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The phone buzzes again. It is my little sister, Preeti. My confidante. The only one in my family who knows why this day is breaking my heart. To whom I have poured out my heart.
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Ujwala Shenoy Karmarkar is one of the winners for the March 2021 Muse of the Month, and wins a Rs 750 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. About this story, our author juror for this month, Andaleeb Wajid says, “Hard hitting; the pain of losing one’s love and to live life the way society expects. This story was certainly very interesting.”
The patient is a young boy who has ingested a corrosive liquid in an attempt to take his own life. He is in bad shape. As our team resuscitates him, the scars on my wrist start itching madly… so unbearably… as if my own attempt at suicide was recent, not something that had happened ten years ago.
An hour later, he is stabilised. We are all free to take a breather. I absently note that the nurse’s scrubs that I am wearing are stinking slightly because the patient has thrown up when I was passing a nasogastric tube, a tube that goes through the nose into the stomach.
I step out of the cubicle, deglove and wash my hands slowly. My right palm rubs the itching scars on my left wrist. They always itch when I am under stress. I absently finger the butterfly that I have tattooed over this barely visible reminder of a dark period of my life.
I dry my hands and fish out my phone, furtively checking it for the umpteenth time. Mobile phone usage for personal reasons is discouraged in the Emergency Room, and I would not have normally done this. I have no messages, at least none that matter.
Opening the picture gallery, I scroll until I see the picture of the wedding invitation. I confirm the time of the Muhurtha for the Wedding, as if I have not done so a thousand times already. Glancing up at the clock, I realise that while the team was engaged in a life or death struggle, the deed has been done. The Pheras are over…….my lover is now married to another. What had felt like a fated love and a chance at lifelong bliss is out of my reach forever. I blink away my tears as I scroll backwards to stare at an intimate picture of us together, one of the few we had dared to take….My finger hovers over the ‘delete’ option. But I lack the resolve to do it.
I want to cry, howl, stamp my feet, scream at the heavens, and the sheer inability to do it here or indeed anywhere, creates a leaden weight in my chest. A lump in my throat that is so intense that I can’t breathe past it.
What are my options?
I dimly register the beeping monitors attached to patients around me, an incessant reminder that while life is fragile and hope eternal, bridging the two requires not only dedication and effort, but also good fortune.
At our last meeting, we had quarrelled bitterly. I had rejected the offer of a continuing affair after the wedding. Infidelity was anathema to me. What was wrong about telling the world about our love, I had argued. We were both financially independent and could easily move to another city and live discreetly.
I ask myself again….what are my options?
Ten years ago, to avoid a marriage arranged by my parents, I had slit my wrists in rebellion. With my medical knowledge, I now know that merely slitting one’s wrist is not enough to bleed to death, but at the age of eighteen I had not known. However, the desperate drama of my action had forced my family take a step back. They had stopped persuading me to marry, and had let me study further.
I am now a qualified Emergency Room Nurse. Wiser, older, less impulsive, more conscious that life is full of moments of intense joy with threads of happiness and unhappiness running through it in turns. They are all precious, making us the sum total of them all, good as well as bad.
More importantly, I am done with immature drama. I am ready to take a stand. But “ek haath se taali nahi bajti” ( it takes two to tango). Today, I am at a crossroads of my life. A relationship in which I had invested nearly four years has vanished in the heat and smoke of the Havan Kund of the wedding that is happening right now!
Some of my colleagues are talking as I pass them. They are planning something. It is a weekend and one member of the team had a birthday in the middle of the week. This makes for a good excuse to go out as a group and spend time together.
Sadly, I wasn’t too close to people at work. I have always kept myself aloof. I do not idly chat, vent, gossip or joke with my colleagues although they are nice people and friendly. The awareness of my own secrets and fear of exposure has ensured that I never accept. They would often make plans to go out after work. It could be chai-pakoda or vada pav, or even biscuits and tea just before pay-day.
To decompress, they called it. To have fun. It was necessary, as working in the emergency room requires complete focus, good reflexes and constant physical activity. The end of each shift leaves us feeling like we have been through the wringer.
But I never joined them. I had to come back home so that my parents didn’t have to worry about something untoward happening to me. But it was more to satisfy the wagging tongues of the many aunties in the family who were appalled that my parents were “letting me work” instead of getting me married.
My phone buzzes. It’s my mother, as if thinking about her has conjured her up. “Mukta! Kuthe ahes…..where are you? You said you would try to attend the wedding!” she says, when I reluctantly answer. The loud tone and manner of her speaking tells me that at least one of the avid aunties is eavesdropping. I had made my excuses well before time, citing work pressures, a shortage of staff, lack of leave, a pregnant colleague…whatever had seemed a good excuse at the time of being asked… anything… anything at all to avoid the ignominy and grief of watching my love being bound in holy matrimony to another.
I swallow my anger, awareness of my surroundings making me reticent. Could my own mother be so clueless about the state of my mind? Sometimes I think she knows, but is afraid of saying it out loud. It would be her ‘shame’, her ‘loss of face’. Why else would she have insisted on getting me ‘married off’ at a very young age?
“Aai,” I say on a sigh. “I told you I am busy. I will not be attending.”
She continues doggedly, her voice shrill over the sound of the festivities in the back ground. “But we have been family friends for years, and everyone is asking about you.”
Which of those are most important to you, Aai ? I think silently. When will my feelings be important to you? Why are parents like this? So one-track. They love you, but want you to do things their way. Did bringing a child into the world mean that it is your possession, your slave, your shadow? Could we not want different things, have different dreams and hopes and create our own world? Could love not be unconditional?
Aloud I say, “Okkk, I have to go…. they are calling me.” Moving close to a beeping monitor, I let the loud high-pitched sound of the alarm penetrate the phone, knowing that this would silence her objections. I picture her saying to whoever would listen. “Mukta, na….she is so busy today….I could hear her saving someone just now!”
Turning, I see Naina, my colleague, grinning.
“Works every time; for me, too.” She chuckles.
I smile back.
It is my first smile of the day. Feeling my lips curve, I feel my brain lighting up as well. It feels like the fog of helplessness and shell of passivity that has enclosed me for the past week has cracked ever so slightly.
Our conversation is brief. “Taai (elder sister), it is done. She is married. I am sending you a picture. Just as you asked.” She says quietly, her concern evident, clearly wanting to say more. I say nothing.
Heading for the washroom, as my phone pings, I open my messages in a burst of masochism. There it is. A picture of the bridal couple. I zoom in. I suck in a breath….more of a sob. The bride is in a traditional outfit and looks beautiful as I knew she would be. She is dressed in her favourite purple, jasmine flowers (my favourite) in her hair, her mangalsutra a glistening sign of possession by another.
I caress her face with my fingertip, tracing her lips for the last time. This is how I had pictured her in my dreams, only I had thought she would be mine. She is smiling at the camera. Does she seem happy? Would she be happy in this relationship….with a man? I don’t know, do I? After promising to be mine, she had caved in to her parents, or perhaps the lure of appearing ‘normal’. I don’t even glance at the groom. It matters not, who she has married, only that she did not have the courage to believe in our love.
I splash water on my face, my tears mingling with the cleansing water.
A colleague peeps in.
“Mukta Sister…we are going out for pav bhaji at the end of our shift. Will you join? That new place next to the railway station.”
I stare at her for a moment.
Why not? I think.
Like a blurry picture that suddenly gets a sharper focus, I realise that My Life should be my own. I decide right at that moment to live it on my own terms. Working here has granted me extra appreciation for my time on this earth. I need friends, people to converse with, confide in, to sometimes laugh, cry and crack jokes with. Who can make me smile with lightheartedness, help me appreciate nuances of living that would escape me if I close myself off. Even if I never ever find Love again, even if I am shunned for being different, I will reach out.
Maybe someday, Come Out. Be myself.
“Sure! I would love to come along.” I answer with a smile. “But it will be my treat. Today is a very special day for me!”
The door closes behind her. I look at the photo gallery and choose all the pictures of ‘Us’ together, then hit ‘Delete’… closing a chapter in my life, and moving on to the next.
Editor’s note: This month’s cue has been selected by Andaleeb Wajid, author of 27 published novels, scattered across different genres such as romance, YA, and horror. Her horror novel It Waits was shortlisted at Mami Word to Screen 2017 and her Young Adult series, The Tamanna Trilogy has been optioned for screen by a reputed production house. Andaleeb’s novel When She Went Away was shortlisted for The Hindu Young World Prize in 2017. Andaleeb is a hybrid author who has self-published more than 10 novels in the past two years.
The cue is from her latest book Only You that releases on March 5 on Kindle.
“I wasn’t too close with the people at work for these very reasons. They would all make plans to go out somewhere after work. To decompress, they called it. To have fun. I had to come back home so that my parents didn’t worry about anything untoward happening to me. But it was more to satisfy the wagging tongues of the many aunties in the family who were appalled that my parents were ‘letting me work’ instead of getting me married.”
Image source: CanvaPro
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*A few spoilers
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