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They brought his dead body in the evening. A shrouded corpse that lay on the drawing room floor. Maya sat near it. This mound of covered flesh that had been her husband of twenty years. She could see wisps of gray hair on his head where it was not covered by the white cloth.
Maya’s husband had been a tall man who towered over his neighbors. He’d had to be laid diagonally across the small room. The cloth barely covering him.
“No,” Maya had insisted, “he will not lie outside baking in the sun, waiting for the purohit to arrive and perform the funeral rituals.”
And so they – husband and wife – waited, both on the floor of their favorite room. One slumped on the ground and the other on a cane floormat. From where she sat, Maya could see the lace curtains discolored with age. The trellis design perforated with holes through which sunlight streaked into the room, casting yellow patches on the threadbare carpet. Her father had bought the carpet years ago, perhaps in a fit of remorse.
It was her father who had arranged her marriage to this man, as he had arranged the marriage of his other daughter.
“A government servant with a permanent job,” he had said. His tone brooked no argument. Her father had been like that. A man rooted in ideas that had been more suitable in the past. Perhaps centuries ago. He had not been lucky with his choice of groom for her, his younger daughter.
Though Maya’s husband could boast of being employed, and in a coveted government institution, the high court, his salary – adequate for him, Maya, and their son – was paltry when divided among his siblings. For her husband too harbored old-fashioned notions of family and responsibility.
“My brother, Tarun, is having a spell of bad luck with his farm,” her husband had said in the first year of their marriage. Maya was still innocent then – in that first flush of married life. Hopeful, even. She had been young and curious, with many dreams. Dreams of exploring the world outside her village, tasting different food. Maybe even Delhi and Mumbai.
But as the years rolled on her husband had stopped explaining. And Maya had grown silent. Her world contained within the drawing room, where she sat and watched the world change around her. The young boys in the neighborhood grew up, married, and became fathers. The girls became mothers or went to the city to work.
Tarun, her brother-in-law, became a father, first of one child, then another, and then yet another. Tarun’s wife was delicate. She needed doctors and potions and rest.
Maya’s husband grew thinner and grimmer. Until one day what remained was only a dry husk of the man he had been.
“Bou, you want to eat something? The auspicious time for performing the last rites is still hours away.” It was Deepa. Her husband’s younger sister.
“Am I not supposed to fast?” Maya asked. Deepa looked pale but composed. It was the lines that zigzagged on the side of her face that surprised Maya. When did they appear? Maya remembered the scrawny twelve-year-old Deepa, all legs and arms, with a wide, gap-toothed smile, who had touched her feet when she had first come to this house as a bride.
Impulsively, Maya touched Deepa’s hands, unable to say anything. A lump had formed inside her throat, and she fought to maintain her composure. Deepa had depended on her brother and his death had removed the crutch that bolstered her confidence, as she faced life unmarried, a perceived burden on her brothers and their families.
“I am here,” Maya said eventually. “So is Bhaiti, your nephew. We will always be here.”
Yes, she would, Maya thought. This room, this house, this village, so near Guwahati, yet so far away, was her home.
“I never knew how the years flew. Your brother was always so responsible, always taking care,” Maya said softly.
Deepa sat down abruptly and began to weep. Deepa had always been quiet, as if her speech had been knocked off under the pressure to conform and obey. Her movements, her clothes, how she spoke and behaved, defined and dictated by her brothers.
All Maya had done was watch, never done anything. Not even when Tarun insisted that Deepa leave college after her second year. “So much money, going down the drain. What will she do with a BA degree?”
A life lived like a spectator. That was what Maya had done, always yearning for something. A life she could not even visualize, let alone voice.
Had he known? Her husband? That vague feeling of dissatisfaction that began early in her marriage and built over the years, until it consumed her.
There they sat. Maya and Deepa at Maya’s feet, until the sun stopped ravishing the curtains on the windows and turned its attention to the roof.
When Tarun stepped into the room, Maya’s heart stopped. She started sobbing, dry sobs, more hiccups than tears.
“Enough,” Tarun said, his voice sharper than it would ever have dared to be when her husband was alive. “Deepa, get out of here. Shirking work as always. Go on.”
Then he turned to the men, who had followed him inside. “Come, let’s take the body outside. Blasphemy, I tell you. Keeping it indoors,” he said, touching the ground with his fingers and bringing them up to his forehead to propitiate the gods.
Has his brother already transformed into a body in his mind? Maya wondered.
They heaved and huffed her husband into the bamboo stretcher they had carried with them.
After they left, Maya sat listening to the shouts of the people, squeezed into their small courtyard, preparing to ease her husband’s entry into another world. She went to the window. The courtyard had taken on an air of festivity, as if for a celebration, rather than a bereavement.
Maya woke up to the dull roar of, “Hari om, Hari om.” The chanting had begun. Maya parted the curtains to look outside. It was dark. Maya sat down again and burrowed deeper into her body.
The chanting went on for what seemed like hours. Until at long last, the pitch fell and slowly faded, and what remained was the silence.
They were taking her husband to the family’s paddy fields where the funeral pyre would be lit. A sob escaped Maya’s clenched lips. She wondered who would light the pyre. Her son or Tarun.
Maya’s sister came in the morning. A diminutive form encased in the folds of her starched white mekhla chador. The garb of a widow. Maya’s garb.
“Have some fruit,” she said. Her voice strong, betraying no grief.
“The period of purification is a month, and it is better if you eat only boiled food and fruits. At least for a few days,” she said.
“Yes, yes,” Maya murmured. The taste of the tea and biscuits – which Deepa had smuggled in through the window – still on her lips. Her husband would not have been perturbed, Maya decided. Under his gruff exterior, he was an urbane man, eschewing convention.
They were sitting side by side, her sister and Maya, when Tarun came in. Again.
“What is it I hear,” he said, standing near the door, a white chador on his bare shoulders. He looked huge standing there. Her husband’s death and the subsequent responsibility seemed to have broadened his already considerable girth. “Bhaiti cannot leave the house.”
“Just to my sister’s,” Maya answered.
“Too much grief. Not good for a young boy,” Maya’s sister added.
“No, no. What about sanskriti?” Tarun said loudly, forgetting he was speaking to two women older than him in honor, if not in age. One his older brother’s widow.
“His father has just died. Look at the gravity of the situation. How can he go and enjoy in his aunt’s house, so soon?” Tarun said, in a voice exaggerated by a growing sense of his own importance. “What will people say?”
Maya picked an apple from the fruits that her sister had brought and carefully cut it into small squares. Her husband had insisted she always do that. Was he watching? Her husband. This casual usurpation of his role.
Maya put one small perfect piece of the apple in her mouth, then another, and yet another, in rapid bursts of her fingers, until her mouth was gorged with the sweet fruit. Nearly choking her. Her eyes on her sister and Tarun.
“I still think a change will do Bhaiti good,” her sister said. Her voice insistent.
But Tarun had already left the room pushing the pliant door with unnecessary force.
In the evening, Maya’s sister left. Alone.
The suitcase that Maya’s son had packed lay in the room where she sat.
It was half open, to reveal the books and clothes he had filled it with.
He came in later. Her son. “Why is khura so angry?” he asked, his eyes red.
“Come and sit next to me,” Maya invited. But he remained standing. Her beloved son. Rendered helpless without the protection of his father.
“He loved you, oh, so much,” Maya had told him, over and over again, on that last day, when her husband had taken his last breath.
“Uncle has asked me to help cut the bamboo,” he said, before leaving. As if he – a sickly, protected boy – had enormous experience in cutting bamboo.
Maya could see him from the window, standing alone in the courtyard. A small boy for his thirteen years, with none of his father’s and uncle’s breadth and height.
The courtyard looked even more festive now, overflowing with young men. A few that Maya did not remember ever meeting. All of them relatives, friends, or acquaintances from the village. All helping with the arrangements for the ceremonies that follow a death.
They were hard workers. These young men. The bamboo skeleton of the pandal stood ready. The tarpaulin stretched taut above and around it. The rains were unpredictable in these parts and could come at any time.
They were expecting the villagers from five villages, Deepa had said, as befit the status of her husband; a respectable government employee, who was also the headman of the village.
“Where did the money come from?” Maya asked. Her voice trailing to a whisper at Deepa’s appearance. The girl had shriveled in two days.
Maya wondered whether the money in her husband’s cupboard had dried up too.
“Has your younger bou recovered enough to help you with the chores?” Maya asked.
But Deepa avoided her eyes.
“Many things need to be done, bou,” Deepa said, her voice almost a whisper and left the room.
Maya juggled her body to find a more comfortable position, and carefully touched the outline of the passbook and checkbook she had smuggled into her blouse on that terrible, first day of her husband’s illness. What had made her do that? Maya could not really fathom. Was it a deep hidden instinct for survival? That animal cunning that lurks in us all.
Her husband’s death, so unexpected, had torn the complacency out of her life.
“I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” her husband had screamed. Only it was not a scream, just a weak imitation of one. The words gasped out as he collapsed into a chair. Little bubbles and spit had appeared on the sides of his mouth. A wax figure, already turning inanimate, despite the struggle to live.
Maya had run, as she had never before, “Bhaiti, where are you? Anyone there.”
“A heart condition, I am afraid. Did you not know?” the doctor had said. And there he lay on the hospital bed. Her husband. His life snuffed out of him by the years of riding a rickety bicycle across the bridge spanning the Brahmaputra; somehow never able to save the money to buy a scooter or a motorcycle, let alone a car.
Her husband had grown old, providing and providing, being responsible, being the head of the family, Maya thought. She had grown old too, waiting for something better.
Tarun came in one day, just before the shradha, more perplexed than domineering.
“The bank manager refused to let me withdraw money … said I am not the legal heir. How will we receive kokaideu’s pension?” he asked. “I told that Deepa to search for his checkbook. That girl is useless sometimes.” This time Tarun pronounced the words slowly as if pondering a mystery.
His eyes were staring and his face was pale, as if deprived of oxygen. The bravado gone. Her husband’s money so much a part of his life.
Maya readjusted the chador on her body and sat more upright. The edges of the passbook and checkbook cut a thin line in her flesh.
She thought of her husband. A simple man. A loving man, despite his ideas of doing the right thing.
Every harvest season, her husband’s walk quickened and became energetic.
“This time we will visit the Taj Mahal,” he would say. “I have saved some money too.” And his face would light up with one of his rare smiles. “Maybe Deepa, too. The girl needs a break from household work.”
But soon that little ray of hope would be tamped down.
“Tarun’s middle son needs a brace and a checkup. Poor boy is sickly, and the money I had saved will help.”
Maya opened the front door to let in some fresh air.
“I am going to my sister’s house after the shradha. Money matters can wait. The harvest season is almost upon us. We can use that money, in the meantime,” Maya said, to the woebegone face that was Tarun.
It was more than a month after the shradha, when Maya went to the airport. Her sister had pressed the tickets in her hand.
“Just one ticket, I am afraid. But there will be another time,” her sister had said. Her eyes shifty with the guilty knowledge of a better life. A life she felt Maya also deserved. Maya had not demurred.
Maya had a long history of expecting and accepting her sister’s largesse. It was her sister’s house that Maya had run to in her long years of marriage.
Once a year, she had taken the ferry to cross the Brahmaputra.
Busy people lived in the houses in her sister’s neighborhood. People who owned cars and motorcycles, and ate tandoori chicken and pasta for dinner. For a fortnight, every year, Maya pretended she was one of them.
“Ma, you will be alone from this point here,” Bhaiti said. He looked worried. Maya could see it in the line that ran from his forehead down to his nose. His father’s expression, Maya thought.
The hair that fell on his forehead – despite repeated attempts to tame it – was wet with perspiration. It was a hot and humid day, and the airport was crowded.
“Go home,” Maya said, “no need of waiting. I am sure there will be many people who speak Assamese. I can ask them if I cannot understand anything.”
She stroked Bhaiti’s face, even though he stepped back, embarrassed.
“Ma, look after yourself,” he said, his voice wavering.
“I will,” Maya said, firmly. “You go home, you have to take the bus back. Remember not to take your khura’s words to heart. He means well.”
She walked purposefully toward the entrance of the departure hall. But could not resist stopping, just an instant, to look back to watch her son run to catch the bus.
Maya climbed the aircraft with difficulty. Her arthritis had flared again, without any warning. And to her shame she had to ask the usher’s help to carry her bag inside.
“Just some pickles that I made,” her sister had said, giving her the plastic jars that now weighed her carry-on bag down. The oil had spilled from the jars and created flowers of grease on the side of her bag.
“A mother’s present,” the usher said, and smiled condescendingly before viciously pushing the bag inside the overhead luggage rack. His smile was thin with the knowledge of Maya’s silk mekhla chador frayed with the effort of keeping the cloth clean through the years.
Vivek, her nephew, was waiting at the airport. A young, portly man, with a nondescript appearance.
“Khuri, so you did really come,” he exclaimed. He took her bag from her hand, despite her protests. The smile on his face gave a glimpse of the man who had defied his mother to marry a widow with two children of her own. “I knew you could travel alone,” he said, adroitly skirting his way out of the crowded airport. Maya trotted behind him like a child. The new sandals sliced her feet, as she stared bemused at the people and the advertising boards and the taxi counters – saris and pants and jeans and dresses. A few of them wearing clothes that made her avert her eyes in embarrassment.
When they were safely in the car, with Vivek driving expertly among the chaos of reversing cars and abandoned luggage trolleys, Maya invoked god’s name. Surprising herself. She had never considered herself religious. She had sat through rituals because it was expected, through those endless chanting and rules of when to stand and sit and pray.
“Ram, Ram, bhagwan. Thank you for safely delivering me here and for that sweet, helpful girl next to me.”
A burst of taste exploded inside Maya’s mouth. First sweet, then the bitter-sweet flavor of cumin, followed by the pungent taste of coriander powder, and then the lingering kick from the liberal use of chili powder. Overcome, Maya wondered what the dish was.
“Kadhi, from the neighbors. The mix besan with dahi here, unlike us,” Tripti beamed, from the edge of the table. Her eyes on her bowl, as she slurped over a spoonful of the liquid.
“Taste a little … just one spoonful,” Tripti spoke again, this time to urge her youngest daughter to eat. She didn’t seem too perturbed that her seven-month-old had eaten nothing since the morning.
Vivek ate in silence, his body splayed on his chair.
Both – Tripti and Vivek – had welcomed Maya to their home as if her visit was a normal occurrence. Maya could have been their college friend who had come to meet them.
Maya poured more kadhi into her bowl, while Tripti rose to scoop her child into her arms. The child had wriggled away to roam the room on her hands and knees.
“Baby naughty, baby naughty,” Tripti cooed.
Maya debated whether to remind Tripti to feed the baby at proper times. Maya was after all her sister’s emissary in the household.
Maya’s days in Mumbai passed in a blur – people, bazars, and activity. All those people in the malls and streets. Here, no one bothered her or questioned how she behaved or talked or dressed.
Maya had cut short Tarun’s call when it had come, as expected.
“The bank manager needs your signature. Then I will be able to receive the pension in my account,” he said.
The sound of the doorbell ringing cut through Maya’s thoughts and drowned the sounds that Tripti was making to coax her reluctant baby to eat.
Vivek opened the door. Mrs. Patel, from next door, practically ran in.
“The maid forgot to give this dabba, as well,” she apologized. “I hope you like our food,” she said. Voluble and friendly and a bit overwhelming, Mrs. Patel stood on the threshold, ruddy from her morning cooking, and brushed aside Vivek’s thanks.
Vivek carried the plastic container to the table and pulled open the lid. A tantalizing aroma of coconut and tamarind and other delicious things filled Maya’s nostrils, intoxicating her.
Maya felt herself ask Vivek, “This Khao Gaali, this street, I hear it has scrumptious food and myriad people.”
It was irreverent, this craving for different things. Exotic things. She was still in the mourning period.
Maybe it was her husband’s absence. His kind but closed face, lined with responsibilities. The quest to find a husband for Deepa, which he continued even when Deepa herself had given up hope. “This boy looks promising, he has some business,” he had said, time and again, only to be disappointed when he received news of the man’s engagement to someone else’s sister or daughter.
Her husband had forgotten to enjoy his life. Little by little, Maya had forgotten too the effervescence and inanities that comprise life.
Maya dragged herself away from the table to the window. And looked out.
The window of the first-floor flat looked down on the courtyard. She could see a group of children playing cricket. Five boys and a girl. The girl was batting when the old man she had seen in the building appeared. He strode to the makeshift cricket pitch. His manner that of a person who was used to playing the game, and started bowling. His trousers were stiff and white, and his demeanor animated and energetic.
Further down the horizon – filled with rows of concrete buildings of different heights – she saw a gulmohar tree. The tree was bare except for a few red flowers braving Mumbai’s October sun.
Maya smiled to herself and turned back.
“Maybe next time, I will come with Bhaiti. Maybe even Deepa. Mrs. Patel said she has a room that she gives out for short rentals,” she said.
Then she turned back to look out of the window again. Below her, the old man, having scored a wicket, raised his hand up in victory and clapped it with one of the boy’s hands. His face suffused with confidence and vigor. A man who was used to living his life. Both good and bad.
Maya looked out of the window for a long time. The sun climbed on the horizon and glowed orange and red.
She thought, I had better start marriage negotiations with the boy, that lecturer, Deepa steals out to meet in the afternoons. Arranged marriages are not the only marriage negotiations. Poor girl does not know that I never sleep in the afternoon. And touched the passbook and checkbook that she still hid close to her bosom.