By Sunil Sharma
It is raining!
Such afternoons become depressing. It is a time when bare daylight is sliding into darkness of early night.
You are trapped in a grey zone.
Winter rain triggers sadness…especially December rains when clouds, cold and gloom create overwhelming melancholy.
Rains add to misery. You cannot step out. Cooped, looking helplessly at the falling rain on empty roads…and the puddles.
It is the same depressing afternoon, my dear!
Can you hear it? Can you feel it? The pattering rain?
The icy drops. I can sense them on my skin. Big diamonds from the sky, grandma would say.
Grandma had this habit of muttering!
Short, frail, half-blind, she would talk in the deserted last room. In the darkness, snow-haired granny looked like a ghost!
Being young is always scary in a house of working parents.
“Why do you talk to yourself?” I had asked.
She smiled. “I have friends you cannot see.”
“In the room.”
“Why do I not see them?”
“Only I see them. Nobody else cannot. They follow everywhere,” said grandma quietly.
I got the creeps; her eyes wore the glazed look.
I slept in the corner room; her muted screams and mutterings would wake me up, frightening me.
She and her friends! Strange!
Now I understand better.
We are becoming the frail grandma. When I am alone, even I have started talking to myself . When I hear steps, I grow silent and pretend to read the newspaper. Or do something else.
The rains bring back childhood. No other Indian season has got such power of recall and magic. I see my grandma standing there in the lonely corridor and gesturing and talking excitedly, after a gap of almost sixty-five years.
Diamonds! How they sparkle in the courtyard!
The rain drops.
Hear them, my dearest! Feel the wind in your hair, coming in from the open window.
The wind caresses your sunken cheeks. They tingle…like my fingers on your bare back.
You always loved the outdoors. The wind in your hair. Rain on the bare skin. Catching the diamonds from the sky in the outstretched hands, water drifting from fingers of the cupped hands, your oval face blissful, eyes half-closed, chin raised, water coursing down your body…like a stream flowing in the soggy brown fields.
Are you listening dear?
You would run in the open ground, chasing the rain…a child…with the same delight and spontaneity.
“Come on!” You would say during our occasional tryst with Indian monsoon in the outskirts of Goa. I would smile, photographing you and the retreating rain over the undulating plain…a wet slim figure in white, your favourite colour, against a bleak quivering green backcloth.
The Goan churches fascinated you. You would stop and insist on being shot against the imposing facade of the Church of St Francis of Assisi, reverential eyes soaking in the material and spiritual grandeur on display.
We would drift in and out of Goa or coastal Kerala.
Rains. Backwaters. Kerala looked magical during monsoons. I have five albums of you against the sun-washed horizons in various poses, with dimples and shy smiles.
We were so happy!
But that was more than four decades ago…a rare period of pure happiness that came from intimacy and togetherness.
Later those grew into mere memories.
“You have changed!” you would say.
“Even you have changed!” I would retort.
We would bicker and fight and sleep in different rooms.
Even if we slept in the same room and the same bed, distances would intrude.
You had exclaimed after a fierce fight over a trifle. I had shouted at you. You had pursed lips, puckered up brows and gone on to watch TV– calm and remote.
I could feel your increasing frigidity towards me. I thought I did not matter anymore.
We were turning into close strangers, from lovers into mere actors.
Our earlier romance looked a caricature, a ghost.
My increasing paunch and odour was a constant turn-off.
I could not help that.
Now, at this moment, all this looks so trifling, irrelevant, when you are slowly drifting into another land of forgetfulness.
I miss you. Our bickering, patched up silences.
Now you are beyond all this!
Are you listening dear?
What a life!
Never thought you would lie strapped, a prostrate figure on the cold metal of a hospital bed in a South Delhi private hospital, surviving on drips and tubes; eyes dilated, fluttering — when a visiting family-member calls out your name softly. Otherwise, you seem to be in total amnesia.
So near, yet so remote!
Here comes the lightening. That always scared you. It is ominous. Thunder echoes. Darkness heightens. The darkness in the afternoon amplifies your helpless despondency.
I do not like sunless days. Now, with you strapped down, with the monitor on, breathing hard, I am drowned in loneliness.
Alone on this teeming, violent, mad planet!
My God! What would I do?
We were companions for more than five decades and fought and made up like other couples.
I never thought we would also age and reach expiry dates.
Death and sickness were for the others. We were immortals. What a vain and false assumption!
Now, you and I, in this semi-private room. I am holding your hand in mine…as we did, when we visited the Vasai Fort, near Mumbai.
You always loved ruins. Particularly, the monumental ruins. Ruins of forts cast a spell on you: the citadels, ramparts, bridges, minarets, barracks.
“I can hear history.”You said that visiting the Red Fort in Delhi. “The Mughals, the British, the Indians. I can hear the cannon balls booming, the massacres, the war cries, the blood-bath.”
“Crazy!” I thought. “How one can hear the dead!”
I was wrong!
The dead never leave us. They hover over us.
One can never bury their dead permanently.
I can see the dead. At my age, the past suddenly becomes real. Like a hazy afternoon, it links a dying day with an upcoming night…a threshold to connect the present to past.
Ruins, decay, and a few lessons in life.
Nothing remains as it is. Things change. Empires decline…and new ones rise on those ruins.
We would see the young couples escaping the oppressive city in the ruins of Purana Quila in New Delhi on winter afternoons. Couples, linked, sitting under shades or lawns. The library of the Emperor Humayun, the staircase leading down from it, from where he tumbled and died after three days of the fall, looks desolate on windy afternoons. Structures survive as symbols of lost cultures.
“We are left with ruins!” You had commented, sketching the library, from the lawn.
“What?” I asked.
“The debris of relations only,” you had said and smiled mysteriously.
Again, I had lost you and your enigmatic personality.
Was it about me?
Now, holding your soft hand in mine, I understand.
We are left with the debris of our relationship only. Nothing is left except the departing shadows, fleeting outlines.
See, it is raining heavily. Gloom has gathered and intensified. A rough wind escapes inside, ruffling your hair again.
What! I see my grandmother and mother clearly before my startled eyes, two figures tentative, quivering shadows.
Believe me. Each morphing into the other and then into you….
Even Maa had stopped talking to us before she died. She would also talk to herself in her dying days, few days of great agony and pain. She talked to her Maa and granny. At that point, I thought the disease could infect you too. But, it did not. In fact, busy as we were, we hardly talked. After a point, elderly Indian couples perhaps do not talk much, withdrawing into shells.
Work separated us.
You toiled in your office, commuting long, working late.
I did, in my office. We sacrificed for the family.
Some of the family does not understand us now. What an irony!
The kids are happy with their families.
We are alone; two of us, despite their living close in proximity. They hardly call us or come to meet us.
And now you are in coma!
Can you hear me darling!
I feel terribly lonely!
Who will care for me after you are gone?
Your absence, though painful, reminds me of your sweet presence!
In fact, I have begun noticing you in last few days only. Days when you were wheeled into the ICU, then moved to general ward and then back to a semi-private room. I began feeling your phantom presence hovering over me, your silent love, your sacrifices that remained unseen.
The way you cooked, washed, shopped, cleaned and cared for all of us.
I could never gift the advertised diamond necklaces or silver rings because we both were poor middle-class Indians working as slaves for surviving in hell! No respite. No money to spare. You dressed modestly. I did humbly. We walked, skipped Dutch parties, in order to meet educational expenses of a growing family.
When the maids would not turn up, you toiled on holidays and Sundays. In the last decade, we avoided long-distance trips and cinemas to save money in a country where all food items cost more than even gold!
We had evolved into mere automatons!
To-day, holding your hand, I reminisce and understand the value of love and togetherness.
Now, it is too late.
You are beyond all this humbug.
The doctors say you will not live long.
You are in coma. On life support.
How fragile is life!
It mocks our ambitions, unbridled desires.
Medicines can delay but not prevent decay and death.
After you move out of this bond, I will remain stuck, alone.
Your memories might help.
Now I realize your value. You were created as a superwoman to satisfy our selfish needs. We defied you and used you as a woman, my dear.
I wish I had talked to you more, walked into moonlit courtyards with arms linked. I could have laughed with you more and more…run with you on the open grounds in Goa or admired the heritage sites or listened to your songs…things that made us both human and artists.
Let me tell you, my dearest wife, you mean so much to me. Now, with you sinking rapidly into the oblivion, I realize this bitter fact.
Debris. I wander in the ruins.
And once we had almost split up!
I had seen this message on your cell-phone in the late night — woken by the beep in the dead of night, while you slept like a log. A short message of remembrance at 12.30 am. The next day, I secretly followed you to the bus-stop and saw this tall well-sculpted younger man talking to you. Both of you boarded the same chartered bus to NOIDA and in the evening, I saw both of you alight from the same bus. I watched, for more than seven days. Your smile was divine, your gait light and eyes beaming.
When later on, on Saturday night, I confronted you, you denied everything. When I persisted, you said cruelly, “Cannot a woman whose husband is not working for the last three months, talk to a friend working in another office?”
I was stunned! How you had changed!
“Leave the job,” I had thundered.
“Who will look after the bills?” You were cool, distant, triumphant.
“Who is he?”
“A fine man…kind. Nice. A friend. Things forgotten by you.”
I was devastated by these icy remarks.
Oh! I could barely manage, a pain bursting inside and sundering my heart.
“He is so fine!” I had remarked viciously, a loser.
“He is a polite guy, a co-traveller. That is all.” You had concluded firmly and moved to your side of the bed.
I had continued to toss. A down-sized man, unwanted by the system. You had become more brazen and often praised him in order to insult my joblessness and enforced stay at home.
It had become a battleground!
From lovers to enemies.
You had begun to move away…in subtle ways, ignoring me. I was left with no option but to put up with the situation. Once I fell down on the wet floor of the house and you did not react beyond mere lip-sympathy. I saw a mocking smile on your face.
At that moment of coldness, I knew I had lost you forever as my beloved. Only, a spouse remained. Enacting fixed roles for the family and to reinforce our middle-class respectability and image.
We had evolved into perfect strangers. Whenever I raised the topic, you would say I was paranoid, a suspicious man. A cruel man.
Look after the bills and I am happy to look after the family. These two roles and your slurs, suspicions…they were too much for me to handle
You would taunt me. We stopped talking.
I did not have any evidence of adultery. Only my suspicions.
“Your insecurities!” You would laugh and say, “He is my good friend, not lover. Cannot a working woman have a good male friend? He is married…happily…with two kids.”
I had no answers. Perhaps, you were right. I was reading too much into a normal situation. A working woman. A courteous co-traveller. A common chartered bus going to the same locality. A simple fun-loving decent man! A good singer also. You loved singing. I never sang. You loved outdoors. I hated it. You loved travelling. I avoided travel. You loved reading and history. I was a Chemistry student.
Our worlds, exclusive, were held together by an arranged marriage. Subsequently, by the children only…like rest of the middle-class Indians. Two perfect strangers brought together by common practices, who had discovered each other in initial years of marriage. Then, pressurised by work and anti-romance conditions of our living in an Indian metro, we drew apart.…like others of our ilk.
Once you stormed out, remained away; then the children united us again. Then the hasty departure of the other man in our marriage — with a promotion — to Bangalore, cooled the anger and we somehow reconciled.
You became quiet and lost. Hardly sang or read for months. I checked your cell-phone and expectedly found no messages from your decent kind friend, the co-traveller.
I knew you were feeling used again. People had seen you dining and coming out of malls but you denied and threatened to quit always and my long unemployed status increased my humiliating dependency on you. Occasionally, I tried to sing a song and applied a talc powder but both acts of gallantry repelled you further.
I could not live up to the romantic image promoted by Bollywood. I was a Chemist working in a factory located some sixty kilometers away from home and I had no training or patience with sustained courtship.
How can a battered man be a perpetual romantic hero in life?
For me, life was never a constant candle-lit dinner party. It was a constant battle to survive in hell!
My idea of romance was — and is — holding hands and speaking silently.
Love is an emotion transmitted non-verbally.
Love is beyond words. A telepathic experience.
Hope, dear, you understand my love now, as I hold your hand and cry silently for having missed out so much in life simply because I could never afford those expensive signs of media-promoted notion of love and romance.
I loved you from the bottom of my heart. I still do. I could never tell you in these terms — not everybody is a born poet!
I might have mistreated you or neglected you as the long commutes drained me completely but my heart always with you.
Are you listening my love?
Listening to my heart?
Lo, here comes the thunder. And the darkness is increasing…
Sunil Sharma is the editor of SETU. He is a senior academic, critic, literary editor and author with 21 published books, seven collections of poetry, three of short fiction, one novel, a critical study of the novel, and, eight joint anthologies on prose, poetry and criticism, and, one joint poetry collection.
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