Saturday, 15 August 2020

Harsha Shastry, Short Story 2020, Featured Writer

The Presence

Does someone or something EXIST?

Or is it really true what an ‘unnamed’ woman might be feeling and sensing?

It was three o' clock and my son had just returned from his school. After giving him slices of three different fruits, few biscuits and a cup of coffee, I picked up my mobile and started dialling. At the same instance, I heard the ring of our landline phone. I kept my mobile down and hastily reached to the phone and picked it up before my little son could grasp it.

“Hi, yes I had my lunch, how about you? Yes, he has just arrived, he is eating his snacks. How was your day? Yes, I know the same routine; can you come home early today? We can plan for a movie, if possible – Arjun would love to go. Don’t worry, everything is fine here, oh! I haven’t decided yet about dinner, you men all are always like that, you only think about breakfast, lunch and dinner. Hey, listen; don’t yell at people in the office just like you do here, ok sorry baba, I am only teasing you. Listen, don’t forget to take short breaks, and don’t go on sitting in front of the system for hours. Listen, my mum might come tomorrow or day after, she has just called. Yes, she is fine, yes baba; everyone is fine. Hey listen, I know, you don’t have much time,” I looked around and reduced my voice to a bare whisper.

“Listen, don’t bring chocolates for Arjun, yes, I know he loves them, but they will just harm him. Don’t you know about the Sheila’s daughter, she is so little and already has diabetes, yes, believe me - mother’s instinct is always right, let your son get angry, I will manage, ok baba, see you soon, drive slowly, ok? Bye.” I kept the phone down and came back to kitchen - only to get a strange hostile glance from my son. I ignored him completely and sank into the inner core of the magazine.

“Mum, I am going to the playground,” my son announced looking at me uninterestingly.
“Fine, but do come back before it is too dark and make sure you don’t fall down, okay?” I pressed the last word hard.

“Ok, mum.” He said in a submissive tone. Yet, my instincts told me that his eyes were lingering long on my face. Once again I ignored and kept my eyes on the magazine. After a short while, I heaved a sigh of relief when I heard the sound of the front door’s auto lock. It’s time to unleash my tears!

                                   ………………………….

It’s almost seven and I can’t help myself from going out and peering out my neck. Today, instead of my husband’s face, I caught sight of Saroja, one of my ex-colleague, walking towards our home.

“Hi,” I greeted her cheerfully.
“Hi,” She returned it very awkwardly.
“Come in,” I invited hesitantly.

“I had come to Big Bazaar, thought of seeing you on the way.” She pointed her fingers towards the Big Bazaar which was on its twilight and walked in. I quickly scanned at the contents in her big bag.

“Where is Arjun? Is he-” Saroja stopped her question awkwardly.
“He is doing his homework, he is just fine?” I replied hastily.
“How are you?” She asked again looking hesitantly at my eyes.

“I am fine as ever, why do you ask so many silly questions?” I snapped at once, although I knew I was behaving quiet rudely. But then, I think I am changing fast, for good or worst, only god knows.
“Sorry, I mean, I just wanted to say that sometimes -” Saroja began, but I stopped her.

“Look Saroja, I really don’t want to hear any ‘Vedanta’ now. My husband will be coming home soon, I have to cook the dinner.” I said discouraging her at once and wishing she would be gone, although it was I who invited her in. I hate people instantly when they try to advise me bringing in all high philosophy of world.

She looked bewildered and taken aback. Yes, these days I have learned to tell facts on the faces of people, and make my friends and relatives choke – same thing happened with Saroja.

“Sorry, I – I will carry on, I will come some other time, please take care.” She stood up and walked away quickly.

I locked the door and ran back to the kitchen. I had understood that my husband had not kept his promise yet again. But then, I was not angry with him, I can understand his work pressure. Poor fellow! He has to work long hours for our sake. Movies can wait; we can go to the movie any other day. He must be tired; he has to endure those long meetings and the never-ending arguments at the office. I started making onion parathas for the three of us.
After another hour and a half, I opened Arjun’s bedroom door. His eyes were glued on a game on his computer.

“Arjun, the dinner is ready, come and join us?” I asked him.
His fingers stopped punching the control keys and after a short while, he tilted his head and threw a long pathetic glance at my face, finally he said.
“I would rather have it here.”

Kids and their world! I didn’t press him and silently went to the kitchen, placed two parathas and a cup of curd with some sabzi. I carried a big glass of water along with the tray and placed it on his table.

“Mama, when is granny coming?” He suddenly asked in a very humble tone.
“Probably tomorrow, why do you ask?” I was curious.
“I am scared.” He announced with his bent head. I at once ran and hugged him.
“What is there to get scared? I and Papa take good care of you, don’t we?” I asked looking in his eyes.

He threw many soft sobs and finally said, “I would be happy with granny.” I silently brushed his hair and came back to the dining room. It is very difficult to understand kids these days.

“Shall I serve you?” I asked my husband.
“---”

I knew my husband; he would never talk over the dinner except for nods and gestures. I silently placed two plates and served the parathas.

“Too tired to talk?” I enquired casually. Again he said nothing, however, I had to talk, or I would not be able to eat my dinner.

“Hey, shall we plan a small tour this summer, perhaps, to Singapore? Yes, I and Arjun would love to go and I know you will too. I know your silence is acceptance, I will inform Arjun. That will cheer him up. What? The sabzi is tasteless? Well, I think I have forgotten the salt, sorry dear, don’t get upset for little things now, here, let me sprinkle some salt.” I said in a soothing voice and sprinkled few grains of the salt on his sabzi and mine as well. We continued to munch while I chatted about the movie that I had watched this afternoon on the TV.

“It was really a good movie, I like her character, and Damini is innocent yet so strong. I also loved the connection between her husband and her. Rishi Kapoor acted well. There should always be a strong never-ending bond between a husband and a wife, isn’t it? A strong bond can sustain anything, anything in life, isn’t it?”
                              ………………………

I love the way my husband whispers. Even when he knows that our son is in the other room and fast asleep. I like his husky whispering voice. First, his hands would caress my waist and linger long on my belly button.

“Hey, stop that, will you? I feel tickled. Shall I cut my long hair and trim it? These days no one likes long hair; it is out of fashion you know. I knew you would never agree. Truly, you are an old man, hey, don’t hug me so tightly, you know I am like a flower and you are like a wolf, ha ha. Now, now don’t get angry, I was teasing you. You know I love the way you hold me in your arms, yes I want it this way, aha, I feel so safe in your arms, ok baba, I know you are tired and want a good sleep, good night, by the way I am going to cook your favourite breakfast tomorrow, ok baba, I will not talk now, good night.” I pulled the bedsheet and covered myself with a thin smile on my lips; I knew I would have a peaceful night.

                                 …………………………………

Next day, after a busy morning schedule, which is after the departure of the little man and the big man, I sat for a little rest. Suddenly, I remembered something; I quickly went to my wardrobe and removed the black suit of my hubby. It has to be given for a dry cleaning. Tomorrow we are supposed to attend a relative’s wedding. I packed it in a paper cover and waited for Lalitha, my housemaid. Lalitha came as usual and finished her household chores rather early. I didn’t comment on her hastiness or on her half minded work, I ignored it completely. I was not like this, usually, I would pass hundreds of comments asking her to sweep below the sofa, the refrigerator. I would comment on the uncleaned floor stains or I would point out my fingers on the collars of the shirts.

Just as soon as she had finished the breakfast that I had given her, I gave her the packet and asked her to get it dry cleaned.
“Is this your sari?” She asked me glancing curiously at the packet.

“No, it is his suit. We are going to a wedding and you know, how he likes his suit to be perfect,” I smiled recalling the incident from the last time.
“Sorry I– I can’t do it,” Lalitha said in a protesting voice.
“What does that mean? All I am asking you, is to give it to the dry cleaning shop, is that too much to expect?” I asked controlling my rage. I had helped her many times during her hard times and had been giving her more money than any other house.

“Sorry bibiji, I – I can’t do it, I won’t do it, please for god’s sake. Please understand -” She began to blabber.
“Look Lalitha, don’t make me mad over a simple matter, just give it to the shop, it won’t take much time,” I said in a tone of finality.
“I won’t do it madam, please, please, I am in a hurry, I – I have to go,” Lalitha started walking away after keeping the paper packet on the sofa.

“Then, get lost forever; don’t show your face to me ever again, you are an ungrateful woman, I am such a fool that I helped you so much.” I screamed in extreme rage while Lalitha looked at me unbelieving and left in sobs.

What has the world come to? Even a housemaid doesn’t listen to my simple commands and yet they demand handsome money and all kinds of favours!

I continued to muse over.

                          …………………………………

After lunch I switched on the television and began to browse through the channels uninterestingly. I stopped at a channel, a Hindi serial, where a small girl was crying and the people around her, her family, try to complete the rituals of a widow. They banged her hands on the floor breaking her bangles, they rubbed the sindoor off her forehead and forcefully removed her ‘mangala sutra’. I don’t know why I was so enraged that, I did a stupid thing, I hurled the remote control on to the screen with such force that the screen broke into uncountable shreds.

After five minutes, I realised that, my son, after his return, would want to watch his favourite kids TV series ‘Chhota Bheem.’ He would get very hurt and feel very low if he missed that. I have to make some arrangements before he turns up. I knew only one way, call my husband and confess my mistake and get his permission to use the joint account to repair the TV.

I dialled his office number, expecting to get a simple question such as, “What happened?” as soon as it was answered. Time and again, if I ever called him at odd hours, he would open his statement with, “What happened?” But today, it was different, I think he was in a merry mood and so he answered with, “Hello, yes madam”. And I spoke, “Honey, I made a mistake, please don’t scold me. I – I broke the TV, the screen is broken. I – I have to use the joint account so that they I can repair or replace a spare immediately so as not to upset Arjun, please say ‘yes’, I know you will--”

“What are you talking about?” The voice said on the other end.

“I know dear, it is difficult to digest the bad news easily, but I will explain it to you when you come back home, now, all I want to tell you is that I am going to use the joint account for that purpose, ok? Thanks for understanding, bye.” I cut the connection so that he didn’t have a chance to scold me further, he could do that later, when, he was at home and when he was in a relaxed state.

Next, I called our regular TV repair shop and told them about the problem, (“Don’t tell my husband,”) I offered him extra money! He arrived soon and took the set away and promised to get it replaced with a new screen in a few hours. (Extra Money always works fast!)

True to his words, he did his job and brought back the set with new screen before Arjun’s return. I thanked him heartily and tipped him well. I know, my hubby would not agree with me here, but then, he wouldn’t understand a mother’s heart. I spent the extra money so that our only son wouldn’t be upset, and to me that was worth more than the money I had spent.

                                     ……………………………

It’s so irritating and so frustrating and disheartening when your own mother ignores you, (I mean me, I mean her own daughter!) and locks herself with (My son! My blood!) Her grandson, the moment she arrives first. But then, life is such and I have no option but to accept it. I did that and kept on waiting for her to come out of my son’s room.

After a tiring half an hour she came out lifting my son as if he were still a small baby. She gave him his favourite chocolate and sent him away to his room.

“Do you know what you are doing?” She asked me sharply.
I was confused, I expected her to be compassionate with me, but she was not, she was hostile.
“Why? What did I do?” I asked her while I sat down.

“You are scaring people. You are scaring your own son,” she said after thinking for a while.
“Scaring? Me? Mama, what are you talking about?” I asked trying to recall any mistakes I might have made in the past.
“Dear oh dear, please accept the truth, everything will be fine.” Suddenly my mother’s tone changed into soothing voice.

“Truth! What truth?” I asked still baffled.
“That your dear husband is dead.” She whispered with tears in her eyes.

I just couldn’t answer anything. I know he is dead. Yes, I can clearly remember the day when I’d received the call telling me about his accident and his death.

“Why are you behaving so strangely? I can understand the trauma, but you are a brave girl, I never expected you to act like this and scare your own son.” My mother’s voice had disgust in it and I started to cry at once.

“Do you know what people think about you? They think you have gone mad, but I know the truth since I am your mother. No, you are not mad, you are very much sane, yet you are behaving strangely. Please tell me why, please?” My mother literally begged me.

I continued to sob ignoring her pleas.

“Please dear, answer me, I need to know, NOW, please?” My mother took hold of my hand and looked deep into my tear filled eyes.
“Mama, I know you all think I am crazy, but believe me, I am fine and I am in very much in my senses and I know that my dear husband is dead.” I spoke my heart at last.
“Yes, I am listening, but why this strange behaviour? Why are you pretending?” My mother pressed me.

“I will tell you mama, I will. You know how much we loved each other and how happy we were until this -. Ok, yes, I am a strong woman and bore the tragedy quite well. But my husband has taken a part of me with him, a very vital part – my own heart. Now, you know well that a person can’t live without his heart and yet I am living, because, I go on pretending that he is alive, at least in my mind. It gives me solace, it gives me strength and it gives me a purpose to live on. Although, physically he is absent, I can feel his presence mentally, spiritually and what remains in the void that was once my heart, and hence, I pretend. Otherwise, it would be difficult for me to live normally. Yes, I know I am scaring people including my own son. But believe me mama, I have to do it, otherwise, I will be dead. I – I can’t tell you anymore. Please understand me mama, it’s his presence that I am living with, the presence that no one can understand but me, this pretend presence is a life to me. And, it won’t be for a long time. I will recover, but until that time, bear with me mama.” I said and hugged my mother.

Well, I won’t tell my mother that my dear husband has just clapped at my speaking skills and showed me his thumps up.

Who would believe that my dearest soul is really in touch with me?

Life continues...

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