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The two nurses at the nurse’s station continued to mistake him for her son and he continued to correct them, “Not ‘mother’. ‘Mother-in-law’.” They ignored him. A short story.
Here is the third winner of our February 2017 Muse of the Month contest, Deepthi Krishnamurthy.
The cue for this month was from the movie Piku, in which Piku confirms that if her friend wants to marry her, her 90 year old father comes along with her.
Mr. Murthy had been pacing up and down the corridors of the hospital. Truth be told, he was a little on edge today- not because his mother-in-law was possibly on her deathbed, maybe because of how ridiculously healthy she had been, but mostly because of what she was going to say- to him alone. He feared she would say something as a last wish. He would then be obliged to fulfill it, because she had partly raised his daughters plus, who wouldn’t fulfill a person’s last wish?
His wife Sunanda had exhausted her leaves at work and had to head back to work today. “She’ll get better,” she kept saying like a little girl, “Just another few days and they’ll discharge her.” But Mr. Murthy’s sixth sense (which never failed him) told him otherwise. “This is it,” it told him, “this is how she is meant to go.” But he kept it to himself.
Sunanda left his lunch on the attendant bed- vangi bhath in a white take-away container made as Mr. Murthy took his morning walk. He watched her through the window as she hailed an auto and hopped into it. For the first time in years, he noticed and maybe even admired her swift efficiency. He scanned his mother-in-law’s face through the tubes and pipes – for activity. Her eyes were closed. Confident that she was not about to mumble any last wishes at the moment, he resumed his corridor pacing. The two nurses at the nurse’s station continued to mistake him for her son and he continued to correct them, “Not ‘mother’. ‘Mother-in-law’.” They ignored him.
He reminded them constantly about the drip bottle but they didn’t take him seriously. He eyed the poster in the corridor- a suspiciously warm female doctor resting her hand on the shoulder of a grey haired man in a wheelchair. The squeaky clean poster, the sterile white corridors, the frosty nurses and the clean smell of hospitals-everything made him fidget and pace.
The special ward was much like his mother-in-law’s house, big enough to comfortably fit the entire family- her daughter, son-in-law, two grand daughters and one grand son-in-law. Of course, the grand son-in-law was also Mr. Murthy’s son-in-law – the Hindi speaking, non-vegetarian to whom he was surely not going to whisper any last wishes. His late father-in-law, whom Mr. Murthy never had a chance to meet, was an architect and built their large home with curving walls and sloping tiled roofs.
The fifty year-old red oxide floors and polished wooden pillars still gleamed and winked at Mr. Murthy. Visitors still came to see the house and occasionally (less often these days), it got featured in some magazine or the other. Every time he read it being called a ‘precious piece of heritage’, he felt that they were saying it to him directly, reminding him of responsibilities he was not willing to take on. Ever since her husband passed away prematurely after building the house, his mother-in-law had latched onto it as his last memory. Her everyday life was dedicated to its upkeep, her lonely endeavor interrupted only by her loyal granddaughters’ visits. When they were kids, Mr. Murthy always felt irritated by the unrestrained screaming of his daughters and the grandmotherly spoiling in that house. “Come home, come home.” his mother-in-law would chant to him when he received the phone, “The house… it comes alive when you are all here.” He had been dreading she would one day suggest her wish in a way he cannot refuse, by making it her last wish.
A week ago, after she complained of severe cough, Sunanda brought her home. Her condition was particularly worrisome in the evenings. In fits of senile delirium, she would ask if the floors had been mopped or the plants had been watered. Once, squeezing her hands she came up to Mr. Murthy and said, “Ramesh, the house… it is a living breathing person. Don’t ever forget that.”
Mr. Murthy was a light and nimble man, yet broad chested and looked taller than the 5’8’’ that he really was. Today the window dwarfed him. It offered an aerial view of the neighborhood park – the one he had been walking through every day for the last 25 years. Yet the perspective baffled him – he never imagined that this is what it looked like from above.
Everyday, he woke up at 5:15 am, if not sooner, and walked nonstop from 5:30 to 6:15. Round and round he would march, his mouth upturned in determination, wishing away any BPsugarhearttrouble that might potentially infest his body. Like his mother-in-law, he too was ridiculously healthy, even if he said so himself.
In winters, he liked to linger in the park a little longer. Behind his bench, a warm sunlight would spread over chilly still air like coffee decoction mixing in milk. It revealed glittering clouds of golden dust rising as uniformed women hunched over their brooms, the bristles scraping away yesterday’s dust. Men in half sweaters and monkey caps and women in sneakers and shawls pushed their bodies to walk.
On his way back, he bought two packets of milk. He read the newspaper sipping his coffee. He took a warm bath and got dressed and waited for Sunanda to bring him his breakfast. His morning routine had remained unchanged even after his retirement 6 months ago. He was always on time at the bank. In a farewell gathering for him at the bank, he attributed his success (he retired as a branch manager) to his punctuality. Now, instead of heading to work, he read the newspaper longer. Dusting them off, he reread his old Kannada novels. He obsessed over small problems in the house- plumbing, wiring, painting, cementing. His took on the cleaning and maintenance of his blue WagonR asking Ranga, the surprised gardener to focus on the garden. Every Sunday and Wednesday, he wore bermuda shorts and a t-shirt and went out with a bucket and rag to clean the car – even when it had remained unused.
But whatever he did, he was careful not to slip into work that was meant for women. He made his own coffee, but never, for example, toasted a slice of bread for himself, even when he was hungry. He had to be careful, lest his domesticity be mistaken for ‘househusbandhood’.
This househusbandhood was a running joke between him and an ex-colleague from the bank, Partha, who lived two streets away. He was always jealous of Partha – he was a real man-of-the-house. After he retired voluntarily (around the same time as Mr. Murthy), following an episode of almost-heart-attack, he sat around all the time having regular coffees and on-time lunch and dinner. Every evening since the episode, Mr. Murthy went over to Partha’s to check on him and have a little chat. It annoyed him when Partha came home and none of the women were around to make coffee and provide muruku or mixture in little plates. Mr. Murthy would have to get up and make the coffee himself. It irritated him even more when Partha would decide to walk into the kitchen to continue their conversation. They talked over the clicks of the gas stove lighter and the clangs of the saucepan like women.
Ever since he retired, Mr. Murthy had started to feel somewhat disillusioned. Retirement was not what he had imagined it to be. His wife was busier than ever, now that she was slated to become the next head of the department. His younger daughter no longer had time for his lectures. After a tiff with her about the tank tops she wore when she went out to run, she had almost completely stopped talking to him for a while. Last month she told him she had registered for a trek in Kudremukh.
“I would have let you go if you were a boy.” – the words he really wanted to say were at the tip of his tongue, but he knew the consequences. “What nonsense Appa. Are we in the 1920’s?” she would have said.
“Who else is coming?” he asked instead. “Who else needs to come?” she asked.
“Who knows what bunch of buffoons will turn up. Why don’t you get married and then go wherever you want with a husband.”
“I’m not asking you, Appa,” she said, looking him the eyes, “I’m informing you.”
He had felt a sharp sting of something that smelled like loss of authority. His daughters had changed under his nose, without his permission. His older one, who he always thought of as the more docile and obedient one had once betrayed him, falling in love with that fellow from work. After all the sacrifices he had made in getting her married (even wearing an embarrassingly shiny sherwani for the first time in his life), she too seemed to have become feisty of late.
She had been happily married for a whole year but now all they heard from her when she visited were complaints about the boy. He doesn’t do anything around the house – always watching football or cricket or some nonsense stand-up comedy. Sunanda would go on listening to the complaints promptly offering aiyo’s and che-che’s. When he couldn’t take it anymore, Mr. Murthy ended up blurting out, “But that’s how men are.” All three women stared back at him and he still remained clueless. He continued to say to his daughter, “You can’t expect everyone to be like your father.” That was all he said and his wife began listing all the things he didn’t do and his daughters united in badgering him till he simply had to shut up and leave.
Mr. Murthy tried to talk his wife into retiring sooner. “But I don’t want to.” she would say. She had four full years before she could retire. Over coffee with Partha, Mr. Murthy indulged in self-pity talking about how hard life was, dealing with not one, but three women. “And now, I have to take care of my mother-in-law too!” he could say when he met Partha today evening.
He had almost slipped into sleep when he heard his mother-in-law mumbling something. He got up and called the nurse who was very prompt this time. For a while, his mother-in-law mumbled something unintelligible. The nurses helped her sit up and asked her if she wanted to eat or drink anything. The doctor was informed. She asked for water taking her thumb to her mouth. Silver tufts of hair rose over her forehead. Her frail body had sunk into the pillow behind her. She had some water and grunted to clear her throat. She called out to Mr. Murthy.
“I have called Sunanda, she’ll be here soon.” he said loudly into her ears.
“I can hear you, I can hear you.” she lisped.
She took a minute to collect her energy as Mr. Murthy waited for her dreaded words.
“I hate to be such a bother and today is a work day for her.” she said rather clearly.
“It’s not a problem. I am here. How are you feeling?”
“Quite alright. Looks like the phlegm is all gone. When are they sending me home? I’d very much like to go home.”
The doctor came in and examined her. On his way out, he said to Mr. Murthy, “Don’t worry, Sir, you mother is feeling fine. She is probably a little weak. Just a little rest for a day and we’ll be ready to discharge her.”
Mr. Murthy came inside looking like he was doing long division in his head.
“I just want to go home.” his mother-in-law was saying to the nurse.
“Tomorrow, yes, tomorrow you will go.” the nurse was screaming into her ears.
“She can hear just fine.” Mr. Murthy said to the nurse. “Tomorrow, Atte, tomorrow we will go home, to your home. We will all come along, your daughter, your granddaughter and I.”
There was a small trickle of a tear in the woman’s eye.
Deepthi Krishnamurthy wins a Rs 250 Amazon voucher, as well as a chance to be picked one among the top winners at the end of 2017. Congratulations!
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Image source: flickr