The sound of the shehnai is still reverberating in my head. I am a little drunk.
She sits, all demure, amongst the flower petals scattered on the bed. Her sari is a bright fuchsia that makes my eyes hurt. I try to recall what she looks like, but for the life of me, cannot.
“You okay?”, I slur at her.
She nods imperceptibly.
I pull the heavy flowered head dress off impatiently. The shoes come off next sending a toxic whiff up in the air. Damn mojris! I strip down to my vest and shorts leaving the shiny clothes in a heap on the floor. I turn to face her. She hasn’t stirred. What was I hoping to see? Kimi Katkar, my hot Hindi film crush languishing in a bikini? I snort at the thought, and she cocks her head slightly.
“You want some milk?”, I offer ungraciously. The milk is for me. For my virility. But one has to start somewhere.
She demurs. Is she dumb? She hasn’t said a word yet.
I peer at her uncertainly.
“Have you eaten?”
I can remember someone placing a common plate with all the wedding food on it for us to share. One thaali to signify a common future, an unbreakable bond. I was too inebriated to eat much, and I cannot recall if she did.
“Haan ji”, she answers in the affirmative, a low soft yes that I barely catch.
My relief is palpable. I drink the milk in quick gulps.
I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand and advance towards her.
I touch her on the shoulder and feel her tremble. My erection surprises me with it’s vigour. I yank the veil off her and stare at the face of my wife. Her features are a blur, her startled gaze excites me strangely. I tug and tear at her clothes,no longer bothering with any preliminaries. She lies under me submissive and scared. Her breasts are small. Too small. But I don’t care. I touch her and rub her in a frenzy. Then I push her legs open with my knee and enter her forcibly. There is some resistance but I push in viciously. And suddenly I am there. Paradise. Warm, soft, inviting. I ignore her cries as I push and push, chasing my own crazy rhythm. The crescendo hears me moan so loudly that I drown out her sobs. Then I retreat. I wipe myself with the edge of her saree. I turn my back to her and fall into a deep slumber.
I lie there listening to the cadence of his snores. They start out softly, then get louder and louder till I feel the roof will cave in….then they settle into a low wheezy whistle. I listen to the rustling of the leaves outside. I concentrate on the drip of the tap in the bathroom. Anything to take my mind off the pain and humiliation of my wedding night. I hurt everywhere. Everywhere that he pinched and squeezed and bit. I feel a burning sensation between my legs, and a wetness I dare not examine for fear of what I’ll see. I hurt everywhere, but there is a dull pain in my heart. A lump in my throat that will not go away. So I push it deep down, till it doesn’t threaten to burst out into uncontrollable tears. I lie still and wait for the morning to arrive. The first morning of the first day of my life as the wife of Ramesh Singh Ghaturia.
As the early rays of sunshine filter through the dirty curtains, I slip out of bed quietly. I wash and change hastily, scrubbing at the blood vigorously. The sheets will have to be washed. My husband will have to be fed. The house will have to be cleaned. My mental list gets longer as I limp towards the bed.
Suddenly I catch my breath. His supine face is bathed in the glow of the morning sunshine. He is so incredibly handsome. That aquiline nose, those grey eyes still shut in sleep,that milky complexion. No wonder my aunts had twittered at my luck.
“Arré, it’s a good thing he didn’t ask to see your face, or he might have changed his mind! Your dowry is making it all worthwhile. Or who would marry you? Twenty eight, uneducated, just a maid at some memsahib’s house…” .
My father had winked conspiratorially at me. We had long since learned to ignore their taunts.
I bite back a sob at the thought of Paa. His love was the only fulcrum my life had rotated on. Now he has been replaced by this handsome stranger. This man who can hurt me with such impunity. I suddenly feel so very alone and scared. I sit down quietly in one corner of the room and start my prayers in a soft undertone.
“Om Bhur Bhuva Swaha……”
I hear her low voice chanting her prayers and turn my back to her. Such an ugly woman! What did I ever see in her? The children are still asleep, and I hear her murmuring to them to wake up. In a minute she’ll be standing next to the bed, with my chai in her hand. I let myself dream of Sonia once more. Slightly plump but oh, so very nubile. I think of my hands brushing the underside of her breasts as I measure her for her first grown up blouse. Sixteen and ready to wear a sari. My mouth salivates at the thought of her exposed belly, at once round and luscious. Then I think of all the angular edges and concavity of my wife and sigh!
“Chai”, she proffers softly, gazing down me. I never look at her directly if I can help it. I can’t stand to. I feel cheated every time I do. The dowry is long gone. The business it went into, long sunk. A bad omen if there ever was one! They say a woman brings luck and wealth to a man….she is the Goddess Lakshmi herself. Mine has brought nothing but ill luck and misfortune. I am still a poor tailor slogging all the hours God has given, while she, sits like a memsahib at home, taking care of the two brats. Pah! It was a sad day that I agreed to this alliance.
He leaves for work, dropping the children off to school on the way. I wait a half hour, then quickly change into my work clothes. The new mistress is strict and doesn’t like late comers. I have three houses now, and I find them hard to juggle. But it’s necessary to keep it a secret from him. His pride would be injured if he knew I was working as a cleaner. After all, as the man of the house, he wants to be the provider. I can understand this. Yet, the money he brings in is not enough. It barely pays the rent on this two room tenement. I still have the school fees and all the expenses to take care of. My salary relieves him of the burden of it all. Oh, but he mustn’t know!
The children come home at 2pm. After a quick lunch, I sit them down to study. I watch their heads bent over their books with a silent pride. They will be educated. They will have all the opportunities that I didn’t. They will have the freedom denied to me.
He comes home late, swaying and slurring. I tug his shoes off and tuck him into bed.
“Sonia…..”, he whispers, grabbing me. I gently remove his arm, and pull the sheet over him.
“You rotten, ungrateful wretch!” I scream at her. She is deaf to my anger and to my pleas. Her mother stands next to her, uncertain of her loyalty.
I turn and lash out at her, ” This is all your fault! Encouraging her to study. No girl in our family has ever been to University. She should have been married by now. What is she going to do there? Have boyfriends? Sleep around? Give our family a bad name!” I raise my hand to strike her, and find my wrist seized by my son.
He towers over me but speaks quietly, ” You will not hit Maa. Never again. Do you understand Paa? Never again.”
I look into his eyes, so similar to mine, and feel a sudden fear.
When did they grow up so much? My daughter, so beautiful and so independent. My son, strong and ferocious in his defence of his mother.
I turn away defiantly. I will go to Radha. My little concubine who gives me the solace and the pleasure that I do not find in this vipers’ nest.
My daughter, the lawyer!! The tears fall of their own volition. It’s as though a dam has broken, and I cannot stop. They hug me on either side and urge me to stop crying. They don’t understand. These are tears of joy!
Her cases are packed and she is leaving for Delhi tomorrow. I wonder why I feel as though a part of me is being amputated. This is what I have worked towards. I shake my head at my folly, and try and phone their father. He has been spending increasing amounts of time with that wretched Radha.
She answers, simpering into the receiver. I can hear his voice in the background. He refuses to come to the phone.
My son gently replaces the phone into its cradle. He hugs me and says, “It’s okay, Maa. I’m still here. Don’t worry. I’ll take care of you.”
I let myself lean against him, face awash with tears once more.
It is a grand house he lives in, my son. I feel my chest swell with pride. My son! Surely he won’t begrudge me a few thousand rupees.
He keeps me waiting for over an hour. My pride is rapidly replaced with a slow burning anger. How dare he? I am his father!
Yet, when he walks in, all smart in his dark blue suit, I stand up unbidden.
“Yes?”, he queries curtly.
“For your mother’s medicines….”, I explain haltingly.
He raises an eyebrow at this and quickly makes out a cheque. I grab it and try to thank him.
“Don’t bother, Paa. And don’t lie either. Take it, and drink yourself into the grave. Give Maa my love, and tell her from me that I cannot understand how she insists on staying with a monster like you.”
I back out hastily and make my way to the nearest bar.
They have come to take me with them. Once again. My daughter. My son. Their beautiful families. I smile at them weakly from the bed and nod my dissent once more. I am so so happy to see them all. So happy to see them prosperous and content. A silent tear rolls out of the corner of my eye inconspicuously. But my place is with my husband. The man I was pledged to, all those years ago. Mr Ramesh Singh Ghaturia. I smile again at the memories that, at once seem so vivid, and so distant. I close my eyes. It is time to rest.
She is dressed in that same fuchsia sari from the wedding. They have put a big vermillion dot on her forehead. She looks so calm; so peaceful. The priests are chanting,
“Ram Naam Satya Hai”
We are carrying her to the pyre. I have to light the torch and set her aflame. All at once, I cannot do it. I cannot.
I throw myself on her lifeless body and sob. She’s gone. My wife. My everything. They try and wrench me off her, but I won’t let go. I look down at her face, and for the first and the last time, see the beauty in it.
Something inside me shrivels up and dies.
©Poornima Manco 2015