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  • Meandering the Mirage

    Mythreyi dabbed the rose water dipped cotton wool delicately on her cheeks and then splashed moisturizer on her face. The phone rang; she ignored as she slowly applied the primer with her fingers. The soft music from her living room music system was wafting towards her.

    The phone rang again. She looked at it with mild irritation. It was Prakash, he would not stop until she responded. So, she picked the call, swallowing her exasperation. ‘Hellooo dear what’s up?’ she asked as she focused on the brush and applied nude foundation over her face, deftly blending it onto the neck. He invited her to come to the hotel for a dinner and a little bit of flirting after that. He was married and was known in his circles as the doting ideal husband, as if such a creature exists?! For her this worked fine as he had no guts to go beyond flirting; even if it pinched him. She rolled the concealer below her eyes, picked up the lip-liner to draw a line on her full lips, while pondering what to do. She has promised Ranjeet she will spend some time with him. He was the deep intellectual thinker, heavy on philosophy with a lazy accent. He was ok, but stupid enough in wanting to convert his boring wife into some cerebral creature.

    All these married men are a good bet, they won’t bug her about marriage, coming home, staying over or cooking.  She picked a delicate rose blush lip colour and applied it on her lips. They looked moist and full, she was happy. Over the years, she had mastered the art of applying makeup in a jiffy. The art was in making it look natural.

    She nudged Prakash to move their rendezvous to the next day. ‘Helps to make it difficult for them’, she thought sagely. There are cheap thrills of faking, teasing and playing, but beyond that is the deep joy of controlling the men and their cluelessness. As she slipped into her dress, she felt a faint ache. She quickly killed it with a gulp of wine. As she slipped into her gold toned shimmery pointed-toe pumps, she applied single spritz of her favorite perfume. Quickly she pull her car out, and was on her way to meet Rajesh.

    The evening was breezy, interluding with intellectual sound bites. As the evening rolled into night, she felt the familiar ache in her stomach, somewhere deep in. After all the wine and dine, there was no completeness. But, does another human complete us?  The makeup slowly started to fell heavy and tardy. She kissed him on the cheek, closer to his lips and took her leave. She wanted to reach home before the dryness settled in. Once in her room, she removed her make-up swiftly. A haunting ache started wallowing her, a feeling of drowning in the now familiar black pit, dull and empty.

    As her tired eyes started to sink into a disturbed sleep, her mind was wandering beyond sleep………can you lose in a game even when you control the play and outcomes? Can you? is it possible? can you fail while you win?

  • Dotting the Blemish

    I was standing in front of the dark wooden door, it was heavy; the silence in the room and the nervous glances from women in the room making the door swollen and sullen; we were in the long hallway connecting the dining area and the drawing room; a few chairs and cots were strewn around; the women were sitting on them and the floor, occasionally throwing a glance at the door. They were anticipating wails exploding or muffled cries coming from the room behind the door; but there was no noise, just stillness. Outside, the heat was smouldering, the dry desert winds were blowing. Somewhere far off I could hear the chitter of the Plum Headed Parakeet;

    With a jerk the door opened, and she stepped out in a white saree. Round and big on her forehead like a drop of blood, dried and hardened was the dark red bindi for everyone’s shock and disbelief; the thirty odd women sitting and gossiping in the crowded hallway were stunned. She lost her husband and today is his funeral.  She was taken into the room to discard the marriage markers like sindoor and bindi (vermillion) on the forehead, mangalsutra (black beaded necklace), bichia (toe ring) and chooda (glass bangles); the removal of the marriage markers is done in a harsh way, as if to scar the psyche;  after that she is given a white saree to wear; this is the ritual for woman who loses her husband, in many parts of India. As far as I know no such event marks a man’s life if he were to lose his wife; once this event is over, the woman is officially moving into the state of widowhood; white saree symbolizing the vacant emptiness – a ghost going over life as dead; In some parts of India they even shave the widow’s head, for some reason that has been spared in this dry land.

    As for her, for the last ten years she worked hard, taking care of her ailing husband. In pink of health he was a pain in the wrong place, grumpy and complaining. Illness ensured he became more of it and it also legitimized his demands for attention. Nothing was enough nor anything fine. Everything is bad and never to his liking. Whatever she cooked was not to his taste. He had the illness to fall back on for his nastiness.

    Every move of her was scrutinized. She hardly spoke to anyone; she was never allowed to read a book or watch a movie on that old television. It was never mentioned but the moment she sat down and started sipping tea from the glass tumbler or started talking to someone, he used to call or spill something and the next one hour was sheer physical work. Intuitively knowing his thought, she never ventured into anything other than taking care of him. Those of us who visited him felt pity for her. She got up early in the morning to prepare his food, massage his body with warm oil, give him a bath, prepare his meals, administer medicines, call the doctor when things went south. She hardly thought of anything except his health.

    While everyone looked at his heartless behavior as sadistic pleasures, I felt there is something more eating his soul; Behind all the sadistic pleasure of troubling her is his anger that she will outlive him. Despite the psychological pain he was inflicting, she is going to last and breathe longer, in a way survive his torture. At times he talked of being cheated by life and how some people have it all, giving her a sly look. As days moved and he became closer to death, his anger escalated to a rage, burning and scalding her; often I wondered – how deep is she scaring from all the taunts? She concealed the searing pain by routines like washing and cleaning that kept her occupied.

    All her relatives, neighbors, folks around her home on the outskirts of Bikaner talked of her care-giving and selflessness. She was referred to in awe and equated to Sati Savitri for her sense of duty to her husband; With the bindi on her forehead she is risking throwing all that recognition to winds; Why throw everything out of the window ‘now’ with that burning red-hot dot on her forehead, the marker that is loud and obvious?

    The murmurs brought me back to the present, I looked at her as she walked out and sat on a chair with grace and a trace of indifference; A tiny smile played around her lustrous lips, so tiny I could have missed. Behind the fleeting smile I could sense a woman claiming her space and declaring her freedom; the dot on her forehead screaming out loud her intentions and desires, scaring the populace; the silence in the room was screeching along with the prattle from the Parakeet on some far off tower. Slowly the worried folks walked home with loads of agitated gossip. The one question on everyone’s mind was whether is she going to stop with the ‘Bindi’ , a dot on her forehead or is there something else playing on her mind? where is her mind taking her to? No one knows the answer, and that was terrifying them………..

  • The Awakening at an Avalanche

    Slowly she climbed up the steps of the Mandap to clean the old lamp; Mandap, the temple porch with pillars holding an engraved roof, appeared tranquil, a place that held stillness. The mandap was attached to the temple of Lord Chenna Kesavulu, who is all smiles. The intricately carved pillars depicted the story of Rama; should it be called story of Sita?

    Lamp at the mandap was burning, almost as if it held someone’s breath – long, steady and bright, with little twists and turns. Is it possible for one to breathe through a lamp? how stupid can one get, she winced, as she pulled the cotton saree’s thick pallu around her shoulders.

    The December winds were gaining strength and the village was waking up to a chilly morning. But she was already in the mandap to fill the lamp, the fear that the oil would run out and would leave the lamp breathless made her shiver.

    In her slow walk is a long story of karma and its cosmic dance. She drew the water from the temple’s well, washed her legs, carried the water and went in to say her prayers to the Lord and master. The temple was quiet except for the priest who was getting the Lord ready for the long day. She sat, her tired eyes looked at the beautiful Lord and wondered, how long??

    In the tiny hamlet of the lush green village, on the banks of back waters of Krishna river, tucked under layers of devotion and surrender, is the story of Seshamma.

    Married into the village some seven decades ago, Seshamma, then Seshu, was beautiful and benevolent; she grew up in a family full of piousness. She walked into this village, married to a learned and taller man, Kesavaiah, who was known even then for his deep sense of devotion and a thirst to know what lay beyond the mundane. Many days and nights he explored his devotion to Lord Chenna Kesavulu, for He being the only guiding force.

    The village was awed by the devotion of Keshaviah, why they called him that instead of just Keshav, was not understood by Seshu at the beginning. Born into a farmer’s family, he already was well-read by fourteen. His faith to scriptures and God seemed a bit strange, but his mother was proud of him. Seshu gradually unraveled the bundle called Keshaviah and realized he was too wise and too devoted to Lord Chenna Kesavulu. His surrender to the Lord deep, something she struggled to comprehend, but was willing to be with it.

    Slowly she got used to the routine of being Keshavaiah’s wife. Everyday, he woke up at 3 am, finished his bath at the well, and lit the lamp in the puja room in his wet clothes. At the break of dawn, he started his journey into the village through the mud lanes. After he completed the rounds in his own village, he went to four more villages on foot. Some of these villages were just two streets, but they have to be walked – around lakes, across streams, and in between fields. Singing the glory of the Lord and inviting his blessings, these journeys became everyday pilgrimage for him. In his own way, he spread the message of the Lord and the glory of devotion. While everyone came to visit Lord Chenna Kesavulu in the village, he used to be on the mission of seeing Lord in others out there. Years rolled by and Seshu slowly settled into her role and inched into being Seshamma.

    But her life turned upside down when he shared his ‘plan’ with her; she felt shattered and lifeless as he detailed what he wanted to do. His explanation was not even worth being heard; she felt numb, confused and afraid  all at the same time.

    When did the thought come to him, she had no idea. Do such startling thoughts come to you in a flash or grow on you over time? She wondered. One evening, he shared his decision with her in a casual way. She was sitting in the courtyard binding Jasmine flowers with a banana fibre thread. The thread, made from the banana tree stem, is soft and does not hurt the soft stem of the jasmine flower. A cotton thread can cut into the stem and snap the flower if one is careless. Why am I rambling off about the thread when the most shocking news was given as an afterthought, she mused,  the news snapping the life force out of her.

    In his soft persuasive way, Keshaviah told her his decision to embrace Lord Chenna Kesavulu in absoluteness and go for ‘Jeeva samadhi’; it took her many moments to realize what he is saying and more importantly what he was going to do. She was shattered and did not understand how one can be so cruel to oneself and his loved ones, while embracing almighty? Can life force be muffled to reach a divine force? What happens to our son? What happens to me? Countless questions swirled in her head.

    Jeeva Samadhi means at a decided day and time the saint or devotee sit in meditation and enter a state of stillness called ‘nirvana’ or ‘samadhi’. At that point they become one with the universal consciousness and the body comes to absolute rest. Then around the physical body people construct temple or mandap. The belief being that the body of the saint will remain undeteriorated for hundreds and thousands of years.

    It is painful when death comes and snatches away your dear one, but how do we deal with it when the dear one chooses to part. It is not unhappiness, not loneliness, but a chasm so deep and so painful.

    What happens to me at the site of the act? she thought, a ghastly act celebrated and revered. She can’t cry for it is a divine journey, a macabre act of self-realization. Keshaviah needed her permission before he began his pilgrimage to moksha. As she released him from the bondage of love and shared life, she got entrapped in lighting the lamp thinking it will continue to hold his breadth;

    Then God smiled,

    And the light broke,

    And the darkness rolled up on one side,

    And the light stood shining on the other,

    And God said: That’s good!

    -James Weldon Johnson 1871 – 1938

  • Drought and the Dry Harvest

    I looked around the hall filled with relatives and friends, everyone had come to celebrate the event. The scream from within was rising, but I quickly quelled the urge. At ninety, I did not wish to make a fool of myself. Adjusting the Gadwal saree, I wondered whether the person who bought the saree liked the color, why else would anyone buy a bright pink border saree for a ninety-year-old. In the buying spree for the event, my saree purchase could have been an afterthought anyway. I shouldn’t be so mean, lest I become a bemoaning witch in my old age!

    Slowly, I walked into the large hall and saw the door way decorated with the festoon of mango leaves and marigold strings. A huge stage, the mandap, was arranged in the hall and adorned with exotic flowers. I imagine a small fortune was spent on the flowers. The mandap, with the weight of all the exotic flowers, seemed a bit like me, all decked out, standing, and searching for its identity! Trays of flowers and fruits were scattered around. So were the children, scurrying and screaming in their fantasy world.

    The family was running around, chatting, and laughing. Someone, not sure who, asked whether I would like to rest; like my foot, why would I? It sure took a hell lot of time to tie this garish pink border saree around me. I might as well sit for some time and see the event, my great granddaughter’s wedding.

    I was married at fifteen, to a man who was then forty. He came to my house with his son, who was twenty, for ‘bride-seeing.’ But as soon as he saw me, in a pale pink saree that matched the blush in my cheeks, he felt the longing for a wife. A deep red desire ate his soul. He dumped the son and married me.

    His first wife died few years back and the family was big, loud, and rich. He had three daughters and three sons with his first wife. The dead wife’s family was always in touch. Hovering and tethered to this house through events and threads of memories, dipped in love and laced with watchfulness. Her brothers, their children, grandchildren, their weddings, their functions, their festivals, the laughter, and the sorrow. The network stayed connected and continued to spread.

    As for me, something died a premature death the day they told me that the father-in-law to-be wanted to marry me instead of the son. I could feel the sinking feeling. But even before I could readjust to this new scenario, the plates with green beetle leaves, yellow bananas and fine silks were exchanged. I was even gifted with a long gold chain with a pendant of goddess Lakshmi, with pearls dangling at the edge.

    This is my great granddaughter’s wedding, who happens to be the granddaughter to the man I was supposed to marry. He is no more, he died few years back. Did I feel sad? There are some dry feelings, like heat waves on a summer day, which have no name, no face, just dryness. I am not sure what I feel, but over the years I got used to such waves of dryness.

    Dryness, when did it start? The rasping feeling. Did it start from my issue less state? The day I become a mother to a house hold at fifteen, something clogged, nothing could flower in me after that. Dressed in silks, with a large family, smelling sandalwood paste, jarringly beautiful and jaded inside, childless, I never blossomed to yield a fruit

    Dryness became life and manifested in many ways. When I had to marry off my eldest daughter and found the son-in-law glancing too often at me or the elder uncle of my husband tried to touch my cheeks to pat. I draped myself in sarees that were thick, checked, and bold. With a big bindi on my forehead, long thick ruffled hair coiled in a bun, I became aged by a decade and more decades for every year that passed by.

    I married off each of the daughters and then the sons. Daughter-in-laws puzzle over me. They do not know why I am not able to sleep for more than two hours or why I roam around restlessly in the night or why I never cry.

    The garden behind the bungalow where I grow the herbs and vegetables takes a lot of my time. The house runs on the vegetables from my vegetable garden. I also have a cactus in a corner. They say it is not lucky to have cactus at home. I hear the gossip in the dark corners of the house, whispered in raspy voices, how I am cursed and how I walk like a ghost all day. How I have not shed a tear when my husband died or when the step son died, and how I stood there staring, dry eyed. The drought for sleep and tears made me look gaunt.

    The sudden sound of noise brought me back to the present and I glanced at the entrance. The music was playing an old Hindi song and few were dancing as if there is no tomorrow. The laughter was loud and few women and men were trying hard to speak above the music and laughter. As everyone was speaking at the same time, hardly anyone heard anything or seemed interested.

    Just then my great granddaughter walked in. I blinked at the saree she wore, for months they were all on shopping binge and I expected her to wear one of the finest expensively tagged silk saree costing a small fortune. But she walked in wearing, wait a minute, my wedding saree!! With pride and dreams in the eyes, she looked up at me and told how she loved to wear ‘that saree’ as she felt that I lived a great life, filled with all its implications and joy.

    A scarlet red saree, I chose it myself. Was the unconscious playing its hand to indicate the inner flame that was consuming me? Red meant power, the power I could not show or muster. The saree had a heavy ultramarine deep blue border, blue so deep that it could sink your heart. To ensure the blue did not overflow, the border had golden zari Rudraksham beads that locked the blue. The border also had intricately designed golden swans. The birds were beautiful and lonely. They are said to be the mystical birds that lived in heaven and were known for their purity. There were thousands of zari-bottis strewn across the saree, glittering in the shape of a rain drop, mirroring my tears, locked and shinning.

    Looking at her and the saree, something snapped in me. The dryness, the curse, the rush of betrayal, the weary self-inside me welled and overflowed into a long screeching noise, a scream that pierced every ear in the big bungalow.

    I screamed, screeched, and then suddenly the dam broke. I sat, cried, sobbed and howled for all those children I could not bear. The love that was never understood; the misery of being smothered in yards of silk, and the work, the drudgery, and the pain. Slowly I drifted off into the nothingness, white, blissful, soft, floating and misty. Finally, my eyes closed to the long blissful dreamless sleep, closer to God.

  • Retribution, Revenge and Relevance

    Woke up with a jerk, what is that screeching noise? Who has come now, at this time of the night?

    Opened the old heavy teak door to peep into the house. Servants had rolled off from their quarters in the dead dark cold night, for they were rushing to light the lanterns; ceaseless flickers, licking the darkness. Looks like my daughter-in-law is already up. The old, precious and well-oiled standing clock struck two – loud and clear, leaving behind silence so deep, it felt as if an eerie finality was slowly engulfing us;

    Tall and strong, my son was walking agitated on the long, broad veranda; the high ceiling veranda went around the house with rough granite blocks for the floor and massive wooden pillars supporting the tiled roof. A thick vein of Rangoon creeper kept the roof cool and colorful. Their thick fragrance filling the silence of the night. A waist high parapet wall built around the veranda that also doubled up as a seating wall gave the veranda its privacy and at the same time a feel of restiveness;

    My son is actually my sister’s son – she died when I was ten and he was five. The large family, immediate and extended, in their wisdom decided and married me off to my brother-in-law who was thirty then. Some twenty years back – a way of ensuring that the wealth stayed within the family – to the world out there, the story spun was more around the son needing a mother. Wealth was very important and everything revolved around keeping it safe, neat and tied; I called him my son and he goes around as if I am his mother; with just five years separating us, I am not sure whether I am more his sister or mother. I never wondered on this topic as it is too weird. My son grew up fast, in some corners aloof, always in command. Do sons grow fast when fathers wander off too far from home?!

    My son married his cousin from his father’s side, my daughter-in-law is younger than me by eight years. An intelligent and efficient woman – we both are friends most times and at varied levels, but sometimes I treat her little crass, say like a typical mother-in-law. Well, each has to let off steam in one way or another. She is very practical or is it pragmatism, for in many ways my son shows more emotions than her.

    My son was moving from being agitated to loudly calling and cursing. He was screaming at the driver asking him to hurry up; in the dead of the night his voice boomeranged in the air. Slowly, I walked up to him in the large veranda and asked, “What happened?”

    “Father has fallen sick and is rushed to the hospital”, he said. His father was not home and had not come home, like many nights;

    “Where did he fall sick?”, I asked.

    He mocked, “Where do you think?”

    “Who was with him?”, I asked.

    He hissed “Who else, that lady”;

    For the first time the bitter sour truth got spilled and acknowledged in this majestic house, a recognition of my vacant life;

    After our marriage, my husband could not wait for me to attain puberty to satisfy his urges. The man he was, he looked for a partnership and he lived that life; and after I matured, it just continued; a relationship never mentioned in this grand house; the underlying pain was brushed like the dry leaves from the massive Citron tree in the backyard – dry, fallen, withered and brushed. Living in the sidelines, waiting and watching him spend his every night outside of the village in her house, the entire village aware of it, was self-loathing. The motor car (his is the only one in the surrounding ten villages) pulling out shining from a devotional labor of his trusted servant, dark, sharp, as the sun starts setting. It used to tear down the red mud roads, mean and black; the household used to be busy, as if nothing out of ordinary is happening, servants lightening the lanterns, fresh vegetables from the field being stacked in the woodenalmirah with mesh for breathing, so they are not suffocated and scared.

    In the morning, as the villagers moved out of their houses, some decorating the front yard of their houses with white doted and elegantly designed rangoli, men with a neem stick in their mouth, chewing, spitting, brushing their teeth; children in the pond jumping for a quick bath; households waking up for the new day. My husband’s motor car used to come into the village screeching and screaming, announcing his arrival; never looked up or out, the pity in the village folks eyes was too hot and piercing, or was it shaming for not being able to keep my man in the house for even a night? In the massive household a thick curtain of silence engulfed as everyone is busy with morning pooja and a tasty breakfast; if you are rich, powerful, added few good deeds to the society and handsome, you are right;

    Before I got into the car, I quickly packed his and my clothes, not sure how long we got to stay there, so packed for a week; he loves his bed sheets and towels very clean, so I picked them, he might not like the hospital stuff. Everyone is mumbling that it might be long. The person who brought the news was shaken, so must be bad. What will I do in that room with him for days, I blinked trying to wade off sudden rush of tears as apprehension tightly coiled my soul; my efficient daughter-in-law packed a basket with milk, water and fruits with some plates, assured me that once what to eat is reported, she will ensure all is cooked and sent. Oh! No, was it food I am worried about? I got to be in a room with him, draw from the same air, look out of the same window, what will we do? Will he be conscious to realize that?

    We rushed in the dark, moonless night, on the mud road hardened with travel, the village heard the rattling of our motor vehicle leaving anxious fumes as we speeded to the hospital; jostling in the vehicle in the sturdy silence was I — confused, and edgy, not sure what I was doing rushing to him, nor what I am expected to do there.

    We entered the hospital room, and there he was, lying supine on the bed; I walked in slowly, trying to remain calm; in the corner, she was standing; the woman who held sway on my husband, a mirror to my vacant life. All these years of not knowing who she is, I looked at her, to my astonishment she was pale, trembling, an average, older female with no magic, nor awe; is this the choice he made??! I was stunned and seethed;

    I walked to him, power oozing out of my eyes, lips, nose. He was there pitiful, hungry, in pain, not knowing what; he looked at me, trace of recognition? or was it guilt, whatever, flickered and burnt out. I looked down at the man who is my husband in absence, father of my son, and then suddenly, something snapped. Felt nauseated and cold, blinding pain shoot through my body, I turned away.

    Nothing, there was nothing in me to reach out to him; I nodded at her, the ‘other woman’, and said, “Stay with him, and once he can walk, send him home”. And, with a swift measured turn, to the utter astonishment of everyone, I started leaving, followed by my tight-lipped son, servant running with our bags, driver tagging along clumsily leaving the fruit basket behind.

    I walked out of the room and the hospital, and into the car resting in the corner of the building under a large neem tree; the sky was opening up in the yonder, fresh, orange, a wasp of mystery, something to be born, something to be felt;

    The car bumped up and down on the mud road as we reached home; leaving behind a trail of red fumes, my son did not speak a word; the village was waking up to the news of a tiny woman, who thrashed a man with nothing but a glance of disdain; they will all judge after the initial shock in the many mornings to come, that got to wait, let me savor today!

    First time after many years , I started feeling the air in my body, feel the life flowing. I feel myself, not the white ghost on the side-lines of a rich act, like a rancid butter!

  • And One More Chance to Live

    Mythology, history, religion, folklore, belief, faith: do not know where they come from, but from the day I was born, have heard them as stories, examples. When I heard them first I do not know, but I know they are there somewhere in the cosmos, universe around me, in semiconscious brain, in shadowing thoughts; awed, admired, worshiped and revered; but, but if they were ever given that one more chance to live again, will they choose the same destinies ?!

    A variance stitched

    Gandhari: Eyes open, not blinded to the faults of the 100 odd men as sons and a husband who swamped her life; clear in thought and vision, would she have slapped Dhuryodhana when the fist slip happened, reprimanded Dhritarashtra for being weak and blind to his son’s faults and shortcomings, unleashed her caustic tongue, thrown Shakuni out of the house and her hair, laughed at Bishma for pussyfooting on a shaky excuse called ‘word given’? Would she have risen to be the force behind Mahabharata, reengineered?

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  • Random Thoughts and Rainbow Dreams

    “Can you suggest topics for the women’s forum we run in our organization? Every month we have a topic discussed by experts”
    Hm…interesting. “How about Domestic Violence?”
    “What! Come on, we don’t have a crowd with such issues”
    “Really? Is domestic violence specific to a market segment, city, economic class or street?”
    “No Sunitha, it is just that we have an educated crowd in our office, this population would not get into such bizarre acts.”

    Her bulging stomach announcing a life growing, she walked in distraught, beady eyes like faded marbles; her husband was beating her regularly, for no apparent reason or cause. Colleagues who noticed the long hours spent at work and the vacant, expressionless eyes, wondered ‘God! She is pregnant; doesn’t the husband have some sensitivity for it?’ He didn’t. Finally one morning, barely conscious and completely battered, she called her parents who live in the same city. Heart-broken parents carried the half-dead daughter home; I knew the father who used to come regularly to pick her up from office when she got delayed, happily feasting on dreams she used to wave at all of us, walking out breezily. One year and a marriage later, the father still comes to pick up a daughter married, beaten, pregnant, separated and bruised. He still does not want her to initiate divorce, as he is worried what family and friends might say; “We should try for reconciliation, he might change after the child is born.”

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