It was the first thought that came to her as she woke up. He was gone. And, soon, this bedroom, the house in whose eastern corner it sat, and the tiny garden outside with its gnarled old red hibiscus and the half-grown mango tree they had planted together, all those would be gone as well. It was the strangest feeling ever. [*] It was as though she could hear the receiver’s knock at the door, followed by the echoes of the auction bids – eighty-five lakhs, ninety lakhs, ninety-five lakhs…. , she could hear no more. That was until the hammer struck, sounding the beginning of the end of her innings at Tenth Nook. And to herald her return to her parental place that he nicknamed Square Peg, her square one from which he promised to take her to the Seventh Heaven. Of course, he did take her there, never mind the means.
“Why am I bogged down with this man-made thing without a thought for the man who made it all happen,” she thought on second-thought. ”He’s only to be blamed for that. Why not, he’s the one who maligned my mind with materialism, didn’t he? Or is it Mammon who had seduced my soul to the core? But how does that mater any way. He did desert me at the first post of adversity and that’s what matters. How shameful. Is it cowardice or callousness? How am I to know? Let him go to hell and I’ll brave it out regardless. But what about our kids, won’t they be worse off, left in the lurch?”
The thought of their children, a boy and a girl, twins, aged twelve, led her to their first-floor bedroom of their duplex dwelling.
“Oh how he raised their hopes sky-high!” she thought on her way. ”Didn’t he tell her he was cutting corners for their crowning future. Doubtful, after all this, isn’t it? No doubt it’s his vanity to cut a figure for himself and his family that could’ve been at the back of his mind all through. That much is clear in the hindsight, isn’t it? But what about me, am I not equally guilty? Well, that’s the fallacy of falsity that we shared but this is the burden of deceit he thrust upon me, really. But am I any less callous than him when it came to our kids? Being a mother, shouldn’t I have been more concerned about them than him? But how do I measure up? He left all of us with equal abandon but lo, I’m worried only about losing the dwelling! Did I think about their plight all this while? Shameful, isn’t it? Could it be the material loss that obscured my maternal vision? Maybe, it’s their bleak future that benumbed my mind. Why this hypocrisy? It could be both, what’s the hell about it. But what a double jeopardy, twice over that is!”
Seeing her children asleep on a bare floor, as tears gushed out of her eyes, she checked herself as though afraid of inundating them in a flashflood.
“Am I not privy to their deprivations for long?” she thought. “And yet his largesse turned our ancestral dwelling into a two-storied building. That was in his heydays. Won’t it help us tide over the rough tide of life now? Was it his foresight or just one of life’s ironies! But still, if I had a sibling or two that would’ve made a difference. Yet, how can I sustain their dream of becoming doctors? Who knows? Living in that Square Peg, did I ever dream of Tenth Nook? Maybe it’s all about destiny, regardless of modesty of birth. Won’t my life prove that, what a journey it had been from there to the zenith?”
Born and brought up in a canalside dwelling in an agrarian village, she was the only child of her parents, who cultivated assorted vegetables in their meager backyard that barely sustained them. Thanks to her scholarship, she got a degree in arts from the government college in a nearby town, where she wanted to take up a job to support the family. While her mother was averse to the idea for its attendant perils and as her father found it hard to clear the dowry hurdle, she stayed put at home. But life seemed to ensure that love had its share as well as say in matchmaking.
One fine morning, she noticed a youth ogling her from her neighbour’s place; obviously he was a visitor and probably their relative. Though enamored of him, out of shyness, she kept herself aloof all day long. But driven by anticipation, she ventured out in the evening as if to meet his expected advances, and kept vigil on her neighbour’s house. That is reading some romantic novel while resting her back on a coconut tree in her front yard. When she lowered her guard absorbed in the story, unknown to her, he gave her the slip to sketch her picture in her romantic posture. As he approached her with his artwork, alerted by his shadow to his impending presentation, getting up reflexively, she stood there nervously. When he introduced himself by the pseudonym of a budding short-story writer she happened to admire, as she stared at him wide-eyed, he made bold to present her that picture perfect. How thrilled she was at seeing her likeness in his work, and how glamorous he seemed to her enamoured eyes for being an artist besides an author!
He was city bred, though on a poor diet, like hers. But for a sense of exaggerated self-worth, he had no vice to name. The little fame that a few short stories earned him made him believe that it was demeaning for him to work under someone. Thus even as his bloated ego and the meager means denied him to gain a foothold in life, his foolhardy made him daydream about unassailable heights. But his freelancing didn’t take him far and so he remained an ineligible bachelor, in spite of his admirable demeanour. That was when fate brought him near her, and life took over to make them man and wife. But not before she batted for him hard and true on her home turf.
Her parents felt her beauty, eclipsed though by poverty, would enable her to punch above their weight; so they were not enthused about his offer to take her hand. Moreover, they felt her ascending the altar with him was like falling from the frying pan into the fire itself. But as she was bent upon seeking the pleasure of passing through the pathless woods with her fancied man, they relented to let her become his woman, and so led them to the kalyana mandapam of the village temple.
“And what a life it had been!” she recalled her early times with him. “How weary our legs were in our wild goose chase for a ‘To Let’ board of some cheap and best place. Could we believe our luck clinching that outhouse on rent? What a dream place it was, set in a garden, in the heart of the city at that! Maybe, it’s beyond anyone’s dreams. Can’t believe, how much space we provided for happiness in that tiny abode to make it our happy home! That was being hand to mouth, and when there was nothing on hand, how we used to cater to our pangs of hunger! Come to think of it, with each other’s saliva in never-ending deep kisses! Can any better it? (She paused for a while as the thought of it whetted her memory) What a flattering feeling it was seeing him write intriguing tales out of my story ideas, and how fulfilling were those moments to hear him say that I was the soul of his muse. And when we were blessed with the twins, didn’t we feel it symbolized the unision of our division? Sadly, all that changed with the avarice he acquired, well, with the helping hand of his acquired fame.”
As fate would have it, the corrupt “head” of the health department, of the state government, lost his large heart to her man’s short-stories. Seeing his idol in near penury, the ‘head ’felt, deep in his heart, that it was a blasphemy of goddess Saraswati. So, he took it upon himself to redress the wrong, so to say, and misusing his official discretion, he bestowed upon her man the ‘concept and creation’ of publicity material; that’s at an exorbitant cost with decent cut for himself. And as her man, in an act of one-upmanship, over-invoiced the supplies, the ‘head’ was too pleased to nod his head as though exaggeration was a writer’s birthright.
While the ‘head’ diverted the bulk of the budget money for ‘publicity’, they lost no time to live even beyond their newfound wealth. He borrowed heavily to build Tenth Nook to make it the envy of the nouveau riche neighborhood. What’s more, donning Aramanis, as he flaunted his Rolexes and Mont Blancs, she was bejeweled from head to foot, that’s besides being the best dressed dame in the lane. Neither did they deprive their children in any manner what so ever. However, alerted by their profligacy, the lenders began pressing for the return of the principal amounts, and that put pressure on him. And to tide over the crisis, he mortgaged Tenth Nook to replicate the modus operandi in the portals of the central government. And that turned out to be a golden mirage they chased together.
While he borrowed more to bribe his way for a foothold in the centre, he lost his ground in the state itself as those ‘left out’ by the ‘head’ brought their political clout together to bust him and blacklist her man. That was their just deserts. And that’s not all, as the leaches-turned-lenders sucked all her jewellery, she became bare necked, bereft of even her mangala sutras. Was it portended, sentiment apart? Maybe that he was gone just scribbling ‘SORRY’ on their bedroom wall? Unable to believe her eyes, how she thought it was just his prank. But when the reality dawned on her, how scary she became? The hurt he caused and the scar it left, she only knew.
“What’s next?” she tried to gaze into the crystal ball. “Back to Square Peg for now, but what’s from then on. Will he come back, once the dust settles down? Given his vanity, it’s unlikely. After all, he may not like to show his black face to us, ever. But what if he returns? The kids may still love him, but can I have him? I might, for old times’ sake that is if he comes back in time and not after he became a thing of the past. But then how long is ‘in time’? That’s for life to decide. Let me see what it has in store for me.”
This story was developed on the prompt (*) by author Jaishree Misra for April 2016 ‘Write India’ short story initiative of Times of India