It was past five when I left the office. By the time I cleared my table, the elevator had gone down. Five floors down and up again to where I was. Then down five floors again to reach the ground floor. Gripping the folds of my sari and minding the railing, I raced downstairs. Anyone watching me would have thought this woman is being chased by a ghost. On the third floor, I heard Ahmed chacha calling, “Mehtaben, phone for you.”
Who could that be? Prashant? But he would only return six-thirty. Unusual for him to call at this time. Had something happened? I chided myself for thinking like I had been doing for the past six months. What’s the worst that could happen? In the last ten years, I had managed to remain unfazed by everyone—family, neighbours, office. What’s left now? And let’s just say that no decision has been made—so what? But Prashant—will he be able to prevail against his family? A dominating and combative daughter-in-law like Rucha on the one hand and the menopausal devoted wife, Ramaben, who grew more religious as each day passed, on the other.
After Nikhil’s marriage, Ramaben had told me, “I have told Nikhil’s father that I have completed all my duties. I even have a daughter-in-law. Now you take care of yourself!” I had felt like asking her to give Prashant to me. But then I thought, when has she ever refused me? In fact, she had honoured my opinion even while choosing Rucha as her daughter-in-law.
I climbed down two floors and picked up the phone; the operator glanced at me. I held the receiver to my ear. No response. The phone was neither connected nor disconnected. Someone was listening with a sly smile to my panting voice as I repeated: hello, hello. I was exasperated. Before I could slam the receiver down, the operator quietly took it from me and put it back on the cradle. She offered me a chair and pressed the bell for water to be brought for me. But I promptly stood up. What if a voice used to commanding now sounded plaintive?
I nearly ran to catch the elevator but realised that the lift was going up. The liftman was staring at me. I took out a handkerchief from my purse and wiped his gaze away. Along with the kerchief, my hands had grabbed an invitation card from my purse. It was for the closing ceremony of a handloom workshop. I wanted to go, but without Prashant, it didn’t seem much fun doing anything. He wasn’t around today. These days, he looked crushed. I can’t stop thinking about Ramaben. I fear that his guilt about me is weighing him down. Yesterday, on the phone, “Yeah, everything’s fine. After all this suffering, if you are able to accept our friendship, it’s more than enough.” I cannot manage his kind of equanimity. I become anxious very easily these days. It could be a trivial matter, but I weave a spider’s web.
As the lift descended I felt like a pail that had broken free from its pulley. Like an unanchored pail, I managed responsibilities without any support. It had made me a frazzled person. I came to the main road and, like every other day I walked towards the Jhaveriwaad bus stop. I was late once again. Was the hearing of the court case over by now? Of course, these things don’t take long when there are two consenting partners who wish to end a marriage. But it can get delayed if the lawyer or the judge is absent. Or say, Ramaben herself is absent. Or, God forbid, she raises an objection. Well, she hasn’t uttered a word of protest so far. But what if she buckled under pressure from Rucha? I mean, I have always been beholden to her. What then...
Prashant often complains, “The moment I step into the house, I feel hemmed in by the ugly atmosphere.” When this happens, I defend Ramaben. “She looks after you so well though. Feeds you, takes care of you. And look at your home, it shines like a mirror. She keeps it so tidy.” He’d react violently, “Oh please, even hotels do that much. It’d be all right if one didn’t have all the conveniences in the world. But I can’t understand why she wouldn’t look beyond herself, at me, for instance. You know, this situation is like a hand-woven rug. It may disintegrate, but it won’t give up its coarseness. What kind of life is this? An acclaimed expert on traditional Indian handicrafts at work, and mired in the universe of narrow community and family circles at home. Stifling. Had you not been around....”
Arre! I collided with a country bumpkin. He barely heard me apologize before asking, “What eez time?” Five-forty-five, I told him, and hailed an autorickshaw. This was no time to brood. By six-fifteen, I should be home, far away in Pritam Nagar, threading through Relief Road and the Nehru Bridge traffic.
The clamour of menacingly close vehicles! The autorickshaw made its way, the driver employing part chicanery, part strategy, brushing against something, and almost toppling over. My eyes closed, and my hands moved to my ears to block the noise. I simply cannot and will not drive; how do you hold a steering wheel when you’re so faint-hearted? Never mind your own, but you can’t jeopardize other people’s lives, can you? I have thought about this before, why am I thinking about this now? I felt like jumping out and running home. What could have happened? If everything had gone well...then what follows? What am I going to do? God knows. My chest sounded as hollow as an empty thermos flask. Just then I saw a hoarding: Gujarat Handicraft Haat. A sale was on.
This was where I had first met Ramaben.
There had been a sale on that day as well. The previous day I had made plans to shop with Prashant. I waited for three whole hours, and finally went on my own. The moment I entered the haat, I noticed Prashant at the silk counter. I was going to burst like a pressure cooker. You, you... I was ready to scream. Before I could say anything, Prashant placed his hand on the shoulder of a woman standing next to him and said, “Rama, look at that one.” Oh! So we are with Shrimatiji today. I must turn back, I had thought. This was the woman about whom I knew everything. Every single thing. She specialises in making mohanthaal and khaman. She would not step outside her home until she had lit the diya. She hated the colour white. Arre, I even knew that she does not like night lamps. But she does not even know my name.
“Rama, take this one.” I noticed that Prashant’s hand was on a beautiful kosa fabric. I wanted to put my hand on his. Ramaben’s jarring voice brought me back to reality, “Oh no, I don’t want to wear an old woman’s sari.” Had she noticed how Prashant smiled when he found a colour he liked? You want to steal that smile away! Prashant was saying, “Come on, take it. Even if you wear it only once, it’s still worth it.”
“Look at you,” she said. “Throwing away 800 rupees like that? Had it not been for me, your style, your attitude...” She kept talking but Prashant had turned away from her towards me. “Arre, Mehta? You are here. Rama, come here. Let me introduce you to Padmajaben. She’s the purchase officer in our office. Like you, she also goes to all kinds of shops.” He had smiled wanly.
Ramaben had been joyous, like a blind person who could suddenly see. She said to me, “I had to drag him here, he just wouldn’t come.”
From that day on, Ramaben took me along whenever she went shopping. The first time I went to their home, Ramaben talked about her son, Nikhil, and the snacks she had prepared. Nikhil must have been in the fifth standard then. He had looked at my light-coloured eyes, and decided to call me Bhoori aunty. Prashant would watch all three of us. He was like a solitary tree on the banks of a river. I stood apart, safe in his shade.
“Ya khuda!” Though he was a veteran of the roads, these words slipped out of the rickshawallah’s mouth. A middle-aged woman riding a two-wheeler had a close shave with a bus. Thank God, she was saved—saved or saved up for something worse? I can’t make up my mind any more about whether whatever happens is for the good, or if it’s only in preparation for something worse to come. The traffic came to a standstill near Vijlighar. Two city buses waited side by side, almost rubbing shoulders with each other. When this happens and I find myself looking into the window of a bus, I wonder which of the two buses I am sitting in.
There was a time when I had decided I was going to have an entirely professional relationship with Prashant. Ramaben’s affection and trust made me feel like I was doing something illegitimate, and the guilt almost killed me. It was like being complimented on wearing somebody’s hand-me-down sari: it left me feeling diminished. She did not even hint that she knew what was going on. If she received an invitation to an art or cultural exhibition she’d say, “For you and him. You both are different. I don’t like all this.”
When Nikhil cleared his twelfth standard with good grades, Prashant made plans to take the family out for a movie, and dinner afterwards. Prashant and I had been sitting together during lunch when Ramaben phoned. She said to him, “I cannot come. I have to visit my aunt who has come from London. She has just lost someone close to her.” Prashant handed the receiver to me. She continued, “Why don’t you do one thing, take Padmajaben instead of me. I’m hanging up.” Ramaben hadn’t even waited for Prashant to respond. Prashant sat across from me, and held out his palm. I gently put my hand in his.
“Should I go via Nehru Bridge or Lakkadia Bridge?” The rickshawallah asked me.
“Nehru Bridge,” I replied.
Sometimes Prashant would get emotional and say, “Padma, we are like two banks of a river.” I’d stop him from saying anything further and say, “Prashant, there’s a strong bridge connecting us. Never mind if the waters rise.” Last year, I was transferred to the Ashram Road branch. The office people must have thought, at least this will separate them. But Ramaben would call every now and then, leading to shopping expeditions in Kalaniketan, Deepkala and Asopalav. The office people didn’t know where to hide their sheepish faces. With Nikhil’s wedding, every wagging tongue came to a halt.
But what if the bridge breaks today? What if the banks are able to meet each other now, unmediated? An empty expanse unfolded before my eyes. I felt like asking the rickshaw to turn back. But what if someone calls me at home? What if Prashant comes home? No, I can’t abandon him like that. Whatever will be, will be. Was God watching all this? The God of Sanyaas Ashram on Ashram Road?
Ramaben must have disrupted her routine today. Every morning Prashant would drop her on his two-wheeler at Sanyaas Ashram, perhaps Rucha will take her today. My own niece, and yet she couldn’t understand! I had assumed after going to a medical school, she must have ceased to be like her mother; she must have learned to understand not only human anatomy but also the human heart. I had thought an architect like Nikhil should have a doctor as his wife, and that would give Prashant’s family a fresh beginning in society. But Rucha asked the question that Ramaben had not bothered asking: “What will people say?”
“Ben,” the rickshawallah was saying to me. “Ben, what is to be done? There is a traffic jam at Pritam Nagar. Looks like there has been an accident.” Was it Prashant? Oh my God, he must have been riding his scooter with all that anxiety. I ran towards the spot. I saw a bus and rickshaw in the distance, and felt relieved. But the next moment I felt ashamed of myself. The bus stood in the middle of the road, blocking the entire road. There was a body on the road: it was that of a middle-aged woman. I ran back to the rickshaw. I told the driver to go via the Lakkadiya Pul underpass. I almost forgot to breathe. My legs shook. I kept my eyes shut.
A corpse before the rickshaw—spread-eagled, lips half-open and eyes wide-open. A gold bangle on each wrist. Scattered beads of a tulsi mala next to the body. I was walking over this body. There was shifting dark shapes around it. Swarms of vultures and crows hovered over the corpse. I kept asking the rickshawallah to go faster. I slid my glass bangles into my purse. A vehicle passing next to me blared its horn and startled me. A crowd of people chased me, chanting, catch her, catch her...
I wanted to get home as soon as possible. Before the dead body was wrapped in Ramaben’s patola sari, I needed to be home.
“Ben, your house number?” the rickshawallah asked.
“Fifty-four. Yes, yes, fifty-four.” I wiped my spectacles with my kerchief and noticed my neighbour who was shifting houses arranging all her plants in a lorry. One of them was a tulsi plant. Someone stood at my gate. I paid the rickshawallah and made to open the gate to my house. The person standing at my gate placed his hand upon mine. It was Prashant. He said softly, “Congratulations.”
I tried to remember who he was, and blurted out, “For what?”
Story selected by Mini Krishnan
Reproduced courtesy of Aleph Book Company
Illustrations by Siddharth Sengupta