As Mrs. Nayar tended the prayer plant that had oval-shaped leaves, she thought of her neighbour’s sky-blue underwear she had hidden in her wardrobe.
Mr. Nayar got her the plant only a few weeks back, on their seventeenth anniversary. After being married for so long, they hardly had any more surprises left for each other. And yet, the plant caught her off-guard. When they were younger, Mr. Nayar often got her flowers. That overused, tired symbol of love. But none of them realized where the fragrance had disappeared to. One moment, it was right there in all its palpable sweetness, the next, it had vanished, replaced with dry air. Between this moment and that, two stillborn deaths, three homes, one whole country, and seventeen good years had passed.
Two years ago, when they came to Canada, she had difficulty adjusting to the new place. She found the Canadian silences, especially at night, as piercing as the Canadian winters. Slowly, though, she made peace with it. She felt warmth in the sounds that fell on her ears—the weekly gurgling of the lawnmower, the vrooming of car engines, the whistling of the pressure cooker, and her favourite, the whirling of the washer. She felt that these sounds punctuated the silence like beats in a musical composition. Finally, after two long years in Canada, she found her rhythm.
Apart from cooking and tending to her plants, the laundry kept her most occupied. There was a shared laundry room, with a washer and a dryer, in the basement of each block of the apartment building. For Mrs. Nayar, the idea of a laundry room shared by her entire block, which still had, not counting the two empty ones on the third floor, twelve apartments in total, was deeply unsettling. Back in India, their washing machine was reserved exclusively for herself and her family.
Initially, what annoyed her was the wait. The laundry room was not the safest place for clothes. Clothes were often reported stolen or lost. The residents were given a notice for the same, along with the advice to wait until their wash cycle was complete. Mrs. Nayar was amazed by it all. The fact that people residing in a predominantly white neighbourhood, with most people owning cars, also stole clothes from the laundry room bewildered her. What was the need?
So, when she took her neighbour’s underwear, she told herself that what she did could not be bracketed as stealing. She knew what she was doing when she felt the lukewarm underwear silk between her thumb and index finger.
When the new school term began in the fall, a brown face stood out to her like a chocolate chip in a vanilla ice cream.
When Mrs. Nayar saw the girl from the balcony of her living room while watering the plants for the first time, her mind made a mental note of her skin colour. She had succumbed to the habit of every first-generation Indian immigrant—of noticing people who shared their ethnicity, making mental notes of their faces, guessing which part of India they came from, imagining having a conversation with them about food. The girl’s face was bright, with clear, sharp jawlines and hair carefully scrunched for the strands to look tousled yet perfect. She looked like she was in her mid-twenties.
When the sound of dragging suitcases and clanking vessels grew louder, she realized the new girl was moving into 13-A, next door.
Only in the laundry room, a few days later, she learned her name. Anjali Kalra. Mrs. Nayar’s unsolicited advice began the conversation.
“You know…lots of clothes get stolen here. So, it might be good to stay until your wash cycle is done.”
“Really? What will I do for an hour? That sucks.”
A moment of silence before Mrs. Nayar spoke again.
“I am here. I can keep watch for you.”
“Really? That’s so sweet of you. It’s just that I need to be in a meeting soon. I wouldn’t have scheduled it now if I had known this before.”
“By the way, I am Anjali. I am in 13-A.”
Mrs. Nayar pretended to be surprised.
“Oh wow! That’s next door. I am Megha. Good to finally have a neighbour. The place had been empty since we moved in two years back.”
“I got a surprisingly good deal. Do you know why it was empty for so long?”
“The builder made a mistake by carving the number 13 on the door. Nobody here wanted that place.”
“But why didn’t they change it? Just carve some other number, perhaps?”
Mrs. Nayar could feel the vibrations of Anjali’s loud, ringing voice reverberating in the small, claustrophobic laundry room, overlapping with the whirling sound of the washer.
“Yes… true. I guess I never thought of it that way. I don’t think they did either.” She laughed.
“I should head back. You sure you are okay watching over the clothes for me?”
Mrs. Nayar nodded with a smile.
“Thank you,” Anjali said, closing the door behind her as she left.
Mrs. Nayar sat on the chair next to the washer, looking at the clothes inside, turning and stopping, turning and stopping. The citric, fresh smell of the detergent had permeated the room for quite some time, but only now did her senses acknowledge it, as if talking to Anjali had somehow numbed them.
Only in their third meeting did they move past the small talk. Anjali said she studied biochemistry at Western University and had one term before graduation. So she was on a temporary basis in the apartment for four months.
And when Anjali asked her what she did, Mrs. Nayar hesitated. She took her time to find the perfect word. “Homemaker,” she said as the washer began its final round of spin.
“My husband works at a pharmaceutical company,” she added.
One day, Mrs. Nayar invited Anjali home for Onam Sadhya.
“Tomorrow is Onam, and it would be great if, you know, you could make it to our place at 7 PM. For the Sadhya.”
She could see that Anjali felt awkward with this sudden invitation.
“Yeah… Uh… Yeah. Sure. Thanks for the invitation.” Anjali said. She removed her clothes from the dryer and stuffed them in her laundry bag. But a sock fell out, which Mrs. Nayar picked up and handed to Anjali.
“Thanks. See you tomorrow,” she said and left.
The next day, Mrs. Nayar was meticulous in preparing food. Instead of using the ready-made tamarind paste from the store, she made it from scratch. While the rasam was getting cooked on one of the stovetops, she separated the seeds from the tamarind and then soaked the tamarind in lukewarm water before adding some salt. She stirred it to a smooth paste.
She would not compromise. After two long years, a guest was coming to their place on Onam.
Next step was breaking the coconut shell. She held it on the kitchen platform, tapping the shell with a mallet. She could see the cracks forming, coconut water spilling from those narrow escape routes. Breaking the coconut shell had always been difficult for her, almost sad. She held the coconut from where a crack was forming, stretched it wide open so she could collect all the water in a glass, and forced it apart. All the water drained out, and the shell broke, rubbing its sharp edge against her thumb, hurting her, spilling blood. The red drops glided across the tender white walls of the coconut, like people skiing on snow-clad mountains, a place that Mr. Nayar always promised to take her but never did.
She washed her hands with Dettol and wrapped a band-aid around her thumb. Then, she washed the blood from the coconut and grated it to make a chutney. She would have made it with a simple recipe if it were a typical day. But a chutney, with just coconut and salt, might feel dry and bland. Her mother taught her how to spice it up when she was very young. She remembered the advice and heated the oil for tempering, throwing in dried red chilies, mustard seeds, and sweet neem leaves one after the other, and then evenly spread the mixture over the chutney.
In the evening, she told Mr. Nayar that their neighbour, Anjali, might come for dinner. Mr. Nayar was surprised by the news but nodded and went about changing into a shirt and Mundu. The clock ticked seven. Mrs. Nayar got uneasy and stretched her ears to check if she could hear something through the walls. Some noise, any noise, even a faint indication that her guest was getting ready to come to her place. The walls remained silent.
“Shall we?” Mr. Nayar inquired, his tone betraying his hungry stomach.
“Let me go ask, she lives next door anyways,” Mrs. Nayar said as the clock ticked a quarter past seven.
She got out of her apartment and stood outside 13-A. She was about to knock, but something stopped her. She felt it was unbecoming of her to drag Anjali against her will. So she returned to her apartment.
“Is your guest coming?” Mr. Nayar asked, now getting impatient.
“No… I think she is busy,” Mrs. Nayar said.
“What happened to your thumb?”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” she replied airily.
Over dinner, Mr. Nayar gently asked her about their neighbour. Mrs. Nayar recounted what she knew about Anjali. Anjali’s absence loomed large over the Pulisseri, the avial, the thoran, the payasam, the brown rice.
The next time they met in the laundry room, Anjali gave her an embarrassed smile. “I am so sorry I could not make it for Onam. But I would like to make up for it.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Mrs. Nayar said.
“Something urgent came up. And I had to go,” Anjali explained.
Mrs. Nayar knew she was lying.
“I understand,” she said.
“So… can I invite you and your husband for dinner? I know the food would have been wasted due to my absence. Let me do this, please.”
“Come on. You don’t have to do this.” Mrs. Nayar inserted the dryer sheets between the clothes.
“What is that? I always meant to ask you, but I thought it was none of my business.”
“It’s no big deal. One or two dryer sheets between the clothes help you avoid the wrinkles.”
“That’s nice. I will buy some too.”
Mrs. Nayar could see Anjali trying to make conversation, ease the tension, and convince her to come for dinner. She gave in.
“Okay. I will come. I am not very sure of my husband, though.”
“Please request him on my behalf. I insist. Tomorrow, 7 PM.”
That night in bed, when Mrs. Nayar told her husband about Anjali’s invitation, he was surprised.
“Strange what young people do! Why would she try to build or maintain warm relations with neighbours if she is here only for four months?”
“Will you come?”
“Of course not.”
He got engrossed in his phone.
Mrs. Nayar stood up and walked to her dresser, a prayer plant placed on it. The plant lay flat during the day when a sharp shaft of sunlight pierced it, but at nights, like latent desires, its leaves would rise, erect, their tip touching each other like hands joined in prayer.
She changed into her nightclothes, eyeing Mr. Nayar from the mirror. He was not looking at her. He never did, especially when she was naked or even half-naked. She was not sure what kept him so engrossed in the phone. Once, she had entered the room without knocking, only to find him without clothes below the belt. His left hand had clutched the phone tightly, his eyes glued to the screen, and his right hand was rhythmically moving across his thighs when she entered. She immediately left with an embarrassed apology. Mr. Nayar was embarrassed, too, and went to the bathroom to clean up. That was the only time she checked his phone without his knowledge and discovered that her husband was watching some video. She was not as surprised by the act as much as she was by the kind of stuff he was watching. A man with two women interlocked in a sensual embrace on the screen only made her more conscious of what she lacked. She never spoke about it to Mr. Nayar but always wondered if he would look at her the way he looked at the video. After that day, she avoided looking at her own body. The only thing she could see in her body was the scar on her belly, that long line that neatly divided her body into two halves. Today, though, she also saw something else before she turned off the lights. Wrinkles had begun forming at the corners of her eyes.
As she entered Anjali’s apartment, a hot, pungent odour of garlic and ginger filled Mrs. Nayar’s nostrils. Anjali had made Rajma with rice.
She noted the attempts Anjali had made to make the apartment look at least superficially tidy. The floor had been swept but not mopped. The wooden floor had tiny, pale, almost faded dirt patches. Several unclean vessels lay in the kitchen sink, but the cooking platform was clean. The couch was moved near the window, but the cushion covers had different colours. Yellow fairy lights hung on the ceiling, the aesthetic saving the living room’s face. Next to the couch was a small table with a money plant on the top.
“Thanks for coming.”
“I am sorry, but my husband could not make it.”
“That’s not a problem. Please sit. I shall bring the food over,” Anjali said.
“Can I help?”
“No no, all is done.”
Mrs. Nayar saw that one of the leaves of the money plant had started browning.
“This one needs water,” she said.
Anjali was surprised. “Do you like plants?”
“Yes. I have many at home, including this one. You like them?”
“I haven’t given it much thought. I got this one for decoration. This one, and the fairy lights. Makes it look like a human being lives here,” Anjali said as she poured the curry onto a plate and handed it to Mrs. Nayar.
“This smells delicious.”
“I hope it tastes that way too.” Anjali gave a nervous smile.
Mrs. Nayar thanked her for her effort and said it was not required. Anjali, again, just smiled. Mrs. Nayar took a mouthful of rice with curry, realizing it needed more salt. But she felt it would be rude to say that.
“It’s delicious! Really amazing!” Mrs. Nayar said, focusing on the plate, careful not to meet Anjali’s eyes. Anjali stood up to get water but dropped a spoon in the process. She bent down to get it, her blue underwear peeping out of her jeans. Mrs. Nayar saw that but again focused on her plate.
They talked of personal things during the dessert, a ghee-soaked gajar halwa. Mrs. Nayar said she could not have children anymore. It was too complicated and might endanger her life. Anjali said that her boyfriend recently broke up with her. That was why she did not turn up for Onam Sadhya at Mrs. Nayar’s.
“Oh, did it happen the same day?”
“No… a few days before that. Usually, I manage to be functional. Some days though, it becomes unbearable.”
Mrs. Nayar did not ask her why they broke up. A line that, she thought, she should not cross. She told herself that it was something young people did these days, getting in and out of relationships, how people get in and out of cars, a luxury neither available nor affordable to her.
“But I saw a guy. A white, tall one with curly hair. And that was recent. I thought he was your…” Mrs. Nayar left her question masquerading as a sentence unfinished.
“No… he isn’t my anything. He—let’s say he is a coping mechanism. Anyway, can I serve you more halwa?” Mrs. Nayar’s empty plate gave Anjali a convenient way to switch the topic.
“No no… I am full. The last time I ate this much was back in India.” Mrs. Nayar laughed and offered to wash the dishes as a courtesy.
“Of course not. I will take care of it.”
“I should take your leave now. My husband must be waiting.”
“Yes. Thanks for coming. It was great to have you.”
In a few hours, Mrs. Nayar was in front of the mirror while Mr. Nayar slept soundly. Then, she changed into her night clothes and applied Vaseline on her face. She could not help but compare herself to Anjali. Anjali’s sharp jawline with her newly forming double chin, her tousled, sexy jet-black hair with her receding hairline, her flat stomach with her bulging belly, that too with a scar.
A tinge of admiration and envy filled her.
By then, Mrs. Nayar knew Anjali’s laundry schedule. Twice a week. Tuesdays and Fridays, when she did not have classes to attend. Mrs. Nayar matched the timings with her, and soon it became an unspoken agreement between them that Tuesdays and Fridays were their days to wash the clothes together. Anjali happily handed over the task of looking over the clothes to Mrs. Nayar when the clothes were drying and sometimes got a homemade cake for Mrs. Nayar as a sign of gratitude.
Once she noticed that Anjali had got herself dryer sheets.
“Thanks to you! It will save me the trouble of ironing my clothes.” Anjali had put her clothes in the dryer already. Mrs. Nayar emptied her laundry basket into the washer before putting in the detergent. Then, she swiped her laundry card on the machine. The dryer and the washer started doing their work. They made different sounds. The dryer was more high-pitched, more intimidating, taking up more space than the sound of the washer, the meek one of the two.
While waiting, they talked of the changing weather and the approaching winter. They informed each other of the reports they had heard, how the coming winter would be the coldest to date in Canada, and how this rumour was in the air every year.
After a few minutes, the dryer made a beeping sound.
“Okay, I will see you around,” Anjali said, quickly piling dry clothes in her laundry bag. She seemed like she was in a rush.
“Take care,” Mrs Nayar said.
Anjali scuttled off the laundry room.
Mrs. Nayar’s eye caught a glimpse of cloth through the glass of the dryer. She opened the door. There it was, still warm, almost cozy. Sky-blue underwear with mogra flowers inscribed on it. For a moment, she thought of chasing Anjali to give it back. But giving up on that thought, she slowly put it in her laundry bag, hiding it amidst her overflowing clothes.
She was not sure if it would fit her. Anjali was thinner, but Mrs. Nayar persisted. She struggled to pull it up her thighs. Then, with some effort, she finally did. Her thighs felt uncomfortable, almost suffocated, her pubic hair pulled against its will.
Despite all that, Mrs. Nayar stood before Mr. Nayar with no other cloth on her body but that underwear. Mr. Nayar was puzzled.
“It looks like you are uncomfortable,” Mr. Nayar said.
Mrs. Nayar smiled suggestively. After a long time, she felt like she was not in her body.
“And that thing certainly doesn’t look like yours. Is it yours?”
Mr. Nayar was still puzzled, but the flame of excitement in his eyes was unmistakable. Mrs. Nayar knew her plan had worked.
He came closer and touched the fabric, then kissed it and smiled. Mrs. Nayar saw that his smile crossed the bounds of his lips and reached his eyes.
The plants and flowers once gifted only on their anniversary became a weekly treat. Mr. Nayar filled the balcony with tulips, orchids, bonsai, hibiscus, rubber tree, and aloe vera over the next few weeks, not to mention the bouquet of roses he got every two days.
“You don’t have to buy them so often!”
“You love them,” he said, as if bringing plants and flowers was the least he could do.
It was Mrs. Nayar who, every week, had an enormous task before her. She offered to watch out for Anjali’s clothes twice a week and talked and smiled with her in the laundry room, looking straight into her eyes. The thrill of toeing the line was intoxicating.
During all this time, getting glimpses of Anjali's different underwear, Mrs. Nayar realized that Anjali was certainly a mogra person. So Mr. Nayar got her a mogra plant one day.
“Seriously? And where did you even get it? It’s hard to find them here!” Mrs. Nayar said.
“Yes, but not impossible.” Mr. Nayar smiled, with the knowledge of a person throwing red chilies in preheated oil.
In mid-November, it snowed for the first time that year, and as they were looking at the turning washer, Anjali’s face worried Mrs. Nayar.
“Mrs. Nayar, it’s strange,” she said.
“What is?” Mrs. Nayar’s heart sank.
“I feel like some of my clothes are missing.”
“Are they? That is strange. Nobody usually comes around when I am here.”
“Yes, it is strange.”
Mrs. Nayar waited for a moment before speaking again, choosing her words as carefully as she chose a plant.
“Perhaps, it’s possible that you are leaving out some clothes in the washer itself. It’s sometimes hard to spot them. This is because they shrink due to the wash. And the washer is a bit deep too. It has happened to me before,” Mrs. Nayar explained.
“Yes, that seems like the only possibility.”
“Today, you check it carefully.”
It did not fail to affect the fragile marital intimacy of the Nayars. When Mr. Nayar approached her that night, she felt distracted and scared.
“I think she knows,” she said.
“She does?” Mr. Nayar retreated.
“It’s okay. Just try to sneak it back.” Mr. Nayar cocooned back to his phone.
“We should not have needed this,” Mrs. Nayar said. But by then, Mr. Nayar seemed far away, and she was unsure if he had heard her. So she kept looking at her drawer, at the floral underwear that did not belong to her.
She took it with her on Friday, looking to sneak it back. She wanted to put an end to this. When she, like always, offered to watch out for Anjali’s clothes, Anjali politely refused.
“Actually, I would like to stay. It is rude of me to burden you with it every week.” She smiled.
“No, it’s not a burden at all,” Mrs. Nayar said.
“Still. I will stay. Accompany you here,” Anjali said. The coldness in her usually warm voice made Mrs. Nayar shiver.
They both stayed in the laundry room for almost an hour, making small talk, their voices burdened with a heaviness that neither acknowledged.
Next Tuesday, Mrs. Nayar was alone in the laundry room. She had hoped to sneak it back with Anjali’s clothes, but Anjali’s absence kept it from happening. On her way back, she knocked on Anjali’s door. After three knocks, she opened it.
“Hi… I thought I’d check on you. Was wondering why you did not turn up today. It’s our laundry day, after all,” Mrs. Nayar managed a smile.
“Yes… no. I mean, I was busy. My exams are approaching. And I have started packing too,” Anjali said.
It dawned on Mrs. Nayar that Anjali’s four-month lease would soon end.
“Oh yes… you are right. Let me know if you need any help with packing,” Mrs. Nayar said.
“Yes, of course,” Anjali said. She nodded, waved, and closed the door.
That night, Mrs. Nayar undressed and desperately tried to wear Anjali’s underwear she still had. The elastic loosened with repeated attempts to pull it up her thigh. It was of no use anymore. From the mirror, she saw Mr. Nayar. He was looking at her without any desire. She looked away.
Mrs. Nayar never saw Anjali in the laundry room again. She invited her for Christmas dinner as a farewell. Anjali refused, stating that she was busy.
On the last day of December, when the snow had covered the roads, she saw a U-Haul truck stopping at the gates of their apartment building. She heard vessels clanking and suitcases dragging. From the balcony, she saw Anjali loading her luggage into the truck. Anjali’s black car stormed off behind the truck, leaving tire marks in the snow.