INSIDE MY HEAD
In the quiet morning, the sun was obscured by the floating clouds in the sky like sheets of doom, through which slight rays of hope penetrated and reached the dark courtyard of their house, illuminating it a little, but leaving much unseen, ignored. The day had just begun, fresh it was, untouched by the soring abrasions of the day, yet Shona could feel the decayed remnants in her heart, which had now spread to her mind like cancer. She sat in her chair in the veranda, collapsed against its back, making an attempt to gather the last vestiges of energy in her and wake up their daughter, but the quietness in the morning only seemed to convey a sense of utter quietness, a sense that it was too early for such an act, invoking her to wait for a few moments, moments, which she realized have culminated to be more than an hour now. Beside her were a couple of chairs, lined for guests, but which stood empty for most mornings and evenings nowadays under the shade of the tin that extended from just below the terrace, slanting a little, supported in the front by four worn out bamboo poles. The sun still floated in the far horizon, coming out a little of the envelope, and whose lines as they hit her in the eyes seemed at once delicate and painful. But in ignorance of the commotion going around her, Shona sat quietly, shielding her sleepy eyes with a hand, watching as a few ducks wadded in the courtyard, picking faeces of creatures with their beaks or sometimes, a few luxurious grains.
Soon, through the shade of her hand, she saw a familiar figure started conjuring in the far distance and it grew larger walking toward her. The walk was slower than it had been when they had first been married and the limp in his right leg, far worse, but the lanky frame of his was still the same, as was his face that had refused to age and shrivel down like their marriage.
A smoke dangled between his fingers as he walked up to the veranda, his shirt too not tucked, rather hanging over one side of his pants like fading leaves dangled from branches, and the sight disgusted her. But Lohit said nothing as he walked past her and into the room, and denied of her anticipation of an imminent fight, Shona was surprised. Had he forgotten that she had to sleep on the sofa because he came late from office, so late that she slept without dinner. But unlike other nights, when a war of words would ensue, dismissing her acquired peace like a teacher dismissing a student, today she said nothing, instead went inside their room to lay down some new clothes for him.
The room was dark, for the windows were closed, obtusely blocking off the only source of light, and lying among the disarrayed things in the dark room, she found one sitting in her bed, dark hands hiding his face. Dark hands and a dark face. Shona walked up to him and realized that drops trickled from a pool of red, from which somehow trickled still more thick ones, and some of them fell on her feet, beseeching for sympathy. Shona stared at them for some time as they formed pools in her skin too, and slid forming shapes she could not recognize.
“What is it?” she asked, the voice angry but still a stint of concern contained in it. “What is it?”
“Mother is ill,” he said. “She had a heart attack.”
Their marriage had a happy beginning. It was the beginning of the 1970s, and a time of utter turmoil. There were wars and scars it left behind. A new country was being formed. Indians were killed in it, it said, and still more. But far from these avalanche of changes, in a remote college, Lohit studied.
Coming from a village, a commoner, pertaining in him all the cliché associated with it, his lanky frame carrying his thin face with a moustache, the only thing that stood out in him were his pair of huge, black bordered spectacles, a thing that he gave due credit to for earning a perception of innocence in the eyes of any stranger. Perhaps, as he went along, it was still those spectacles that he gave credit for earning tuitions. Yes, as the morning sun would bath the eastern sky in redness, unlike other boarders lying asleep in their beds, he would be up on his cycle, riding towards the far part of the town to provide tuitions. And on his way, beside the house of Sharma’s he would stop and drink a cup of chai and move on.
The stall had acquired a funny place in his heart, a place for chais and incoherent discussions. The time when he had been first here, two years back, he had sat at the stall and listened to the myriad tales of the chaiwala, whose doubled chinned face would be filled with profound expressions as he would recall all those stories- a story of a student dropping a cigarette in his purdah that had burnt his whole stall, or about the haunted building behind the stall that made him close up early. People had a knack for disappearing in it, he would say. But it was a place he would later remember for something entirely else, a chain of events that would redirect his whole life, a lost book that put him in a house, and sitting in a chair watching a thick pair of lashes, bordered darker than his black bordered spectacles, as they blinked and big eyes it held, deceiving the petite frame it accompanied, a pair of lashes he would grow to love, so that even in the worst of fights, later in their years, those pair would calm him down and remind him of his own hopeless life before they came together.
It was a good story it made, and good deal of coincidences that made it happen. But was it not how it is supposed to be, coincidences making up a story, a story that would otherwise had been dealt in differently, narrated differently, or not narrated at all, but sitting on that rainy Saturday evening in the summer of 71, Lohit found the book, devoid of its owner. And picking it up, he would have taken it home, but some conscience made him return it, for the name reminded him of a beautiful woman sitting in a class, wearing a red salwar, with her hair parted in the middle and falling lightly on her shoulders.
The day after when he had gone to her house, she was not at home, and it was a Sunday, another coincidence, but it was again the spectacles that he worshipped, for a studious man was welcomed everywhere those days and a tuition was fixed.
“Come, come, Lohit ji!” her father said the next day.
The house was a huge one, walled from all the sides. A narrow path formed between two rows of bushes, which led straight to the main building. A maid took his umbrella, as her father led him to their room. It was a small one, but neatly arranged. A few pictures hung on the walls, one of a ghazal singer that his mother too idolized, but there was no one. Her father sighed.
“Maina!” He shouted.
A girl emerged from another room and stood in front of them, a blue salwar now, yet the dupatta lost. “Maina, be decent,” he shouted at her.
He averted his eyes, while she went to the wardrobe and searched, mumbling something under her breath.
She came back soon. “Namaste!” she folded her hands, the tone full of sarcasm, yet the delicate hands that folded in front of him making him disregard her intentions. She was prettier than he remembered, a perfect curve of lips that flashed red.
“Namaste!” he said.
The rest couldn’t be less known. Glances exchanged between pair of eyes, big eyes meeting his, and the commotion it might have caused inside him, a smile hidden beneath a straight pair of red lips, mischievous hands seeking a hold. And the practical man that her father was, he decided better a marriage be fixed before it brought shame upon their family.
A month later, everything had changed. The stranger, the one with a funny face, the one that seemed so distant, began to be wherever she was. The realization hit her much later about what she had consented to. The first week had passed in discovery, finding what was forbidden before, and she had relished in that moment, but as weeks gave away and the pleasure subsided, replaced by a continuation of an utter congruous schedule, the delight changed to accusation.
She could recall precisely what had ensued then, a silence had taken abode in their home, a silence that he carried back with him as he walked back with his limp, and even when Maina was born, the silence never subsided to exist, rather it began to break off the shackles into a war of words. But now as she sat by the table, the room still dark albeit the shady red rays the bulb threw at them, she couldn’t understand, how everything had seemed to matter so less.
And in perturbation did she keep looking at Lohit, bathed in the glow of the light and her watch, how he had changed, the lanky boy to the man with this terrible limp. Was it what all marriage led to, terrible afflictions? The whole day Lohit had sat there in their room, refusing to be calmed or told anything of the world, waiting by the phone for some news of his mother. Left alone, Shona had gathered herself, and helped Maina reach the school bus, who seemed lost at the silence the house had fallen into. And the day had passed in such inactivity that would otherwise have made Lohit restless, but today, it only made him sit back and reflect, while Shona sat there and did some of her own reminission, of lost love, the wooden chairs that she had been gifted in her wedding, worn out now, but taking her back to a time when they used to sit together, looking at the sun disappear in the horizon and the stars come up, when food was forgotten, and thick eyelashes sated his hunger without lighting the chulha. Where those days had gone, she could only wonder.
He was rocking slightly in an armchair, his head at the roof, and a grim expression on his face, but sometimes a threatening twitch would appear at the corner of his lips, however soon he would look about and make sure that Shona had not seen it. A river welled up to his throat, but it was kept controlled, for a time when the need might arrive, for the night was still young, and the ache in his heart was growing. Shona walked up and came and sat near him. She had not changed, and her saree had grown damp in the July sun, but now that he sat like this in the primal form he had been when she had first laid her eyes on him, a lost friend he again seemed to her.
She got up a while later and went to the kitchen. It was going to be a long night she knew, and how Lohit sat in the chair, she wasn’t even sure if he was going to bed that night. She took a saucepan and boiled water for two cups of chai. It was already long past their bed time, the ticking clocks and silence shrouding their house reminded her how everything had changed since the morning, how the silence that had seemed so angry that very morning, had given birth to this, and this newness that sipped into their lives now, only seemed to be growing.
When the water was boiled, she took their cups and into the living room, and switching off the lights sat beside her husband. The dark room didn’t seem much different from what it was before, for still she could see the silhouette of her husband as he lifted his cup and made quiet gulping noises. The cup was laid down soon though, and not much was said. A gust of wind would blow once and then, through the window, and make them chilly as their sweats was driven off by the wind, which seemed to have accumulated with the rising moon.
“What is it?” Shona asked. “She is going to be okay, you know.”
Lohit nodded, watching closely at the shadows that the moon made of the grills in the windows, the length increased terribly giving it a ghastly look, and which flickered at times, making it all the more repulsive.
“I know, but she is so old, and there has been no news since the evening.”
And the silence fell again, like a lid above a graveyard.
“It isn’t supposed to be this way. People dying.” His voice was strained with nostalgia, a weight that seemed too heavy for his voice, which seemed to crack under it. “Gone. Without anyone knowing. What is it that is left? Gone without a trace. Who would know if she is gone? It’s…so….so…”
Shona watched him.
“It’s so depressing.”
“But she might be well? Tomorrow morning, maybe it will all be okay.”
“Okay?” He scoffed a laugh. “What will be? Eventually, everything will be gone. Wiped out. And no one will ever know we once sat by the window, thinking about our mother, thinking how terrible our lives are. How terrible it had all become. You remember the first time I met you?”
She looked down, the memory in her grasp still held tightly to her chest. Was he thinking the same things as she, was he just as regretful of what had come to pass, she could not decide.
“Yes,” she said. “I think of it sometimes.”
“Where has the magic gone?”
They sat there, but soon the tragedy grew in the darkness and became too unbearable. They went out and sat by the porch, looking at the stars. The noises of the morning had long gone, replaced by the stillness that only comes with death. There was no awake creature in the neighbourhood, only some fouls to be ignored, but as if knowing their consternation, Roxie, their pet dog, wigged her tail at them. And overwhelmed by everything, Lohit hugged her as he had once wished, watching her dark lashes flashing the pools of whites beneath it, and in spite of herself, she returned the hug, grazing her hands by his back. Reminission kept coming back to him with much higher vigour.
Finally they parted. It reminded her again of the first time he had gone away on an office trip, and sitting by the window how he had looked back.
“I bet you didn’t expect to see yourself like this after you get married.”
She smiled, but spoke nothing of it. “Would you like another cup of tea?”
A look of disappointment clouded his face, but he nodded. And she got up again and walked to the kitchen. When she came back, she found him sitting in his chair, one more brought for her. The tea was kept, whose perfume permeated the air. He inhaled a deep breath of air.
How many nights like this had passed, he wondered, without them looking at each other’s face, with their backs turned to each other in their beds? There were nights when they didn’t even sleep together, like last night, when silence occupied the house and they settled in their own spaces, untouched and far from each other. But they sat that night, their eyes on each other, and he talked of what wrongs he had done, to which she had nodded forgiveness, but spoke instead of his mother whose illness had compelled them to such a deep reflection.
Early next morning, when they were still asleep in each other embraces, a call from the hospital came. Their mother was safe, the voice at the other end blurted out.
“Mother is safe,” Lohit kept repeating inside his head, yet no jubilation broke out of him as he had hoped. Shona stood by him, smiling at the news with a smile that revealed more of a sadness. By that evening, she packed a light bag for him, his shirt that he wore to his office, a couple of other things he might need.
“We will talk when I get back,” he said, smiling at her before leaving at the airport.
She smiled back too.
But as he waved back at her, and walked away with his limp, a remembrance of the night nagged at the back of her mind, making her wish that the illness had stayed a little longer, for the cancer had spread too much into her marriage, and the divorce papers in her bag burnt against her hip. The next time he would be home, she knew, it would be over.