A Place to Love by Shinjini Kumar
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When Saurabh called from his office to tell Archana about the new flat on sale, she got herself ready in one of those practical salwar suits she had reserved for their frequent house-hunting trips. The places were normally dusty and Archana never failed to remind her husband of the effort it took to maintain a dust-free home in dusty Delhi.

 

Saurabh had been an obedient son of his parents who had funded his engineering education with provident-fund loans, and in due course considered it their desert to find a 'potential housewife' for their suitable son. The phrase meant a girl with the potential to work but willing to be a housewife and was the craze, at the time, in the marriage market of the Oriya Brahmin community.

 

After the marriage though, Saurabh had realised that the potential was not adequate for his wife to find a respectable job and as he had begun to enjoy home cooked Oriya food, something that he had been deprived of since leaving home at the age of seventeen, Archana had become what she thought of as 'just a housewife', but what Saurabh described proudly as a 'homemaker', like one of those gadgets which can knead, shred, peel, chop, mix, shake, churn, all at incredible speed and without getting confused!

 

Trips to property agents had become a regular part of the young couple's life, initially to find rented accommodation and lately, since Saurabh had joined a multinational company, to buy a flat and set up home, before the baby happened.

 

Rented flats were a nuisance as far as Archana was concerned. She liked to keep her house well and after all the effort she made in a flat, they had to move out, and it caused her heartbreak every time the movers damaged one of a set of perfect crystal glasses, leaving intact all the other odd glasses that had survived the previous move! In her own house, she could buy things that would be just the right size and co-ordinate the colours of the walls and tiles and do all those fancy things that she saw in magazines and American television serials. Besides, home loans were really coming cheap and for the amount of rent they were paying, they could afford the EMI on a decent flat.

 

While Archana was still dreaming of a nice, small, air-conditioned apartment to which she would bring her baby from the hospital, Saurabh honked outside. The inordinate delay in conception was beginning to irritate her, but the doctor was hopeful, and so was she. She nearly ran out on to the road.

 

They reached the property dealer's office and the agent got into their car. On the way, he kept chatting about the recent rise in property prices, the difficulty of finding freehold properties in CR Park and the merits of taking a quick decision, before one got priced out of the market. Saurabh focussed on driving, asking for directions whenever the road forked or fanged, which happened often.

 

They parked the car across from a greyish-brown building as directed. The stairway was narrow and turned more than twice. While the agent tried to open the big steel lock on the grill door of the apartment, Saurabh whispered in Archana’s ears, ‘Romantic stairway, what do you say.’

 

‘It will be so difficult to bring our furniture through this landing’ replied Archana matter-of-factly, sensing that the agent could hear the voices behind him.

 

The door opened into a small living room. The first thing Archana saw was the wide door ahead. She opened it, and they stepped on to a broad balcony, overlooking a narrow road lined with Jacaranda trees. Beyond the road was a playground, which seemed to be part of a school.

 

Archana could see a glimpse of the KaliBari temple in the brief, winter twilight and touched her hand to her forehead the way she did every time her eyes fell on any representation of one of the eighty million Hindu gods and goddesses, any mazaar of a Muslim saint and any church of any denomination. She thought catching sight of the temple was a good sign, especially since the conception of a baby now seemed to be more and more a matter of divine whim than of conjugal effort. Saurabh gently pressed her palm as soon as she opened her mouth; Archana had become adept at what not to say in the presence of an agent if bargaining power had to be retained and took the hint as subtly as it was given.

 

They walked back into the house, the agent first, Saurabh keeping pace with him and Archana moving slowly, taking in the extra detail of the woodwork, corners, ventilation, seepage. It was a small flat, two bedrooms, one and a half bathrooms, dining space, hall, balcony. And then, the kitchen. It was in the kitchen that Archana understood why she had that odd feeling from the moment she walked into the flat. It was not one of those sample flats that developers show you to lure you into putting your money in the neighbourhood of nowhere. It had furniture, the kind that is sold in Lajpat Nagar or Panchkuian Road, the kind you don't mind chipping and cracking during a move; three plus one plus one sofa, six-seater dining table, double bed and single bed, tv stand and a small stool on which sat a fat, wooden idol of Ganesha.

 

The property dealer had emphasised the 'complete woodwork' as a plus point and while Saurabh was finding fault with the quality of the laminate, Archana noticed a round decanter of nearly empty liquor, small bone china decorations that relatives normally bring from abroad and some shining wrappers of imported chocolate near the bed.

 

Even the bed looked crumpled, as if the person sleeping on it had suddenly walked out of the door, never to come back! The folds of the bedspread had been left undisturbed to collect dust and the pillow continued to lie in the middle, as if waiting for its occupant to come back with a glass of juice and a book, to rest her chest on the pillow and start reading.

 

But the kitchen! The kitchen was a kitchen at two pm, when the maidservant and the water are both expected at five pm. Food had been cooked and eaten and the dishes were piled in the steel sink, haphazardly, in a way Archana's dishes would never be, not even at two pm.

 

‘It was certainly a sloppy housewife, or a man living alone,’ she surmised. The counter top had not been wiped after cooking, the leftover food had dried all over the dirty dishes, on the counter were dried flakes of boiled rice, and a few cucumber slices, round and dried to perfection.

 

Archana opened the small fridge placed at the corner between the kitchen and the dining table. Her mind was now thinking more clearly and less languidly as unconsciously she began to piece together a life behind, the remains left so carelessly in the apartment.

 

A small fridge indicated a single occupant, although the dining table suggested a person given to socialising or having guests, just like Archana, who was fed up of her relatives from both sides forever descending on Delhi for job interviews, medical treatment, breaking journey on the way to Kulu-Manali, meeting political bosses and sometimes, simply out of love for her and Saurabh! The fridge had a ‘half-bread’ packet reduced to a quarter and some eggs. Despite being so empty, it was not a clean fridge. She wanted to pull out the vegetable tray and look, but just then Saurabh and the agent briskly walked out of the bathroom, where they had been checking the plumbing.

 

Archana quickly shut the fridge door. The dirty kitchen and the food in the fridge made her feel like she had done something wrong, prying into the house of someone she did not know.

 

Before leaving, when she took a last broad glance around the flat, it was funny that she was not thinking about the colour of the walls and where she would place her things once she moved in as she normally did. Instead, she was looking at the traces of the previous occupant. As soon as she spotted the picture of a pretty, young woman, placed carelessly on the lower shelf of the television trolley, Saurabh was done taking in the square-foot area and details of repairs required to make the house habitable, and the three of them left.

 

The stairway was dark and it seemed to Archana, too steep for a first floor. She must have been loud in her complaint, as the door on the ground floor opened and a fair, round-faced woman with a wide centre-parting opened the door of the ground floor letting in a generous slice of white light.

 

In the car, Archana asked why the flat looked so lived-in. The agent brushed aside the enquiry with a ‘they shifted to America’. When they reached the property dealer’s office, Saurabh indicated that he would be willing to buy the flat, if the papers were all right. It surprised Archana how naturally her husband had accepted what appeared to her to be so eerie and so fascinating. But when they were alone in the car, Archana was not the one to begin talking about the flat. It was Saurabh who remarked, ‘It’s funny that those people moved to America and did not bother to take their stuff. They could at least have sold it. Or given it away to relatives here.’

 

Archana felt like a miser having come upon a treasure; she did not want to part with her little discoveries. Yet, his words encouraged her to share her apprehension. ‘You know, I really felt scared. Did you see how ominous that little bathroom squeezed between the dining space and bedroom looked? I seriously had a feeling as if someone was killed there, strangled or…’

 

‘C’mon Arch. You can’t be serious. CR Park is such a small neighbourhood. Something like that would have made big news. You must be remembering that film, what was it called? Yes, Bhoot,’ Saurabh said, controlling his laughter.

 

‘You may say I am filmy, but you tell me why anyone will leave with dirty dishes in the sink? Or leave behind so many clothes? Did you look inside the wardrobes? And such nice clothes too. Besides, I don’t think you noticed that it was a woman living there. Anything could happen in this city to a single woman, or even to a married woman living alone…’

 

Archana could sense the amused, patronising look on Saurabh’s face and turned quiet. The car swerved sharply and stopped near the fish market. The couple got down in an unspoken pact of weekly fish buying. As she checked the blood inside the gills of the rohu, Archana wondered if the resident of the apartment had been a fish eater like her. It was strange – all her ruminations about the flat ended in blood-spattered walls or some nightmarish, nasty fight.

 

In a matter of a week, the flat was theirs – one big key for the iron grill door and another small, flat, round one for the wooden door with a little brass tortoise dangling from a dirty steel chain. ‘Of course, we will change all the locks for safety reasons,’ Saurabh assured Archana, subtly reminding her that he was mindful of her concerns. It also implied that all further thoughts on the subject would be discouraged. The matter was closed.

 

An auspicious day for the grihapravesh was set after three weeks, which was just enough time for them to get the flat cleaned and to do some minor repair with the woodwork. Saurabh had plans of redoing the woodwork, closing the small toilet and making a small laundry in its place, complete with washer, drier and shelves to store towels, bedspreads, napkins and other linen that now cluttered their wardrobe. Conservative in financial matters, he did not want to do everything at the same time. Besides, as long as the baby was not there, they did not need things like a drier or a nappy closet.

 

On the appointed day for cleaning, Saurabh dropped Archana, with a generous supply of buckets, dusters, brooms, old newspapers, hard and soft brushes, scrubbers, cleaning liquids and bottles of mineral water. As Archana made her way to the building, Saurabh warned her, ‘Be careful with the cleaning guys … leave the front door open and try and be in the balcony when those chaps are cleaning. I feel horrible leaving you by yourself, but this meeting came up suddenly. I’ll be back as soon as it is over … take care and don’t start dusting yourself … you’ll make yourself sick. Wait for me.’

 

Archana would have liked to have Saurabh around to deal with the workers when they came, but she felt an unexpected thrill at being alone in the flat. Folding her hands in the direction of the portly Ganesha and the Kali temple, she began to size up the flat. Although it was a small area, she did not underestimate the effort or time required to make it liveable. As she waited for the men to arrive, the presence of the previous occupant first knocked gently and then came to settle firmly on her mind.

 

At first, she felt eerie and frightened, but after she opened the balcony door and the sunlight splashed in, defining the contours of the drawing room objects, she felt stupid for letting her imagination run amok. Just to make a beginning, she started dusting the Ganesha statue. She had no doubt that she was going to throw away everything, except the Ganesha, for her upbringing did not allow her to disrespect a God who had come her way on his own! But she found herself saving other things when the four cleaning men arrived to pick up everything in the house, load it onto a truck and sell it as junk. Between the time the workers left and Saurabh came, Archana found herself sitting with a little pile of things she had saved up. She hurriedly threw them in the little beaded bag in which she had carried her lunch and hid it inside one of the cupboards they had decided not to replace.

 

In the last week of March, they had a neat and well-organised housewarming, where the group of guests consisting of Saurabh’s friends and Archana’s relatives, admired the couples’ taste and envied their luck in landing the perfect place so soon after they had begun the search.

 

Even before the mango leaves from the housewarming had dried, Saurabh’s company decided to send him to Europe on an assignment. Archana hated the idea of being alone. All the same, she did not want to leave the house locked just after they had invested so much money and time on it and decided not to go away to her in-laws’.

 

Summer evenings in Delhi have a funny quality of seeming never-ending and then ending suddenly. Archana reflected on how late it had got in the fish market, becoming aware of how much of the fish market smell she had wrapped in her fresh cotton sari. The stairway was dark as it always was around sunset. As she climbed hurriedly, she was assaulted by another, louder smell of tobacco. Before she had finished wondering if that was another one of the smells she had picked up while shopping, Archana collided with a man, whose profile was hardly visible. For a moment she could not decide whether to take care of her pallu, which had fallen off or the potatoes, which were tumbling over the stairs, or to shake herself free of the willing arms of the stranger, who seemed in no hurry to let go.

 

‘Sorry, my fault,’ she said, tearing herself away, ‘I would have turned on the light switch, but both my hands were occupied’.

 

‘My pleasure’ came the reply, ‘I got to make your acquaintance! I’m Ronnie, your top-floor neighbour.’ The man extended his hand, which Archana ignored, pretending to be picking up the vegetables and too embarrassed to look at the man in the face. A car honked outside and he left abruptly.

 

Archana felt angry that the man did not even have the courtesy to offer to carry her things to the house, something she felt sure Saurabh would have done in his place. But then, Saurabh would not have clung to a woman in the way this man had done. She made a mental note to be careful.

 

A few days later, when she had set the house in order, Archana remembered the packet hiding behind her expensive Benares and Bomkai saris. As it threatened to rain, she had decided against venturing out and guessed that she would have no visitors either.

 

With the mild excitement associated with making a forbidden discovery, she took out the packet and emptied its contents all at once onto her dresser. There was an envelope from a credit card company addressed to Rupali Mishra, a telephone diary with various phone numbers, some in pencil, some in ink and some shabbily scrawled with highlighter. There was no proper order to the names or phone numbers, which was not the way Archana would have ever maintained a phone diary. It defeated the very purpose of keeping one. But she found it charming and decided to keep it. Then, she went over the rest, pleasantly surprised whenever she could make a connection with Rupali’s past and hurriedly picking up the next item that seemed related.

 

The story that she pieced together was of a gorgeous girl, who shared Archana’s maiden name, Mishra, but nothing else. Whereas Archana had a plain face, with a nose too big for her slender features, Rupali seemed near perfect, tall, fair, fashionably slim. She worked at an advertising agency in GK, not too far from where they lived, and had certainly ordered pizza frequently. She must have also been rich, because there were at least four invitations to gold card memberships and, she had owned her flat at such a young age.

 

Every additional bit of information thrilled Archana, but she could not resolve the mystery of such a seemingly smart woman, suddenly disappearing, leaving a property dealer to sell her flat. She could not tell what she had expected, a threat letter from the property dealer maybe, or signs of a battered woman behind the pretty face framed in curls. The lack of drama was reassuring in a way. Involuntarily, she raised her eyes towards the temple and vaguely bent her head in thankfulness that no bad omen had tumbled out.

 

Then, she tried to get into one of Rupali’s dresses that she had saved. The dress itself was stylish, floral, soft-textured with a boat neck that could be pulled down to reveal a shoulder. Feeling like a thief in her own lonely house, Archana put the dress on and looked at herself in the mirror, full length, front and then sideways. She was plump for it and it took some effort and the stretch of the lycra for her to fit into it. She looked quite ridiculous and would not want anyone to see her in it. Yet, she liked herself. She opened the large hair clip at the nape of her neck, and ran her fingers through her hair to spread it on her shoulders. First on one and then on both and then again, on one, tucking the other side behind her ears. She rummaged through her drawer to find a lipstick to match with the dress, but she had none. Archana’s colours were pastel browns. The dress was peach with delicate pink flowers. Anyway, she put some lipstick on and once again ran her fingers through her hair to puff it over her forehead. Her legs were not waxed. Archana did not wear skirts or dresses, either in her provincial women’s college in Orissa or after her marriage to Saurabh, who preferred her in saris. She slipped one of her shoulders out of the dress and tried to cover her fat upper arms with a strand of hair; she did not mind what she saw. She smiled at herself and decided that before Saurabh came back, she was going to lose weight and get her legs waxed. She folded her hair up to her ears to check if a shorter haircut would look better on her. Archana continued to wear the dress, trying one lipstick after another, sandals, shoes, jewellery, purses, whatever came into her head. She realised she had been at it for long time, when her reflection, with which she had already fallen in love, began to look unclear and grey and she needed to turn the light on. It was time for the cook to come. Hurriedly, Archana restored herself to her usual look, smiling inwardly at the thought of the shock the cook would get if she saw her as she had been.

 

For the next few afternoons, this became her routine. She tried to eat less, so that the dress would not hug her slightly protruding stomach and tried to stretch the fabric sideways. It did not help, but to her eyes, every day she looked closer to Rupali.

 

She wanted to talk to someone about Rupali. Somehow, she had not been able to befriend any of the neighbours in the building. They all seemed so self-absorbed; the elderly Bengali lady, living with her maid servant and seven cats, the couple who had newly arrived from Kerala had language problems, and the gentleman she had collided into, none of them were the kind with whom the subject could be casually approached. She had tried the maid and the cook, but they had showed an unusual proclivity for non-interference with the mysterious, young women living alone. It made her feel small, but not small enough to give up.

 

One evening, after the cook had left and she had finished an early dinner, she sat running through the untidy phone diary of Rupali. There were useful numbers of medicine shops, pizza delivery, grocery store, gym, beauty parlour and then there were numbers with names to them – Pinki, Nishi, Deepayan, Bubbli…. The more she read, the more intimidated she felt with the idea of calling one of the people behind those names. What would she say? ‘Hi Pinki, I’m a friend of Rupali and want to know what happened to her?’ How silly would that be? She almost gave up. Then she chanced upon an invitingly written number, scrawled boldly with a pink highlighter, with no name. Without allowing herself further thought, she just dialled. A male voice answered, ‘Hello … hello … hello.’ Archana was breathless and put the phone down.

 

She called the number the next day and again, after a couple of days. On the last day, she brought herself to say, hello, but no further. This time, she got a call right after she put her phone down. ‘Hello, I am Ronnie Saxena and I’ve received a few calls from this number. May I know who I’m talking to?’ It sent a small shiver down Archana’s spine to think that she was all alone at home and talking to a strange man. It also excited her that the person on the other end was Rupali’s friend, maybe her boyfriend, maybe her lover. Taken by surprise, she blurted out, ‘I’m Archana Mahapatra and I got your number from Rupali Mishra’s diary. Actually, we’ve bought the flat that Rupali lived in.’ She had no idea what she was going to say next.

 

Thankfully, she was interrupted by the man on the other end, ‘Oh, I’m so glad I got your name finally. Lucky me, again. Remember you did not introduce yourself when we met on the staircase? Why don’t you come over sometime? It would be nice to know your neighbour, wouldn’t it?’

 

Archana did not like the intimate tone of the invitation, but she felt an unfamiliar exhilaration run through her. She told herself that she was being silly. The man on the stairway had looked old, close to fifty. Surely he had a wife and kids at home. The conversation ended abruptly, but Archana ran into Ronnie on the stairway a lot more than she used to. The small, abrupt conversations and hesitant invitations soon turned into full-fledged coffee visits and eventually into a passionate affair.

 

Archana cherished all the small discoveries that she made about Ronnie, that he was a bachelor, a chain smoker who resolved to quit on the first day of every month, worked in a garment export company, had rented the top floor for the last seven years or so, gave parties on the terrace, kept lovingly groomed plants, rare cacti and common chandni in an artistically careless design, had a handsome face accentuated by his fine sense of dressing and his manner of speaking, slowly, deliberately, caressing every word before it left his mouth.

 

In his presence, Archana felt acutely aware of her lack of style and beauty, but it flattered her that someone like Ronnie should take so much interest in her. She had not been prepared for it and had told herself that she was imagining things. But there was no mistake. Ronnie made her feel beautiful and glamorous and she had discovered things about herself she never thought existed. She cut her hair, lost weight, bought new dresses, discovered that she had a beauty spot in her underarm, which Ronnie found very sexy, but which had Saurabh had not noticed.

 

Archana looked forward to each day of this thrilling newness of her life, embellishing it with care and near breathless excitement. The time that she had spent perfecting the folds of her husband’s office shirts and matching socks and ties was now spent on trying out clothes, heels, makeup, wines, slim cigarettes, lip liners, prettier and bolder, one at a time.

 

She was so immersed in living Rupali’s life that she even forgot about Rupali.

 

It did bother her sometimes that she was a married woman. She tried to foresee what would happen to her affair when Saurabh came back. But the thought, forced and contrived, was as incongruous as thinking about winter clothes in summer. It hardly felt like her life anymore. Was this Archana Mishra, reclined in her bed, with a pillow across the centre, her waxed legs criss-crossed and bare, the ashtray on the headboard with cigarette butts of yesterday and the bedroom rug dusty from Ronnie’s work shoes, which he insisted on wearing right to the bed, unlike Saurabh’s clean Brahmin habit of taking off his shoes at the door of the house?

 

Neither of them had deliberately avoided talking about Rupali. It had just happened.

 

Then, one day, Ronnie walked in a little before usual. He found Archana reclining on the floor of the living room. In the background, the Kali Temple stood out against the fluorescent pink and orange sky that was merging with the grey shades of the September evening. She had, in front of her, the beaded bag with all its contents scattered, and was intently looking at a photograph of Rupali in a strapless top and a flowing silk skirt in green and purple. Archana was wearing a similar skirt in turquoise and royal blue with scattered zardozi work.

 

As she reclined on two fat pillows, her soft stomach fell to one side of her and exposed some flesh. Ronnie moved forward, but stopped at the sight of Rupali’s picture. ‘Did you know Rupali before you bought the house?’

 

‘Oh, no, as a matter of fact, when we came to the house, it had already been abandoned,’ said Archana with a hint of mystery. She began to shove things back inside the bag. Ronnie’s hand on her exposed midriff distracted her and she pushed the photograph under the couch. They made love on the tidy, polished, expensive marble floor, of which her husband was so proud.

 

Afterwards, as Archana came back from the kitchen with two cups of instant coffee, she found Ronnie looking at the picture of Rupali with an indulgent grin. She felt a jab in her stomach. She wanted to throw the tray on his face and stand there to watch the milky, steaming coffee run down his handsome cheeks and into his eyes staring at the bare-shouldered Rupali.

 

Archana managed to put the coffee on the table, but her words poured like hot coffee on Ronnie’s handsome cheeks, ‘Of course, YOU knew Rupali before we bought the house?’

 

He was taken aback at the concentrated jealousy in Archana’s voice. As he looked at the two women, one framed, the other alive, Ronnie felt tempted to lie and make a story about a passionate affair with Rupali, for the sake of Archana. But it was the truth that he spoke, ‘Oh, yes, we were neighbours for three years. I even helped her bag some good accounts. But that girl was a tough nut to crack! Guess what, she just left one afternoon to marry a stranger in Canada arranged by her brother, left just like that – what a traditional girl!’

 

Archana felt sick. With great effort, she walked up and opened the balcony door, which Ronnie had shut during their lovemaking. The evening had quietly and predictably turned into night and the night was sedate and vulnerable, with the lights of the Kali Temple giving it a markedly holy definition. It was too late for the evening prayers, when she bowed her head in the direction of the temple, responding intuitively to the shrill sound of the conch shell. Remembering the idol of Kali, she asked to be forgiven for having missed the prayer. Then, she turned to Ronnie and spoke, one word at a time, ‘Saurabh is coming back next week. I think it will be better if we do not see each other at all, ever.’

 

The idea of Saurabh, which had not whispered through their relationship surfaced unexpectedly. Surprisingly, it did not jar, but comforted them both. Ronnie put the coffee mug down, on the tray, and moved up to Archana. In his most polished, soft voice, he said, ‘I’ll miss you, Archana. But if that’s the way you want it, I’ll try.’

 

Ronnie shut the door behind him. Archana felt she needed a blanket, so cold were her hands, her ears and even her scalp. Her whole body shivered as she covered herself and cried without letting herself think anything at all. By midnight, she felt a sudden surge of energy and she took out her big scissors to begin shredding what was left of Rupali’s things, and the cards that Ronnie had given her. She remembered to keep the back of the card on her side, with the price and the copyright information, which made the whole exercise clinical and painless. Little notes from Ronnie that she had treasured were all subjected to the same fate. By morning, she was tired enough to fall asleep.

 

Archana spent the next week preparing the house for her husband. The scrubbing and cleaning and washing of curtains and upholstery, the stocking of the fridge with Saurabh’s favourite fish dishes were all invested with a ritual meaning for her.

 

Saurabh arrived on the day of Mahalaya, the first day of the Durga Puja. The ten-day festivities kept the couple in a state of mild intoxication and hectic activity. Everyone called to greet them on Puja and refused to put the phone down without all the details of Saurabh’s first foreign trip. Many of their acquaintances came home and shared the traditional Puja buffet with Swiss cheeses and chocolates.

 

By the end of Puja, Archana was exhausted and looked visibly ill. It was ascribed to fatigue and everyone advised her to slow down. When things did not improve, the couple went to see the doctor. The doctor gave the couple the good news that they were going to be parents. As Archana could not remember the date of her last period, the doctor vaguely determined it to be ten days this side or that of Mahalaya.

 

*


Shinjini Kumar has held senior positions at Paytm, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Reserve Bank of India and Bank of America Merrill Lynch. She studied English Literature (Delhi University), Journalism (Times Center for Media Studies, Delhi) and Public Policy (LBJ School, UT Austin, Texas). Starting from her little village in Bihar, Shinjini has called Delhi, Bangalore and Austin home, before settling down in Mumbai with her poet-professor husband and their two sons, whose irreverence is a deep inspiration.