He sat with his eyes downcast. Whether his eyes entertained any drop of tear or not, I wouldn’t know. I noticed his fingers that held on to the walking stick. Three of his fingers shook in constant rhythm.
“Come”, I called out to him. He looked up. A single drop of tear nestled at the corner of his left eye.
“Come”, I called out again, this time extending my hand to hold his.
He surrendered his cold, shrivelled fingers into the warmth of my palm. He took a bit of time – a two and a half minute – to let his body adjust and then holding on to my fingers he moved ahead, step by step.
Nayantara glanced at the clock once. And then again – perhaps the eleventh time in a span of three minutes. She rehearsed once again the things that she needed to talk to him about – Ishani’s progress report, the wrong spelling in the ration card, that she loved the smell of the hair oil that he had gifted and yes, Mini the pet cat now has three kittens…..Did she have any list of complaints? Like Indranath says always, “Okay now tell me – what are the bad –bad things….the complaints that you have?”
“No complaints this time Indrababu…things are perfectly well”, she broke into peals of laughter as she spoke out the lines loud enough, imagining Indranath sitting right in front of her – on the bed – like he always does.
And then there it was. Wasn’t that the knock that she always waited for? She rushed to the front room to open the door. A gust of wind blew in – bringing with it dust and dry leaves. Nayantara looked at the sky. Tufts of black clouds played with each other, signalling a Norwester in the offing. “No, no not now…not till he reaches here”, she said a quick prayer as she shut the door again.
She ran to the kitchen to check if things were in order. The packet of yet unopened puffed rice and savoury mixture sat snugly in one corner. Nayantara was tempted to try the savoury mixture a bit.
“Ishh, not now mad woman, control your urge…What fun it is to pick up little bits from his plate!”, she smiled and scolded herself.
Was that a knock again? She trained her ears again. Yes, ofcourse…She ran in quick yet soft steps to the front room. Her heart raced faster as she opened the door with trembling fingers. It always did – every single time, for eight months now.
And there he stood. Nayantara let out a mild gasp and followed it with a shy smile. Micro flakes of the drizzle outside had settled over his black, wavy hair. He smelt of jasmine. But somehow he wouldn’t get in. Unlike the other days, she noticed, he didn’t ruffle her hair with his fingers. Neither did he lovingly call out her name the way he always did, “Nayana”. It seemed a trifle puzzling to her. She pulled him in , “ Ei Indrababu, why do you want to get wet? “
He dragged his feet inside somehow. He looked tired as he bent down to open his shoe laces. Like everytime, Nayantara ran to the kitchen and brought in water in the glass that she wouldn’t use otherwise.
Indranth took just ten seconds to finish the glass of water. In the meanwhile Nayantara pulled out the little packet that he had kept on his lap. Her eyes gleamed in genuine mirth, “Jaaaasminee….I knew it, I knew it”. She clapped like a child. Indranth looked at her with tired eyes and smiled.
As he sat in one corner of the cot, Nayantara sat next to him, preparing to let her tongue finally let out the lines that she had been rehearsing over and over again for a week. But before she could speak, he gently placed his hand on hers. Something happened inside her ….it was a kind of music showered by the first rain of the monsoon. She trembled mildly. Two and half years into her widowhood when she had first encountered Indranath and he had held her hand, she had felt this strange tremble within. It was then coupled with shame and shock. Eight months later that same touch gave a celestial comfort of togetherness.
“Nayana”, he spoke with a voice that seemed distant.
“Nayana, they found out about us. And perhaps…perhaps….this would be our last meeting.” He face contorted in genuine pain as he uttered the word ‘last’.
“ Tea ? Shall I make tea for you? See, I have also bought your favourite mixture. Puffed rice, mixture and hot tea…..perfect for this weather Indrababu.”, she laughed like a child as she got up to head towards the kitchen.
Indranath pulled her towards himself. He cupped her face in his palms.
“Nayana, did you hear what I just said ? This would be our last meeting. Today and now is the last time we would ever meet”, he stressed louder on the word ‘last’ this time.
She stared at his face….simply stared, not really knowing what to do.
“But I can be your friend Indrababu, can’t I? I mean, you can always come to visit your friend isn’t it?”
“The world doesn’t understand that Nayana. To them you would always be the ‘other woman’ “
Nayantara could sense a burning, shearing pain down her spine. She felt a surge of vomit pushing up her throat.
She coughed a bit, trying to push down that strangely, riveting feeling. And then she smiled.
“I knowww….I knowww you Indrababu….you, you, you are joking, aren’t you?”, she stammered as she spoke, trying to make light of the situation.
Indranath helplessly sat down , his face crest-fallen. “How I wish…this was a joke Nayana”. His voice was now hardly a whisper.
She looked at him in disbelief. Then with soft fingers she brought out the little string of jasmine that he had brought for her.
“ I love jasmine….you know na…I love jasmine”
“Yes Nayana, that is why I brought this for you….I couldn’t think of a better parting gift.”
“Will you never come back again Indrababu?”. There was something in her voice ….question, appeal, helplessness all coupled together. Her dark eyes looked straight into his. Indranath couldn’t really control himself. A soft stream of tears flowed down his rugged cheeks.
“Don’t go na…don’t go…”, she clutched his hands with her long, soft fingers. Indranath had no answer. He let his incessant flow of tears do the talking.
Then with a sudden surge of emotions she flung herself on his chest, embracing him the tightest within the ring of her arms.
“Don’t leave me Indrababu…no , no, no…not me please…I will be lost without you. You cannot leave me na? You love me, don’t you?”, she sobbed like a child. Her muffled voice was hardly audible. Her wet nose rubbed against his chest. Even amidst her tears she wanted to inhale the smell of his sweat coupled with talcum powder that smelt of sandalwood – may be one last time. He in turn held her in the tightest embrace he ever could. “I love you Nayana. And you know that. And if I am leaving you today, it is for you. If I leave my family for you, no one would stop pointing fingers at you. And if I continue this relationship the society would torment you every day as the other woman. I know..I know…the fault is entirely mine. But I really do not have an explanation as to why and what happened between us….Just that it happened.”
“You can’t , can’t , can’t leave me this way….”, she whimpered on, encircled within his embrace. Indranath glanced at the partially hidden face of Nayantara – sweat, tears, sticky nose had made a mess of her dusky face. Many a night he had wondered what had really drawn him towards Nayantara. His wife Sumitra was many times more beautiful than Nayantara – atleast in conventional terms. It isn’t that Sumitra was loud – the ones who nag the entire day. She had stood with him in his toughest times and well fitted into the role of an ideal wife. And the brutal fact was that Indranath loved her too. Nayantara on the otherhand was careless, talkative, at the best an average looking woman. The only thing that stood out were her two large eyes. But what made her special was the child-woman that she was. She would argue with him about the song played on the radio, she would encourage her daughter to steal mangoes from the neighbourhood, she would fist-fight with him like a child…..there was something in her that made her immensely attractive. All he wanted was to lend a helping hand to a helpless family of mother and daughter and what he ended up was to fall in love with the reckless, boisterous child in the garb of a woman.
“Am I bad? Am I a bad woman?”, Nayantara looked up from the cosiness of the final moments of togetherness. With his fingers, Indranath carefully unearthed her face from the maze of little locks of hair that had got pasted to her face. He kissed her forehead – once, twice , thrice.
“You can’t be bad Nayana. You don’t deserve this heart-break. It is I who is bad. May no curse, no hurt ever touch you anymore after this. It was my decision to be with you. And it is I who have failed you. Can you forgive me?”, he spoke to her, looking into her eyes. He remembered what his wife had told him in the morning. Normally soft-spoken that she is, Sumitra hardly raised her voice when she spoken to him . “She, whoever she is, has dared to steal my husband. And may she never be happy. This is my curse.”, she had let out the curse drift through the stony silence of the room. And as he now held on to Nayantara, Indranath prayed with all his might to the invisible God that may no harm, no curse ever touch her.
They held on to each other while her sobs subsided.
“I have to go now Nayana”, he spoke reluctantly.
“Now ? “, there was something of the sort of a child-like fear in her voice.
“One minute”. She freed herself from his embrace and rushed towards the cupboard.
“Do you remember the muffler I was knitting for you? Just ten more lines and it would be over. Will you wait while I finish that? It won’t take long”, she tried to force a smile on her tired lips. Lord, could the clock not stop there?
“No Nayana, they would create a huge problem if I take it back home.”
Nayantara stood helpless, her fingers holding on to the cupboard.
“Tea? Atleast tea you can have….I, I , I make good tea….”, she tried to giggle. Indranath understood her perfectly well. All she wanted was to steal moments from the time that was fast slipping off her fingers.
“Yes, tea I can have”. That was the final bit of happiness that he could offer her.
Having bought some more moments from destiny, Nayantara touched and held on to everything that was designated as his – his cup, his saucer , his spoon. As the tea boiled, she kissed each of those with tired lips. “May my love be with you Indrababu, forever and ever”, she went on repeating the lines.
It took twelve minutes for him to finish the cup of tea. Like a child she poured it into the saucer, blew it cold and offered it to him. With every decreasing quantity, she would look at the clock.
While he drank, she used the end of her saree to wipe his partially wet hair.
At the fourteenth minute he got up.
“ Nayana, I have to go now. I am worthless of offering any comfort to you. But if you would believe, as long as I am alive I would have this special place for you that no one can take away. To the society you are the ‘other’ woman. To me, you are the woman I loved.”
He dragged his feet with the biggest might he ever could, wore his shoes in silence and opened the door.
He turned around to give a last glance to her.
“ Do you want to say something Nayana? “, he asked her. He wanted her to call him names, curse him….How could he get away so easily? He did not feel guilty. He felt hatred for himself.
“I…I…no…I mean take care Indrababu. You always leave behind your umbrella…remember to take it. And yes, I don’t like your hair oil. The smell Cantha-cantharidine irritates my nose. Use pure coconut oil…good enough. And..and…when you buy fruits, check them…you always buy sour oranges…”
Nayantara knew that not one word that she spoke made sense. Yet she let her pain dissolve in the stream of incoherence.
As he was about to close the door behind him, she spoke again, this time so softly that he could hardly hear, “ I love you Indrababu…and I will always love you.”
The gust of wind shut the door with a bang. Nayantara held the edge of her saree close to her nose. Just minutes before she had wiped his hair with it. It smelt of Cantharidine. How long does the smell last she wondered. A tiny, lonely strand of hair of his clung on to it. With utmost precision she picked it up and held it close to bosom. This was the only bit of Indranth that was now left with her.
He looked at her face. For a moment there was no expression. As if he was trying to match her aged face with the one he left thirty five years back. That I made my mother lie on the cot instead of the floor, which is ordinarily the system, made it easier for him to look at her face more clearly. His lips parted as if to say something. There was only movement of his gummy lips but no words would come out of it. He then looked at me and with a voice now louder said, “Bindi..red bindi….she always loved wearing that…Won’t you put it on her forehead? Or did she stop wearing one?”
It shook me for a second to realise that what I, being her daughter of so many years of staying together had overlooked, was something he realised in a minute even after thirty five years of absence.
“Oh yes, yes…sure…She always did use the red bindi…I forgot”.
I rummaged the drawer and took out a packet. As I was about to place the dot on her forehead, his shaky fingers made a gesture of request, “May I?”, he asked, his voice now quivering.
It took many attempts for him to be able to place the dot on her forehead and the end result was geometrically correct. But the moment the ill-placed Bindi touched her forehead she lifeless face shone the brightest.
At the point, I forgave whatever was remaining of the hatred for a man who was the reason my mother had to be the ‘other woman’. Unlike what he had thought, the society wasn’t that forgiving one and my growing up years was always tormented by whispered rumours about eight months of ‘sin’ of my mother. The only person who was left unaffected by this was my mother. She had completed the woollen scarf and at the onset of every winter would put it out in the sun for it’s share of warmth. It’s owner never came back but I grew up with the strict warning of not been able to touch a particular cup, saucer and spoon. It isn’t that she didn’t love my father. Every single day , after her bath, she would spend a full half an hour talking to his framed picture – just like a wife would. But I could still sense that somehow she lived on with the memories of an eight month old relationship that had not just made a touch and go but had changed her life forever. Technically, I should have despised and hated the man. But how could I possibly hate a man for whom my mother waited every single day with the belief that perhaps one day her Indrababu might just walk in through the door….
The murmur of the visitors around me grew louder. I knew there would be a neat dissection of her character after her cremation but I didn’t care. What mattered to me was this framed moment where his very aged fingers played on with her hair, where two drops of tears made it’s way down his sunken cheeks on her forehead.
“I have always loved you Nayana, always….”. His almost inaudible whisper was only for her. No one saw but I did….the faint trace of smile that laced her lips. Her thirty five years of wait was worth this moment of worship.
“ You must be the happiest now, Ma”, I thought myself. I touched her cold feet. I smiled.
A silly smell of jasmine interspersed with sandalwood wafted around.
“Rest in Peace Ma. Atleast now….REST IN PEACE”, I whispered.
(Picture Courtesy: Pixabay)