affection and altruism” confirmed his dim view of my lack of filial and fraternal fidelity.
Conflicts of my amoral outlook did register in my furrowed brows at a young age. At fourteen, to the confession priest in my school’s church, I said, “Father, I worry about why moral perfection is not burrowed into my sense of the world. I do try time and again to lean towards goodness, but I fail.”
All he said was, “Mend your ways, child. Find your path towards God.”
The holy water he gave me was supposed to help. It didn’t.
Such urges simply died when I reached my twenties. The subterranean hum of my true nature became voluble by then and I began to accept the freefall of my basic tendency. One that was to maximise my utility at the expense of others, sometimes even at the risk of bringing about negative outcomes in other’s lives. At this point in my life, I came to a clear understanding that I have been involuntarily following my innate instincts all through my life and that I will continue to do so as this is the only way I know how to be.
My elite life in New Delhi, ten years past the turn of the millennium, was, hence, an indulgence, unbound by any ideological mooring, one persuasion or another. I overheard one girl say of me, “She is simply interested in getting as much as she can for herself, her personal interest acting as her sharpest spur to action. She sees inventive dissembling in the guise of simple naiveté as a good way of getting by as being strategic in choosing when to cooperate.”
She was not wrong.
While at the campus in the northern part of the city, doing a post-graduate course in economics, I never bought into the argument that my economics professor would tout, “that it is in understanding the interests of others that we are able to fulfil our own.”
My counter was, “attempting idealised perfectibility and equality in personal, political, economic and social spheres will always fail. The dark mirror of utopias, dystopias, will show up in fallen social experiments, stringent political regimes and controlling economic systems.”
These beliefs may sound Machiavellian to some but I had yet to read him at length at that point. My beliefs sprung from my own interpretations of the world around me. It surprised me then as it does now that my old professor held on to human goodness while I ingested the meaning of utopia to be ‘no place’ both literally and metaphorically. And that I have always believed that disinterest in gathering personal resources is ideologically unhealthy.
So as I was saying, life in my twenties was a time of riotous springtime joy. My diary noting for this period says, “My life now is a seemingly eternal season of silk cotton fluff fluttering in a breath of wind. A time when ‘adventure’ is the ticket. A time when it feels beautiful to be in my body when a golden heat flows skin-deep, vital and shining. A time to allow passion to take up space within my body’s clear effusive warmth, changing the balance, making ripples in the air that it passes through. A time to throw away the cultural scripts written for women.”
It was easy for me with my erotic loveliness and with my umbrella shadow of luck and privilege to flit fast from liaison to liaison within New Delhi’s gilt-edged, closed-in community. I went on thus compulsively and in secret for eight long years. As I sought transitory physical attachments and never emotional closeness that tended to feelings, my many past lovers were put one by one where they belonged, out of my life and in the past. As I saw that the simplicity and security of one partner was not for me, I cleared each of my lover’s residual impact quickly to reclaim my sexual sovereignty. For me, the idea of taking on inner pain in the name of love was needless torture.
It never happened.
I don’t think it was my attractiveness that particularly drew men to me. There were women with far more beauty and feminine mystique. I think what one of the men in my life said to me explains why men were drawn to me. “You send out subconscious scent signals that urge a sexual response.” So I will go with my all-scented wanton, womanly body as the reason for my appeal and as the reason for why I unwound men.
It was one connection in particular that held me for very long. I note in my diary that it was “pulse-pounding, ardent, dangerous and disruptive.” Dangerous and disruptive as, in our case, we were both married. It was no impediment though, despite the watched and guarded nature of personal and social lives.
My diary entries for this period are uninhibited. “Our lust is on the loose. We taste the excitement of each other’s lives and yearn for another thousand faraway possibilities. It is so exciting to carry on our furtive trysts with note messages tucked into bicycles, furtive calls through the day, midnight meetings and through the courting each other through poetry in well-modulated cadences.”
“The folds of our sheets could tell stories of just how truly bad we are,” we would often joke. Our affair was freighted with lies, secrets and ongoing deceptions that uncontained relationships like this need. We risked our delight as there was no license in my marriage or his to open up our experiences and connections to others. Or to reshape it in any way to our needs.
Thinking back, I realize I must have had holes in my conscience through all my many relationships post-marriage as it remained oddly innocent through all the illicit dangerousness. And my middle-class Indian background, that should have tethered me with moral chastity belts, not even allowing my fantasies to roam freely, failed in its reign-in.
The backlash to our lustful dare devilries arrived swiftly, once we got found out. His wife called me up. “You rubbishy creature, how could you do this to me and my child? I can’t think of another person in the whole world that I despise more than you. You have the morals of an alley cat and I will pray that you rot in hell in a sludge of substances.”
Her succession of emails were far more vitriolic and delivered a tirade of expletives. She threatened to inform my husband and ruin my life.
She did. My marriage and my double life folded.
My life’s deceptions were witnessed by all and my personal stories made public. I was made to map the extent of my misdemeanours. People, especially women, saw me as a “labyrinth of many unknown paths” and I let them live with their belief. I guess because it was true in many ways.
I had to use indifference as a defence mechanism to counter my powerlessness. It is not as if I did not hurt from the inside but the recognition of who I really am insulated me, made me understand that my adventuresome actions and decisions were in many ways ineludible.
In defence of my husband, I think he would have been able to handle “minor palterings” but he could not cope with my “many flat out deceptions’, as he termed them. Once my lover’s wife outed our deception, many other women were emboldened to whisper to him about how I “turned my affections towards him to others.”
And it is also not as if my husband did not try to understand me or my indiscretions. He did. But we were toppled over by another awkward trio that came to be─him, the counsellor and me.
We made efforts to cut through the complications and permanent barriers created but failed. The counsellor felt my reasons for straying and staying were “delusive” and noted that I “felt no guilt that most others would feel when engaging in stuff like this, something hurtful to others.”
Finally, my husband gave up, saying, “I think there is nothing left to save. Now my entire idea of what the world is, and the truth of what is and isn’t, feels like it is on a chopping board and that trust between us is a thing of the past. In fact, I am not certain we had trust to begin with.”
I begged and I pleaded. It was ignominious. “Let’s start afresh. I promise to be true to you. I will make up for the times I let you down,” I beseeched. My moment of complete abasement came when I cried, “Where will I go if you leave me? I have nothing to fall back on, what will I do?”
He remained unmoved. Our marriage came to an end when I reached the age of thirty with two court hearings and a signature. It purged me of all my relationships and friendships.
Looking back, I see that I mostly observed my husband from under closed eyelids through our eight-year connection. All I can say is the mild warmth of my marriage at twenty-two years of age and his unrelenting gravity bored me and I, “could not be demure and domestic,” as my mother-in-law curtly said in her first assessment of me when my father and she met to, “marry me off,” as they call the curious social engineering of arranged marriages.
I know all of this sounds an easy summation of the situation or of why I was not as safe or knowable as other women around. My arguments do lack introspection and show up my inability to face up to the crucial actions in my life as also my casual, cruel displacement of an individual. But that is all I have as that is how I am.
Maybe I should have taken my dead aunt Renuka’s notion of singlehood as a desired way of life seriously and fought with more intensity against being ambushed into marriage. She did, in her sickness, warn me, when my father was pushing me into marriage. “Don’t allow boldness of your aspirations to be bleached into a pastel of family expectations. I know you well and this is what will happen if you marry.”
No one knows how a thing like a divorce will strike you before it comes to you. But one thing was certain; it brought on a dreadful reckoning over which I had no control.
I reeled for months under an unfamiliar sense of insecurity and the harsh realization that I had no particular skills to make a living. The sniggers of those around who said, “She will probably allure a whole organization now,” cut to the bone. But at least I had a place to stay. My father who passed on two years ago, erasing all records of my childhood, left behind a cottage on the outlying part of the city from where I could make a new beginning.
In my thwarted life, I chose to be a mistress dispeller as it fell within my catchment area. I had never known it to be a thing until my marriage was spluttering and I heard whispers that my lover’s wife had employed one to peel away my secrets.
I don’t know if she did.
I do know a woman sought to befriend me around the time of my last affair and that I did reciprocate, meeting her for an odd coffee or drink. I am not sure how much I said or whether she was why I got found out but the idea of the job description stuck in my head. Talk of life’s ironies. It was my lover’s wife in a way who set me up in this covert career.
So I live my life now with a job in the game of seduction, one that is heart-in-the mouth, immediate and fierce in its gaze of the hidden, almost delivered from my societal shame. Or maybe not.
Today, is my new life, four years of age, with its changed balance in my role as a mistress dispeller, a liberation of sorts? A validation and affirmation of self-perceived abilities and a balm for injured self-esteem, as I see it? I earn well, act as a relief worker for many distressed women, mask my own sexuality and keep my own life and its engagements denuded to a minimum, almost solitary, to erase my past waywardness. Or it is really a doppelganger of an earlier existence, a double walk as it were, on the path of stealth and strategy? One with ethically, morally and socially questionable attitudes and behaviours, as many say?
After all, I do freely admit to the buzz I feel when codebreaking and the power I feel when I play God and wreak judgement on others’ lives. This even though I myself have indulged in such a lifestyle with abandon.
If pressed to find language about my current situation, I would say it is uncomfortable. My idea that the ground beneath me is solid, dependable, that I can build on it, that I can trust it to support me, is gone. The gaping hole in my mind, in my life, seems to mock the very idea of solid ground, of trustworthy geology.
I live off-course, in a state of doubtful uneasiness in my mind, rolling over peaks and troughs, splayed by them, and struggle to enter into a stable ground of belief about myself, my life. I look for the easygoing self-assurances of my life in my twenties but they are nowhere to be found.
Is my strife within the beginning of consciousness?
I sit vertiginously atop of a Ferris Wheel, the world beneath me, wondering if the wheel wisdom of my father will work out answers for me.
Will it help me find my way back to things I can trust? Will it help me find my own floor? Should I adopt the wisdom wheel, its love and kindness, as my compass, as a way of coming to terms with myself, as my catharsis? Should I finally now accept my hubris in thinking I can control my life from its rim?
I need to find out fast before I lose myself. Before I don’t fit in my head at all.
Chitra Gopalakrishnan is a New Delhi-based journalist by training, a social development consultant by profession and a creative writer by choice. With decades of experience in writing books on social development, she willfully exploits several creative genres to bring out the exertions of living in modern-day Delhi, caught as people are in its uneven, messy and riotous surges. She understands that finding one’s balance in the city’s whirlwinds is not easy and considers herself fortunate to be living on a farm with her family, a little away from the city, keeping company with her dog, her many feathered friends and fishes.