The Changed Spots
by Kiran Jhamb
He looked at the large framed photograph on the wall. As usual she was smiling. To his prejudiced eyes the garland around the photograph seemed to be slightly faded, though he had bought it only last month from an up market emporium. He could even detect a film of dust on the glass. He opened his mouth to call Neha to wipe it, but then restrained himself. He didn’t want Neha grumbling that he was obsessed with the photograph. Silently he conceded that there was a grain of truth in these grumblings.
He felt that she was their guardian angel - no harm could come to his family as long as she was smiling there benevolently. He had loved her. He had not married again. He had devoted his life to bringing up their children.
He was forty-seven. She had left him fifteen years ago. But still she was alive for him. Often looking at her photograph he talked to her and she smilingly listened and agreed with him, encouraged him telling him not to lose heart, to cheer up.
The family had moved to this locality ten years ago. The neighborhood ladies had never seen her. Often when they sat down for their gossip sessions, one or the other was bound to remark on the luck of the lady in the photograph. “I wish I too could be sure that my husband will worship me like hers does. If Viraj was to assure me of such devotion, I am ready to die this very moment”, the incurable romantic Mrs. Khanna always declared dramatically. Little did she know how difficult it is to die.
Even Mrs. Agarwal, who was otherwise full of her commissioner brother, was propelled to add, “Well, yes. She did her M. Sc. from Miranda House - MIRANDA!”The audience was suitably impressed. “And she was teaching in the prestigious Khandelwal Public School. She must have been one hell of a bahu (daughter-in-law). Even the old MIL - how old she must be? Must be in her seventies - always praises her. It seems she was a good housekeeper, a devoted daughter-in-law and a good wife. Here, we work for all the god damned hours of the day and not a word of praise from anyone. My MIL will see me dead rather than acknowledge that I can work.”
“I think such a nice loving man should be handed over to our Renuka. Time is running out for her. This way our waning beauty will get readymade children too, without spoiling her figure,” laughed Mrs. Soni.
He could hear their raised voices. He knew what had prompted this spate of comments. He had gone out for a moment in the balcony and unintentionally become the focus of their attention. He was a romantic figure to them. He was good looking in his own way, and what woman worth her name is able to ignore a single man without imagining him prostrate at her feet, or pairing him off with someone of her choice.
He was not interested in their speculations. They all thought alike - even his old Mother had wanted him to remarry. But he had not been able to find one who could fill the void left by her - she had been so different. Instead, he had devoted his life to the three children she had left behind. He had been a mother and father to them. They were his reason for living - otherwise, he would have joined her long ago.
At times, while sitting he still felt her hand on his shoulder demanding his attention. She had been very possessive. He had not understood her compulsion. She must have been aware of the briefness of the time they were to have together. But then he had been too busy being a good son, listening to his mother - another overprotective lady. These women are really a possessive lot. Now look at his eldest daughter Neha. Even she cannot stand it if for a short while his attention wanders to something or someone else.
There were days, even now, when at night he found it difficult to sleep. At the time, doctors had treated him for depression, and over the years he had shrugged himself out of the habit of taking sleeping pills, but now and then he needed to drug himself to suppress the haunting memories.
For the first two years of their marriage, they had been blissfully happy - it had been a long honeymoon. His parents had pressurized him to get himself transferred to the hometown. She had agreed willingly because she had believed that parents have a right to ask for their grown up children’s company in the old age.
To date, he had not been able to pinpoint the moment when things had started changing. He sighed. He shied away from opening these wounds. They were still raw. A lifetime was needed for them to heal. The skin on them was still tender. No, he would not go over the old grounds again - with difficulty he had buried the ghosts.
Instead, he would concentrate on Neha’s carrier. He must convince his mother to let her pick the job with airlines even if it involves travelling. She must be allowed to spread her wings - not be suffocated as
her mother had been. He would think about the twins. They had been mere toddlers when she died. Rohit wanted to be an engineer and Rhea wanted to be an architect. Yes, yes. He would think about his finances, about the bank schemes which finance education. He would not think about her. He would go mad otherwise. He had to remain sane for his children’s sake.
Suddenly he was afraid to look at the framed photograph. The glass glinted in the glare of the late afternoon sun. A red haze had covered the sky. The glinting glass seemed to project some foggy ugly figures. He won’t look at them. They had no place in his life. They were not part of his life.
Rhea came running into the house like a tornado. She was upset - it was evident from her face, “Liars, liars - they are all liars,” she screamed.
“I will kill them, Papa. What do they think they are? They think they can say anything about anyone. A Stupid female! Idiot! I won’t leave her.”
“Calm down Rhea,” he soothed her, “What happened?” but she was too angry and weepy to make much sense. Listening to the commotion, Neha too came into the room. Rhea flew to her sister and agitatedly started telling her what the new arrival Mrs. Kohli of House No. 5 was telling the ladies about them.
Outside, the women were busy digesting the juicy bits. Mrs. Kohli was regaling her spellbound audience with the gory details, “Yes, yes. The one I saw standing in that balcony - if you believe he is a good man then do believe I am the Miss Universe. I know him very well. He works in BHEL, doesn’t he? That witch - his mother - is she still alive? Oh God! How he used to beat his poor wife! Seeing her bruised and battered used to make me feel ashamed that we couldn’t help her - after all it was their family matter. I used to tell her to leave him. But she couldn’t cut herself off from her kids. That bitch of his mother- she used to carry tales to him. And later in the evening you could hear raised voices and her screams. He used to beat his wife like a washerman beats the clothes. They said she poured kerosene over herself and committed suicide. But I don’t believe a word of it. Anyway what does it matter whose hand lighted the fire - his or hers? He had brought her to the verge where it did not matter. In her dying declaration - she changed it twice you know - she absolved him, saying it had been an accident. She wanted him there for the sake of kids. What we women sacrifice for our kids!”
“Didn’t she have a family to run to?” Someone asked.
“Oh, she was earning. Yes, her family was there - dilly-dallying, sometimes threatening him to behave properly and sometime counseling their daughter to be patient, submissive. They did pursue the case - to save face, who knows? He and his parents were convicted for abetment to murder. Then they appealed to the high court or rather lined the pockets of the judges. The case lingered on. That is why he couldn’t remarry. By now the kids must be all grown up. Three of them, aren’t they?”
The frozen tableau inside the house was coming to life again. Neha was struggling with traumatic faint memories. She had been at nursery school when abruptly she had been packed to a hostel in the middle of the term. Suddenly the disturbing nightmares of her childhood gained sense - she had no need to look at the pale face of her beloved father to confirm that what Mrs. Kohli was saying was indeed true. She had had the story bit by bit from various people and as generally happens in such cases each time it was a different version - version or aspect? But now the truth was there for her to see. He seemed an alien.
All his careful planning, his attempts to kick traces, to protect his children came to nothing. He felt naked in the presence of his children, who looked accusingly at him. She was still smiling in her ornamented frame - with triumph - it seemed to him. Her revenge was complete. The disclosure had soured his relationship with his children for ever. “You selfish bitch”, he snarled, “couldn’t you have kept our dirty linen private? Why did you announce your wrongs to the world? You were always selfish - you always thought of yourself. You didn’t think of the children!” He picked up a paper weight from a nearby table and threw it at the photograph with all his might. The sadist in him came to the fore. If he could have got his hands on her now he would have wrung her neck for the hell she had consigned him to forever while she sat smiling in her photograph. He was the victim not she. She had had that easy way out. He hated her afresh. A leopard cannot change his spots.
The tinkle of the shattered glass echoed in the room. The echoes of the past sooner or later always manage to swallow the present. ****