It was an exceptionally sunny day for December – the warm rays stealing in through the windows, playing tricky patterns on my bed, where I have been sitting fixed, right from dawn. Like a powerful sanyasi from whom everyone was seeking blessings. But the visitors to my room – friends, relatives, and neighbors, most of them women, were a blur in my eyes. Their consoling touches scraped against my body, their presence violated my privacy. Their condolences did not register in my ears, even as I mechanically nodded my head, staring down at the faded maroon checks on the bed sheet. Not wanting to offend anyone, I had strained to keep straight face, blanketing my heart and soul from the world outside. Just as I had done for the last three decades.
What I wanted to do now was not shed tears but tear through my facade, in a final and perhaps only act of defiance. But better sense prevailed. Like always.
Instead, I sat quietly relishing the bird songs from our backyard. The gang of crows were cawing in wild anticipation of their daily ration of rice, and the cuckoo couple was happily singing a duet. Alongside, I could also hear my favorite chemboth or the Great Coucal’s booming cries. I wondered what the cat family was up to today – they will definitely miss their favorite Sunday fishy treats, and my petting and patting.
Amma, would you like to eat something? It’s almost noon now, asked my dainty daughter-in-law, Minu, breaking my concentration. I immediately plucked my eyes away from the bed sheet, and looked at her, with an empty face. YES! I wanted to hug her and shout out, and rush to the kitchen. I was holding on with just a glass of watery oats she had cooked in the morning. But, all I did was faintly nod in a ‘no’. Minu looked genuinely sad and concerned about me, and a sense of shame shot through my mind.
People were slowly and constantly streaming in and out of our house, in somber silence, sorry looks pasted on their faces. The whole house seemed to be stuck in a reverie, only to be disturbed now and then by a few visitors who murmured and exchanged notes in varying degrees of loudness. Being a Sunday, they did not have to rush to offices or schools, and this was an opportunity for many of them to catch up with distant relatives and old friends they hadn’t met for ages.
Madhu – my bank manager son – had been pacing up and down, with his mobile phone almost stuck to his ears the whole night, as he went about calling everyone, informing them of his dad’s death. From uncles, aunts and cousins on both his maternal and paternal side to his horde of friends spread across the world, and his father’s long list of friends, colleagues and acquaintances, he had passed the news to everyone.
Achan breathed his last at about 11.00 pm, he said each time, choking on his words, nodding and wiping away painful tears from his eyes. Sundar, my husband’s elder brother was busy at the landline as he answered calls from the important and the not-so-important. Apparently, condolences poured in from far and wide, as the favorite, much-loved son of the community departed from amidst them forever. He was such a good soul, they all clicked their tongues forlornly.
A dedicated father, a hard working government servant, a vehement RSS member, and the most enthusiastic President of our local Devi temple, Shankar was loved by one and all. He was the go-to person in our locality for everything from repairing the roads, mending the pipelines, organizing the local community fests, and seeking loans, to settling family feuds, building libraries, and more. He had built a vast network of people, who respected and adored him for his caring, helpful, friendly, and highly diplomatic nature. As I thought about him, I sneered unconsciously. My neighbor’s teenage granddaughter, Ambli, sitting next to me threw a quizzical glance at me. I quickly put my head down and lay down, pulling my sari pallu across my shoulders and curling myself comfortably.
Gently closing my eyes, I began rewinding.
The last two months had been particularly bad. My husband’s colon cancer had worsened and we had relied on palliative pills to help him manage the terrible pains shooting through his body. Even as his body and mind failed him, even as he withered into a sad bundle of bones, Shankar had found evil joy in hurting me. Yes. Even when he knew that death was near, he continued to do what he excelled in, secretly, away from anyone’s eyes and knowledge. When Madhu, Minu and their kids – Neena and Nandhu weren’t around, he threw humiliating profanities at me. His dirty yellowish eyes spewed pure hatred, even when I showed him the mercy that he never deserved. You scoundrel! They must have named you Moodevi, not Sridevi! You must be reveling in my pain, right? he yelled like a banshee one night, raising his sticky, weak hand to hit me, when I struggled to help him pass stool in the bedpan. I quickly moved back, as his hand fell limp on the bed.
I shuddered at those distant and near memories tugging at my mind.
Thirty years back, on our first night, as he crept into the room, the whiff of liquor had overpowered me. It was nothing compared to his hatred that overwhelmed me all these years. I was just 18 – young, and protected, a world of dreams swimming in my heart. I know you regret marrying me. You must be longing for a younger man, right, not someone ten years your senior? he said angrily, white spittle dripping down the corners of his lips.
That was just the beginning. The cunning man that he was, he had learned to drench me in pain, always in everyone’s absence. Not once in public, never in the presence of our son. He had burnt my collection of books a few days after our marriage, laughing aloud, Why does a Moodevi need books anyway? Never once let me visit my family – not even for my delivery; proudly proclaiming he couldn’t stay away from me even for a day. And everyone believed him. He provided me with shelter, clothes, and food, but grudgingly refused the care, love and respect that I longed for.
Why? I wondered, but never asked him. I could have hit back. I could have at least shed tears. Or confided in my mother or sister. But I chose not to. I could have done something to defy him. Instead, I remained irritatingly, almost mystically stoic. Like the strong banyan tree that was not perturbed by rain or Sun, by the storm or the floods, by dust or stone.
More questions and more bitter memories began flooding my mind, when suddenly Nandhu ran into the room screaming, Grandpa is not dead! Grandpa is alive again! I woke up with a jolt, instantly running out of my room along with other ladies, gasping in horror. The men in the living room, where my husband’s body was laid, were shouting out to each other. Hold him. Yes, there is a pulse. Krishna! How can this happen? Madhu was shocked and his gaze was fixed to the ground like he was witnessing Lord Vishnu in all his grandeur, his hands folded at his chest in reverence.
The elderly aunties started wailing loudly, beating their heads and chests. Someone take him to the hospital immediately. Thank God we knew before we lit his pyres! Shankar, swathed in white from neck to toe, was trying to sit up, both his eyes faintly open, gurgling noises escaping from his lips. Some of the ladies ran out of the house in deathly fear, while the kids looked on in wonder.
That’s when, letting out a shriek, I stood up bolt upright. There was pin drop silence and the ladies stared at me questioningly. Minu held my arms, comforting me. It’s ok, amma. Calm down. Pushing her aside, I ran out into the living room and looked around. Shankar lay there, a white bundle, still limp, still dead, surrounded by bright lamps and burning incense.
Bring this man’s wife, so she can pay her last respects, the Nair Seva Samaj head, Satheesh told the ladies seated down on the mat. But there I was already, frail and tired, standing with a big grin of relief spread all over my face.
Narayana! You saved me! It was just a dream. He is still dead! I screamed in pure delight, leaving everyone stupefied. I hugged Minu, who was standing behind me, unable to fathom what was happening to her ever-so-calm mother-in-law. As tears stopped rolling down my cheeks, I slowly let go of Minu, and retired to my room calmly, wiping my face and a heavy load off my heart, finally.