The Lemon Tree [Short Story]

Priya felt welcomed in her new home at the sight of the lemon tree. Finally, that tree becomes the giver of happiness in her life

Priya felt welcomed in her new home at the sight of the lemon tree. Finally, that tree becomes the giver of happiness in her life.

The first acquaintance Priya made after her marriage was with the lemon tree. As she had walked out of the rented car with downcast eyes and a pallu covering her head, following her husband to her new home, she could feel the tree welcoming her. There was no pomp and show. The marriage had been a low-key affair. As an adolescent, Priya had imagined a different kind of marriage, with an imagination that was highly impacted by movies and books. She wanted a grand affair like in the movies she saw; with her friends dancing to the tunes of the latest songs, an uniformed band to announce her arrival in the new household, a huge hall full of guests who blessed her and sighed at how beautiful she looked and all the while a handsome groom at her side beaming with pride for his prized possession.

After the ceremony (which was performed a thousand times over in her mind), she would be seated in a nice car and would reach her new home. Over the years, the only thing that changed in this ceremony was the model of the car. At fifteen, she saw herself saying goodbye to her family and sitting in an Opel, at sixteen it was a Skoda and at eighteen a Mercedes. These were her dreams. The reality was quite different.

There was no hall booked; her parents gave her away in a small ceremony in a temple. She did not go in a Mercedes, which was the latest desire of her naive eighteen-year-old mind because it was at eighteen that she got married. Instead, her in-laws had booked a second-rate Maruti, the rent for which was paid by her father.

She did not even have a beaming groom by her side. It was not against her wishes. She had agreed to the marriage, the guy had a steady job, he owned a house inherited after his father died some years back and a two wheeler. He was a catch, as her father explained. Priya would not be nagged by a sister-in-law and the wives of brothers-in-law only because he was the lone child. And even she had convinced herself that Mercedes, fancy weddings and love at first sight, happened in movies. In the real world, a job mattered, a steady income mattered; that’s how far one could get in a middle-class home.

Marriage is a romantic thing, sheer poetry, divine – that’s what Priya thought and believed. But before her eyes she saw it turn into mathematics and accounts.

The decorated Maruti left them at her new home; she had seen that house before when her parents had taken her to see the place she had to pass her life in, a month before the marriage. They were shown the newly built second floor, with bare rooms which needed furniture. It was an unspoken demand but that was the main aim of the meeting. Marriage is a romantic thing, sheer poetry, divine – that’s what Priya thought and believed. But before her eyes she saw it turn into mathematics and accounts. The budget was drawn, maintenance was calculated for an eighteen-year-old beautiful educated girl and it was decided to give her away with the money that it would take to include a new member in their family, with new furniture for her.

“The boy is well settled, Priya won’t have any problems.” Her father remarked and the word ‘well settled’ echoed in her mind. How do you define well-settled?

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She would have bargained it all for a happy life and that’s what she had hoped for; a loving husband and in-laws. Her dreams were shattered the first day. She had admired the coarse voice of her husband; it was manly. But it never softened. She had admired the dark brooding eyes, but they never showed happiness. He ran the household with an iron hand. Her mother-in-law was a sweet and meek lady who believed in everything her son said. No change was welcome in that household and Priya was too shy to suggest any. Within months, she resigned to the mediocrity of her new home.

Her husband had a constant frown on his face, nothing made him laugh.

Her husband had a constant frown on his face, nothing made him laugh. The only time she saw him smile was when he invited his boss for lunch and that smile was so loathsome that Priya wished she had never seen him that way with no self-esteem, like a slave trying to flatter his master. Priya hated him even more after that.

Her mother in law was different; she loved Priya like her own daughter and helped her in all the household chores. They had an unspoken understanding starting from the day her mother-in-law first saw Priya. She was about fifty-eight and walked with a limp due to arthritis in her knees, but even her frail health or her age had failed to take away the smile from her face. The days were simple; the ladies of the house woke up at 5 am, swept the whole house including the veranda and the compound. The dried leaves were collected and set on fire, even before the sun was up. Then Priya was in charge of the kitchen. She took care of her husband’s lunch box and breakfast and the house wore a blanket of silence occasionally disturbed only when her husband spoke. It would only be alive after he left for work. The ladies would heave a sigh of relief and resign themselves to their chores till late evening, when the husband returned home.

The afternoons were spent with her mother-in-law reading the religious books and Priya catching some sleep or watching her favorite soaps on TV. It was her only escape from the harshness of reality. The ladies on the soap wore enough makeup and beautiful saris to draw her attention and they were loved. They had long conversations with the men in their lives and more often, they were the ones making the decisions. Priya desired that kind of life and spent the afternoons dreaming of it all. Sometimes, Priya would sit with her mother in law and listen to her hymns. It was at times like this that she managed to extract some information about her alien husband and her new family.

“Was he like that even before your husband died?” Priya asked her mother-in-law one day.

“I don’t know, I never got to know my son, he was with his father always.”

“Oh and was your husband like that too?” Priya asked again.

“Yes, he was. He always did the right things but he was a man of few words,” she replied.

“Very much like him,” Priya remarked and the old lady nodded. The look of understanding was back in her eyes. She narrated incidents of her life to Priya, a hard life indeed. Priya would massage her arthritic legs and the smile would deepen.

“I always missed a daughter,” she said.

By evening, the women got back to the work at home, and there was plenty to do. There was no house help present and everything from sweeping, mopping, washing utensils and clothes was shared between them. There was not enough time to do everything.

At the start of the month, Priya’s husband would draw out a budget and money was handed to both of them for daily use.

At the start of the month, Priya’s husband would draw out a budget and money was handed to both of them for daily use. If the monthly budget went overboard an emergency meeting would be called and means to curb the expenses would be thought over; the reasons for high expenses probed upon and a plan drawn up to recover. It was after the first month of their marriage that the huge electricity bill popped up and the emergency meeting had declared that television time was to be reduced and the refrigerator to be switched off at nights, the water for bath to be boiled on LPG instead of the electric geyser. The next afternoon, Priya sat by her mother-in-law listening to the hymns, she did not dare to switch on the TV.

“Is it not Monday today?” The mother-in-law asked.

“Yes,” Priya gave a non-committal nod.

“So you’re not watching your daily soap?” She asked again.

“Don’t feel like,” Priya remarked and the old lady smiled.

“Switch it on. Just remember the channel it was on, before he left.” She smiled.

“What?” Priya was surprised.

“Well trust me; I have been doing it for years. He won’t know you switched it on in the first place, saves all the grumbling.”

Priya was dumbfounded. “And the bill?” she asked.

“As if it matters, I have spent 30 long years with a miser so I know.”

Priya knew they were going to get along great. Her husband’s resemblance to her father-in-law had made sure of that.

Then came the season of the lemons and the tree blossomed. Priya was given the responsibility of ensuring that not even a single lemon was wasted.

“Do we sell it?” Priya asked her mother in law. “I mean, there are plenty.”

“I make pickle and that is given to everyone who wants it.”

“At a price?” Priya knew the answer but she asked it anyway.

That season was spent in making sour pickle.

“We make the sweet one at home.” Priya said.

“Well, he likes the sour one,” His mother informed her

Her mother-in-law made sure that she made some sweet pickle for Priya. Nothing could cheat her son’s keen eye though.

“Are their not enough lemons this year? The pickle quantity seems less.”

“Spoken like his father.” His mother murmured in the kitchen as Priya smiled.

It was a routine; he reached home from office, had his cup of tea and then watched television till sleep defeated him. Dinner was served before him and he ate without any attention to what was on the plate; he managed to pass some comments on the food not being that great though.

The electric bill refused to come down.

“What should we do, at this pace I will soon be bankrupt.” He remarked.

“We take all the care,” Priya replied.

“Why do we need to put the bulb in the veranda on?”

“It’s zero watts.”

“Don’t you boil water for bath?”

“We use cold water, we are saving LPG too.”

“The fridge?”

“Switched of every night, you do it yourself.”

“How am I supposed to run a house alone?” He complained.

Priya and her mother in-law managed to make some decent money from the pickle sold. That did not satisfy the man of the house though.

“You have a Bachelors, why don’t you start tuitions?” he suggested.

“I never have,” Priya replied.

“You can try to supplement the income.”

And from that day, Priya’s day turned more hectic. He got the ‘tuitions from class I to IX’ printout from his office, enquiries came and Priya’s afternoons were engaged. Her mother-in-law adjusted well though.

The next season, things did not change much. The electric bill was still high, the income still low and in his words they were trying to make ends meet with him single handedly struggling.

The tree blossomed again and this time, Priya did not insist on the sweet pickle.

One early morning as she was sweeping the veranda she heard some noise near the lemon tree, outside their boundary wall. There was a man there and Priya shrieked. He ran.

“Must be stealing the lemons,” he said as he came running, “Why did you scream?” He was angry at being disturbed from his sleep. That afternoon, a man came to meet Priya. She was taking the tuitions and took him for a parent.

“I am sorry to have scared you like that in the morning,” he said in a perfect, civilized tone.

“That was you?”

“Yes, I was passing by, morning walk; saw some lemons lying on the road. Was just picking them up, didn’t know someone would be awake so early,” he explained.

“Why did you run?”

“It was an unearthly hour and you screamed. I did not want to be beaten; I stay in the house two blocks from yours.” He went on and on. “I am sorry to steal like that, but I took only eight, so I can pay.”

“That’s okay.” Priya replied.

“So you are a teacher?”

The tête-à-tête was making Priya uncomfortable, only because in one year of her marriage she had learned to keep her thoughts to herself. The man did not give up though. He went on talking for about half an hour and when Priya went silent, he targeted her mother-in-law. She was glad to talk to him.

We make pickle,” she informed him.

“Really? Are they for sale?”

“Oh, you can have it like that only, let me get you some.” The old lady rose, but the man put his hand on her shoulder.

“Oh no, I won’t,” he explained, “I have as it is been a thief, so let me buy it from you. I like sweet lime pickle a lot.”

“Sadly, we just make the sour one, but don’t worry I will make it for you.”

“I don’t want to impose. I will buy the sour one.”

“No no… I would make the sweet one for you.” The old lady insisted.

The man left after a long conversation with both of them.

“I want some money to buy sugar and cinnamon,” the mother asked her son that night.

“Sugar?” he questioned, “We bought the month’s supply.”

“It’s for the pickle.”

“I don’t like sweet lime pickle.”

“It’s for a customer.”

“Customer? We don’t sell pickles, it’s just that we make it for home use and what is left is sold. I am not running a business here.”

She was amazed at her son’s hypocritical nature. She had for years endured her husband and expected some change in her son, but there was none. The genes were fully replicated. Her husband had planted the lemon tree in the tenth year of their marriage when they had bought the land. He had saved every penny to afford the land. She had always admired this much about him and waited. When they got married, she waited for them to own a house to start being less stringent; after they bought the house, it was their son’s education. Then it was like second nature to him, to save money. As a result, she spent her entire life in four saris at any given time. She had plenty of gold though, because it was an investment.

When Priya entered the household, her mother-in-law saw herself in her. A young girl, who wanted a romantic life, what she got was a hard one.

When Priya entered the household, her mother-in-law saw herself in her. A young girl, who wanted a romantic life, what she got was a hard one. After her husband’s death, he had taken the reins of the house in his hands. She was treated by her son the way her husband treated her – like a secondary member with no rights to voice her opinion or wishes. It was natural. He had grown up seeing his mother treated that way and that’s how he treated Priya. What his mother failed to understand was the reason. She could not decide the root cause of his attitude. Was it all genes or was it the environment of his growing up that had made him callous, a miser, selfish?

“Well, I intend to make the sweet one too this time, Priya likes it.”

“Okay, make sure you make less of sweet and more of sour.” He ordered.

That day both Priya and her mother-in-law made the pickle. At night when he returned home, he turned his nose up at the smell.

“It smells nasty, the sugar and the lemons, how can someone eat that combination?”

“I like it.” Priya said.

“Lemons should be sour; pickles are to add spice not sweetness to the food,” he declared.

“Well, you detest anything sweet,” Priya murmured and went to sleep.

The next day, the man who wanted the sweet lime pickle came by. He spent a good hour chatting with both Priya and her mother-in-law. They had started to enjoy his company. He was fun and he gave due respect to both of them. Priya packed the pickle for him.

“Make sure you let it rest for some days though, the skin is bitter,” she instructed him.

“Well, the lemon skin is always bitter, some days won’t make it sweet but the taste lies at the centre,” he replied. “Thanks anyway.”

He came in for a chat nearly every day after that. He thanked the ladies for the wonderful pickle, spoke a great deal about himself and more importantly, laughed a lot. Both the women had substituted their loneliness with his interesting presence.

The next summer, Priya gave birth to a male child. That change also failed to impress her husband.

The next summer, Priya gave birth to a male child. That change also failed to impress her husband. The little kid as he grew up was his solace though. He pampered him a lot. The fridge was left switched on at nights because it was always full of ice creams for the toddler. He doted on his son but nothing changed for Priya. Her life was the same, she worked in the mornings, taught little kids in the afternoon, then the pickle guy came and chatted with both of them and the evenings were again spent in serving her husband.

Years passed and the kid grew up to be a nice boy. He brought life back to that household. Her husband absolutely adored him and that made him less of a pain. He smiled freely and laughed freely now but his attitude with the women in the house was unchanged. Their son was different; he treated both his mother and grandmother with the respect they deserved.

“I think you should not waste your time on the pickle this season, concentrate on your son, he has his board exams coming up,” the husband announced one day.

“Oh, but she should make it,” his son argued.

“You like it so much?”

“Yes, I love the sweet lime pickle that mom makes.”

The husband turned his nose up at his son’s taste but smiled anyway, “Alright, Priya just make some for our little son and we can give lemons away to neighbors, there are plenty. I don’t want you to waste time on making the pickle, our son’s education is important,” he ordered.

“And we must make some sweet lime pickle for the man who has been buying it for years from us,” Priya’s mother-in-law murmured in the kitchen. Age had worsened her arthritic knees and taken most of the strength away but her good natured smile prevailed.

“After all, he brought sweetness in our life.” She muttered and a knowing smile passed between Priya and her.

Author’s note: As a person I do not support adultery; this piece is just a look at the Indian Society and an attempt to deal with such a situation.

Lemon tree image via Shutterstock


About the Author

Dixy Gandhi

Author, Blogger, Mother, Daughter, Wife & Mechanical Engineer

12 Posts | 42,891 Views

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