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 were 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 exploding wails 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 chatter 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 was 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 in many parts of India for a woman who loses her husband. 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 symbolising 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 the pink of health, he was a pain in the wrong place, grumpy and complaining. Illness ensured he became more of it and it also legitimised his demands for attention. Nothing was enough nor anything good. Everything was 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, but 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 used to get 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 behaviour as sadistic pleasures, I felt that there was something more which was eating his soul. Behind all the sadistic pleasure of troubling her, was his anger that she will outlive him. Despite the psychological pain he was inflicting, she was going to last and breathe longer, in a way survive his torture. At times he talked about being cheated by life and how some people had it all, giving her a sly look. As the days moved and he became closer to death, his anger escalated to a rage, burning and scalding her. She used to conceal the searing pain by routines like washing and cleaning that kept her occupied.
Often, I wondered, “How deep is she scared from all the taunts?”
All her relatives, neighbours and folks around her home on the outskirts of Bikaner used to talk about her care-giving and selflessness. She was referred to in awe and equated to Sati Savitri for her sense of duty to her husband.
But now with that Bindi on her forehead, she was risking, throwing all that recognition to the winds. Why was she throwing everything out of the window ‘now’ with that burning red-hot dot on her forehead, the marker that was 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 that 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 was screaming out her intentions and desires loudly, 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 she was going to stop with the ‘Bindi’, a dot on her forehead, or there was something else playing on her mind. Where was her mind taking her to? No one knew the answer, and that was terrifying them…..