Sonia Dogra’s short story is tender and warm as it tugs the reader’s heart at the right places.
EDITOR’S PICK OF THE WEEK
(As the editor’s pick for this week, this article will be available for free reading for a week)
The door slams shut behind Chander. Dropping his bag to the floor, he walks through the corridor illuminated by a shimmer from the house across the street. Enough for him to find his way to the hall — four walls embossed with Maya’s aesthetic fervour. A sharp, musty odour welcomes him. Such a contrast to the whiff of hot chocolate at the airport.
The house appears frost-bitten; a tingling sensation traverses the still air. Chander doesn’t care to turn the lights on but a faint, yellow glint settles in his eyes. Fairy lights from last Diwali hang by the fireplace, throwing their glow on the snake plant by the ledge. The green chaise lounge sits majestically in a corner and a round table lies placid in the centre. Nothing seems out of character, except the ottomans, a pile of books strewn over them.
He remembers carrying all her belongings back to Delhi. The jackets, shoes, the red cashmere . . . stuffing them in bags and leaving them at the shanties that crowd the suburbs. Delhi is cold in winters.
But how did he leave the books out? Did he not see them?
And the upholstery, the drapes, the furniture.
Chander throws himself on the couch. His hands caress the scruff of his neck. There’s a loop around it … almost a noose, its shade – raspberry red. The cashmere? He tries to pull it away, slithering his hand under the soft fabric while rushing to the huge bay window. The free hand fidgets with the clasps. It takes him a while to unbolt and push open the frames. The wind whips through the trees. Christmas in Chicago is always lethal. But Chander feels relieved as a gust of cool air brushes his hair. He takes in a fair amount of oxygen, breathing deep and slow. Faint music from the neighbourhood makes him turn. Whitney Houston croons I Will Always Love You and he notices a well-lighted room across the road, with figures dancing to her beats. The chill makes his earlobes burn and he remembers the cashmere. He moves his hands over the neck but this time, they brush against his bare skin, now exposed to icy winds. It’s gone! The bloody thing is gone. Why, he gave it away with his own hands!
He closes the window, nearly toppling the pot on the sill, walks across to the chaise and sits down, his head resting against its back. It will be another week before office starts.
Amma had insisted that he stay back, at least until New Year. Chicago, she had said, would be lonely. Was Delhi easy? The condolences, the remembrances, the prayer service. They didn’t let Maya leave, scraping his wounds where they hurt most. Crowds can be claustrophobic. They send you scurrying away to airports. They make you believe … you can deal better with it, alone.
The room plunges into semi-darkness and the doorbell rings, breaking Chander’s reverie. He pushes himself to get up trudging in the dark and stopping by the door to turn on the lights. He pauses for a moment, his finger swinging between two positions of the switch mechanism.
The bell rings again.
Chander ditches the switch and guided by the light flicker from outside, walks to the main door. It’s the delivery boy with the pizza he had ordered on his way home. He has to eat, sleep, go to work. You don’t stop doing that, do you?
Walking back to the hall with the box in his hands, he contemplates on his choices. Proceed to the kitchen and eat there, or go upstairs to the bedroom, or be back on the chaise. Which place would have less of Maya?
He peeps into the kitchen. Most things are stacked neatly. But a ladle lying carelessly on the slab gets his attention. Is there a dollop of her favourite halwa in it? His eyes well up. No, the kitchen isn’t an ideal place.
He walks back to the hall, places the pizza on the table and scans the room. A riot of Maya’s favourites, adorn the space. Change them. Get another set. Move out. Rent another place. Do it fast. The hall is a bad idea.
He picks up the box and whisks out, rushing to the bedroom. The music is softer upstairs, and a shaft of light fills the room. It is less organized, feels much better. He sits on the rumpled bed, resting his eyes on the floral sheet. Crumpled and disheveled . . . like her tousled hair. No, no! Smooth it out, come on, quick. He pulls the sheet, tucking the corners under the mattress, and then throws himself on it.
Rampant breathing is followed by more steady breaths and deep inhaling. This room doesn’t have her scent. Thank God, for the stench of dampness!
A faint smile escapes his lips. This is it. This is the place. Finally, a no-Maya nook in the house.
Chander rolls over to his side and reaches for the switch by the bed. Click! A brilliant flash of gold nearly blinds him. He narrows his eyes against the glare. It takes him a while to look up at the wall opposite the bed.
A picture stares him in the face. At first, it’s a blur. Then, it begins to take shape. Framed on the mantelpiece, soaked in red vermilion, are the footprints of a young bride.
Chander strains his eyes and gasps – Maya!
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Of the many traditions associated with Indian marriages, a young bride’s footprints in red vermilion are symbolic of Goddess Laxmi, the harbinger of fortune and prosperity.
Sonia Dogra is a writer based in Delhi. She finds joy in little things which she brings to her work. Her writing reflects everyday life, sometimes crisp, on others jaded. Her work has appeared (and is upcoming) in the anthologies – The Kali Project, Write in Power, The Body of Memories, Recipe for a Perfect Marriage, among others. She has been published in Indian magazine Tell Me Your Story & NFFD UK. Follow her on Twitter @SoniaDogra16