Short Story: The Choice
By Tamizh Ponni
“Hey, don’t go too far,” yelled Rekha, adjusting her hat. The popsicle in her other hand was melting with all possible haste not letting Rekha relish it at her own pace.
“I am good. Jeez! I am a grown-up now! Stop being nannyish!”replied Madhu as she carefully collected the sea urchin shells. They fascinated her for some reason. With an enclosed dome-like structure and a muricated exterior, they resembled Madhu’s actual persona.
“You get back here now. It’s not safe in there,” Rekha yelled not paying any heed to her daughter’s backtalk.
“Ma! I am 35. Treat me like an adult. Pleaaaase…,” Madhu begged with a babyish pout. Now that her hands were almost full with the precious collection, Madhu was frantically looking for a place to unload.
“Age isn’t going to magically instil maturity in you or stop me from protecting you,” Rekha replied dryly, biting her popsicle.
“Protect me from what? Ocean waves?” asked Madhu jokingly and chuckled.
“From your own silliness. Now come back. Let’s enjoy the view and the waves from here,” said Rekha patting on a spot next to her on the beach mat.
“Alright, Alright,” Madhu sighed and returned. She wanted to sit for a while too. The cool, salty breeze calmed her mind and helped her take her mind off the previous week’s madness. She wanted to discuss it particularly with her mother but didn’t know how to begin.
As Rekha opened the box containing egg Samosas, the aroma of its filling fuelled Madhu’s hunger. She gladly took one and took a sizeable bite. Munching on the lunch, the duo were devouring the fresh sea breeze with their legs stretched.
“Is something bothering you?” Rekha asked without looking at her daughter.
Madhu jumped at the question.
“Uh?……What?”She fumbled for words.
“You heard me,” Rekha replied.
Madhu could never crack this code. Her mother always sensed it right.
Among all the things that marvelled Madhu in the world, this topped the list. Her mother could sense things better than any sensor.
Madhu was glad her mother asked and knew that this was the right time to talk about it.
“Nothing, Mom. Just….you know…life,”she said and gradually began to elaborate her thoughts. “To whatever extent I try to be happy with myself and with my choices, there’s this imperceptible pressure around me that makes me want to question the decisions I have made.” She said and took another bite of that delectable samosa.
Rekha understood what Madhu was implying but pretended to remain perplexed so that she could give her daughter more room for explanation.
“What do you mean by choices? Did anyone say anything?”she asked.
“No…not like that..but…you know. You just feel it. Somewhere in the middle of the conversation things come up. For instance, last month we had to visit Chandru’s parents for Thanksgiving and this baby talk came up again…in a subtle way…and then went away. I just feel that they are…um …trying to imply that it’s not too late to change my mind about having kids…you know…,” Madhu said with her voice fading.
There was a good amount of silence. No one spoke for a few minutes.
Madhu felt better getting it out of her system. This time, she didn’t feel like discussing it with anyone but her mother. This always became the topic of conversation with her friends and she was tired of listening to them saying that there’s still time and that it’s never too late. Simply put, Madhu didn’t hate kids but just the idea of having one gave her the creeps. It was ironic that being a teacher in an elementary school, constantly surrounded by kids, she never thought of having her own.
When her relationship with Chandru started getting serious, she informed him of her clear-cut stance on voluntary childlessness. Madhu was used to being the cynosure of all eyes, especially her mother’s. She received unconditional love, care and support at any cost. It was only fair that she should expect the same from her life partner or anyone who’s going to be in her life. Though this was majorly the case, Madhu also despised the thought of going through labour, birthing and bringing up another human all the while being subjected to scrutiny by the society. Madhu knew that she’d fail as a parent.
Rekha took a while to respond. She gazed at the vast expanse of the sea and gave out a deep sigh.
“Sweetheart,” Rekha cleared her throat, “I know this sounds like a clichéd opening statement while giving advice on things but I don’t know how else to put this. When I was your age, I did go through what you just described. Your dad, being a wonderful man like Chandru, never paid attention to any of this and ensured that I wasn’t affected by it too. We were bombarded with pointless questions on the reasons for not wanting to start our own family. A few ‘concerned’ folks in my family were hell-bent in knowing the real cause and even enquired about our medical reports. It was definitely tiring but we survived it. Together.”
“Wow,” hummed Madhu looked down, loosely holding the powdery sand.
“However, it wasn’t easy.” Rekha continued, “ You can’t just shut yourself from this external noise forever. It took time and became less bothersome when I tried to focus on much bigger things. My job kept me on my toes; your dad and I made adventurous travel plans; explored all the possible food joints in this place and did everything that nurtured the love, respect and trust we had for each other. We never felt the need to bring in an addition to the family to complete any circle or fill any void because there wasn’t one in the first place. And then, you happened. We didn’t plan it but we loved it. It was magical. You wouldn’t understand how much you have changed things for us. You were that precious missing piece we were too ignorant to notice in our lives. You became our world,” said Rekha as she stroked her daughter’s hands gently with genuine love.
Madhu felt tears rolling down her cheeks. She tried hard to fight them back and looked up at the bright blue sky but miserably failed. “So….what does it mean, Mom?… Should I settle down someday then? Find my missing piece too?” she sniffled.
“No! That’s not what I meant”, Rekha chided her. “ It makes no difference to me whether you have a child or not. It is absolutely your choice and I have no say in it. I wanted you to understand that blurring out these nugatory comments will be easy only if you learn to draw your focus towards the right things in life. Also, remember you are not the only one to go through this. We, women, have all come a long way and still have a long way to go. At no point should you feel obliged to do this because that is definitely not the right way to establish yourself as a parent? No amount of justification would shut society’s mouths. Never let anyone decide your life for you.”
Madhu chuckled wiping out her tears with the tissue Rekha handed out to her. “Aah…I wish,” she said blowing her nose. “I wish I had your strength.”
“You do,” Rekha reassured her. “You are just not ready to acknowledge it. How does Chandru feel about all this? ”she asked after a long pause.
Madhu wished she could answer that question easily. A few years ago, that would have been possible but now things were getting murkier. Chandru had slowly begun to yield to family pressure.
At times, Madhu even thought about the possibility of Chandru having accepted her terms and conditions in the past, secretly assuming that she would have a change of heart about having children someday. The poor guy was in the soup. Chandru would love to become a father someday. After ten years of marriage, he had started becoming restless as there hadn’t been any green signal from Madhu. Though he never directly persuaded her to think about having a baby, there were strong incoming signals.
Lately, he started getting strangely distant from Madhu. Their conversations only revolved around discussing the grocery list, house maintenance routines and bill payments. Madhu tried to communicate with him a couple of times but Chandru wasn’t ready to open up. He didn’t want to sabotage the peace between them by opening a can of worms. Deep down, Madhu knew full well that she couldn’t do anything about it.
“Well, you know how he is. I feel that things are right now are a bit weird between us,” Madhu replied sadly.
“Weird how?”Rekha questioned in a troubled tone.
“He doesn’t share things with me anymore. We hardly go out.” Madhu swallowed the lump in her throat slowly and continued to talk. “I am sure my decision is bothering him but he doesn’t want to talk about it. He still loves me and cares for me but in a different way.”
Rekha’s heart sunk. Her selfish interests in safeguarding the happiness of her one and only daughter had gotten Madhu into a fix. The situation looked dicey. If the current situation persisted, it would certainly erode Madhu’s relationship with Chandru. Rekha did not want that to happen.
“Madhu, I think you need to break the ice sweetheart. You see, Chandru is a wonderful human being and he loves you like crazy. You shouldn’t let these petty things ruin your relationship. These are minor hiccups that would disappear in no time,” said Rekha hoping that a candid and intimate conversation would resolve the issues.
“So, what if I had that talk and he tells me that he wants a baby. What am I going to do then? He even once told me that we could consider adoption!” Madhu said in a shaky voice.
Rekha held her daughter’s hand gently and caressed it. Frankly, she didn’t know how to comfort her child. All she could do was prepare Madhu for the worst and urge her not to end up desperately pining for anyone at the cost of her own happiness.
“Madhu. You are a mature woman who is wise enough to make the right choice. And, by the right choice, I meant the one that’ll keep you content. Also, a timely one. I can’t speak for Chandru, though. That’s between you and him. At the same time, I can’t promise you that he would be happy with your choice in the long run. Chandru’s priorities might change too. And you need to be ready for that,”said Rekha cautiously.
Madhu suddenly felt abandoned and orphaned. In this situation, her mother’s concern for Chandru’s feelings was a little too discomforting. Rekha’s words beautifully triggered off Madhu’s bottled up emotions.
“Whose side are you on, Ma?”Madhu exploded. “Am I at fault if he changes his mind?”
“I didn’t say that,” said Rekha softly, gently gripping her daughter’s hand.
“Well, in a way you just did!” Madhu continued and shoved the last bit of Samosa back into the box. Anger painted her face, red and hunger disappeared without a trace. “I was careful from the beginning, unquestionably. I methodically explained my expectations before we became a couple, for the fear of upsetting him later. How am I responsible for his misconceptions now?”
Rekha didn’t want to sugarcoat it anymore. Maybe saying this would wreck her daughter’s ego but it had to be said. In her final years, she didn’t want Madhu to live guilt-ridden because of her childish stubbornness. Whatever happens next didn’t stop Rekha from calling a spade a spade.
“Look, Madhu honey. Change is freaking inevitable. You can try as much as you can and resist it but it is coming. Chandru has been immensely supportive of your decisions all these years. Have you ever thought about what he really wanted? Of course, you had a watertight contract once about not having children. But things change; people change. You can’t control that. That man has always loved you, cared for you and is loyal to you. Don’t you think, the least you can do is at least to think of the possibility of having a child or even adopting one?” Rekha said in a desperate attempt to help her daughter read the signs and wake up to the situation.
Madhu could not think straight. These were suggestion annoyed her because they made sense. The internal pain was worse than the one that when she stubbed her pinky toe against a table leg. Suddenly her vision blurred; sounds were distorted.
“Madhu…Madhu…Hey Madhu,” the voice grew stronger and stronger
“Hey Madhu, wake up.” It was Chandru’s voice.
It took a while for Madhu to shake off the last dregs of sleep. She gave a long perplexed look at Chandru and slowly smiled with half-closed eyes.
“You’ve been out like a light since the afternoon. Come and eat something,” he said and switched off the fairy lights hanging above the bed. Madhu hated it every time he did that. She was obsessed with fairy lights as she felt they had this mood-lightening vibe.
She felt disoriented as she kept recalling that wonderful dream intermittently.
Smiling sluggishly, Madhu slowly opened her eyes and hauled herself out of bed to the shower room. She stood for a moment near the vanity unit and stared at the mirror. Her mind still kept replaying the dream.
Madhu peeked out of the door slowly and watched Chandru arrange the plates. It was a pleasant sight to observe Chandru in the dining room, setting up the table for dinner. This gave her some time to do what she intended to do.
Madhu opened her bag gently and took out the adoption papers she had gotten from the agency, the previous week. She couldn’t be sure if it either happened by chance or by design when the conversation about adoption came up the other day. Madhu wanted to vent it out to somebody and the only person who she could do it with was her best pal Maya. They met for a coffee and talked like crazy. As Madhu’s marriage troubles became the topic of their conversation, Maya subtly hinted that she think of adoption. She knew how to put things into perspective for Madhu.
“Just try. If you don’t like it, you can change your mind any time before sealing the deal. As such it’s a haranguing process. Chandru will surely appreciate it. Give it a shot!” Maya said.
“Madhu,” Chandru’s voice once again broke her preoccupation.
“Yeah, coming,” she responded from the bedroom.
Gingerly, she took out the folded sheets from her handbag and left them on the table next to the bed. Doing that eased her mind. “Finally, we can talk about it,” she thought.
In a way, Madhu felt weirdly positive and proud of herself for what she thought was an empathetic action. The surety of being happy with what she wanted was comforting. There was a little guilt lingering in her mind for not having thought of this earlier, yet Madhu didn’t let that spoil her current state of contentment.
Minutes later, Madhu joined her husband for dinner. They ate in silence exchanging accidental glances. Chandru was awfully silent and had too much wine that night.
“Celebrating something?” She asked with a smile.
“Nope,” replied Chandru and continued sipping the Grenache.
“Do you want to hear something dirty?” she whispered softly with a playful smile.
Chandru seemed to be strongly distracted by his phone that night particularly. Madhu couldn’t tell if he was typing or reading something. “Yeah,” he said glancing at her for a second and put his phone down.
“Tonight, I’ll take the trash out,” she said stuffing her mouth with rice and giggled.
“Oh, sure,” Chandru replied impassively and kept eating.
Maybe this was it. The perfect moment to address the elephant in the room. Madhu was in a way glad that he was being a grumpy cat. This coldness had to stop and Madhu couldn’t have asked for a better time to talk about it. “Chandru,we…”
“I want a divorce!” Chandru said looking at the leftovers on his plate intently.
Grim silence filled the room.
“Wha….what?” she asked in a quivering voice.
He responded almost immediately. “I want a divorce. I can’t do this anymore. We are just punishing each other. I think this needs to stop. You and I don’t deserve each other. Also, I am seeing someone,” he spoke robotically, got up and walked away.
None of what he said made any sense to her. Each word pierced her heart like a sharp-ended icicle. She experienced what people called a mental avalanche. Breathing through her mouth, Madhu looked fixedly at the adoption papers on the table.
She suddenly realised why in her dream her mother had said it was crucial to make a choice, a timely one.
Tamizh Ponni is a middle school teacher working in an international school in Bangalore. She is a voracious reader and a budding writer. She has written short articles in her college journal and has also written for the International Baccalaureate blog through articles on Technology in Education. Writing is a cathartic experience for her as it helps her express her feelings in creative ways. She is currently working on dystopian fiction.
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