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My head is full of doubts. Was I completely wrong? Am I unlovable? Could I have done something differently, changed the course of my life? Should I have ‘adjusted’ more?
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 June 2021 Muse of the Month, and wins a Rs 750 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. The juror for this month, Kiran Manral commented, “Touching tale of every woman who chooses not to continue in a marriage where society continues to judge her by her fertility and ability to be ‘obedient.'”
I am in my parent’s home, in my old room. My head is buried in my pillow. I can hear the rain drizzling outside. The pitter-patter plays a familiar melody. It has lulled me to sleep in the past. Life had been uncomplicated then.
Now, it keeps me awake, struggling with my thoughts.
I had arrived here nearly a week ago, unannounced, because I literally had nowhere to go. The lease on the flat that had been my marital home, was up for renewal. But we had not renewed it. It was just too full of memories. Every corner in that shared space spoke of failure. Every wall a testimony to our lack of communication. The dining table a witness to a hundred squabbles and quarrels. The bed a silent battleground where a truce was declared to satiate our physical appetites. But leaving the emotional one intact.
The flat screen television in the living room with its’ endless choice of channels had often been the only companion after one of us had verbally cut the other to pieces. The incessant flow of flawed characters and their turmoil that we watched on the flashing screen, a temporary balm to our senses.
Five years of our lives had been at stake. The decision to separate had not been taken lightly. Countless attempts to get along. Many counselling sessions. A great number of reconciliatory attempts. Trials of adjustment. Nothing had worked. Meanwhile, the facade of marital bliss we had needed to present to the world had drained me.
I had resisted the not-so-subtle pressure from all quarters to conform to norms of family. To procreate. To have a baby. To create that mysterious parental bond that would make all our marital problems disappear. The universal solution to marital discord. As if that mass of protoplasm would miraculously bridge all our differences. Solve and dissolve our incompatibility issues.
But ‘Que sera sera’ as they say.
I no longer conformed to the social standard of normalcy. I was single, separated, one legal step away from being a divorcee.
I feared being just “one”, a half….. a single person. The otherness that threatened because of not being a couple. Being single meant cutting off that mysterious connection to other couples who seemed to be everywhere. Billing and cooing like doves.
I was not part of it anymore.
I now lacked the magical key. That ‘Plus One’ that opened myriad doors to parties and social occasions. The key to entering restaurants and movie halls with confidence. The person taking your picture, and who was present in most of them, so that all your memorable pictures were not solitary selfies or taken by strangers. The One who you planned your holidays with and mixed your socks in the rinse cycle with. The One whose eccentricities you could refer to with a laugh while talking to colleagues at the cooler. The partner that you could coyly bitch about at gal-parties. The One whose presence in your life meant that your female acquaintance did not introduce you to her partner with that “Wonder if she is going to make a play for him?” look in her eyes. The One whose absence in your life gave rise to the assumption that a female is perpetually available and constantly horny (an assumption that male colleagues would instantly make).
So I did what cowards did. I fled. Just packed my stuff, got behind the wheel and drove on. My subconscious had led me here, my childhood home and hopefully, my refuge. A temporary shelter. A place of cocooning warmth, where I could heal in silence. A place where all would be accepted, forgiven and forgotten. Where I could be myself, with no pretence.
Above all, I had needed a shoulder to rest upon. I did not want to cry. I was all cried out.
I just needed someone to say it would be alright.
A false hope, it turned out to be.
Twenty-four hours into my solo visit to my parent’s home, I had reluctantly dropped the ‘D’ word. Ideally, I would have liked to wait for a while longer, before opening this particular Pandora’s box.
But it was not to be.
Every hour of my silence in the first twenty-four hours had been punctuated by my mother asking me about my husband and wondering aloud just how a thirty-five old was managing to feed himself. (Duh! Take-out). My grandmother would cast accusatory glances at me and manage to convey her disapproval. She treated my arrival as a prolonged sulk after a marital tiff. Our next-door neighbor who had dropped in, ostensibly to borrow a cup of sugar, dropped enough sly hints and innuendo to sink a small battleship. Starting with wondering about my barren state after ‘so long’, despairing the fall of fertility in career-women and ending with a lecture on the lack of marital obedience in Women Who Earn Good Money.
The male half of my family had not been idle. My father, alarmed at the size of my suitcase had spent his time texting and calling my husband (soon-to-be-ex) and getting nowhere with him. My brother had dropped dark hints about meeting him. Meanwhile, his wife looked concerned about this unwelcome addition to her abode.
Finally, just to shut them up, I had been forced to declare, “We are separated, and the decision for divorce is taken. No one is at fault. We don’t get along. You know we were getting counselling. But it did not work out.”
And then cringed at the storm that followed.
If I could get more numb, I would have rivalled the Siachen glacier.
Around me is a storm of “Try harder, Your fault, Need to adjust, Have a baby”, and deep within me is silence.
In less than a week, the ‘news’ has been dispersed through the local grapevine, courtesy our domestic help and our friendly, neighborhood gossip. My mother has returned from the market red with shame. My embarrassed father has stopped taking calls and my grandmother is chanting her rosary at all hours, begging for divine intervention.
It is the middle of the night. I am in pain. Confused. The story of William Tell shooting arrows at the apple balanced on his son’s head pops into my head. What mutual understanding must have existed between the duo, I marvel. One proving his mental strength and the other his trust! Had William shot a few inches lower, his child would have been dead by his own hand. I feel like the child who has stood still for his parent’s arrow and has been shot, not just a few inches lower. But pierced through the heart. Actually I am like a voodoo doll stuck many times, just verbally.
I cannot take any more.
I leave my phone behind along with a note, and hop out of the window onto the sturdy, slightly slippery branch of the mango tree outside. My co-conspirator in a hundred childhood and teenage escapades, it holds my considerably heavier weight. Well! At least someone is on my side, I think.
I hop down and start walking. The hood of my raincoat is up and my head stays down. I walk and walk and walk, occasionally raising my face to the cleansing rain, uncaring that I am getting wet. I relish the silence. I know now why Greta Garbo must have nurtured her famed “ I want to be alone!” fetish.
Although my feet are blistered after hours and miles of walking, I can hardly feel the pain. My head is full of doubts. Was I completely wrong? Am I unlovable? Could I have done something differently, changed the course of my life? Should I have ‘adjusted’ more? As I go back over the past few years, the counselling and couples therapy and the countless attempts at ‘getting along’, I know that the answer to all the questions is ‘no’.
But I need validation. Someone to assure me. Someone who can be on my side, unconditionally.
My blind foray has brought me to the edge of the town lake, a favourite picnic spot. Dawn is breaking and the mellow light picks out the rippling water. Raindrops are creating a hundred eddies on its’ surface. There is a gentle cacophony of droning insects, croaking frogs and the hesitant chirping of sleepy birds. It’s a new day, wake up, they seem to say. I breathe in deeply, my first proper breath in weeks, maybe months. Something stirs within me, in my soul.
Choosing a relatively dry patch beneath a tree, facing east, I settle down cross-legged. I will wait for sun-rise, I decide.
Out of nowhere, a little white dog appears. He appears to be alone. He determinedly sniffs the ground following my scent and finally reaches me after some comical zigzagging. He stops, barks twice and wags his tail. I reach for his collar and scratch him beneath his chin. He dissolves into an ecstasy of breaths and barks, rolling over to beg for a tummy-scratch. I oblige.
I pull him closer and bury my face in his fur and he lets me, raising his head to lick my face. Tears prick my eyes. This little dog has been the first living being to have touched me with love in months.
I hear a voice in the distance calling, “Fluffy! Hey boy, where are you?”
That voice! I instinctively stand up. It is a reflex born of years of standing as she entered my classroom. It is my old teacher, Mrs. Fernandes or Fernie as we call her. Steeped in Catholic rectitude, perfectionist and demanding perfection, disciplined and disciplinarian, fiercely invested in her students and their well being. We had all adored her.
As she slowly advances, it is apparent that her arthritis has worsened. Fluffy runs to her with a look-what-I-‘ve-found yippy bark and furious tail wagging.
Although Fernie abhors gossip, she has always been aware of the happenings in her students’ lives. I hesitate, uncertain. She has no such qualms. She has recognised me. She rushes towards me, her limp pronounced. In the instant before she draws me close, I see the awareness in her eyes. Her gaze holds empathy, understanding. She hugs me. It is a no-holds barred bear-hug, tight, like she is trying to draw my pain into her body. I bury my face against her shoulder. The smell of perfume lingering on her jacket stirs up happy memories. My brain starts to feel alive. The hands that had once disciplined and encouraged me in turn are holding me against a bosom that dissolves my remaining numbness. You are finally home, an inner voice chants.
An eternity seems to pass before she lets me go.
“Child! You have chosen the right spot to watch the beginning of a new day!” she says serenely.
Ignoring the wet ground and her painful knees, she slowly settles down. I sit next to her. No words are needed. She pats my hand gently. ‘All will be well’ she conveys without words. I briefly close my eyes in relief. The clamour in my head is silenced at last.
Yes! This was home. Home was perhaps just the body I inhabited and this too was alien to me at times, its folds, creases, its pains and needs. Home was everywhere and nowhere. Home, I realised, was anywhere the heart slept in peace. Home was where one unpacked one’s cares and settled them into the wardrobe with one’s clothes. It was where one was complete.
As the sun rises, its rays pierce the dull gray, rain-heavy clouds around it. It lights up the surface of the lake in a golden light. For the world, it is merely another morning. For me, however, it is heralding a new start.
Editor’s note: This month’s cue has been selected by Kiran Manral, a writer, author and novelist based in Mumbai. Her books include The Reluctant Detective, Once Upon A Crush, All Aboard, Saving Maya, Missing Presumed Dead, The Face at the Window, The Kitty Party Murder and More Things in Heaven and Earth in fiction, Karmic Kids, True Love Stories, A Boy’s Guide to Growing Up, 13 Steps to Bloody Good Parenting, Raising Kids with Hope and Wonder in Times of a Pandemic and Climate Change in non-fiction, apart from short stories in various acclaimed anthologies.
The cue is from her latest book More Things in Heaven and Earth.
“Home was perhaps just this body I inhabited and this too was alien to me at times, its folds and creases, its pains and needs. Home was everywhere and nowhere. Home, I realised now, was anywhere the heart slept in peace. Home was where one unpacked one’s cares and settled them into the wardrobe with one’s clothes. It was where one was complete.“
Image source: a still from the film The Lunchbox
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