Padma stood on the balcony of her small flat with a cup of freshly, brewed filter coffee. It was just after seven in the morning. Just a few hours on, it would be difficult to stand there as she would be assailed by fumes, the honks not to mention the dust from the rush hour traffic that would traverse the road below her balcony.
The much touted ‘me-time’ ought to be pleasurable considering that the days leave alone the mornings were never truly hers until quite recently; yet she was like a tightly wrung spring. Her commune with her inner self was ruined by a constant flutter in her heart which was typical of a butterfly caught in the hands of a ‘Hitleresque boy.’ She consciously tried to focus on her breathing to ease the tightness around her chest. She sighed thinking that all this relaxation was so new that she needed constant reminders to relax, breathe and let go. Discomfiting memories never slipped away as easily as they slipped into one’s psyche, she thought ruefully.
She heard the muted sound of the ringing fixed line telephone. She had purposely kept the tone low to avoid the jarring ring. She did not want to rouse herself to pick up the phone so she allowed her answering machine to do so. She heard the hesitant voice of her father-in-law. She stiffened as she listened to his stammer as he left a message.
“Padma, Please answer this. Your athagaru would love to talk to you.” He cleared his throat and listened to what someone had to say in the background. She overheard him say that he was talking to a machine. She could not help being amazed at the continuing power her mother-in-law wielded on this old man. His whole demeanor was one of a person who wanted to keep peace at any cost even if it means that he was almost non-existent in that equation.
“Ammulu, Let the past go. We have no one except you.” Again he cleared his throat. “I accept that we were ..uh..uh …unkind to you…”
Unkind! Padma snorted. A colossal understatement as compared to the emotional and mental turmoil she had to undergo in their house. The past flashed inside her mind and she heard him continue doggedly, “heard your show..” again an interruption, “ er…your exhibition was a success. God bless you…. We are really happy for you, but we are unhappy that you have cut off your ties with us… Athagaru feels despite everything, your home is with us Padma.” His tone became faintly accusing, “This is actually the tenth or fifteenth message we are leaving you. Return the call,” the order was delivered before the line was disconnected.
Rooted to the spot, her morning solitude spoilt, she took a sip from her neglected cup of coffee and grimaced at its lukewarm taste. The phone rang again and this time it was her sister-in-law, Jaya.
“Hi Padma. Pick up the phone will you? Or shall I say my piece?”
“Hi , Jaya..” Padma said laughing embarrassedly. “ I am still in the stage of avoiding phone calls… …the previous call was from your…my father-in-law and I just didn’t feel like..” She trailed off.
“Hey..remember that I am on your side. My brother and my mother behaved despicably and I fully agree that they deserve all and more that they are getting.” Jaya, the outspoken and the champion of the downtrodden, was at it again. “My father was and still continues to be a man who never knew his own mind having spent the better part of his life as my mother’s husband!”
Padma laughed through her tears that was never too far from making its presence felt. “It’s just that his pleading words were too much for me…Jayu…I really am not a mean one. At the same time, I know that I would hate myself if I give in now…but..”
“Padma. Listen to me.” Jaya interrupted. “All the months of therapy and your months and years of hard work…don’t let you down.” Softening her tone, she continued, “You need to completely cut yourself from the past…if you really want to heal. Moreover, I know my mother. It’s now that your exhibition has been touted as one of the best among the upcoming artists, they need to ..have to make sure that they remain in your good books and hence all these phone calls. Moreover, you being the legal beneficiary of my brother’s assets, naturally they are afraid to let you go. My mother loves money and power, not necessary in the same order. The jury is still out regarding which comes first.” She finished ruefully.
Chuckling, “Jaya, do you realize that you too are a part of my past?”
“That’s better and I would insist that you cut off your friendship with me if that is part of your healing process. Padma, don’t you ever forget that YOU are the most important person in your own life. The day I start championing my parent’s cause, you should strike me off your friend’s list.” Listening to the choking sound, she continued, “Listen! I am not in a mood to play the role of agony aunt today. How are you placed today? Are you in a position to take off from all your kneading, cajoling, patting, shaping…”
“Stop it, Jayu!” Padma laughed. “ Your choice of words makes me sound a freak and no one would attribute it to a simple candle making and wax figurines. Tell me your plans. I think I can take some time off as I was up at it till the wee hours …”
Jaya was about to raise the topic of the need to have good sleep as she would her teenage children, but just in time remembered Padma wasn’t one of hers and by now her experience should have taught her that none heed to advice! “You remember my girls group from college days. We are having a girls’ day out…the usual lunch at Utsav, a movie, and maybe a stroll in Lumbini gardens topping it off with “eat street!”
“What would I do with your friends? Moreover…” Padma usual diffidence came to the fore, “they might ask about my…”
“Padma, listen to me. Our girls’ group is more of an open house. Any woman with similar mindsest can join. We believe that we too have an identity of our own that is beyond that of our husband’s, father’s or children’s. We make it a point not to talk about our respective families and to just enjoy our own existence. We believe that we too are individuals in our own right and we do not welcome any identity crisis in our midst. For them, you are Padma Rao whose candles and dolls are making waves in the town. They will be interested in your schooling, college, your interests and YOU the person and not as an extension!”
Jaya further reiterated that Padma was the reason that she had to speak so much and with a chuckle, the latter conceded to the meet.
“Good girl!” the contented Jaya rang off, “Go back to your babies. I’ll pick you up around noon.’
Padma made her way slowly to the kitchen and rinsed her cup before looking through her empty fridge with disinterest. She needed to eat her breakfast and once again she settled on porridge. She really must do something about her lethargy before it became a habit and would be difficult to shake off. It was indeed a blessing that Jaya had become her staunch support system after the debacle of her marriage.
It was really amazing that two such diametrically opposite characters could be born siblings. Her late husband was the epitome of self-centeredness and cunning that almost bordered on cruelty. On the other hand, his sister was surprisingly warm and she in turn shared a wonderfully, fulfilling relationship with her own husband. They were more of confidante than spouses. They both proved to be such a support to Padma from the time they returned from their stint in England.
Padma, her porridge forgotten was remembering the way Jaya took her under her wings and helped her through the trying time in the aftermath of her brother’s fatal fall down the steps. Padma remembered the outburst Jaya had with her parents on the day of the funeral.
“I am sorry that Anna died,” she brushed away the tears from her face, “But we all know he was a despicable man.”
“Don’t listen to that harlot and bad mouth your brother,” her mother-in-law began.
Jaya got up and dragged Padma to the forefront. “Look at her and speak your words, Amma. She has put up with so much after her marriage to YOUR SON!” She continued screaming, “You are responsible for his death…no one else would have spoilt her son’s relationship for a very selfish end. You knew he was having an affair even before marriage. How dare you perform his wedding to an innocent like Padma and blame her for the happenings? If only I had known! You too are a woman and moreover, having me as your daughter, how could you do this to another? Would you have liked your son-in-law to have done that to me?” Jaya’s umbrage also stemmed from the fact that there were large parts of her brother’s life about which she was left in the dark and that hurt.
“Hush…hush Jaya.” Her father had tried to placate her. “All the relatives will be hearing us…as mother says, if Padma had been a good wife…..”
“Nana (dad) …STOP IT,” Jaya shouted. “Stop it right now and don’t parrot your wife’s words. It looks ridiculous. You know very well that annaya (elder brother) had all the bad habits because your wife thanks to your henpecked ways ruled and spoilt him silly. You are equally responsible for his nature by default for you did nothing to rectify it, though you knew he was becoming quite unbearable. You failed in your duty as a father and I feel ashamed of both of you for harassing Padma for nearly ten years. You harassed her for not having children when actually…she was forced…”
“Please stop it Jaya…Please..,” Padma pleaded. “Don’t talk about my lack of children…don’t, don’t…” she continued sobbing and pleading till she became hysterical. It was Jaya with the help of her husband who took over Padma’s entire psychiatric treatment. Her severe depression and suicidal tendencies compounded by her thoroughly corroded self –esteem needed plenty of counseling sessions. She was on anti-depressant for nearly two years and only now she was weaned off the drugs. It was an extremely painful journey to normalcy. Padma had no one to call her own. She, a motherless child had been given in marriage as soon as she entered her twenties by her father. He, in turn, died an unhappy man in the eighth year of her marriage trying to please his only child’s marital house in vain.
Only now she had slowly started re-building her life. She always had a penchant for making things, particularly candles but she willfully neglected her ability to build a life for herself in her unhappy marriage. Now, she was getting her life on track and slowly started experimenting with other medium.
Padma got up to rinse out her bowl and take out a duster to help push away her past but stopped thinking about the recent advice by her doctor. He had told her just the other day to allow the thoughts to come and advised her to view it as an outsider. His advice was in response to her query that the more she tried to push it to the recesses of her mind, the more it refused to be pushed away.
Her in-laws strongly believed in ruling the person after breaking their will. They managed quite admirably because they got an extremely docile daughter-in-law in the form of Padma. Her husband was another cup of tea altogether. He was a charmer. He charmed people by his wit and words. She still remembered his words on their wedding night. She an ordinary girl and had managed to make a “good catch’ in the marriage market and all her relatives were agog at her luck. They only saw what they wanted to see and they saw that he was the only son of a government employee, a business man and an attractive one at that. He had one married sister and she was pretty well off and lived abroad and came to India quite occasionally and hence was not an encumbrance. They did not ask for any dowry, which in itself was considered large hearted particularly in a society that prided itself on placing a price tag on men based on their education and property.
Above all, they gifted their daughter-in-law with a heavy gold necklace immediately after the culmination of the ceremony and ensured that the fact did not go unnoticed. The fact that her father’s entire property belonged to her being an only child went largely went unnoticed as people tend to observe only what suits them at that particular point of time.
On their wedding night, the bright eyed, bejeweled Padma was sent to her husband’s chamber and he had taken her in his arms and pronounced that he would like to have a child only after he had his fill of her and she had melted. Whenever a doubt about his unpreparedness to start a family crept in her, he used his charms to convince her to the contrary. She was so taken in that she succumbed to a couple of abortions at his behest as he was not ready to share her with anyone including his own child! Yes sure, Padma had her doubts for he did not mind sharing her time with his parents and she seems to be more and more at their beck and call. She had no courage to confront him for she was afraid that if things turned ugly her father would be unable to bear the agony. The worrying aspect was his lack of support whenever her inability to bear a child was raised. He kept silent even when his mother made an issue of her barren state each time after her monthly cycle. Whenever she mildly confronted him for his silence, he would immediately use his charm and state that older people would never understand the physical aspect of the marriage and would seduce her to submission.
Dispassionately, she remembered vividly the picture he made after his evening bath. She pictured his damp hair falling in a very attractive style over his forehead as he came running down wearing his pristine white pajamas. He also had a habit of taking a peg or two that he stashed away in their room which always added a spring to his step without making his parents suspect anything amiss.
Though she started distrusting him for there were too many nights that he claimed to be working ….and the frequency of his absence overnight was increasing yet, being a typical great Indian woman, she continued staying with him without wanting to create any ripples in their uncertain wedded relationship. In retrospect, she too was to be blamed. When you don’t make an effort lest you rock the boat, you make peace with your lot and tend to blame the circumstances on external factor such as your luck or Karmic intervention. Moreover, not being financially secure, she was afraid.
Fear is a debilitating factor for one’s lethargic approach to life.
Unable to find support, she took pleasure in rocking the boat in small ways like not mending his favourite shirt, or ‘losing’ his kurta which looked good on him. She pilfered small, unnoticeable amount and stashed it safely away though it was not that easy as the amount had to be really insignificant not to draw her MIL’s hawk eyes.
She vividly recalled the day she had come back from her shopping of grocery earlier as she had left home with a different purse that had insufficient funds. She saw her husband’s car which meant he was home earlier than usual and walked into the house to overhear the conversation he was having with his mother.
“You will still have your grandson, Amma. How does it matter that his mother would be someone else?’
“But, son, what will people say? Moreover, you had told that that chapter of your life was closed….and now she has given birth to your son! How many things you have kept away from me,” she said querulously.
“Amma….My daughter is now 8 years old. I wanted to tell you that time itself but I knew you wanted a grandson..that is why Neeta and I waited. Now she has presented you with a grandson…. You won’t be unhappy… Can’t I do even that for my mother?” He continued wilily, “If I had told you earlier, what could you have done?”
Padma stood just outside the door transfixed. She was numb with shock. She just could not understand the lies, the deceit and the callousness of the person who had promised to cherish her and support her in the presence of the holy Agni. She heard her MIL ask him how he planned to handle the whole situation.
He chortled, “Leave her to me. She cannot even bear me a child! The court can give divorce on barrenness too. I can get a doctor whom I know to give me a certificate to that effect. She will do as I bid….You have chosen a good Indian wife for me!” his chortle became an unadulterated laugh for a man who was used to a sense of entitlement through his life and has an inability to see from someone else’s shoes.
The fact that Neeta refused to stay with his parents under one roof was a topic he needed to tackle some other day. At present, he needed his mother’s support to divorce his wife and legally marry his mistress.
Back to the present, Padma shook herself off her reverie and walked around straightening things and dusting ferociously hoping to scrub away the memory of that fateful evening. She knew that however much she went for counseling the secret that she was unable to share with anyone would prevent her from full recovery. She knew that it was easy to be judgmental if one was not directly involved.
Despite Jaya being a pillar of strength, she was afraid that this secret that she held on to would drive a wedge in their relationship. It would be highly unlikely for Jaya to be that supportive if she knew the events that had unfolded that fateful day. She did not regret her action. She was willing to do any penance for her action. Her husband had got away too easily. His death was an easy sentence for him considering the magnitude of his deceit. This was not what she had intended…he had got away too easily.
She could still feel that the red hot rage that replaced the chill after the eavesdropping episode. She remembered standing transfixed hearing her husband and MIL continue their discussion in low tones. She hardly remembered her walk to the ‘hobby shop’ that she had always seen but never walked into this time carrying the right wallet. She browsed through the section that dealt with various hobbies and picked up random materials with the money set aside for the grocery. When she came home her husband’s car was missing. Her mother-in-law started her tirade for not buying the grocery and she continued making her usual docile noises. She walked up and picked up the home slippers her husband normally changed into after his evening ritual. She took it to the bathroom along with the other paraphernalia she had bought in the shop. After some time she emerged to replace the footwear at the usual place. A creature of habit, her husband came running down the steps supplemented by his usual evening drink and the waxed underside of the slippers did the rest. She, having grown up on a staple diet of Tollywood movies and soaps, wanted him to be bed ridden and she in turn would become an indispensible part of his life. Unfortunately, his headlong fall had led to his untimely demise.
Yes, he had it too easy but unfortunately, she had to carry that secret to her grave.
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