Psychic Legacies: Pressure | Verve Magazine
Illustration by Aishwaryashree Verma
Sunil sat at his study table, unable to focus. Shards of light crept through the gaps in the curtains. He could hear his mother, his daughter and Neelam chatting away on the other side of the door. The curtains were drawn, and the cool remains of the air conditioning lingered in the dark room. He briefly closed his eyes and tried not to think about the full workday that was looming ahead. With the lockdown being extended in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy looked worse than ever. His mind drifted… he wished his father were still alive; he would have known how to handle this. He closed his eyes, and the image of his father appeared — lately, he had been appearing more as things had gotten harder. He was a stern man, a man of few words and great many thoughts. He had worked until the day he died. Despite their formal relationship, Sunil missed him. He had been the man of the house. Outside, the chatter got louder, and his thoughts shifted to his wife.
Last night in bed, Neelam had shared how she wanted to get away from the city for a few days after the lockdown. “Before the monsoon sets in, the three of us should spend some time in nature. Being free…” She then rested her head on his chest and drifted off. She believed in him. She trusted him, and the ease with which she fell asleep was proof of that. Sunil stared up at the ceiling. He felt weighed down; it had been over a month since the money had stopped coming in. He had tried once to hint at this concern to Neelam, but her response (which he couldn’t exactly recall now) seemed callous and un-empathetic, and it infuriated him to the point where he silently swore never to bring it up again. Anyway, it wasn’t really her concern. He was the head of the family. He was the man of the house. Yes, Neelam worked, but he knew — they both did — that she worked willingly because she had the choice to stop if needed.
If he was being honest, he had been struggling financially since before the lockdown; the economy hadn’t been great then either, and it seemed his family needed more and more from him. His mother was getting older; she required more attention, more healthcare, more reassurance. Neelam had contemplated quitting her job because, according to her, the office politics were making things toxic. He could see that she was struggling to balance being a mother, a daughter-in-law, a wife and a professional for some time now. And he could see the impact of this balancing act on her mood, her sex-drive, her playfulness… Anyway, what sort of a man forced his wife to work? His daughter, Priya, demanded the most taxing things of all: his time and undivided attention. How could he give her those as well as a secure financial future? Once again, his father crept into his thoughts. Sunil recalled sitting on the bed and watching while his father got ready for the office. It was during these instances that his father would share his wisdom. “Sunil, a man must provide for his family. It is his only job — without money, everything becomes difficult. Without it, you don’t have respect.”
He remembered that the economy had slowed down when he had been around 13 years old. He remembered that his father had started to work nights. The stress had been palpable at home. He remembered feeling angry at his father for missing his inter-school debate competition and dejected when his mother scolded him for being selfish. “Raja-beta, he is working for you… so that you can do all of these talking competitions. I cannot believe you are being so ungrateful! Men do not behave like this!” Sunil never expressed his disappointment again.
His mind wandered to Sheela, a long-time colleague. He didn’t know how or when it started. Perhaps the first time they went for a coffee after a deal had fallen through. He was able to talk about it with her. He didn’t feel embarrassed; she had been there, and it was her loss too. They texted, they flirted — it was all innocent, really. All adults do it. He has a vague recollection of his father talking to someone on the phone, calling them “beautiful” and then laughing while his mother had been in the kitchen cooking. He remembered his dad being happier after those calls. He now wondered if his father, too, had been having an affair. It wouldn’t surprise him. It was how work got done, how deals got pushed through. Words can mean nothing. Sex can mean nothing. He knew this better than anyone because it is exactly how his own affair had started. He had been tired; Neelam had been in a bad mood; his mother was unwell; and his daughter was angry because he had missed her school play. They were being ungrateful…he was angry. He had called Sheela, and she invited him over. He stayed the night, and the next day he looked forward to seeing his family.
Sunil felt guilty for not feeling guilty. In truth, he needed Sheela. He needed the break from responsibility, from the constant pressure of having to give more. This was his way of relaxing, his way of taking care of himself — for his family.
During the lockdown, they texted a few times. With all the housework, Neelam was in no mood for much physical intimacy, and that’s when the video calls started. Much like their nights together, the online sessions were his reset button. In those moments, there was only pleasure — no expectations, no emotions. And when reality set in again, his familial life seemed more manageable. He loved Neelam and his family, but sometimes the weight of providing for them was draining, and he couldn’t remember why he had chosen to be responsible for them in the first place. As the thought of whether his actions were morally questionable emerged in his mind, his phone lit up. It was Sheela. He smiled as a picture of her naked breasts downloaded onto his phone. He looked up at the clock; it was 11:30 am, and Neelam would be in the kitchen, unlikely to come into the room. He switched on his webcam and sent Sheela a video request.
At 11:50 am, Sunil turned off the computer and drew open the curtains. Sunlight flooded the bedroom. His mind cleared. He squinted into the light for a few seconds and placed his mobile to charge. He then washed his hands and face and stepped out of the bedroom. He was greeted by his daughter running into his arms and Neelam saying the food was nearly ready and his mother gently scolding him for working so hard. He smiled. He would manage — he was the head of the family, the man of the house. He would make sure that everything would be okay.
*Personal details have been changed to protect the confidentiality of clients.