“Shanta, don’t worry about it, I will take care. You leave!”
Misra called out to his wife in a gentle tenor, belying his inner turmoil. Shanta was putting her lunchbox together. The husband of many years had brewed the morning tea, which they both sipped quietly in the verandah. It was the month of April, a year after Shanta had made it rain, as Juhi, their daughter, reminded the couple on occasion.
“There might be a witch sitting inside you, ma!” Juhi teased her mother. Shanta’s face was expressionless. She was at a loss. Was she capable of conjuring events? Had she accidentally tuned into powers that had tumbled into her aura? It had happened, had it not! She had said it would rain when there had not been the slightest hint of it. And it had rained. A tectonic shift transpired; Shanta and Misra were flung onto the path of this mighty occurrence and had been washed ashore renewed. Well, Shanta had certainly been tinted and in turn, so had Misra.
On returning home that day, Shanta changed into a day-gown and had gone straight to the kitchen. Misra swept off his feet, floundered while his wife cooked and cleaned as she might have on any other day. Her face gleamed as she hummed songs. A youthfulness bounced off her. The melodies charged their home with nameless energy, feminine at its core. Had the sorceress sitting inside all women taken charge?
A screen between the earlier and the present had blotted and separated the past from the present. She was shoved center stage, and turned into the heroine of her own narrative, turning into both actor and scripter.
“Is Jai…son joining us for dinner?”
Shanta asked her daughter, unsure by which name to address her daughter’s fiancé, the would-be son-in-law. An edge to her vocals, the woman’s awareness shone in her voice, and less on her daily habits. The cadence craved attention. Misra having lost the earlier Shanta, grappled with this wife, identical in physical form to the earlier one, yet whose untimely demise had left him gasping. Either he would move along with her, or remain ensconced in the past, alone. He would have to choose. She was the same, yet altered. He searched for the pulse of this, whatever it was, and repeatedly floundered.
“Yes Ma, Jason will join us for dinner.”
Juhi added after a pause, “don’t make kheer or whatever else you were planning. I’ll pick up dessert on my way back from work. You’ve already made enough for a small army!”
“Why can’t you call him Jaichand, Juhi. It’s a regular name among…..,” and Misra stopped short.
Juhi’s father never let slip an opportunity to remind her of who they were, Hindus.
Jason was Catholic.
He awaited his daughter’s rejoinder, even as he inhaled the aromas freely floating around the home.
He smacked his lips as he waited for the two women to leave. He would help himself to puris and aaloo dum; brunch followed by a long siesta. His mind was rife with the deliciousness. The retired man’s day moved from one meal to another.
And just as he was settling down cozily, Juhi’s retort rang out.
“Jason, the name suits my man’s buoyant personality.”
She often did not bother responding but this remark deserved a repartee.
Misra winced. He couldn’t win an argument with his daughter, or with Shanta. He dared not argue with either. It was humiliating. Why had the boy been christened Jaichand if Jason was the Christian name? Befuddling.
Shanta had cooked up a storm for her would-be son-in-law, as was her wont. Her creative streaks glimmered in the kitchen above all, or so everyone would have liked to continue believing.
Juhi shut the metal door behind her as she walked out with her mother. She would drop Shanta off at the institute. When Shanta had asked to buy a typewriter, Juhi promptly advised her to master the computer instead. She embraced her mother’s keenness to learn, and converted it to suit the times. Shanta, while nervous, agreed to give it a shot. Juhi was inadvertently sowing the seeds of a tree whose branches would later serve to cast a warm shade on the older woman, and even protect her.
Every new session cheered and energized the fifty-year-old Shanta. She had never known such vitality- the joys of learning as an adult.
Being housebound was clearly no longer either good enough or even an option.
Was this new enterprising person here to stay? Over the year that ensued, it became clear to the family that she was indeed.
Shanta often sat in the living room, opposite a tv that sat mute. It had had its run of blind flickering for hours on end. Shanta flipped through all the newspapers, and took copious notes in a precious handbound purple notebook. Misra observed her from the sidelines, never displaying curiosity. The man, accustomed to lording over the living room area, was clearly floundering from a distance. He idly fingered the books in the shelves, or read astrological predictions that he cut out from magazines bought by Shanta, that were later sold for a pittance to the local scrap dealer who came around yelling on his bicycle. A pattern formed.
Misra switched on the transistor more often, a relic from bygone days. He listened to local news, or an audio play if he managed to tune into one. Time was a feeble ally. Bored, he despaired and turned desperate.
Earlier, Shanta sat for hours on the double-seater swing and knitted mechanically, chatting over the wall with a neighbour. Those days were long gone. On the other hand, the husband having cultivated no meaningful hobby that propelled him to move, act or even think, allowed the shadow of dejection to overcome him. It grew like a weed and devoured him. His body deflated, much like his ego. Meals began to lose their appeal. He had been cruelly cast out in the cold, and his bones turned brittle.
This new world that stared him in the face confounded all his senses. Like a child who was beginning to recognize a distorted world, he culled a routine of sorts, disregarding old ones.
His frail form awoke at mid-day, and he would sip tea from a flask, unwashed and unkempt. The house swept clean; the ladies would have left for the day. On their return, they would find Misra bearing a vacant look, ears glued to the transistor. His focus appeared intense.
Shanta began to observe that he was eating less and less. A lot of food was left untouched. She wondered if she ought to be alarmed and continued to look out for signs.
One cool Saturday morning in October, Shanta confessed to her daughter that she dabbled in poetry. It was within earshot of Misra.
Juhi glanced at her mother quizzically.
“You have written poems? In Hindi? Seriously mom? Will you share them?”
“No, not only in Hindi,” Shanta smiled, embarrassed, “also some in English and a few in Urdu.”
“What! Woman, you are full of secrets. Does papa know?”
The father was shaving at the sink in one corner of the living room, tottering at its edge, brush in hand, old-style.
This sink was meant for guests to wash up.
What did Misra care whether his wife was a poet or a computer whiz!
And then a thud- Misra had fallen with the mug of filthy water, splashing him generously. The foamy shaving brush rolled away from the man, more alive than the man himself.
Misra’s breathing was raspy.
Shanta and Juhi lifted him with difficulty and seated him. His wife rubbed down his back to still his breathing, hoping to restore its rhythm. But Misra continued to wobble with every trying breath.
Misra was hospitalized. The man had developed a wheeze. His lungs had lost sixty percent of their power, and he would have to nebulize regularly. Seasonal shifts would also affect him.
Shanta cussed under her breath, robbed of her composure. Just as she was gaining in strength, Misra had gone weak and needy. It was what it was.
At home, Shanta handed her precious handbound notebook to Juhi, a glimmer in her eyes.
“Take your time, but do review them dispassionately. I don’t want any lies about their quality.”
Juhi stared at her mother incredulously. Dad was ill and her mother was basking in poetic glory. Who was she? Her mother’s unholy intentions and lack of sympathy astounded the daughter.
Shanta ignored her daughter’s misplaced generosity of spirit toward her father. None would arrest her mining process, whence she was discovering gems she alone was privy to. Her destiny was not to fly below the family radar, unseen and unheard. She would not give up on the process of self-discovery at this crucial juncture.
Juhi could fly into the winds with her, or choose to snap the slim rope that tied them.
Misra would survive, and he would be kept, as he had once kept Shanta.
Juhi wondered out loud to Jason, who listened but steered clear from commenting on this delicate matter. Where was the quiet, unquestioning, and devout person who followed a set pattern- her mother? It was becoming increasingly clear to Juhi that the mother who had brought her up was lost. Shanta was no longer the reliable woman with a carefully cultivated disposition as per her lifelong training at her parent’s home. It disturbed the daughter greatly.
She sulked and made it amply clear that she would have none of this nonsense from her mother, who should devote herself solely to her husband’s well-being, and definitely not her own!
Misra was nothing without Shanta’s support, and Juhi was clear that her mother’s unfamiliar and distant conduct was at the bottom of her father’s afflictions. The parental tree had ruptured and divided into two separate entities, and her mother was responsible for this split. The precision with which the girl condemned her mother was sharp and incisive.
The home was now rife with a new and potent charge, that of incriminating irreverence on the daughter’s part.
Shanta had written over fifty poems of varying lengths. ‘A Life in Motion’ was published with Jason’s help, and Juhi’s hands trembled as she held the collection of life poems, disdain lining her mouth. So, the woman espoused poetry while her father suffered in silence.
Years of neglect and ruthless chauvinism lay forgotten, as Shanta’s proud head reared.
Woman, you’re not a man, Juhi silently conveyed with a sneer.
That day, as Shanta pushed her book among other forgotten ones on the dusty shelf, she leaned over the daughter’s shoulder, whispering to her, “Juhi, a life must change course at some point, by choice or compulsion. Marriage cannot be a slave to our definitions. It’s a fluid phenomenon, unconstrained by and free of time and law.”
The glimmer was all but gone from Shanta’s eyes.
“I’ll take a look Ma. Right now, I am going to make tea for papa.”
As cold a response as any.
Shanta flinched, harder in her stance to fight back. Her heart bled as she sought to battle inner fears that pushed against the barriers she had carefully constructed. She hurt and bit her tongue.
Juhi’s approval would demand a miracle. She would wait. It had to come.
Twenty-seven-year-old Juhi had never been adept at expressing emotions. She was plump. Her sparkling eyes and ready wit more than made up for lack of fitness. A foodie, she loved her mother’s cooking. Mom was still the queen of the hearth. Shanta continued to cook her favorites in return for a half-eaten plate, or much of it being dumped in the bin. Food had been a large cementing factor. On the other hand, Misra’s appetite returned in full force.
Shanta winced and huddled in her room, undergoing a crisis of conscience. Was she wrong in wishing well for herself? What was it that impeded her daughter’s vision? Blind love for her father, because that had certainly not been evident for many years now, or that her mother sought to live on her own terms?
More than her pride, Shanta’s wounded heart struggled to make sense of a daughter’s need to put her mother down. Juhi’s idea of her mother was founded upon a false sense of duty and submission.
The humbly stooping Shanta no longer existed. Shanta shuddered, shaking off a niggling urge to return to the earlier life, to please her daughter, and even her husband.
She had every right to live as an entity that held her own, did she not?
But could she hold Juhi’s intrinsic character against her? The girl was a product of her upbringing.
She forgave Juhi, even as her loving heart continued to wage a war.
Jason watched with growing anguish, the deepening chasm between mother and daughter. Misra was enjoying the women’s attention, growing healthier and regaining weight. He smiled more as his wife took time to sit by his bedside, reading out bits from the newspaper. And as long as Juhi saw her mother pandering to her father’s needs, there was a quiet acknowledgment.
Jason visited often, keeping Shanta company. His presence gave Shanta reason to laugh and share. The growing bond sealed some of the gaps in Shanta’s life. What Juhi was unwilling to grant her, Jason’s affection fulfilled as bountiful earth. Although they never spoke of what weighed heavily upon them, her heart brimmed with love for this boy, whom she had learned to appreciate over the past years.
Shanta began to use the internet guided by Jason. She discovered sites like Facebook and Instagram and a whole new world upsurged. Writers, poets, books, and games suddenly turned accessible. Moments stolen out of housework, her despondency found succor, and hope spread through her limbs. Stimulating conversations with new friends; book discussions, poetic exchanges charged her up.
Would this be the new paradigm?
Two Years Later
Shanta had turned into a mini-celebrity, albeit secret. Misra was thriving and going for walks now. Shanta’s pain had numbed with time, but throbbed on with quiet resilience, as she trod upon the bridges that thinly separated a world within and the world without.
The deliberate caution she exercised was hard, and it took a toll on her health. But Shanta, being who she was, marched on relentlessly.
Juhi and Jason lived in their own home. They visited the parents every weekend, and Shanta ensured that she did not as much as glance at the computer.
Once they left, Shanta would make herself a peg of whiskey, uncover her electronic buddy and get onto various sites, while Misra slept peacefully. Her life swung between housework and late nights with online chats and beverages that had her antlers guiding her through meandering pathways online.
It was the compromise that gifted her some sense of inverted justice.
When Shanta was found with her head lolling on her desk one November morning, Misra’s pounding heart smelt the half-empty glass. He was devastated. His Shanta, an alcoholic? How could he have not known?
His mind was in a whirl as he dialed his daughter’s number.
Juhi and Jason arrived within the hour. Misra, by his wife’s side, wore a stony expression.
“I knew it, I just knew it. She was too happy the last few months we had been visiting you. She kept secrets from us. What a vile woman!”
She held the glass to the light, and golden droplets shone.
“Is that what you think of your mother? Is that all you have to say, Juhi?”
Misra choked on Juhi’s cruel phrasing of the mother, whose still and cold body lay on the floor in front of them. He collapsed on her desk, breaking down.
Jason held his wife’s shoulders with brute strength.
Livid and deeply disappointed at his wife’s morbid reaction, his voice roared through Shanta’s home.
“Juhi, your mother was a woman with many talents. Ask yourself why she kept secrets, not what secrets she was keeping!”
Misra outlived his wife by five years and as he lived, he also played games on Shanta’s computer. He loved her more with the passage of time.
Jason made him a peg every now and then, pouring fine whiskey from the stash he had gifted his mother-in-law.
Kamalini Natesan, author of NAKED BENEATH THE MIDNIGHT SUN (Olympia, UK). Kamalini has published many short stories in various online literary journals, and links to all published works are housed in the website : https://kamaliniwrites.com
Kamalini teaches French and is a trained Hindustani classical vocalist. Of Indian origin, Kamalini currently resides in Bangkok, Thailand.