I lived by the end of a narrow street where the alley merged into a dim lit cross road. It was a locality of middle class service men who left their homes by the 07:20 train in the morning and came home by the passenger train at 09:30 in the night. The course of the day was sluggish for the women in the household and students and children alike as the small township that I lived in had almost nothing to offer than a municipal park and a shabby cinema hall that now no one visited.
I was 17 and she was 28 when I first saw her. The family had moved in from some other small town following some communal riots that had taken place in their locality. Probably something bad had happened and the couple scared for their lives had left their house permanently and sought refuge in this slow, out of bounds town of mine a few hundred kilometers away. A colleague of my father referred them to us and we let them us tenants in a small two room set that we weren’t using on our terrace.
The couple mostly confined themselves to their premises and I hadn’t really noticed anything about them until a few days later when my grandmother asked me to carry a plate of sweetmeats to the tenants above. I was reluctant at first but then my grandmother was known for her persistence. She could nag till the end of time and it was wiser just to comply than reason out with her. The door was ajar and I just walked into one of the rooms above and almost ran into her. She had her hair tied in a bun and they smelled of a local ‘Shikakai’ soap probably the only substitute of a shampoo prevalent during those days. There was something about her that made me nervous. I fumbled with the plate I was holding and could only muster that the sweets were sent by grandma. I almost sounded apologetic as if trying to justify that if there was something more to that plate of sweetmeats then I was not aware of it. There were beads of water on her forehead trickling through her hair which kind of smudged a little speck of kohl, by the corner of her eyes. She smiled, took the plate from my hands and went inside only to return a few seconds later to hand out the empty plate.
I stood there rooted for a while before she asked me “…anything else?” . I just shook my head and for some uncanny reason hurried back downstairs. Something changed after that day. I was always striving to catch a glimpse of her thereafter, perhaps trying to gauge what was it about her that made me so nervous that day. I would bring out the newspaper, spread it over the verandah and pretend to check the sports page timing my daily chore when she would come to spread the clothing line. Off and on, she would smile and I would often nod and smile in return.
I could not say if I had fallen in love with her but my fascination for her coupled with my hormonal changes and ensured that I soon started objectifying her as a tool to stir my carnal desires. My fantasies soared skies and I flew higher waiting for destiny to give me a chance.
Then one of the days she sent for me. She needed some help to move a bit of old trunks around, probably to bring out the woolen clothing for the approaching winter and asked my mom if she could send me over to help her. I eagerly went out hoping to get her attention and probably let her know how I felt for her.
When I entered the room I saw that there was a pile of broken suitcases and garment bags that she had spread across the floor. She wanted me to help her lift a couple of suitcases and adjust an iron trunk on a storage shelf which was actually a little higher for her reach. My spirit was a little crushed. For some reason, probably emerging from the B-grade south Indian softcore flicks that I had watched in the city cinema, I was led to believe that this call for help would only be a pretext for her to call me inside her room when the husband was away. The husband was away true, but the work was real.
I spent the next 40 minutes settling her bags and trunks and accessories when a cloth bag tore open and a red wedding dress was thrown open on the floor. It wasn’t hard to make out that it was part of her wedding trousseau. I picked it up and just as I was about to hand it to her, she let out a sigh.
That single emotion, with no words expressed told her more than she could have actually expressed. An immediate sadness enveloped her. In a flash, her eyes were forlorn and she looked a ghost of her own self.
Probably it was more than the signal I needed. I touched her arm and asked “What happened”? She threw a glance at my hand holding her arm, looked me up in the eye and replied “Nothing” turned her face away and stepped away, out of my reach.
I stood there for a while but she did not look back. I kept the dress I had picked onto a cot by the side and just as I was about to step out of the room to go back, she asked me “Will you have some time tomorrow afternoon”?
“Yes”, I replied. “Do you need any more help? If you want any more stuff to be moved I can do it right away.”
“No, tomorrow at about 3 in the afternoon. Could you please come?”
“Yes, of course.” I replied and stepped out with a spring in my feet.
I spent the entire night thinking and speculating why did she call me up again and only at a specific time but then dismissed any false hopes of getting lucky with her by the notion that she probably needed some heavy blankets or quilts pulled out for putting it up in the sun before the weather changed.
My sleep was broken early next morning by the noise in the kitchen. I went in and saw my mom up earlier than usual and tinkering with pots and food. Looking at me standing at the door she just smiled and said, “It’s Karwachauth today.” I knew what that was supposed to mean. It is a Hindu festival where wives would observe a fast for longevity of their husband’s life. I went back and slept again and woke up at around ten in the morning and went about my day regularly.
My mom and others in the house went away to the temple in the afternoon for some ritual pertaining to the fast and I remembered I had to go and meet my temptress at 3. I combed my hair, looked in the mirror a couple of times and went up to see her.
I knocked at the door and found it open. I asked if I could come in and got no answer. I stepped inside and found her sitting with her legs up on the cot in the same red wedding saree that had fallen on the ground a day before.
I stood there in that room a couple of minutes looking and admiring her. She looked stunningly pretty in that red outfit. Her kohl lined eyes were in stark contrast with her luscious lips reddened by a lipstick. There was a strand of jasmine flowers neatly tied in her hair which were done in a plait which rested by her shoulder onto her belly. There were anklets in her feet and bright red bangles in the hands. She sat there as a bride watching me look at her before asking me “How do I look?”
I could only stutter “Like a bride…”.
She stood up, came towards me and held my hand. My feet turned cold and my mind was numb. She took my hand around her waist and waited, perhaps trying to see if I was a boy who would go running to my folks or a man who would follow her lead and take her on. In that single flash, I learnt how the threshold is crossed. I had come of age. I held the grasp and moved my hand across her belly.
She smiled, turned around and took my hand to the hooks of her blouse. What ensued thereafter is a memory imprinted on my mind forever. She took me by my arms, flung herself on the cot with me and pounced on me with full vigor. She let me in, consumed me and rose again like a flame that burns everything which comes in its way. I don’t exactly remember how long I was in that trance and how many minutes or hours it were before she actually flopped next to me and buried her face in the pillow for what seemed like an eternity.
I gathered myself and kept staring at her bare back. There was something about that moment that told me that I was no longer needed in that room. I gathered my clothes from the floor, dressed up quietly and walked towards the door.
“Close the door behind you” she said even as her face was away and I obeyed dutifully and stepped out of the room.
I did not see her the entire afternoon. Soon, my mother and others returned and I was sent out to fetch some groceries and run some errands which kept me away from the house until the evening stepped in. Later as I returned, I found my mother on the terrace looking at the moon and completing the rituals of the fast she had observed during the day. I went to the kitchen, picked my plate, ate a little and retired to bed – the afternoon still fresh on my mind and playing with my senses.
I did not see her next afternoon. Later towards the evening I overheard my mother telling my father that tenant lady had come down earlier in the day and had handed out the keys to their room, had gone out and did not return. My mother said that she had found the lady’s behavior a little strange as she had never seen her step outside the house except for a trip to the vegetable market or the grocer. The fact she had not returned and there was no sign of her husband worried her.
I did not know what to make of the development. I wasn’t even sure if it was because of what had happened between me and her the previous afternoon. A sudden fear enveloped me. What if she spoke about it to some one? Will I be held guilty for outraging her modesty? Will they blame me for something? Will anyone believe me if I told them that it wasn’t me but her who invited me and took the first step? I was uneasy the whole evening and could not focus on anything.
Her husband returned from work later at night and was puzzled to find a lock on his room. He came downstairs and asked my father if he knew about the lock. My mother brought in the keys that his wife had handed over earlier in the day and told him what she knew. The man was silent and pondered on for a moment and quietly took the keys and went to his room. We heard him rattle around his belongings in the room for a while but then everything went silent. My father thought it best not to intervene at that hour and we were all hushed and ushered to bed.
The next morning I woke up with some loud scream. I rushed to the room and saw my father standing rooted to the ground in a state of shock. Apparently, he had come upstairs to ask our tenant if everything was alright and if he needed some help or if he had heard from his wife and found him dead on his cot – his wrists slashed. It was the same cot that I had been on with his wife on the day of the ‘Karwachauth’. A pool of blood had dried up on the floor under the arm which lay hanging by the cot. The red saree that I had seen on the dead man’s wife two days ago was sitting on top of a pile of clothes in a corner and on top of it a piece of paper was gaping at us.
I went ahead and picked that paper. It was a letter from the wife. It said
By the time you get this letter, I would be long gone – away from you and perhaps from the life that we have known as well. I will be miles away in a place where I will no longer be your wife or anyone’s daughter, mother or sister. I will not kill myself for what use is killing someone who is already dead. It is now a little over an year that your cowardice killed my soul. I dragged this body on for one full year waiting for you to come up to me and confess that you were ashamed of this life that you earned at the cost of my honor but you did not.
It was on the day of Karwachauth an year ago when those rioters had stormed into our house and our lives. They outnumbered the two of us and perhaps it would have been so much better had they just butchered us like lambs. You should have known that they were no religious crusaders when they proposed you to hand them your wife in lieu of your life. Perhaps you will never know this but had they asked me first I would have willingly given my body away for saving your life on my own. I was shocked by the way you fell at their feet and bartered me readily for your life and even tried reasoning it out with me.
My soul was not crushed by the sheer lust of those men but by your being a lesser man that moment. I survived that hour and the days after that not because I wanted to live but in sheer agony of my self-belief that you will one day see how inadequate you have been. We changed cities, places and houses but Kuljit, we could never run away from ourselves.
I am leaving you forever now. I lost my honor to those men that day. Yesterday, I sold your honor to someone else. My Karwachauth lasted one full year where I fasted and prayed for your soul asking Gods for your deliverance. I broke my fast by handing out my body to someone who knew me as your wife in the same saree I wore on my wedding night.
I forgive you Kuljit and I hope if you ever realize what you have done, you be able to forgive yourself too.
The letter was not signed and I think it wasn’t needed as well. The Police Inspector who came in to take the body away for a post mortem was a friend of my father. He looked at me in the eye as he read through the contents of the letter and then back at my father who was still in some shock. He sighed and told my father, “It’s a suicide and there is no one who can be blamed. The wife left on her own accord and the husband could not take the humiliation and the guilt. Don’t worry. It’s life. These things happen”. On his way out, he gave me another look, sniffled and went out.
I looked back at the cot again and a tear rolled out. I let out a sigh and came back to my room.
I never heard or saw her ever again.