Short Story: Realities by Nabanita Sengupta
I have to dress myself in red today. Sorry Somesh, for being unfaithful to you. I could have fought them all but for our children. They say I must agree to their plan. They are both so grown up now – Jia and Sahil! They advise me on everything as if I am a little child. But marriage? No! No! That cannot be! Everyone tells me that I have been married to Pratik for years. But why do I draw a blank at that? Pratik is nice, familiar, comfortable; we even share the same house! Just the other day I had to chase him out of my room – he was lazing around as if he belonged there! And then there is that wedding album! They carry a hundred of our wedding pictures – happy moments frozen in four by six glossy papers. Such vibrant colours – if only my memory was as sharp as these. But memory fails me. It becomes as fuzzy as a Delhi winter morning, unfocussed, blurred yet somewhere just within reach. Only I have no access to it. By the way, have you ever known anyone who forgets her own wedding? All of them forget that I am a widow, Somesh’s widow. It is not for me to marry. I remember pishi, my father was so protective about her, yet could he save her from a heartbreak? She left eating fish, gave away all her ornaments, wore only white and remained buried under the weight of various rituals and customs. She looked like a ghost biding her time in this world. Wasn’t this the fate of all widows? Wasn’t this what grandfather told her, she being the apple of his eyes? I remember feeling so sad for her. I wanted to find a prince charming to take her away from this repressive world. When I said that to her once, she smiled – a smile of such sadness that my heart shattered into a thousand pieces. I never repeated it to her again. But look at my own children – harping about their own mother’s wedding in which they too claim to have participated! Disgusting, yet I cannot bring myself to be angry with them for a long time. If they are mistaken, it is my duty to lead them to the truth.
All those who say that I have remarried – how could I go against my pishi and dadu! I have asked him too – that man, who keeps coming here. He seems to keep a level head. He asked me not to sweat over it. He said he is okay both ways. But this also means he avoided giving me a direct answer. I might be a forgetful woman but I am not stupid! Still, I shall not think about it much. It drives me so tired. I wish pishi could come and sing me to sleep. Her voice soothes all my tensions. I shall sleep, then perhaps ma might run her fingers through my long hairs. When she does that, all my worries fade away.
I often think there is something wrong with me. I have to take pills to keep myself interested in life, motivated. I need to keep seeing doctors but nobody tells me what’s wrong. There are times when I am so mad that I want to tear up everything. I am tired. I keep losing things. The other day, I could not find my pillow. I cannot sleep without it so I turned my room upside down looking for it. It was a pillow, not a pair of glasses or a pen or something small that it might be lurking in some neglected corner, avoiding my frantic search operation. It was a fluffy and soft, medium sized yellow pillow with red Polka dots on it. I was so exhausted searching for it that I broke down crying. Just then Jia entered, held my hand and led me to my bed. She put another pillow and said, ma try lying down on this. I am sure you will find this one comfortable too because I have myself bought it for you. Clever girl! She knows how to sooth me. I have never refused anything to Pratik too, that is, till today – when he tried to hug me in the morning. Perhaps he meant no harm, did he always hug me so? My clever girl Jia, she led me to my pillow and fondled my hairs. Though thoughts of my lost polka dot pillow kept recurring, I fell asleep. Perhaps it was the magic of a daughter’s touch! I slept for two long hours in the afternoon and woke up feeling refreshed.
But today’s matter is lying heavy on me. They say it is my wedding anniversary. They say I must get dressed today. But I got married to Somesh in the monsoon and it is winter now. They say it is Pratik and my wedding anniversary; that I have long neglected him; that I should show him a bit of love at least. I do not know, I don’t understand. My head is reeling in pain and I feel faint. I can feel that anger slowly building up inside me – like a bottled up drinking soda shaken till the container can hold no more. I shall burst like that soda bottle anytime and sputter and splatter over anyone near me. I must check my emotions. Life may be hopeless at times but you have to adjust.
As she stepped out of the bathroom this morning, she just had the towel wrapped around her. Her long hair left a trail of water beads on the floor, pearl drops that I wished to gather and string back on her hair. Water droplets ran down her elbows and her knees making me go weak at this age too! I just wanted to hold her tight like the old times. Or I could just leave a trail of kisses all over her. So what if we are on the wrong side of fifty; I winked at myself. I could simply wrap my arms around her to feel her cool skin against mine and breathe in her scent. But I can do none of these. I can only sigh and watch her from a distance.
Only, if only she could once again go back to being my wife. I sigh. It is a futile sigh of a defeated man who cannot even save his woman from slipping away. My god she is so beautiful even now! At the dusk of her life, and in her case the dusk seems to have set in quite early, she holds her beauty like the setting sun, soothing and pampering the beholder with the last dash of its colour before the final darkness. If only I could hold her close, have real conversations with her like before; if only I could take her out of her past…
She had forgotten her clothes once again. Within the walls of our bedroom, this is the third time it happened. That is why I make it a point to be in the room when she goes for her bath. I quietly walked over to her and handed her the clothes, and, in a moment of weakness, could not resist embracing her – it has been such a long time since I have held her close to myself. But she pushed me away. The worst part is she looked at me with a patience and understanding that a mother shows for an errant child. This, my wife! It kills me to see her struggle everyday and I act as a mere bystander. But what can I do – I am no more a husband to her. That part of her memory has been pushed into some forgotten crevice of her mind.
I envy Somesh. At times I am so angry that I wish to bring him back from death and kill him myself. I am jealous of the place he occupies in her heart. Yes he was her husband. Jia and Sahil are their children. I do not fit into this family frame – I the unwanted lover of a widow gone all muddled in her mind in everything except her undying love for her departed husband. Where and how do I fit myself into the picture?
Jia and Sahil are gems. It is for them that I am still sane and of course for the love that I once shared with Meera. The two of them insisted on calling me papa. So over the years, from Prateek uncle I transformed to papa while Somesh remained their lost baba. They were so young when he passed away, like two lost souls with a heartbroken mother. Somesh was my colleague and a good friend but I had met Meera only after he passed away – to be precise, at his funeral. Being office mates, Somesh and I met every day. But none of us had ever visited another’s house. I was a bachelor while Somesh had married quite early and even had children in quick succession. It was as if he needed to tick all the boxes right before finally leaving this world in a great hurry. He was just thirty-five and his children were only six and seven. It was a massive cardiac arrest that claimed his life; Meera did not even get a chance to fight. Meera, was only thirty then. Could life be more unfair?
At first it was just sympathy that I felt for her, then curiosity took over. I started frequenting their place just to see how she coped with the blow that life had so unfairly dealt her. She did have the support and sympathy of her family but both her in-laws and her parents were settled in different cities. She did not want to leave her life here, her job and their house, to settle in a place where she will have to start anew. Her job in the bank saved her at that point of time. She was completely shattered but pulled herself together for the sake of her children. I do not know when I fell in love with her. It was a gradual feeling that slowly took over my senses, so much so that I could not think of a day without meeting them. Yes, them! I fell in love with all three of them. I wanted Jia and Sahil to be my kids, I wanted Meera to be my wife. I courted her for two long years after I realised my own feelings. I did not want to rush her into any commitment without being sure of herself. By then the kids were a bit older, and more familiar with me too. I was their favourite friend, their co-conspirator in all things that their mother won’t let them do. Children were easy to convince. They wanted me in their life but convincing Meera proved harder than I anticipated. From outright rejection to a stoic acceptance in the face of her children’s well-being, I saw it all. But then she too fell in love – with me. Not in the mad, mad way she had desired Somesh, but in the way of a slow, trusting acceptance, a cherished companionship and complete dependence that generally mark love in the middle ages. I was happy. I was getting closer to forty, the age when you cannot keep changing the woman who rules your heart. The arrogance and impatience of youth gives way to sincerity and dependence.
My parents did not accept, her parents were lukewarm and her previous in-laws did not bother to get involved in this aspect of her life. So we were very much on our own from the beginning, which was in so many ways a boon. I had a perfect family for close to two decades.
Then things started changing. Initially there were little acts of forgetfulness. She forgot to lock doors or took a wrong turn at the office or forgot to take her wallet – but it was never out of control so we did not even notice. And she was always impeccable at her job! No reason therefore for anyone to suspect anything amiss.
Then the first major one happened – she forgot to pick Jia up from her college on her way home and instead went to get her massage. Jia kept waiting for her and finally panicked that something must have happened to her mother because she was not even answering her mobile. It was only when Meera finally came out of the parlour and took out her phone from her bag that she saw the numerous missed calls. Meanwhile at home we were at our wits’ end and were just about to inform the police when she called back at Jia’s phone. This incident shook her up badly and dealt a blow to her confidence. Though we did not make much of it, she obviously took it to heart and since then things deteriorated pretty fast.
Doctors say it is Alzheimer’s slowly setting in, eating away her present, sucking her into a black hole of past from which it would be difficult to bring her back. It is not permanent yet, but they say it will be, if we are not relentlessly on our toes to make her feel the present.
I can see the struggle she goes through each and every moment to keep up with time. She is caught in a tug of war between the past and the present, time playing a set of games with her and she cannot always distinguish the trick from the truth. She doesn’t know who to trust. Sahil, by his very features, reminds her of Somesh, and consequently her widowhood.
When I was courting her, this was my most difficult hurdle – convincing her that it was neither a crime nor infidelity to remarry. Years of an orthodox environment at home had conditioned her to certain ways of life though she did acknowledge the meaninglessness of it.
Sahil at college now, is scared to lose his mamma. He clings to her as if she would vanish the moment he is away. Even his class hours are agonising for him – each moment is a struggle between the desire to be at home and in the classroom. We have started taking him for counselling too. Only Jia is a solace. The girl has a nerve of steel and a heart of gold – cliched you say? But it perfectly defines her.
The day doctors named the demon Alzheimer’s I felt the ground beneath my feet sway badly. I knew this had no cure. I know ma will never be the same again. But by forgetting papa and her marriage to him she is killing him along with her. Doctors say that it is good to keep reminding her of the present and also play along with her when she goes back in the past. It is not good to agitate her. But the two are so contradictory. I have taken matters in my own hand. I shall recreate the wedding scene with the same guests today and see if it reminds her of her marriage to papa. I know better than anyone else how much she dwells in the past these days. When she talks to me, I am often either her pishi or her mother – both women had been dead ages ago. She even at times confuses Sahil with baba.
The other day when she tore her room down searching for her polka dot pillow, I realised she had slipped into the past once again. It was one from the set of pillow covers that she and baba had bought together long ago. I know because I have heard that story too many times – of how in spite of their limited resources they had splurged that one day. So I simply made up a story and led her to bed. She was asleep in no time.
I have my acid test this evening. There is a lot to do; a lot to manage. Papa has agreed to be in charge of the party, I shall be taking care of ma. I must be watchful. Will she come back to us? Will she give us back our family?
Pratik holding my hand leads me to a table where there is an open register with the page showing a beautifully calligraphic Happy Anniversary. This seems so vaguely familiar, as if I am walking through a dream seen long back. I am acting a part that I had acted before, at some point of time. When he holds me by my waist, I very naturally lean against his body. He kisses my forehead lightly and holds me softly, close – like something fragile. I am feeling happy and precious, like I always do in his arms. I am quite an old woman now, yet why does my heart flutter like one in her teenage?
Jia has been constantly by my side since evening. She got me dressed and brought me to Pratik. Oh so many of our friends are also here! In fact most of them are here. It is so like the last time – the evening that I got married to Pratik! And today, it’s our anniversary, isn’t it? All of them have gathered again to wish us! It is such a beautiful surprise. But why didn’t they tell me that we are planning a party this time? Must be Jia’s idea – that girl is always so full of plans! Pratik never hides anything from me. Oh even the cake is so similar to our wedding cake! That girl has really planned it all. Alright, I too shall give them a surprise. I shall sing the song I sang that day, Pratik’s favourite.
She remembered! At last she remembered! She sang my favourite number – same as she had done on our wedding day! And with the same feelings! Jia, my angel, your efforts paid! At least for this day I am her husband. I can hold her, talk to her and hug her to sleep. Small mercies of life. I know tomorrow will be another story, another battle. But today’s acknowledgement from her has fuelled me with enough spirit to keep up this never ending battle. Even if she goes into that land of complete oblivion I shall be by her side forever. After listening to her song I have suddenly realised that no matter what tricks her memory plays, I shall always cherish her – as a husband or a friend or even as just an acquaintance. We shall always be a family – a family of four.
Dr. Nabanita Sengupta is presently working as assistant professor in English at Sarsuna College, affiliated to the University of Calcutta. She is also associated with two literary societies – Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library and Kolkata Translators’ Forum. Her poetry, fiction and non-fiction have been variously published at places like SETU, Muse India, Coldnoon, Café Dissensus, NewsMinute.in, News18.com, Kitaab.org and Different Truths. She also has a number of critical writings to her name and has presented papers at various national and international seminars and webinars.