by Kiran Jhamb
(Nagpur (Maharastra) India)
They had all come back from the community hall. The red sky was turning to grey. There she stood - her straight back conveying the feeling of freedom. Perhaps she was enjoying the evening air, the conversation with the couple she was bidding good bye to. Her hand was on the handle of the closed car door. Her friend Meera and sister Kalapna, who stood near the staircase, waiting for her, exchanged an eloquent 'she-shouldn't' look. Her standing and talking like this could prove scandalous. But she seemed to be throwing a challenge to the whole world, "Don’t you dare to question me."
She was sick of sitting with her head bowed down, surrounded by all those female relatives. From where had they turned up? She couldn't even name some of them. She wanted them to shut up. She wanted to get away from those deliberately subdued voices that were in fact eager for a bit of drama. The mattress had been hard. Her knees and neck were aching. On a normal day at this time she would still have been in the school teaching her last class. She wanted normalcy to return. It was all over.
It was all over."Free! Free, free,” she wanted to chant. But for appearance's sake she had to keep her eyes down. What if they read the expression in them! That's why she had her back toward them - the brigade waiting to condole her, commiserate with her. In a moment she would adjust her expression and turn and merge in the clan enjoying their conditional support.
There were things in life to be grateful for - like no one can read your thoughts. The thirteen days of mourning were over. From tomorrow the hordes of relatives, who had descended, would start retuning to from wherever they had come. She was planning to rearrange the furniture, cupboards, her memories, finances. Yes, finally the reins will belong to her. She would ignore his mother's disapproval. The old harridan had no hold over her now.
He was gone. Forever. Long ago she had picked up another word beginning with a 'p' to describe her patiparmeshwar. She called him the parasite - she never uttered the word, just repeated it silently. Husbands are trees that give you shelter had been explained to her as a girl. "Keep fast on Mondays," her grandmother had cajoled her, “if you want to get a good husband." The girlish fancies had given a glow to her nebulous dreams. But the parasite had thrived on her labour, sucking her dreams, her life.
What a catch he had been! Her parents were bowled over by his looks, status, and qualification. She had allowed herself to be awed by them, trained herself to look up to him like they said. He had very cleverly made sure that’s where she remained – on her knees looking up to him - for everything, every penny. Her salary was 'white money' so every rupee was used to pay off the different loans that he had taken from the banks.
Mohan gave her all the things that wives yearn for, that money can buy but not respect. She made social appearances by his side on all the proper occasions. They had the mandatory child - a son by her good fortune; that was the only time she had really pleased him and he had strutted like a cock with panache. She brought the baby up. It was her duty. He had bestowed his name to the child and his duty was done. Over the years, at times he remembered to be proud of his son Monal because Monal proved his virility, added to his sense of well-being, his macho image and satisfied his primeval desire of continuity of his line. This attention always confused Monal because he could never be sure of his place in his father’s life. Either petted and pampered when the father had time and inclination or ignored for days, months. Earlier she had watched him helplessly but gradually her helplessness had turned to a simmering resentment.
Now her Sundays will be her own. No more streams of visitors and “Sarita, chai laana.” She had this fetish for lovely crockery and never allowed the maid to wash the china. Anyway maids also oblige you by taking a holiday on Sunday and rub it in that they were being considerate by not wasting your C.L. Her Sundays used to be synonymous with sink. Carrying trays of teacups, snacks, playing the gracious ' bhabhiji' and washing crockery summed up all the Sundays of her married life. “I am earning for you and Monal” was the surprised, irritated cannot-you-understand explanation. The tapping of the typewriter's keys, his lawyer, his diwanji, the bundles of files gathering dust, delayed meals - all had turned her indifferent to him. Will she miss him? She doubted. Time will tell.
Years ago she had realized she couldn't walk out of her marriage. He would hire the most expensive lawyer and
make sure that she never saw her son again. This had held her back. He never used physical violence. Emotional scars are not visible, their ugliness does not lead to public shame even if you shrivel up inside. That everything is fine has to be believed if you want to get up from your bed every day. He felt he had to control her and she had allowed herself to be controlled. That’s a wife’s duty, had been drilled into her. But it left her wanting, dissatisfied - hankering for something which gleamed and beckoned from far away. At times his exasperation with her was palpable. His refrain was, “You are strange, abnormal. You are a difficult woman. It's because you are well provided for, you have all these foolish longings. Listen to me - I see enough of families, relationships, transactions in the court to know that one needs money - only money to be happy. You and your imagined woes!"
“Maa, leave my things alone in future. Why did you open my almirah?" Her eyes had widened the day Monal had spoken to her harshly, holding his anger barely in check, obviously tempted to use her as a punching bag for whatever had upset him because that's what he had seen his father doing. What happened to all her mothering? He had become his father incarnate. Ultimately he had taken his father's advice not to let his mother turn him into a sissy and decided to be a man. The grandmother had silently been cheering him on, grooming him on the lines Papa-knows-the-best. He is six feet tall now - ready to be a sheltering tree. Will she have to watch another young girl being smothered?
Last month Mohan had announced, "I am going to Delhi for that Khanna property case. If I'm able to pull it off there will be enough money for your darling son’s wedding from the deal only. I've liked that girl's photograph which Harish has sent. We'll take the matters forward when I return from Delhi?” She knew this questioning tone was just pretence of consulting her. But he had never returned.
Despite all his bravado, his posturing, he had been a very insecure, frightened man. Full of poojas and daans, he was afraid of listening to the warnings which his body had been giving. “Wife and son are full of nonsense. Visit a doctor. Huh! The doctors are always glad to prescribe tests." What if the doctors confirmed his fears? He was convinced of his strong will power. The pains were nothing. He would take Eno. It was gas. “You’ve become a very careless cook. Make something light for me!" and of course, the daily quota of two pegs helped him relax.
In the end she had to go to Delhi. Sitting in the hospital ward, listening to the discussions between the doctors and Monal and his uncle, she felt strangely distanced, detached. It had nothing to do with her. They will take the decision. She watched him lying in the bed and listened to the sounds of various instruments attached to him and wondered had she really spent twenty seven years with him? Twenty-five is a quarter century - more than a quarter century and yet she felt nothing! Oh, no, she felt guilt tor not feeling anything. May be she was difficult, strange and abnormal. They had brought him back in a special coffin.
Death can be quite shocking at close quarters. The wailing and weeping, the pitying glances, the hidden gloating of less affluent relatives had stunned her. Every relative told her how shocked he/she was and how they had come as quickly as they could. Now they were making the best of this enforced break from routine. Proper words floated all around her. “God has been kind to you. You have a grown up son. He would manage everything for you."
No, no she would not be managed. She was fifty. She would spend her life as she wanted. She would no more be a mute spectator. She would no more have to wait at meal times, arrange her days to suit his routine, to be at his beck and call twenty-four hours, seven days. She would not have to walk in someone's shadow. She was not going to allow even her own son to be that someone. She will let him live his life his way but will allow him no control over her. In one’s life only past is definite – future consists only of possibilities. She will take out her taanpura. She will enroll for driving lessons. She will join Spoken English Classes.
She let out a deep breath, allowed her shoulders to droop and walked back to where Meera and Kalpana stood waiting for her. She was ready to be caged for the time being with the key hidden in her fist. She will bide her time. She will escape the cage. No hurry - the flight will be there, soon. *************