Anitha Murthy, a software consultant by profession, writes whenever inspiration strikes. Her short stories have won awards, been featured in anthologies, and have appeared in both print and online publications. Apart from travel, humour, and environment-related articles, she has also authored a children's book series, Junkyard Buddies. Her home on the web is www.thoughtraker.com [link].
A Matter Of Life And Death
You open the wardrobe to take out your grey cardigan, and a whiff of her perfume catches you unawares.
She didn’t wear perfume actually; it is the smell of Pond’s Dreamflower Talc. She always insisted on the pink one. It reminds you of the time she actually made you walk back all the way to Shetty’s store and exchange the sandalwood one (which you thought would be a nice surprise) for the pink one. You were annoyed, yet the tears that your bride tried so hard to blink away melted your heart. You muttered to yourself as you plodded in the harsh sunlight down the narrow road: this was not what you had signed up for when you got married, she ought to have got herself a husband who would put up with all her whims and fancies, it would serve her right if you returned with no talc at all. But that dazzling smile and the way she flung herself at you, enveloping you in an uninhibited embrace when you returned with the prize, was reward enough.
You realize you have been standing in front of the wardrobe for some time now, and you close the door. You shuffle out of the room and when you are almost out, you remember that you were supposed to pick up your grey cardigan. Not that it’s cold outside, but sometimes, the Bangalore weather can unexpectedly turn nippy. You sigh and turn around, and almost lose your balance. You clutch on to the wall for support and steady yourself. Slow, you tell yourself, slow and steady. You can’t afford to fall down.
The April evening sun outside is harsh. It seems to simmer in anger as the earth burns herself up. You tread carefully with your walking stick, navigating your way amongst the protruding paving stones, the demented motorcycles and cars zigzagging their way through the narrow road, the innocuous little garbage heaps on the side, the odd stray dog that takes a liking to your ankles… you heave a sigh of relief when you finally reach the park at the end of the road. At least here, the hurdles are large and visible: perspiring joggers, brisk walkers, lovers smooching on the benches, irate maids with their restless wards.
You collapse onto the third bench on the left. Your feet are already aching from the short walk, and your breath is coming up short. This is your spot, one from which you can gaze upon a frolicking world that does not have much time for the likes of you. Srini always used to beat you to this bench, but now he is confined at home, laid low by a stroke. You would like to visit him, but the fact that he can’t talk or move deters you. You feel ashamed, but you can’t take it anymore. You’ve seen your wife wither away like a flower, drooping and drying out a little more every day. You sat at her bedside, dosed her with an inexhaustible array of medicines, and conferred with umpteen doctors, with increasing pessimism. The cancer just ate into her like a fat caterpillar, and when it was done, there was nothing left of her. You can’t bear to see yet another life being squeezed out like toothpaste from a tube.
Anyway, you console yourself, you never did have too much in common with Srini. He was a loud-mouthed gossip, and you just sat and listened to his yarns, sometimes a little vexed that he would not let you get a word in.
But right now you miss him.
Missing seems to be a way of life now. Large chunks of your life go missing without you having even noticed. Filling in the blanks is so much harder now. It’s almost like Penelope’s tapestry – every night it unravels more and more. Perhaps that’s what remains in the end – an empty loom.
“Uncle! I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”
How ironic that the one who knew and maintained your routine like a well-oiled machine was the one to disrupt it so thoroughly
A scrawny, dark man in his late twenties, stands before you, sweat blotting his armpits. His white and black checked shirt is missing buttons both at the top and at the bottom, and it flaps loosely in the breeze. His faded, unbranded jeans are a bit too tight. His open sandals reveal hard-working feet, cracked and dry, with grimy nails. His hair, in contrast, is carefully slicked back and almost touches his shoulders.
Puzzled, you squint at his face in the fading sunlight.
“Oh, Mukund. Why, what happened?”
“Uncle, you forgot?!”
“I was going to come to fix your lights.”
Now you remember. One of those blasted voltage fluctuations blew out half the bulbs in the house. You’ve been living in semi-darkness for nearly three days now, restricting yourself to your room during the late hours. Your nocturnal visits to the toilet have been illuminated by a torch that sometimes flickers in warning. Yesterday, Mukund had kindly offered to come by and fix them.
You have forgotten that Mukund is still standing in front of you, waiting for an appropriate response.
“Uncle, you want to come now? I can fix it. I am free now.”
You hesitate. You are a man of routine, and your hour at the park is not up yet.
She knew your routine so well. Morning coffee at 7am, breakfast at 8.30am, the second coffee at 11am, lunch at 1pm, tea at 4pm, dinner at 8pm. Haircut, every first Monday of the month, oil bath every Sunday. Ganesha temple every Tuesday evening, Raghavendra Mutt every Thursday evening.
Rice, sambar, rasam, and salad for meals. Saunf decoction for coughs, Amrutanjan for headaches. Grocery shopping on the first day of the month. Vegetable shopping every day, the cloth bag folded just so, on the small table in the living room. How ironic that the one who knew and maintained your routine like a well-oiled machine was the one to disrupt it so thoroughly, so that you barely knew your days from nights, mornings from evenings, Thursdays from Sundays, February from September.
You reinvented your routine, and now this hour at the park is essential; somehow critical to your very existence.
Mukund smoothens his hair, impatience flitting across his face.
“Huh?” you start.
“Can I fix the bulbs now or not? Will you come with me? Or… you can just give me the keys and I will do it myself.”
His left foot is tapping the ground now. If he doesn’t do it today…
You make a quick decision, something you are not used to anymore.
“Here, take the keys. The verandah, living room, kitchen, and my bathroom. Don’t bother about the other bedrooms.”
You thrust the keys at him, and he snaps them up. He turns to leave, but remembers something.
“Uncle, where have you kept the new bulbs?”
You think for a minute, and are triumphant when you can recall where you left them.
“In the verandah, on the window-sill.”
“OK.” He strides away.
“Thank you!” you call after him, grateful.
You sit back with a sigh. Mukund is your second son in a way. Don’t get too close, she had always scolded. But you welcomed Mukund into your life just the same. He first came home with you, on the recommendation of a reliable neighbour, to fix a broken switch. You found him easy to talk to, and soon discovered that he was the steady earning member of his family. His father was an alcoholic who had walked out of the house one fine day, never to return. His mother was a daily wage labourer at the many construction sites that mushroomed across the city, constantly made pregnant by lusty supervisors and drunk co-workers. He had three sisters and two brothers so far, and was planning to put them all through school. Mukund himself was a self-taught electrician, picking up the necessary skills by tagging along and doing odd jobs with whomever he could latch on to.
You admire him for his optimism, for his firm belief that he can climb up the social ladder with his hard work, for his determination to make it against all odds. You are especially touched by the way his eyes well up with tears every time he mentions his mother. Your wife, however, was not so taken with him, you recall.
A sudden buzz near your heart seizes you with panic. Are you having a heart attack? Are you going to die – right now – in the park, like this? A moment later, your head clears and you realize that it is your mobile phone vibrating in your left pocket. Your hand trembles as you struggle to remove it quickly, before the caller hangs up.
It is your son. As much a creature of habit as you; calling at the same time every day, without fail.
“Hello Dad. It’s me, Srikanth.”
“Hello, how are you?”
“I’m fine, Dad. How are you?”
“At the park?”
“How is Bhanu… and Karthik?” you ask.
“They’re fine, Dad. Doing fine as usual.”
“Anything else, Dad?”
“No, no, nothing else.”
“OK, Dad, I gotta go then. I’ll call again tomorrow”
Living is not easy. Perhaps you should have died with her, committed a sort of reverse sati, laid down on the pyre with her.
You imagine your meticulous son checking off ‘Call Dad’ on his schedule for the day. He has always been like this, your Srikanth: independent and proper, clear-headed and ambitious. That’s what made him an over-achiever throughout, and now a successful robotics engineer, working at a state-of-the-art technology center in Seattle. You try to recall the name of his company, but you fail. You can barely recall his face; little bits keep floating in and out of place when you try to put the picture together. Bhanu, his wife, is an even hazier figure, and all you remember of Karthik is his fondness for Pringles. They did come nearly six months ago for the thirteenth day rituals after the funeral, but left in a hurry. Not enough vacation time was a regular excuse, so you didn’t think to ask if they could stay longer this time.
The remnants of daylight fade like the haunting notes of a song, and you realize it is time for you to return – to return to that shell of a house that can no longer be called a home, not with its home-maker gone. A sharp pain pierces your chest, and you gasp at the whiplash of grief. You miss her terribly: her diamond earrings gleaming at dawn, her hair carefully twisted into a bun at the nape of her tender neck, her shifting presence on the other side of the bed, her voice lilting in a song of prayer.
A powerful ache builds up inside you, until it erupts in a single tear that hangs precariously from your lashes.
You rise, battling, once again, emotions that you believed you had successfully buried. Your steps are unsteady, and you have trouble balancing despite the walking stick. You narrowly escape being hit by a car, and the driver screams obscenities at you. You walk blindly, and the darkness seems to be closing in on you. You hurry till you reach your gate. You clutch at it, catching your breath and calming yourself down. Living is not easy. Perhaps you should have died with her, committed a sort of reverse sati, laid down on the pyre with her. An ending that would have befitted a story entwined for sixty-two long years.
You fumble for your keys and then you realize you gave them to Mukund. He should be inside, fixing the bulbs. You stare at the dark house, trying to clear your mind of the fog.
The door is ajar, and you push it open. A faint light comes from your bedroom. Mukund must be fixing the bulb in the attached bathroom.
“Mukund,” you call out as you make your way towards the light. “Mukund, I am back. Everything OK? Any problems?”
You enter your bedroom, and all at once, something flies at you. In an instant, you are pinned with a vice-like grip at your throat. You gag, your hand lets go of the walking stick, your eyes feel like they will pop out of their sockets. Your weak, trembling fingers try to pry open the hand that chokes you.
“Where’s the money, old man? Where’s the gold?”
You dimly register the open cupboards, the strewn clothes, the safe door open like the jaws of a hungry monster.
“Mu…mu…” You struggle to talk, but the hand that presses down on your throat tightens its grip.
Mukund is now facing you, his dark eyes and yellow teeth menacing, his breath reeking.
“Where is all your money? And where is your wife’s gold?”
The pressure is relentless, and you can feel your heart pounding, like a drummer possessed; your bile rising, a dizziness in the head, a sudden urge to empty your bladder. You flail your arms desperately, and the stranglehold is released abruptly. A flash of steel blinds you and then, all at once, an intense hot wave erupts over your throat. You clutch frantically at the wild red gusher that bursts through.
As the tsunami of emotions overwhelms you, you scream out in words that no one can understand, not even you:
I don’t want to die! I don’t want to die! I don’t want to…