The Second Choice5
By Lakshmi Menon
Though there was breeze outside it was very warm in the train. After having enjoyed the scenery till dusk, both Indu and Anu slowly slipped into sleep. By ten O’clock all the lights were off and the other passengers in the train were also asleep.
Pavithra covered both the girls with separate bed sheets. Indu was sleeping peacefully in her upper berth. Anu was resistant to go to the upper berth, as she had never travelled in an upper berth before. She had remembered only one journey in the train, which was when they left Bombay for good, following her father’s loss. Venu and Pavithra had their lower berths, but without making use of them, both of them were sitting up the whole night awake. They had almost forgotten to sleep. While Venu spoke she listened with utmost care. They had many things to talk about their own past than future, unlike any other newly married couple.
“Soumya bought a crib and material,” Venu began with a sigh “for little sheets and blankets and she stitched baby clothes with slow and neat stitches, with her loving hands. With all these, she waited for our baby’s arrival. I wanted her to be in Bangalore for her first delivery where more hospital facilities are available. But she insisted that if she did not go to her mother’s place as was the custom, her mother would be upset and people around would talk about them. As nothing untoward was expected, with her doctor’s permission, I escorted her home twenty days before her due date. I never knew it would be my ….. last send off….to Soumya.” He couldn’t talk further as though there was a lump in his throat.
Pavithra’s mind ached to console him, but her tongue refused to act. Occasionally she found herself sinking through her old memories also. After her marriage while she was going with Anand to Bombay for the first time, they had a hundred and one happy things to be discussed. The night she was talking all the time like a tape recorder.
“I never knew you had such a long tongue”, Anand teased her pinching her tenderly on her left ear.
Like a baby she had put her tongue out and asked him, “Is my tongue that big?”
They laughed merrily in the train oblivious to other passengers and their thoughts about the new couple. They were least bothered about their surroundings. One by one, many of their college days flashed through her mind.
There was a big mango tree in the College compound, foliated richly like a high umbrella. Pavithra used to go with a book and sit under the tree pretending to be busy reading. If there were no one around Anand would come like a thief without making any noise.
“The lonely bird is singing sad songs looking for the arrival of her mate.”
Seeing the mischievous looks of other classmates they would walk away in two different directions after a while communicating through their eyes that they would meet again.
As she was silent for some time, lost in her own world, Venu asked, “Are you sleepy, Pavithra? I’m sorry… I shouldn’t have bored you with my painful stories.”
“Not at all. Venu. I’m listening to you.” She suddenly came back to the presence.
She had no intention of discouraging him. “You may go on. Later I’ll tell you about Anu’s father too.”
She wanted him to tell her everything, so that his painful memories would be washed away from his mind to some extent, bringing relief into their new lives.
“You certainly don’t mind? Are you sure? Do you really mean it Pavithra?” he asked her again. She nodded her head.
“I waited impatiently each day, with a renewed spirit, for the happy news. Then finally I got a telegram informing me about the arrival of a baby girl, one week before her due date. My heart gave a jump of relief. You know how Anand would have felt when he got the news of Anu’s birth? You can imagine….. I wished I had wings to fly away to Soumya’s side, to see the blossom of our love… That first feeble cry….. those first gentle touches…. The flicker of a smile on a cherubic face….. I’ve become a father! A highly momentous occasion in my life, an exciting moment to remember!”
Venu became too emotional and excited as he spoke about his newborn baby.
Pavithra decided to divert his attention, with a question.
“Did you really want a girl baby?”
“Yes, I wanted……a girl baby like my Soumya. I had even chosen the name for her, before Soumya left for delivery. But Soumya longed for a son. ‘I want a boy baby just like you.’ Soumya had said several times.”
“I distributed sweets to my friends. ‘I have become a father.’ I shouted happily at the top of my voice. I had no patience to wait. That very day I applied for leave and rushed home. I went straight to the hospital for I knew how much Soumya would be looking forward to seeing me. A satisfied woman, fulfilling all our desires…..” He again relapsed into silence. After drawing a deep breath he continued.
“To my great surprise I found her mother standing and sobbing in the veranda of the maternity ward!
“What’s the matter, mother?” I asked her in disbelief. ‘Instead of rejoicing at this occasion what’s upsetting her,” I wondered. My anxiety grew further when she did not utter a word, but instead was sobbing heavily.”
He paused as if events of that ill-fated day came back to him quite clearly. His eyes were full. He wiped away his tears with his handkerchief and then continued,
“ How’s our baby? How does she look?’ I asked her impatiently. Oh, God! Has anything happened to our child….? My heart missed a beat. Then came her reply.
“The baby… the baby….is fine.” My mother-in-law muttered between her sobs.
“Then what’s the problem? I couldn’t think of anything else. Was Soumya upset for not getting a boy baby? Silly girl! A ray of doubt flashed through my mind Were they unhappy for not getting a son as she had wished? I wanted to clarify my doubt with my mother-in-law.
Instead of answering my questions she continued to weep more bitterly.
“What is the matter, mother?” I became more anxious. “How’s Soumya? Is everything alright with her?” I was panicky.
My mother-in-law burst out crying. I was totally confused. What happened to my Soumya? I asked her again and again. My mother-in-law said nothing to my repeated questions; that puzzled me. By the next moment she was shaken by heavy sobs. Her sobbing grew more and more convulsive. Without wasting time, I stormed into the duty nurse’s room.
“Your wife is still unconscious. Doctors are trying their best,’ said the nurse and hurried to the next room. I forgot about the baby. I didn’t bother to see the little face I had eagerly waited to see all these days. For the first time I called out all the names of God I could remember and prayed fervently. If something happens to my Soumya….! Oh, my God! I couldn’t imagine.”
The doctors came out of Soumya’s room.
‘How’s Soumya, Doctor? I’m Venu, Soumya’s husband.’ I almost wept.
There was not a gleam of happiness on their faces. I begged them to save her life at any cost.
‘She may survive, but…..’ the tall senior doctor stopped abruptly. I looked at him helplessly wanting to know what he was hiding from me.
‘For some unknown reason she’s likely to be paralysed for her life,’ a voice said. ‘It happens very rarely.’
I closed my eyes, and felt all colour drain away from my face. Stunned, I stood there like a rock.
‘We’re sorry, Mr. Venu.’ The doctors said in one voice.
There was nothing I could say. When I pictured Soumya as a cripple I wished the world would come to an end. All the threads of the dreams that we had woven together scattered in my mind. Our lives would never be the same again. I was sure.
My dear Soumya lying as a cripple! What a cruel fate! What a gem of a woman is my Soumya! So generous and so kind-hearted. Such an angelic woman!
What’re we punished for?
The doctors were correct. Soumya regained consciousness after two days, but….” Venu stopped abruptly as if he saw a ghost.He wiped his tears with the handkerchief and gazed through the window. The train was gaining momentum. All the passengers were asleep. Pavithra felt terribly guilty for not being able to console him. Soon she became aware that her eyes were also wet.
Five minutes later Venu resumed talking.
“Soumya was paralysed completely on her right side and partially on her left side.” After a pause, he continued, “After a month’s hospitalisation we didn’t find any improvement in her. We took her to an ayurvedic physician whom my mother-in-law’s friend recommended. He too didn’t give us any hope. Leaving everything to God’s will we started the treatment. We changed her to another ayurvedic physician.” He paused and sighed.
“This January Indu has completed seven years. By now Soumya’s improvement is only this much” – he motioned with his hand. “She can just manage to sit with someone’s help. That too, not for a long time. The physician still can’t say whether she will recover at all.”
The train stopped with a heavy jerk at Jolarpet junction. Some of the passengers got down and a few got into the train too. “It will halt here for almost an hour,” said Venu without looking at Pavithra. “Another train has to come from Madras to which some of the bogeys of our train will be attached for further journey like the way our lives started now with another bogie,” he said with a faint smile.
Venu closed his eyes for a while.
Pavithra was again alone with her thoughts. All these days she had thought she was the most unfortunate woman born in this earth. Now she had a competitor. She could not forget the half-living body lying in the bed like a vegetable. She made a useless attempt to imagine Soumya’s miseries.
Her attention was focused on the unlucky girl she had ever seen, sleeping on the upper berth. Indu…..! She had never been pampered in the hands of her mother nor had she known the taste of her mother’s milk.
For a moment she forgot about her own daughter Anu. Anu had at least enjoyed a mother’s total affection for all these years. There were enough pictures taken at various occasions with her father. With these she could hold some of her happy childhood memories.
But Indu….! The poor girl! She had been dealt such a tremendously unkind blow by fate.
All that she knew about her mother was that she was an invalid woman lying in bed in a remote village in Kerala, who wouldn’t be able to pamper her or give her a mother’s love..
“Till yesterday I was the mother and father to Indu.” Venu went on. “My mother took the small bundle wrapped in the flannel cloth from the hospital with tears in her eyes. I wanted to stay with my Soumya, but she didn’t allow me. My mother had arranged for an old woman to look after Indu. When the necessity of sterilising the feeding bottle several times in the day and night arose I realised the importance of a mother whom a father can’t replace. It is a God-given natural privilege of a woman to nurse her baby, which no father can replace. How many sleepless nights I had passed through, God alone knew!
Once we had left the baby alone with her ayah and went to the hospital to see Soumya. ‘Venu, please go back soon. For heaven’s sake please don’t leave the baby alone with the servant and come here.’ Soumya pleaded.
‘Her ayah will look after her well.’ I assured her. ‘Don’t worry about the baby. I must see you whenever I feel like.’ She took a deep breath and stared at me as though she was seeing me for the first time. “I have a strong feeling that I’m not going to recover from this. This is…..’ I closed her mouth by not allowing her to say any pessimistic words. I wanted to show my annoyance. I didn’t allow her to complete the sentence.
When I removed my hand, after a while, she smiled faintly. ‘I’m going to be a great problem for everyone. I will be an invalid – a useless creature for the rest of my life…. I wish I was dead. I know for some time you’ll miss me and feel sad. Time is a great healer. Later on you’ll get along with your new life without me.’
I pleaded with her not to speak such harsh words, which would bleed my heart as well as hers.
‘I don’t want to hurt you, Venu. I’ve given you what you wanted – a sweet little girl. You’ll be her mother and father. That’s why I’m pleading you to rush home soon.’
The patients too in the other beds wiped their tears.
They gazed at us sympathetically and encouraged us to be more courageous and face the world bravely.”
Venu was sobbing heavily as he recollected his painful days. Pavithra wanted to console him, but suddenly she found herself lost for words again. Ashamed of her inability to console the man she had just married she felt bad, but at the same time had no feeling of love in her heart at all for his sorrow. She sat there, numb and miserable, staring at the darkness outside.
“Indu was two years old”, he continued. “I told my mother I’m taking her with me to Bangalore, with her ayah. I came to Bangalore with all hopes to start a new life as both father and mother to her. After two days the old lady developed wheezing in spite of the summer season. Bangalore weather did not agree with her. I had no other choice but to send her back to Kerala immediately. Since then my whole world revolved around my little girl. For about three months I had no one to look after her. I’m very grateful to my kind-hearted boss who granted me half-pay leave for that period. I changed my daughter’s nappies and bathed her without a helping hand. It became an absolute necessity for me to ‘mother’ the child entirely. Though I found myself to be very fond of the little one right from the start, it was an exceedingly tough job bringing her up, what with her untrained toilet habits, erratic feeding schedules and continuous crying. Since I couldn’t afford a good servant at that stage, I found myself having to face a pile of dirty nappies every time I got down to washing the clothes.
Naturally I felt quite trapped within such an intimidating domestic set up. But I forgot all my worries and sorrows at the sight of my little daughter’s gentle smile. I could spend with her hours together without food or sleep.
Then I got a part-time ayah who was there until Indu was two and half years old. She stayed with us even at night. But I continued to wake up as early as five thirty in the morning and I myself fixed her first feed and fed her. Then my mother sent an ayah from Kerala.
When Indu was three years old I admitted her to a nursery school. On each holiday we visited Soumya. Each time she had only one request for me. ‘Venu, please bring a mother for our daughter.’ I strongly protested saying that no one would be a good mother for Indu, instead she would become a burden to our daughter and me; that our little daughter would suffer at the hands of a stepmother……” Suddenly Venu stopped and looked at Pavithra as though he had said something wrong. Though she noticed this harshness she ignored it, and this made him feel more comfortable.
‘You’re too young to lead such a horrible life.’ Soumya would say changing her tact. ‘If you still really love me Venu, you must fulfill my request and remarry.’
‘Soumya, please stop talking nonsense. I would say.’
‘I’m not talking nonsense. It is my earnest request that you must understand my feelings too. I want to see you and our child in safe hands. Miles away here in this bed I have only one prayer to the Almighty – to change my husband’s mind. Please, Venu…. Please. Only your second marriage can give me some relief now, which no other medicine in this world can give.’
Suddenly Venu found that he could no longer talk about his dear wife. Pavithra wanted to stop him talking further about his wife. At the same time she knew that it would be a great relief to share his sorrow with someone who could understand him.
She was listening to him as though he was telling her a fairy tale. It was only when he pressed her hand that she realised it was his first loving touch.
“You must forgive me, Pavithra. When I talk about my Soumya, I become emotional.”
His words trailed into silence. Veu glanced at her like a child craving for sympathy. He had poured out his feelings to a sympathetic ear and it had been a great relief.
“Please try to be calm. No use in crying over spilt milk now.” Pavithra had managed at last to say something, sharing his feelings. By then she realized that her eyes were also flooded.
She had so many things to tell him, but thought it would be better to leave them unsaid for the moment. The train moved at its highest speed ignoring the two weeping minds.
.........to be continued/- /
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