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Prema woke up with a start. Was it just a dream? Yes, it was. But why did it appear so real? She got up to get herself a glass of water. She had been having such dreams ever since she lost her husband to cancer. She felt a knot in her stomach just thinking about it. Sleep eluded her. She sat on the rocking chair on the balcony and gazed at the empty park across the road. It was past midnight. The entire neighbourhood was asleep yet she was wide awake wondering what the future held for her.
Widowed at forty and being responsible for raising her sons in their pre school age and seeing her teenage daughter through college was bad enough. Getting her married was not a priority right now. But it would be an issue soon enough. Money was an issue too. Her husband was a spendthrift who squandered money without a thought about the future of his family. Had he lived he would have been entitled to a decent pension and retirement benefits. She would get just half of it. She had learnt that his organisation would give her some money from the benevolent fund towards which all employees contributed. It was meant to be handed over to the widow of an employee who died while in service to enable her manage her expenses for the few initial months. Friends were helpful and were speeding up the process. But relatives were creating problems in every possible way.
It was her husband’s younger brother who set the ball rolling-
“My brother lived like a king. He deserves a grand funeral.”
Really? She thought. Was she in a position to squander money on a grand funeral and the rituals that followed.
The guest list for the thirteenth day exceeded a hundred. The priest demanded a lakh, the cook presented a huge bill as did the tent house. Was there no one who could see reason?
“Must get her horoscope checked. She was probably destined to lead a widow’s life. My brother would otherwise have lived to see a thousand full moons and celebrate his 80th birthday. My poor mother. Losing a son at her age is heartbreaking”, her sister in law added.
What about my children? Haven’t they lost their father?
How could people be so insensitive? She thought. She wished to be left alone. She had to cut short unnecessary expenditure. But how? She dared not antagonise her husband’s family. Luckily her father intervened.
“A grand funeral is not required for a person who has left behind a young widow and children who haven’t yet started school. I know of a person in Nasik who will perform the rites that are absolutely essential for a nominal amount. We can later have a small function inviting just those who helped in his cremation. Only his immediate family needs to be present. I am sure the extended family would understand. It is not fair to squander the money that can be set aside for his children.”
As expected his husband’s family took exception to his suggestion and left in a huff after the cremation. It would have been helpful if they had distanced themselves for sometime more.
The husband’s older brother turned up on the thirteenth day that marked the end of the funeral rites. He hugged the children, shed copious tears, promising to be there for them always. He apologised for leaving them midway. He left after the function and soon after he left an elderly uncle found money from his wallet missing. He had to borrow money for his return journey.
A week later he returned with some forms claiming that he had contacted someone who would expedite the process and enable the life insurance company to attend to her claim on a priority basis for a small fee.
“Will he give me a receipt?” She asked. “If he won’t, I prefer to wait.”
There was more to come. His pocket had been “picked” and he needed money. He sent word through her daughter. He did not ask for much. A hundred rupees would be enough.
“Tell him that I have no money.”
“He says that he will return the money when he visits next.”
“I have no money to spare for people who pinch purses. If he lost money to a pick pocket it’s his problem.
“How will he go? You need to understand.”
Blood was perhaps thicker than water. She handed a fifty rupee note saying that it was all she could spare.
It was then that fear of the future struck her. How was she to handle such unsolicited intervention? Almost everyone had something to say. She had dropped out of school due to weak eyesight and hadn’t finished high school. The company did offer her the job of a storekeeper which she had declined. She had her father’s support but he was getting on in age. Already her brother was hinting that he required some money to invest in a business in his wife’s name. He was after the settlement dues that she would get, offering to pay her an interest that would be higher than what banks gave her. Her father came to her rescue saying that the money would be retained by the company and would pay her a monthly interest till the youngest of her children turned eighteen. She was free to withdraw it after that. Her husband had already signed the papers required for the arrangement. As expected her brother withdrew himself from her life. His wife hinted that it was perhaps their father who made him sign the required papers.
How could a person be so selfish and make a person sign such a paper in anticipation of death? So what if he was terminally ill?
She recalled a line she read somewhere.
Fear builds phantoms that are more fearful than fear itself.
She was truly scared. Everything seemed scary. The young entrepreneur who lived across the road….
She knew them ever since his family shifted to the area four years back. But she imagined that his smile had a different meaning now. Did he consider her to be an easy target??
Was he eyeing her daughter?
Her neighbour who was friendly earlier was a little too aloof now. She perhaps considered her to be unworthy and unlucky. Her husband’s colleague rang up at nine in the evening to ask if she needed anything and if he could visit her.
Yes, of course. Provided his wife accompanied him.
He didn’t turn up.
Insecurity took over. It was a bad world out there and she was vulnerable. She started having strange dreams that reflected her insecurity. Dreams related to her widowed status, discarded by society and abandoned by her family. People finding her presence inauspicious and objecting to her presence in a social set up.
They were not dreams but nightmares that seemed so real. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she thought of her husband.
How could he leave her midway to handle all responsibility by herself in a society that was so unkind to a widow?
“Amma!” It was her daughter who came looking for her.
Were you crying? She asked. Her daughter’s eyes welled up.
No, just thinking about your appa. Your life would have been so different if he had been alive.
She choked over her words unable to continue. But how could a teenager help her overcome her fear? Wouldn’t the child breakdown if she succumbed to the fear inside her?
She then realised that she could not afford the luxury of grieving over the loss of her husband. Whatever fear she had within her she had to emerge out of it for her own self as much as for the sake of her children.
Wipe your eyes and don a smile – she said to herself. The desire to overcome all obstacles and face the world on her own terms would help her lead the way and direct her children to their rightful place in society. All was not lost – at least not yet. She had a good voice and with a little practice she could revise her long forgotten music lessons and start giving music lessons to little children. She could start a catering service for working women and treat them to hygienically prepared home food for a reasonable charge. The very thought brought a smile on her face.
Relatives were heard whispering that children raised by a widow tend to go astray. A father’s presence was required to discipline them. It now became her life’s mission to prove them wrong. Her desire to win became stronger by the minute. She couldn’t wait to get going.
She remembered a song she sang as a teenager-
Courage brother, do not stumble,
Though thy path be dark as night,
Turn from man and look above thee,
Trust in God and do the right.
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