It was almost 11 in the night. I looked out of the window again. The street lamp flickered and an odd dog sniffed around in the dump by the roadside. I was beginning to get worried. It was not like him to be so late from work. Never before in our three years of marriage had he been so late. His work in the factory usually got over by 6 in the evening and it took him another 30 – 45 minutes to catch a train and reach home.
He always duly returned on time unlike Kulkarni’s husband or Sharda’s brother who had a drinking habit. I had never seen him either light a ‘bidi’ or hold a bottle. The entire ‘chawl’ thought he was too simple and I always had to warn him about his being nice to everyone around. I knew he was gullible and people often took advantage of him. It was just three days ago that Manju’s husband had tricked him to borrow 70/-. And just the day before…
…Sound of a passing local train rattled my chain of thoughts.
We had migrated to Mumbai a year and a half ago when our first son was born. My brother in law had arrived a year before that and had found himself work in one of the big factories. We hailed from a small village and I had little say in the matter when they decided to sell off the parental house and he made up his mind to come and live in the city.
It was different in our village. There you could make a neighbor’s boy run to the station and check on the train timings. Mumbai was such a jungle and though the streets were hardly left alone, people just could not be trusted. My parents and in laws had both warned me to stay indoors and not talk to strangers and listen to my husband. Having had little education and naïve to most rules which worked a city, I had simply nodded and tried to remember all words of wisdom that were thrown at me.
Another motorcycle roared outside and I looked at the watch again. 30 minutes to midnight. My heart began to sink. My mind started playing tricks with me. Evil thoughts began clouding my normal thinking process and I started arguing with myself. What if he had landed himself into some trouble at the factory and maybe had a fight with someone? No, he was too gentle to fight someone. What if they made him a scapegoat for something and got him arrested by the police? But then did everyone not know that he was a real simpleton and would not dream of tricking or stealing from anyone? What if he had met with some accident? I felt myself swallowing a lump.
The accidents and mishaps in this city were a daily routine. In fact these were so common that nobody even thought about them anymore. Well, it was only the other day that Verma’s son living on the upper floor was hit by a speeding car on the road and almost lost a leg and a hand. But then Mr. Verma was a retired govt. employee at the hospital itself and knew certain people and his son was saved. What would I do if something similar happened to him? No, I should not even think such things. I looked at the picture of ‘Vinayaka’ on the calendar hung on the wall and closed my eyes for a moment in prayer. God, help him.
My son got up at the very moment and his shrill cry took my attention. I took him in my lap and started crooning to pacify him but my mind was wandering all over. What would happen to my son in case something did happen to his father? My brother-in-law was utterly useless to depend upon. He and his filmy ways were beyond my knowledge or comprehension. I might have to seek some work, but what could I do? I was not educated like Savitri Madam on the second floor who was a teacher in a big school and travelled by bus daily. I could only do some menial jobs and be a house maid or could sew clothes for people but then who would give me work? What if I could not earn enough to sustain my son and support his schooling? He might grow up to be just like Patil who loiters around all day around the ‘chawl’ and earned money by selling cinema tickets in black. Tears started to well around the corners of my eyes as I looked at my son’s face. He was now asleep again. How was the poor soul to know what fate had in store for him?
I looked from the face of the clock to the calendar on the wall again. It was almost midnight now. He did not even say anything in the morning when he left for the office. Or did he? I tried hard to remember if he did anything peculiar in the morning. I could faintly recall him calling out for a cup of tea after he had taken his bath and was through with his morning prayers. I had put the cup on the table and had gone back to the kitchen without throwing another glance. I looked around and saw that the empty china cup was still sitting on the table. I remembered his finishing his tea and getting up and putting on his shirt from yesterday and looking for slippers under the bed. Did I actually see him do that or just had heard his mumbles and grunts at finding the slippers pushed too deep under the bed, I was not very sure again.
My mind was torn between reality and delusion and for that moment I was not sure of anything. What if he had gone away somewhere deliberately? Not that I did not treat him properly, but then I was constantly pestering him to buy me a pair of silver anklets when he got his Diwali bonus when he actually wanted to buy a new tape recorder. I cursed myself mentally for being a nag at times. He was after all my husband and the master of the house and had right to use his money as he pleased. And he had always been nice to me too. My thoughts crossed over to Babulal’s wife in the balcony across, who constantly received thrashing from her husband on one pretext or the other. “God, I would never ask anything from him ever if that is the reason he went away, please send him back” I whispered my little prayer and looked skywards from the window.
The pale yellow street lamp shone a little more brightly now. A light breeze played with a paper bag on the footpath. The old newsprint was brought alive by the wind and danced by the road, rising and falling before finally drowning itself into the drain by the side. Just below the pole on the wall, a poster stood pasted. A young girl with open hair and a low blouse and holding a cake of soap smiled from it.
My mind twitched at the sight of the poster. Was he not looking at the same in the morning? What if he had eloped with someone else leaving me at the mercy of the fate? He could as well be hobnobbing with some harlot at this very minute I was worrying my head off for him. I felt a sudden anguish building inside me. I had always thought that there was some thing fishy about my husband. After all how could somebody working at a factory and being in the company of men who drank and smoked not do anything similar? Was he always hiding his true self from me? Was he not eyeing Mishra’s sister on the ground floor just the other day and was she too not smiling at him? She definitely was fairer and slimmer than I was? At 25 years of age why she still was not married? There sure was something fishy about her character. I looked at the poster of the deity. Lord why did you do this to me?
I kept looking at the poster as it fluttered a bit about its position due to the ceiling fan. Was this happening because I had forgotten to keep a fast last Tuesday? Was this God’s way of punishing me? I had never ever forgotten a fast before until that day. O lord, I shall never ever forget to fast again and vow to offer 11/- and a coconut at the temple but please send him back and confine that wretched Radha to a lifetime of misery. May she never ever have peace, May she…
“Hey you are still awake?” his voice came in from the door. I was so lost in my chain of thoughts that I had forgotten to watch the window and did not even see him coming in from the street and into the room.
I kept looking at him for a while. He looked tired but he was not hurt. There were no tell tale signs or bandages or anything. He did not look worried or in some stress except for the tired look that he always brought home with him so I could safely assume that all was well at work too. So was it actually the case of the other woman. I was still contemplating if I should shoot my questions first or hand him a glass of water or serve his dinner when he handed me a small brown envelope.
“This is the culprit for my being late.” He said as he handed the packet. “I had gone to the market after work to buy it and missed my usual train and the next train was delayed by 3 hours due to some accident and I had no choice but to wait at the station”.
I looked inside the packet. It contained the silver anklets that I had been demanding.
Suddenly it became difficult to control myself. A tear escaped my eyes and I looked at him and could only say “I had been so worried”.
“Oh, you silly girl, where could have I gone? Just got a little late that’s it. Now hurry up, get me some food I’m starving.” He said and went inside to freshen himself.
I looked at the silver in my hands and threw another glance at myself in the mirror. I looked at the calendar on the wall. My fears had vanished. Silly me, I told myself and smiled and went inside to get the dinner.