FICTION: A Close Shave

Naveen devoted Sunday mornings to giving himself a close shave. After the shave, he plucked out the pesky nose or ear hairs that stuck out visibly, and soaked his feet in a bucket of warm water into which he dropped a few globs of shampoo. After his shower, he wore a crisp kurta pajama, and sat down with the newspaper and a cup of tea. It would give him a special satisfaction to feel the smoothness of his chin and cheek if he happened to thoughtfully touch his face, index finger tapping, thumb rested on the side of his lips.

This Sunday Naveen enters the bathroom groggy. He had stayed up late the night before to watch a re-run of the match where Mexico clobbered Germany in the World Cup so he hadn’t got enough sleep. He couldn’t sleep-in beyond seven in the morning because of the habit he had made to wake up at that time. As he shuffles into the bathroom he can hear his mother pottering in the kitchen. On other days, she would have tea and breakfast on the table soon after she heard him shut the door of the bathroom, but today she will take her time. Naveen shuts the door of the bathroom, takes off his t-shirt, flips the switch for the geyser, and turns the tap on. In a few hours, the June sun will heat the water in the overhead tank enough that it will make showering in it hot and unpleasant, but this time in the morning it still feels cool. Naveen puts on the light above the mirror and peers closely into his face, opening his mouth, turning his face from side to side, squinting to get a closer look at himself. He doesn’t look altogether pleased at the state of his face. He pulls out the toothbrush and squeezes out a generous amount of the teeth-whitening tooth paste on it before holding the brush lightly under the tap for a few seconds and taking it straight to the front of his teeth. He brushes the front of his teeth, the sides, the molars, then, as is his habit, he turns off the tap, leaves the tooth brush in his mouth, drops his shorts and takes a long, luxurious piss while chewing on the bristles of his toothbrush.

This morning, as he is pissing and exhilarating in the teasing sting of the toothpaste in his mouth, he reminds himself again that it is in these little things, things in his hands to make happen that the meaning of his life resides. That this is his survival strategy. His job sucks, he has no love life, and Suresh, his closest buddy since college, is about to get married and is on the verge of moving to Mumbai because his fiancé wants to live there after the wedding.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that there was not much going for Naveen, but Naveen was not very ambitious. He knew there was no point in being demanding of life, if he could only survive he would be ok. Right now the combined pleasure of the first piss of the morning, toothpaste in the mouth and the anticipation of shagging in the shower was straw enough to last him. This is it, he thinks to himself; it is these little things in life that that will keep him. Just as Naveen is about to settle into a sense of wellbeing, preserved against all odds, he is startled by a flash of yellow.

It is a wasp. It almost brushes past his face and flies just past the reach of his flailing arms, the last trickle of his piss dribbling about the pot. The wasp swoops in on him and swoops out as Naveen first ducks and then lunges forward almost falling over, for suddenly the toothpaste and the spit in his mouth seem altogether too much and too long to keep in the mouth any more. He backs off, pulls the toothbrush out of his mouth and spits into the sink. From the corner of his eye he can see the wasp repeatedly fly into the wall and retreat confused. He turns on the tap, rinses his mouth, washes and puts away the toothbrush and then splashes water on this eyes and face blinking a couple of times, opening his eyes wide and staring at his wide-eyed, staring, stubbled, face. The wasp is going round and round in confused circles. Determination and desperation are about the same, depends on the spin you put on it thinks Naveen; a vague analogy with his own life begins to form dimly in the outer reaches of his mind but quickly dissipates as he returns his attention to his Sunday rituals.

Now is the part where he usually turns on the exhaust fan, lights his cigarette, and fills some hot water in a bucket with the shampoo globs. The routine goes something like this: as the water in the bucket bubbles up, he adds cold water to balance the heat, turns off the geyser, pulls the bucket close to the pot, sits on the pot, soaks his feet in the bucket to finish his smoke and take a satisfying crap. Today, with the disoriented wasp overhead, this part of Naveen’s plans is not without peril. The tranquility demanded by the next bit of his routine also demands that he get rid of the wasp. He can’t get the wasp with his bare hands. He needs something to help knock it down. The diminished roll of toilet paper is no good. He looks around and settles for the towel. He rolls it up and tries to swipe down the wasp but the wasp eludes the floppy mark of the rolled up towel. Then it occurs to Naveen to open the window and shoo the wasp in that direction. So Naveen tries again but now the wasp seeks refuge above the light fixture over the mirror and Naveen’s towel swipes make it burrow deeper behind the holder. When the wasp decides not to come out of its hiding for almost a minute, Naveen decides to give up and get on with his business. The craving for his morning cigarette before crapping and the slight pressure on his intestines warn him that there is a window coming up that he cannot afford to miss.

Naveen puts the wasp out of his mind, and settles on the pot. His dried out heels signal a relief that his intestines are yet to register, but it is only a matter of time. Naveen inhales the smoke and lets it out slowly. His boss thrives on humiliating him. By now it is evident to everyone in the office, including him, that Naveen has fallen into slot of the fall guy. His boss, and now even some of his co-workers, take a dump on him whenever the pressure gets too much at work or if something goes wrong. He is being bullied and there is no one to turn to. He doesn’t know how to break the cycle. He can’t quit the job.

His older brother had moved to Singapore in January, and his mother now lived with him. And this was looking to be a permanent arrangement since his sister-in-law and his mother did not get along at all in the year that she lived with them. Neither woman wanted to be in each other’s presence anymore. There were days at work when he fancied himself dramatically throwing his resignation letter on his boss’s face and stomping out, but he knew he couldn’t afford that. As a junior accounting clerk in a CA firm, a job he got on Suresh’s father’s recommendation despite his poor grades in college, this was not something he could throw away with no prospect of another job. Along with ambition, Naveen also lacked skills of any other kind that might prosper with enterprise, so even he didn’t quite see what he’d do if he lost this job.

But Naveen had taught himself to live life in its littler stretches. Time, that other people saw as empty or irrelevant or wasted in thoughtless chores, which amounted to nothing if added up, like the time spent brushing your teeth, Naveen knew to sink into. He found crevices in the texture of uneventful time and crawled inside them. Almost everyone he knew from when he was a child thought he took too long to do things, that he was too slow. His classmates didn’t want him on their team, his teachers grew exasperated with how long he took over his tasks, and his mother almost always had his older brother finish any errand that he started. He had gotten way better now; he had learned to trick himself with alarm clocks, apps and painstakingly cultivated habits. Now he mostly could keep time but time felt no obligation to keep him. Time would slip out of his cell phone or get stolen from his watch and almost always without warning just when it seemed like he was getting a handle on things. The fact was that time liked him to stretch out on its hands and count the knots on the smooth surface of space that kept it in stealth.

As Naveen exhales the final puffs of the cigarette, there is that invariable pleasant heaving of the intestines and the satisfaction of knowing that his guts know something about passing time. But before much time could pass, the stool having just started its passage, the wasp swings right up to Naveen’s face.

Swinging back but unable to get up, Naveen is, to say the least, disquieted by this interruption. He grabs the bidet jet next to the toilet and points it at the wasp and presses down the lever. A jet of water shoots out of the bidet and wets the walls and the hanging towel following the escaping wasp. Maybe the mild-mannered Naveen, sitting on the toilet, feels all his pent up anger well out in a deep and singular desire to get that damned wasp down. The bathroom is small enough that the disoriented wasp is unable to dodge the water attack for too long. Caught in the jet it falls on the tiled floor. Naveen points the jet directly at the fallen wasp till it goes round and round in a rapid pool of water even after he is certain that the wasp must be quite dead. When Naveen releases the leaver and returns the bidet in its holder next to the pot, the water drains from the floor but the wasp stays washed up and unmoving by the side of the floor near the door.

All this distraction has closed the window. What has passed has passed but that is all that will have passed today, other than time. His stomach hasn’t quite cleared but there is nothing he can do. He washes up, gives his heels a perfunctory scrub with a pumice stone, and gets to the shaving and the shower. His heart is no longer in it. His rhythm destroyed, the joy out of his Sunday rituals denied, he casts an annoyed look at the dead wasp. He lathers his face and pulls out the Sunday special twin blade razor. The week’s stubble is substantial enough that he has to shave slowly and twice to get the really close, smooth shave that he loves to give himself on Sundays. He starts on the top of this left cheek bone, and frequently rinses the razor. He works he way down his cheeks slowly, the graze of the blade feels as satisfying as it sounds. The shave below the chin and down the throat is pure instinct of course. Perhaps it is this, this repeated proximity of razor and throat that gives even the meekest of men something of the air to take on the world, if nowhere else then in the privacy of their bathroom. The slow repetition of the shave, its rasping sound and feeling soothes Naveen. The wasp curled up in the corner by the wall offers Naveen no further disruption as he steps under the shower.

Damn! he forgot to turn off the geyser and is caught off-guard when after the first cool shower he is hit by an unexpected spray of scalding water. He quickly switches off the geyser, turns the tap to cold and waits for the cool water to fall on his head and wash down his body. Attempting once again to salvage his morning, he reaches down to his flaccid penis and cradles it with the hope that muscle memory will kick-in to restore his Sunday morning to him. Fortunately for him it does. He doesn’t even have to conjure her face anymore just the imagined sensation of touching her intimately is enough to rouse him. Handling himself with utmost care he sinks into the most pleasurable part of his morning, forgetting himself, forgetting the shower, forgetting everything but that incredible sensation gathering at the base of spine that lasts long enough to remind him that all was not lost. Water streaming down his body, if there was a shower nirvana to be had, Naveen would be its founding saint practitioner.

Suresh and Naveen had done the Kheerganga trek in Himachal about a year ago with a bunch of their college friends. There, lagging behind, Naveen had strayed from the group and stood under a wandering waterfall. The force of the water was just right, as he acclimated to its temperature. Standing there, that once, he was sure that time had taken him by the hand and decided to be still with him. The group had moved on quite a bit before they missed him and started looking for him. Naveen had fallen unconscious, but the pool was not deep enough for him to drown; another party of trekkers had seen him before anything really bad could happen. When Suresh found him, Naveen was wrapped in towels, drinking tea. His friends had seemed more annoyed than glad for finding him alive and well. Naveen only remembered how wonderful it was to have stood in that pool of water, the water falling on his head and down his face and back and how there was literally nothing else in the world to live for but that moment. It is that place that he tries to step into again each time he steps under the shower on Sundays, but, in all honesty, he can’t say that he has managed to since.

Shower finished, Naveen reaches to pull down the now wet towel to dry himself, wishing it wasn’t wet. He considers calling out to his mother to hand him a dry towel but decides to step out and get it himself. As he ties the soggy towel to his waist preparing to step out, he remembers the wasp and thinks it only proper to dispose the dead body. He pulls out an earbud from the cabinet and crouches over the wasp on the floor to scoop it up. The wasp moves a wing ever so slightly. He turns the wasp over and slips the earbud under its face. Ever so weakly and with all the strength of the world, the wasp makes its way slowly on top of the cotton bud as Naveen stays patiently bent over it. Once the wasp climbs fully over the earbud, Naveen lifts the stick and places the wasp on the ledge outside the bathroom window and closes the window shut looking forward to his dry towel, crisp kurta pajama and his morning cup of tea.

Anannya Dasgupta is a poet, fiction writer and art photographer who lives in Delhi. Her poetry and fiction have appeared among other places in Out of PrintMadras CourierWasifiriBangalore Review, Ainanagar and Pierenes Fountain. She has a book of poems called Between Sure Places.

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