Woke up with a jerk, “What is that screeching noise? Who has come now, at this time of the night?”
I 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. Looked like my daughter-in-law was 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 colourful. Their thick fragrance was filling the silence of the night. A waist high parapet wall built around the veranda that was also doubled up as a seating wall, gave the veranda its privacy and at the same time a feel of restiveness.
My son was actually my sister’s son, she died some twenty years back, leaving him behind, when he was only five. I was ten at that time. The large family, immediate and extended, in their wisdom, decided and married me off to my brother-in-law who was thirty then. 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 used to go around as if I were his mother. With just five years separating us, I was not sure whether I was more his sister or mother. I never wondered on this topic as it was 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 was younger than me by eight years, an intelligent and efficient woman. We both were friends most of the times and at varying levels, but sometimes I treated her little crass, say like a typical mother-in-law. Well, each has to let off steam in one way or another. She was very practical or was it pragmatism, for in many ways my son showed 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 again.
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 and withered. Living on the side-lines, waiting and watching him spend his every night outside of the village in her house, while the entire village aware of it, was self-loathing. The motor car (his was the only one in the surrounding ten villages) pulling out shining from a devotional labour 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 was happening, servants lightening the lanterns, fresh vegetables from the field being stacked in the wooden almirah with mesh for breathing, so that they were 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. I 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 was 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 loved his bed sheets and towels very clean, so I picked them, he might not like the hospital stuff. Everyone was mumbling that it might be long. The person who brought the news was shaken, so might 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, and assured me that once what to eat was reported, she would ensure all was cooked and sent.
“Oh! No, is it food I am worried about? I am going 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 car, in the sturdy silence was I, confused, and edgy; neither sure about what I was doing rushing to him, nor about what I was 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 was, 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 it was, flickered and burnt out. I looked down at the man who was my husband in absence, the father of my son, and then suddenly, something snapped. I felt nauseated and cold, blinding pain shot 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 would all judge after the initial shock in the many mornings to come, that got to wait, let me savour today!
First time after many years, I started feeling the air in my body. I started feeling the life flowing. I felt myself, not the white ghost on the shelves of a rich act, like a rancid butter!