by Chitra Srikrishna
The balcony looked desolate. Most of the pots were broken. Meena felt a pang when she saw the lone cactus plant in a corner bravely holding up. Waves of guilt swept over her. "I don't have a green thumb!" she muttered whenever visitors happened to peep into her balcony. The words sounded pitiful even to her own ears and sometimes she imagined the withering plants looked at her with accusation. Was she losing it? It was Ram who had bought the cactus anyway, so why did she care?
Meena had had an arranged marriage. Her father was a staunch believer in astrology and matching horoscopes. Her mother had only one thing on her mind - that her daughter didn't end up an old spinster. An only child, Meena had been cossetted and brought up by two over-zealous adults whose lives largely centered around her. When the alliance was suggested things moved rapidly. Ram had met her at a restaurant. He was duly chaperoned by his sister and brother-in-law. Meena's parents who had come with their daughter were uncomfortable with the strange condition put forth by Ram that they meet outside the home.
"Why don't I order some snacks and coffee for everyone?" Ram set everybody at ease. Soon enough Meena's father was digging into his vegetable cutlets and her mother was trying hard not to gawk at the opulent decor in the tea room of the five star hotel.
"My brother's one in a million" Ram's sister suddenly announced during a brief pause in the conversation. "Appa wanted to get him married earlier but anna was keen to finish his doctoral studies at Oxford. I supported him – he means everything to me!" She gave him a look bordering on adoration while her husband seemed to engage in a quiet conversation with the waiter.
Meena felt a shiver down her spine when she heard the other woman speak. Was that an omen?
She knew her parents had approved of Ram as her mother hadn't stopped smiling. The lines on her father's forehead had magically disappeared. 'I bet the stars have aligned favourably for both of us - that's all that matters to appa' she thought.
The night before her wedding Meena's mother had lovingly taken out the jewellery and saris from the old almirah and placed them on the bed.
"Amma, are you going to miss me?"
"Meenu, see how this red sari looks on you. And the ruby and emerald set would go well with the sari..."
"Amma, how are you going to cope with appa? His diabetes, your arthritis..."
"Perhaps this sari would look better in the morning rather than the evening reception?"
Her mother was on a roll and hadn't sensed Meena's anxiety. Que sera sera.
The wedding was a riotious affair. Ram had grown up in a joint family and seemed to have cousins in all shapes and sizes. Meena felt dizzy just hearing their names, the official ones and the monikers. The escapades of some made her laugh.
"Seems a lively lot, I couldn't have hoped for a better family for you!" murmured Meena's mother in an aside during the ceremony.
The day after the wedding a nervous bride stepped her new home. Meena's mother-in-law had a forbidding look on her face as she did the arathi. Meena looked around carefully. The living room had Ram's pictures displayed prominently in which he was holding some trophy or the other. Ram's father was busy ushering in his friends and signalling to the women in his family for refreshments.
The puja room was an eye-opener for Meena. She had witnessed her father's communion with the pictures of Hindu deities every morning but this seemed to be on a whole different level. The Sri Chakra placed prominently in the center caught her eye. "This is amma's domain" Ram whispered to her before they parted - he to the living room and she to the kitchen. It seemed to set a pattern for the next few days. The only time Meena got some quality time with her husband was after the family retired for the night. By the time Ram came to their room, she would be sound asleep.
Once he had decided to turn in early and had caught Meena by surprise. The giggles that erupted from the room upstairs sounded strange in the sprawling bungalow that night. The young couple were lost in their own world and didn't hear the sound of someone calling out.
“Anna, anna..” The shrill cry took
them unawares. When Ram rushed out of the room with his wife in pursuit the unfolding scene took on an unreal quality for Meena. Her sister-in-law was sitting on the living room sofa with a grumpy expression on her face. Ram's mother was patting her daughter's back and had in inscrutable expression on her face.
When she saw her son, she murmured quietly, "Why didn't you answer? You know she dotes on you..”**
"Aah..." Meena shrieked in pain as her mind swirled with memories from the past. She had stepped on a nail. She went to the bathroom to wash her feet all the time groaning in pain. As she limped back to the sofa, the doorbell rang. Hobbling across the living room she opened the front door and saw her husband.
"You came home early.."
"I wanted to surprise you."
She almost felt sorry for him as she realized how hard he was trying.
When he opened the brown packet that he was holding in his hand, the aroma hit her hard. Aah! Samosas..
"What we need now is a cup of khadak chai to go with that..." he briskly walked to the kitchen and filled up water in the kettle.
She observed him from her vantage point on the sofa. Was there a touch of grey in those strands? He had also put on a paunch. When his phone buzzed he didn't react. She looked at him puzzled. Whoever was calling seemed persistent.
He grimaced and picked up the phone.
"Let me call you back..." His curt tone made her realize who the caller was.
A lot of water had flown under the bridge. Her mother-in-law had passed away a couple of years ago after a virulent battle with cancer. Her father-in-law had grown feeble and could barely walk. For a long time Ram never understood why his wife and sister seemed at odds with each other until that fateful morning when everything changed...
Ram's parents had gone to the temple. The steaming idlis on the table made her mouth water. Meena was vociferously hungry and reached out to help herself to more idlis. But her sister-in-law closed the casserole with a determined snap announcing that the rest of the idlis were for her parents. Rolling her eyes Meena opened the fridge to see if there was more food.
Nada. Zilch. She patted her stomach and whispered. "There, there sweetie...I'll figure out a way".
As she was about to plug the toaster in the wall, her sister-in-law stopped her. "I need that plug point to grind something..."
"I'm hungry, you need to wait." Meena's sister-in-law acted as if she hadn't heard Meena and moved closer. If it wasn't so intolerable Meena would have laughed at her sister-in-law's silly antics.
Then the power went off plunging them both into darkness. Meena groped around trying to find her way back to the dining table. It was only a fraction of a second when she realized what was happening. In hindsight she knew her sister-in-law had deliberately stepped in her way pushing Meena to the floor. When Meena woke up she found herself on a hospital bed with an anxious Ram peering over her.
"The baby.." she trembled.
Tears welled in his eyes as he reached over to hug her. For the next few weeks Ram tried to get past the wall she had built around her. In a moment of madness, she had screamed at him and the truth had come tumbling out. The horrified look in his face made her feel triumphant for a few seconds.
Ram's sister had denied vehemently at first. “Your wife's a mad woman, she's trying to create a wedge between us”. But Ram was unrelenting as he had read the truth on his wife's face. His sister turned hysterical.
"I couldn't have a child and here she was brimming with happiness...anna, that's so unfair!" Ram had looked at his sister bewildered. Who was this woman? Was she the same girl who had lovingly carried his books every day from school? Something had snapped in him that day.
When Ram handed a cup of khadak chai to his wife, she looked at him expectantly.
"Hmm..the agency called. They want us to visit tomorrow...there's a baby girl looking for a home."
Meena looked into his eyes. She sensed his desperation and wanted so badly to hold onto him. When she slowly nodded her head, a warm cuddly feeling gripped his insides. They were going to make it after all. ***