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Widowhood Had Given Me Freedom, But I Was Also Looking For Closure…

Some nights I missed what we had had, back then. Most nights I didn’t. He wasn’t there but there he was. Everywhere.

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Some nights I missed what we had had, back then. Most nights I didn’t. He wasn’t there but there he was. Everywhere.

It was strange that we’d never met in the years of living in the same city after I was married and would now meet in another city, albeit one that I’d made my home after I was widowed at thirty-three.

I weighed the word, speaking it without sound, feeling the mouth form it, pursing the lips with the w and contracting into a circle with the ow. Constrained into a circle of one. I kept rolling the word around in my head, on my palate, tasting it, straining it for tenacity and give, testing its hold on me.

There was a certain bereftness to the word itself. But it contained, within its bereftness, a quiet power. That of survival, of tenacity, of grit. The grit was the residue of generations of hardy women who had outlived their husbands and survived, raised children, lived out their lives. Widowhood now gave women power, where once it had reduced them to outcasts. I was a widow. And widowhood had given me freedom.

How did other women come to terms with losing a husband? Did they pick up the pieces of their shattered selves and glue them back together, sealing the joints with metal to prevent them from falling apart again at the slightest whiff of remembrance; motes of a residual ghost perfume, familiar and overwhelming in a just-vacated elevator, a familiar stretch of shoulder and head in a distance, in a crowd, snatches of a song that had been playing when….

Some nights I missed what we had had, back then. The hand under my neck and the leg over mine as we slept. His weight on my body, our breaths intermingling, me breathing him in, he breathing me in. His absence went through me like a gust of cold air, raising gooseflesh on my arms, putting a dagger of ice into my abdomen. Most nights I didn’t. He wasn’t there but there he was. Everywhere.

Mini took my elbow when the last book was signed and the last selfie clicked. I would now be steered out politely and put into the waiting cab. I flashed a general smile in every direction and said my goodbyes, the principal of the college pressed a potted plant into my hand and a shawl, which would add to my rapidly increasing collection of shawls, acquired at most such events. I would be thankful for them when I visited home and could distribute them to assorted immediate family. Shawls always came in handy back home. Everyone wrapped themselves in shawls through most of the year, and beneath the shawls were the layers on layers of hand-knitted sweaters, socks, vests, the warmth of the hand that had knitted them seeping through the skin that wore them like a benediction.

It had been a while since I’d been home. I missed Maa. I missed Roop, my sister, so far away in the land down under, but only a touch away on the phone, her face crackling and freeze-framing mid-sentence. I missed Pappa. I had never loved him, and he had never loved me, but what was love except the recognition that one missed the other. Did I miss Nihar?

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Miss was a word that couldn’t quite express the hollow pit of my stomach filled with nothing but cold gusts of air where the intestines should have been, walking around with a gaping hole in my chest where my heart had been pulled out from, feeling hollow within and without. It was a missing that filled me up, an absence that was a presence, a bereavement that wasn’t a release. Grief is grey and damp, a marshland of emotions that suck you in, tendrils of mist that caress you, asphyxiate you.

Grieving is the journey you do alone, a penitence, a pilgrimage, an affirmation of being alive in the face of death that shadows us, every waking moment. Grief was the country I was on a pilgrimage within, searching for redemption from my grieving.

We walked towards the exit, escorted by the student volunteers. The cab came up outside the gates beyond the cobble-stoned driveway, a remnant from the days of the Raj which was when the college had been built. Above my head, the stone gargoyles looked on with their sightless eyes, surveying all that was at the distance, preparing to swoop down if required, prepared to become flesh from stone if called upon. The evening sunlight was filtering down in pale patches through the dappled tree cover that spread out magnificently over the porch. The birdsong was hushed; the valiant chirping of a few birds were all but drowned out by the sound of the traffic whizzing past on the road ahead. We reached the gates, said our goodbyes.

I exhaled, the pit of panic uncoiling itself from my intestines. The cab door was opened for me, I climbed in, Mini clambered in from the other side. I shut my eyes, put my head back against the headrest. That wasn’t so bad. Nihar came back to me and smiled at me, the lines around his eyes crumpling like the folds of the mountains when one looked down upon them from the sky. Mini looked at me and squeezed my hand. She didn’t understand. It wasn’t grief. It was fear.

Thirty-eight was no age to die. Thirty-eight was no age to be found dead far away from home and family, with the do-not-disturb sign hung up on the hotel door, ensuring he was truly and completely dead before they opened the door with the housekeeping key after he hadn’t emerged for two days. I hadn’t called him for those two days. When the call came, I knew what it would be. I curled up into bed with that guilt every night now.

I had been fast asleep when he’d left the house for his morning flight, not even opening my eyes for a goodbye, festering in anger from a fight half finished. Now I slept the broken, disturbed sleep of one all alone in an apartment, crippled with fear. I had run away to another city. Would he find me, would he come and ring the doorbell here, the flesh rotting off his body, the bones held together by visible tendons, the hair fallen off in clumps from his scalp, the jaw exposed where the skin had peeled off?

The restaurant where Vikram’s launch was being held had high walls and impassive guards in black suits manning the gate. No vagrants loitered outside, and a velvet-rope barrier indicated that there was normally a queue to get in. A maelstrom of blended expensive fragrances competed with the lit scented candles as one entered. Expensive clothes and moneyed voices punctuated the air. Mini steered me quickly towards the front, a chair materialized out of thin air and I was pressed down into it.

An elderly gentleman was holding forth with a voice as dry as paper and crackling in my ears like static. His hair was white and flowed down to his shoulders, his glasses were perched up on his forehead, his face was crumpled up with age and had the discontented expression of one who earnestly believed the world hadn’t given him his due. His voice grated on the ears with its implied whine. He was, by the stench of self-importance that emanated from him, someone whom I should know, but didn’t. I pulled out the invite from my bag and pored over it.

I finally placed him, an academician who had consistently taken umbrage to my writing. A member of the Group of Small Penises, as Roop called them. “Their Old Boy’s club is what you and other women like you threaten. Allow them their bile, it just shows them for the pricks they are.” He’d had some nasty things to say about my last book, I remembered. I smiled at him when he caught my eye, I felt him startle and fumble mid-sentence.

Vikram caught my eye from the stage and smiled, his expression softening discernibly. Nihar came on silent feet and stood next to me, putting his hand on my shoulder. “He’s making puppy eyes at you,” he said. I turned to look at him and felt the blood freeze in my veins. He lifted his hand off me and disappeared, a slight haziness where he had stood lingering on the retina, like the ghost imprints one sees after staring into a bright light.

I smiled back at Vikram. He’d grown into a man, I thought, noticing the years now hung on him with a fair bit of authority. The lankiness had been filled out and the uncertainty that hung over him back then had been traded in for a cloak of nonchalance. I realised, as I looked on at him, that he was that strange thing, a person familiar yet strangely unfamiliar. It unsettled me.

Excerpted with permission from the book More Things in Heaven and Earth by Kiran Manral, published by Amaryllis. 

Image source: a still from Hindi film Once Again

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