Through the Looking Glass by Nishita Jha

It began with that house which looked like the inside of a cake and had more windows cut into it than Suzy could ever get used to. It was on the eighth floor of a brand new apartment complex in Noida.


The first few months, it was pure bliss. They had moved out of a two-bedroom flat in East Delhi, their home for the last twenty years. Anil’s new friends preferred meeting him in a place that looked like a part of their world. ‘A poor astrologer can't tell you how to get rich,’ one of them had said, eyeing Suzy as he fiddled with the red string on his wrist, ‘those buggers in Tirupati are millionaires, Nair. You need an upgrade.’


And so by March, they moved into the cold white house, with marble floors and creamy pearl-finish walls. There was an AC in every room, and you could hear the clickety-clack of the dog’s paws as she walked around, conducting an investigation of her new home.


For years, Anil ran an export business while Suzy taught English to middle-school students at the Little Angels Public School. They hadn’t travelled much, but they collected curios from all over the world through friends who did. Suzy wrapped these treasures – a gold Eiffel tower, an Ethiopian urn, a row of little porcelain flamenco dancers, in carefully bunched newspapers, and stored it under their bed. Everytime his business saw a windfall, Anil would buy something he had seen in a magazine: cologne, solitaires for Suzy, an iPod, an entire shelf of the summer collection at a fancy men’s store. Still in their original packing, for years their best possessions lived in Godrej almirahs.


But in the pristine ivory tower of glass and concrete, nothing needed to be saved up for a special occasion. Suzy called her old neighbours over for lunch one day, and served them moussaka as they cooed over the new house. She felt relieved that she did not have to pretend to be one of them anymore. Outside the world of dingy DDA flats, everything was really illuminated.


As summer wore on, Anil withdrew into his study. Suzy was accustomed to these phases of isolation. Even in the old house, he would come home from the export factory, and dive into a pile of books by their bed, refusing to get up, except at meal times. These phases usually lasted only a few months. ‘When he puts his books away, it’s like he’s a sailor coming home,’ she had once giggled with a colleague at Little Angels.


Anil discovered his gift for astrology during one of these phases. He studied gems, then read palms and faces before moving on to birth charts. He started a small side-business, doing readings for neighbours out of their scooter-garage on weekends. It was bad luck to tell fortunes for free, so he charged his clients a nominal sum: eleven rupees for close friends, hundred and one for their friends and colleagues.


Two years later, he’d graduated from predicting throat ailments and promotions, to choosing stocks based on planetary alignments for investors.  Soon, they were making enough money for Suzy to quit her job at the school.


Now that astrology had become his main business, he found other ways to occupy his spare time. In June, he spent a small fortune buying a set of Canon lenses. By July, he’d built a magnificent terrace garden. He invested in a telescope. By the time monsoon came, he spent entire days up on the roof, taking close-up shots of flowers, insects and rain-speckled leaves.


In the past, Suzy considered her role as the perfect hostess an essential part of Anil’s astrology business. She would chat with his clients while they waited, play up her convent school accent. She would laugh at their jokes, offer them tea and worldly advice. Certain that it was only a matter of time before international clients came knocking at their door, she even started taking lessons in Spanish.


There was less occasion for this in the new house. Most clients walked straight in to Anil’s study without waiting to exchange the usual pleasantries with her. She tried entering the study on a few occasions, but both Anil and the visitors appeared uncomfortable at her intrusion. In a small crowded home, her conversational skills had been a welcome distraction. In a house with seven rooms, surely she had somewhere else to be?


Her new neighbours too, kept mostly to themselves. Sometimes, Suzy would spot a face at the window of another house in the complex, and wonder if they ever felt curious about her life. She wondered how she appeared to this invisible audience, framed in glass.


She had few friends, mostly the teachers from Little Angels. It had been twenty-two years since since she’d moved to Delhi, but she felt like an outsider. She envied Anil’s easy charm. Everyone warmed to him instantly. She considered herself better read and more sophisticated than most people she knew, and suspected this made her intellectually intimidating to strangers.


That Thursday, her ex-colleagues from Little Angels had invited her to lunch. Anil offered to take the dog to the vet, to leave her free for the afternoon. She took a long shower and paced around the house. She’d never felt anxious about meeting the teachers before, but she had been a part of their group then.


There was always so much to talk about in the staff room – most of it involved making fun of the students and other teachers. Everybody loved Suzy’s accent, and her stories about the worried visitors who came to meet Anil made them laugh. Their husbands rarely discussed work with them.


Suzy wondered if she was still an interesting person to be around. All she did these days was cram the house with more lurid, beautiful objects. How long could she talk about those? If only Anil still discussed work with her.


Suzy paused outside Anil’s empty study. The door was open. She could always sneak a quick look at his files before leaving for the lunch. Then she would have stories to share. She tried to imagine his reaction, then decided it was ridiculous to consider this deceitful. She had no secrets from Anil. What did privacy mean anyway, when you’d shared your life with someone for twenty-two years?


She went over to the desk and opened his silver laptop. His password was still his mother’s name, Mridula. Suzy sighed with relief. Scanning the desktop, she opened a couple of folders at random. This shouldn’t take too long, she thought. ‘Accounts’ was full of logistics. ‘Clients’ was a database of names. ‘Home’ was full of photos of the garden, and one of their dog. ‘AltBiz’ was password protected. AltBiz?


She tried Mridula again. Wrong password.


The name of his first dog? Popsy. Still wrong.


Suzy tried typing in her own name. Nothing. She looked around and saw a calendar the housing society had sent them. Panorama Apartments. Panorama. She typed it in. Bingo.

Tiny black icons appeared across the screen. Videos. She clicked on the first thumbnail. It wasn’t too clear, but she could make out a young girl walking in a bedroom. The girl moved her head rhythmically to music only she could hear. She stopped in front of a mirror and struck a pose. Then another. She was dressed in panties and a sports bra. She picked something off a desk and held it at arm’s length. A cell phone. She was taking a selfie. She took some more. The video ended.


Suzy was confused. What was this? It wasn’t porn. It wasn’t cinema. Why did Anil have this on his computer? She clicked on another thumbnail. This one was clearer. A woman with long hair was looking at something in the distance as she smoked a cigarette. The scene continued for nearly two, three minutes, when a man appeared next to her. They seemed to be talking, but there was no sound. The woman was shaking her head. The man came closer to her and pulled her t-shirt up, cupping her breasts with his hands. She laughed. Turning around to face him, she jerked the curtains shut.


The curtains. Suzy exhaled sharply. Blue with pink polka dots. She knew those curtains. She ran into the tv room and yanked the blinds open just to be sure. On the sixth floor of the building across the badminton court, blue and pink curtains fluttered innocently in the breeze.


Her head reeling, she dropped to her knees. These were scenes shot from the windows of Panorama. By someone with a powerful lens. By her husband, who spent all his time on the terrace, with his telescope and big lenses. Who else could it be? She was furious. She had to tell him she knew. Should she call him? But what could she say? He would know she had gone through his files. It was worse. If she confronted him, how could they ever go back to being normal? What did normal even mean?


She lost track of time. The light outside the window turned blue. She heard her cell phone ring insistently in the next room, and reached it just as it went off. Six pm. It was Anil. She’d missed seven calls before this one and a text from Radha, one of the teachers at Little Angels: Suz - Missed you at lunch today, the kids have been asking about you too! Was calling to check if you know someone interested in counselling high school kids at Sherwood High. The princi is a good friend and they pay well. Catch you soon x


She put the phone away. Anil would be home soon. She needed time to think through this. Half an hour later, speeding down the empty Greater Noida Expressway, she felt much calmer. She had overreacted. There could be so many plausible explanations for the videos. Anil could have been trying the lenses out, and randomly focussed on a neighbour’s window. He might have meant to take a photograph of a woman smoking, an artistic photograph, when her boyfriend walked in. How could he have known what would happen next? (Suzy wondered if the man in the video was really even the woman’s boyfriend.) There was no need to upset Anil by bringing it up right now. She was sure he meant to delete them later. The password protection nagged her, but maybe it was all just a stupid and funny thing. They’d laugh about it in a few months. She turned the car around. It was almost time for dinner and she needed to pick up groceries.


A month had passed since the discovery. Anil emerged from his self-imposed exile in the study, hungry for love and attention. He wanted to go out with Suzy every day, accompany her on errands, help her around the house. He even invited her for drinks with a client one evening.


She was confused by her own response. She had forgiven him in her mind, but she constantly felt as if she were on the verge of hysteria. She was filled with a curious mixture of love and contempt for her husband. Sometimes, she’d look at him as if she was seeing him for the first time: a middle-aged man with a paunch who wore rings on all ten of his fingers. She was repulsed by him.


At other moments, she would be moved to tears at his sweetness. Anil had stood by her through everything, even though they couldn’t have children. They had spent twenty-two years together. What right did she have to be angry with him? Could a man be blamed for looking at another woman? Hadn’t she ever imagined being with other men?


One morning he woke her up early, and took her upstairs to the terrace. They stood together in the morning mist, holding hands, admiring the garden he’d tended so lovingly. Everything seemed right again. She leaned in to get a closer look at the azaleas, and felt him press up against her. ‘Anil...’ she murmured.


‘It’s okay baby,’ he said, his hands pulling at her nightie with some urgency, ‘the neighbours can’t see us here, we’re totally invisible.’


Something snapped. Suzy spun around and pushed him away. Hard.




‘I…I’m getting a job Anil. I need to work again,’ she said.



Sherwood High described itself in the school’s brochure as a ‘state-of-the-art educational institute for women with old-school values’. With its arched stone entrance and grassy lawns, it looked like a grander version of Suzy’s own school in Kerala. She wasn’t exactly qualified to be a school counsellor, but she’d taught English for almost ten years at Little Angels’. Her friend Radha hadpromised to put in a good word with the principal.


‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn. About your previous experience, that is,’ Mr Pant, Sherwood’s principal said to her at the interview. (Suzy was delighted at the Rhett Butler reference).


‘I need help around here. We’re building a stable on the school property, and I can’t afford an actual counsellor for the girls right now. Besides,’ he smiled, ‘you seem like you’d be a great influence on them.’


Sherwood High was an hour’s drive from Suzy’s home. Initially she had imagined the school would be something out of a Susan Coolidge novel, but soon discovered a counsellor’s job involved more than braiding girls’ hair and teaching them etiquette. The young women at Sherwood were all from wealthy business families, and had scant regard for rules or authority.


The elder girls in particular, mimicked Suzy, they provoked her at every opportunity they could. In her first week, Suzy was asked to speak with a fourteen-year-old caught rolling a joint during the school assembly. The girl stared straight at her for a whole hour without saying a thing, and left when the bell rang. Suzy felt like weeping.


Things improved gradually. Trying to talk to the girls about their problems didn’t work. Threatening them with expulsion did. As soon as she’d pull out a stack of fake ‘discharge’ forms, her pen poised at ‘Reason for Expulsion’, the girls would start babbling with fear. Divorced parents, cheating mothers, siblings with addiction, property feuds, they confessed everything that had ever happened to them, leading to this moment of aberrant delinquency. Suzy would sigh, put her pen away and say ‘You poor dear. Come see me once a week. We’ll see how we can best deal with this together.’


Mr Pant was pleased with her work. One afternoon, he sent Suzy a note on the school’s server:

Mrs Nair, if you are able to tear yourself away from the children for one afternoon, it would be my pleasure to take you on a tour of the stables.
(No horses yet, I’m the only stud, alas!)


Suzy smiled at the screen. Mr Pant had been an equestrian in his youth, and still loved attending polo matches in the capital. He was distantly related to a famous Delhi thespian and was the most cultured man she had ever met.


Walking through the freshly laid out arena and tile-roofed stable, Suzy felt a sense of exhilaration. She realised now how badly she had needed this job. It was more than just a reason to get out of the house. She felt like herself again. Or maybe, she was feeling like herself for the first time. She looked at Mr Pant. At his silver head and silver beard, at his hands that never stopped gesticulating. He was talking about the first horse he’d ever ridden at a show-jumping event in New Zealand. He was the first person who spoke to her like an intelligent adult, as an equal. She could walk into his office whenever she liked, and without fail, he’d be standing by his window, gazing out into the distance. They discussed everything, the state of Delhi’s politics, their favourite South American writers, the best time of the year to grow roses. Even when he didn’t agree with her, he had a way of steepling his fingers, leaning back and considering what she what she had said.


Suzy realised this was what it felt like to have a true companion. She felt no sexual or romantic attraction for Mr Pant. Lost in her train of thought, it took her a while to realise that the object of her deep affection was waiting for some kind of answer. ‘Really?’ she said, automatically.


‘Yes, Mrs Nair. Really. I don’t think it’s appropriate to teach young and impressionable girls about sex. Where does one begin? I understand we’re living in modern times, but then, you and I were never taught about sex in our schools. And we figured it out just fine, right?’


Suzy blushed.


‘I’m sorry. I just mean, I don’t think it’s appropriate to teach the young people ‘good touch-bad touch’ nonsense. Why put these ideas in their head? You don’t think…’ he paused.


Suzy nodded, encouraging him to go on.


‘You don’t think the first years are already having those kind of thoughts do you?’ his voice had grown faint.


Suzy sighed. Her mother had passed away when she was very young, and her father had been this way, always in denial that his daughter was growing up. He talked to her like a little girl right up to the age of twenty, when she finally eloped with Anil. And then, he never talked to her again.


She wanted to protect Mr Pant from this sort of disillusionment. The first-years at Sherwood High were fourteen years old. Suzy knew they most definitely had those kinds of thoughts. The last pages of their notebooks were covered in erotic doodles. They Whatsapped dirty jokes to each other all day long. Whenever she used the school computer, pop-ups of animated figures performing fellatio or doing much worse appeared on the screen, suggesting the girls frequented these sites, or at least, were aware of them.


‘Children aren’t as innocent as they used to be, Mr Pant,’ she sighed. ‘You can't watch over them all the time. You need to prepare them for the world. But you’re right. Let parents deal with their sex-education. This is a girl’s school. No one’s going to get them pregnant here.


On the drive home, Suzy thought about the first video she’d found on Anil’s computer – the short clip of the girl dancing in her room, taking selfies in the mirror.Who was she taking them for? Didn’t she know photos like that wound up on the internet ruining lives forever?


Suzy had spotted the girl a few times more times around the complex. The first time, she was pushing a stroller with a little girl, possibly her sister, around the park. Suzy felt the blood rush to her face as she remembered the girl’s long legs and languid pace, the way her hair fell across her face every time she leaned over to tickle the baby.


The second time was worse. Suzy was standing in a queue at the local Durga Puja pandal, when she realised the girl was right in front of her, serving bhog. Suzy hadn’t recognised her at first because she was dressed in a sari. From the awkward way she kept adjusting her pallu, it seemed as if this was the first time she had ever worn one. She looked happy.


Suddenly, the image of her young, unformed breasts in a sports bra flashed in Suzy’s mind. She felt an inexplicable surge of jealousy. When the girl offered her a plate of bhog, Suzy turned  and walked away.



The next day, there was another email from Mr Pant waiting for her at school. 
Dear Mrs Nair

I spent a sleepless night thinking of our conversation yesterday. What did you mean when you said: ‘Children aren’t quite as innocent as they used to be’?

As the guardians of these girls, at least for the duration of the day when they are our responsibility, I feel we must learn to be more frank with one another. If there is something going on at Sherwood High that would reflect badly on its image, we must nip it in the bud immediately.

You must think me strange, for being so deeply affected by a casual remark you made, but rest assured, your words are always of utmost importance to me. In this case, I realised how intuitive you are: When I was learning to break horses in New Zealand, one of the first things I was taught was to start very young. Yearlings are harder to tame than weanlings, because they become easily distracted at the first sign of sexual maturity. The younger ones are easier to break – they have agile brains and they do not yet possess full adult strength. It is at this age that one must get them accustomed to the presence of a master.


I urge you to make a list of the girls you see openly flouting rules of decency. I shall deal with them. Together, we will groom them into thoroughbreds!


I trust you will keep this communication private for now. I shall see you at lunch to discuss this further. Our usual spot by the stable?


The bell rang almost as soon as Suzy finished reading the letter. The senior girls started filing in, smirking at her as they passed by. It made her want to scream. Instead, she closed the tab, picked up her bag and hurried out of the room.


Maybe there’s something to LP’s theory about horses, she thought.



By lunch, she had made a list of ‘indecent offences’. She couldn’t possibly put the names of all the girls that committed them down on paper, there were too many multiple offenders. The list included:

Chewing gum

Wearing make up

(Deliberately) Wearing black/ coloured bras under white school shirts
(Deliberately) Wearing shirts with missing buttons
Having water fights to turn white shirts transparent
Wearing skirts whose hemline does not touch the floor when asked to kneel
Taking provocative photos of each other on school premises
Sending each other text messages or other media with sexual content (during school hours)
Using abusive language (same as above)


Suzy sealed the list in an envelope and walked to the stable. There was no one around. She could hear the trees outside. It was a blustery day. ‘LP?’ she called out. ‘Mr Pant?’


She heard a soft whimpering behind the stable door. She pulled it open to find a first-year, lip quivering, her eyes darting about like wild beetles, frozen to the wall. Suzy was startled.


‘What are you doing here?’ she asked. No response.


‘Have you seen Mr Pant?’


The girl began to cry. It was as if a dam had broken inside her. She opened her mouth to say something, but all that came out were loud, gasping sobs.


All of a sudden, Suzy felt very afraid. It made her snap. ‘Go to the medical room and wash up,’ she said, then added in a gentler tone, ‘Go home after that. We’ll talk tomorrow.’


She walked to Mr Pant’s room. It was empty. She placed her list on the desk,and waited by the window, at his spot. Suzy usually sat on the leather armchair across the desk. She realised her view had been obscured all this while. Mr Pant’s window overlooked the school swimming pool.


When he walked in, she was still deep in thought. She heard him only when he ripped the envelope open, smiling at her as he pulled the sheet out. He seemed different. Suzy couldn’t quite put her finger on it.


‘Have you just come back from a run?’ she smiled.


The question appeared to upset him. His posture changed. He wiped his forehead first, with a handkerchief and then his mouth with the back of his hand. He dropped to his seat and drained a glass of water.


‘Why would you say such a thing Mrs Nair?’


Suzy was confused. She tried a different tack. ‘The strangest thing happened right now when I was looking for you. There was a girl in the stable.’


‘Did she say anything to you?’


There was no mistaking it this time. She’d never seen Mr Pant like this. His eyes were feigning nonchalance, but his body was stiff with attention. Suzy imagined she could almost see his ears move slightly in her direction.


‘Nothing at all, actually,’ she replied. He relaxed slightly.


‘Anyway, I made the list.’ It was her turn to sound annoyed. ‘So I’ll take your leave now, Mr Pant’



A week passed. Suzy hadn’t heard from Mr Pant. She was busy invigilating exams for the first year students. Anil had returned to his perambulations between the terrace and study, and she wanted to stay as far away from him as possible. It wasn’t healthy to monitor his whereabouts, to constantly want to know what he was doing.


On the last day of the exams, she decided to take a walk to the stable. She would ask Mr Pant if he’d like to join her. When she entered his office, it was full of men. Some were poring over what looked like a blueprint of the school, others setting up a wall of blackscreens in front of his desk.


‘Ah, she makes time for her humble admirer!’ Mr Pant beamed at Suzy as he walked in.


‘What is all this?’she asked.


‘My eyes, my dear. These are hundreds of glass eyes for the school.’


Suzy felt the room start to spin. Very slowly.


‘Are you alright, Mrs Nair? You women are such delicate creatures. Have a seat, have a seat.’He rushed and helped her into a chair.


‘It was your idea you know, my dear. ‘Can’t watch them all the time’, you said. I sleep so much better now that I finally can.’



Nishita Jha is a freelance journalist and New India Foundation Fellow. She is currently working on her first non-fiction book. She tweets at @NishSwish.