This is the third story from my book ‘steps’:
Astha pulled the thread out, carefully and slowly winding it on her index finger, it should not break. She gave a gentle tug as it snagged and was startled as somebody held her by the head and pulled her forcibly into an embrace. The thread broke, as loud wails filled the room and she allowed a stranger’s hands to smooth her back and covered head.
The person, (who was she?) moved away and Astha’s fingers started to search for the thread in the durree, trying to find the point where she had unwittingly broken it. She found it and heaved a sigh of relief. She again started to wind it on her finger.
She heard murmurs with half an ear, the words ‘miscarriage, tragedy, poor thing’ coming to her like waves. Everything seemed slow, she felt as if she was underwater. But she had never been underwater to know what it would feel like, so how did she know? Still, she had always been a reader and good at absorbing ‘relevant discerning details’ in the words of her English Professor. She stifled a giggle, remembering his flair for drama and the fun they used to have in imitating him, in the college canteen. He had said those words not after watching her performance at the canteen, but for her portrayal of Calpurnia, Caesars’s wife, in the Drama Week.
A few women glanced at her, maybe her giggle had been heard; did it matter? Did anything matter anymore? It had been more than twenty-four hours since the accident; she had not spoken or cried. Even laughter would be welcomed, and accepted as grief by them.
One of the women got up and came to her with a glass of water. Astha recognized her, it was the daughter-in-law of the family who lived at the end of the lane. She had been married last year and was already well-known in the colony for sitting behind her college friend on his motorbike to go to the hospital when her father had a heart attack. Astha envied this woman, she seemed so strong, but who knew the truth? Who really knew the truth behind shut doors and who cared, no one! The woman came to her with water in a disposable glass, she turned her face away not wanting to feel the cheap plastic against her lips but the woman persisted, forcing the glass against her lips. The water dribbled down her chin, staining her blouse and sari.
Astha looked down at the wet patch on her body, shame draining her as memories flooded her. She felt light-headed and leaned against the cold wall, trying to control the trembling in her hands. She clasped them together as she pillowed her head on her knees. She closed her eyes, willing her racing heart to settle.
She tried to think about something mundane, for instance why did people use so much plastic? She missed the earthenware glasses, remembered sitting on wooden planks under a tree, the earthen glasses, ‘kulhars’, enhancing the taste of the smoky tea as they discussed politics and movies. She loved tea, she had never experimented with alcohol as so many of her friends did, and with good reason she thought bitterly. Her stomach cramped painfully as memories rose up like bile in her throat, acid and burning and she felt like retching. She got up and made her way among the women, her sister-in-law half rose to accompany her but she shook her head, concentrating on controlling her nausea as she made her way to her bedroom. The familiar dread filled her as she opened the door to her bedroom. She rushed to the bathroom at the other end and locked the door behind her.
The pallu fell away as she bend over the sink , retching, nothing came up, she coughed, nothing. She silently washed her hands, splashed water on her face and reluctantly faced the woman in the mirror. It had been six years since she had lost feeling of connection to this woman. Six years this woman had stared at her from the mirror, wondering at the tears, bruises, blood and the constant bewilderment and reproach in the hurtful brown eyes. She looked at the woman, searching for herself, as she so often had initially, disbelieving it of herself; of the cheerful, intelligent, outgoing girl till the disbelief had been buried beneath tears and self-reproach.
Astha dried her face mechanically, lost in unformed scattered thoughts, staring at herself. A knocking at the door startled her and her sister-in-law called out in a worried voice. She smiled bitterly, now … they were worried? She opened the door wanting to ask the same question but unable to make the effort, she made her way back and settled herself in the same corner.
Her sister-in-law started to come towards her with water but she shook her head so vehemently that she sat down.
She stared unseeing, her tongue going to the corner of her mouth and touching the small cut. The cut had healed long ago but the disbelief, pain, humiliation and anger still burned in her. The awful night still came to her in flashes like some stupid TV serial. Shailesh, how he hated, to be called that, preferring to be called Sherry, forcing the glass on her, the liquor spilling on to her sari. She had incongruously thought at the moment, “will the stains come out”? It was one of her favourite saris, the beads stitched on to the sheer chiffon by her mother. What a fool she had been!
Her lip had cut and bled with the force, feeding his anger but not stopping him, when had the sight of her pain ever stopped him? She closed her eyes, crossing her arms across her stomach as she held herself tight and saw herself lurching over to the sofa, misjudging the distance and sprawling on the carpet. Shailesh had laughed and pulled her onto the sofa and walked away leaving the door open. She had stared owlishly, bemused at the open door of the hotel room. Without her distance vision spectacles it was a usual problem, but he never allowed her to wear them. She had stared uncomprehending when his boss had walked in, not wanting to understand and believe that her husband could stoop so low.
Loud voices brought her back to the present, thankfully out of her painful reverie, as she saw the women clearing a place and her sister-in-law bustling forward to set up a small table, spreading it with a white embroidered table-cloth (he had hated that table-cloth, embroidery seemed to him horribly middle-class) and her mother-in-law putting up incense sticks in a holder in one corner.
She watched them detached, remembering her mother doing the same when her brother had died. She had been ‘allowed’ to go only for a day to grieve with her poor parents on the death of her brother and their son. At this moment she was relieved that her father was paralysed and unable to come for this. Crying copiously, her mother-in-law brought out the photograph of Shailesh from the bedroom while her sister lit the incense sticks, put the garland and moved aside to take a look, as if she had just set up the dinner table for a party.
Astha saw the smiling face of her husband in the photograph, the garland of roses adding to his ‘beauty’ as the smoke from the sticks curled and drifted away. She sighed deeply with relief and regret for the past that had been her life. It was over.