A Final Reckoning

Agnishikha Choudhuri

© Copyright 2004 by Agnishikha Choudhuri

Photo of an older Indian woman.

This is a really short story that is placed rather squarely in an Indian context. What I think is universal is the view younger people have of older people – where we deny them passion and longing and trap them in sanitized grandparent roles.

It takes me a good thirty minutes to get out of bed these days. My hip has gotten worse. It needs more time to loosen up. But who needs to jump out of bed anymore? There was a time I was in the kitchen before I had even opened my eyes. Now I just lie there, savouring the advent of morning – no one to take care of, no tea and breakfast and lunch and ironed clothes to be produced. Now I live with you and you forbid me sadness. You cozen me and soak me in luxury as if to wash away the years in between. I thought all idleness and pleasure had long been burnt out of me. I was wrong.

I still remember the day your parents moved to Bombay. We were the only occupied house at the end of our lane. The road was so silent before you came. I woke that morning to an unusual commotion and clatter at the empty house next door. I jumped out of bed and ran to the window. There was this huge truck and yelling men and a huge, untidy pile of furniture on the lawn. And there you were – a small girl, my size, framed by two long plaits as thick as your arms, and eyes that consumed your face. A surge of excitement sent me down the stairs two at a time; or was it a premonition? Perhaps now I could have a real friend, just across the fence!

I had hoped for a companion. What I didn’t expect was that I would find a soul mate in my next door neighbour. How many of us are that lucky? I’ve always wondered how they mistook us so easily, for one another. Do you recall how they called us ‘the twins’? We only exchanged clothes, but you were slender and fair and I was stocky and dark. Who can explain these things?

When the marriage proposals started arriving for me, do you remember how we stole the letters from Papa’s desk and took them down to our mango tree to read? And you looked at Prakash’s picture and you said, “He’s looks a little boring, but he lives only 2 blocks away. Then we can keep meeting after you get married.” And we both laughed that your measure of a good husband was my proximity to you.

Prakash turned out the way you predicted. He was a truly uninspiring man. I didn’t even like him. I have never said that before. One doesn’t say such things about one’s husband. But today is a day of reckoning. I must say it as it is. The truth is that as long as I gave him his meals on time, kept his house clean for him and bore him two sons, he didn’t complain. For months we said nothing to each other beyond the mundanities of daily existence. Even sex was silent. My consent wasn’t really required. Would this horrify these young girls these days, with their heads full of romance and partnership? For me it was a way out, a relief that all he wanted was after all, a wife, not a companion. I could not love him – but you knew that.

They called Satyajit the catch of the decade -- so handsome, rich, charming and educated.  He had the match makers buzzing for a while. The countless times I have wanted to take his slim, fair neck in my hands and press till he had no breath. When your marriage was arranged, your parents gloated like they had won the state lottery. They couldn’t complete a sentence without involving his name in it. At your engagement, he asked for a kiss and a hug as a brother’s right. He squeezed my breast and knew he could do it with impunity. I made sure I was never alone with him anywhere. But there was no point in saying anything. Who would have believed me against the son-in-law, that shimmering diamond? They would have called me jealous or frustrated, and even you were distant, dazzled by his laughing brilliance. You suggested I marry to stay near you, and then you went away to Delhi. Now we would only see each other, on the whims and fancies of our in-laws. My life has never felt my own, but you were such a pampered child, perhaps you imagined that you would have a say in the matter of your existence. I recognized your optimism. But I was young, married and cynical. I knew you’d learn soon.

On your first trip home, I would have believed you when you explained the marks on your arm as kitchen accidents, but for the depth of despair in your eyes. It was a face transformed by misery and I wanted so much to comfort it. Your silence was an insurmountable wall. I went in turn to my mother and mother-in-law. They both told me not to interfere—“What happens behind closed bedroom doors should stay there.” I went to your parents to plead with them to do something. They scoffed at the idea, fear of scandal looming large. How could their rich, beautiful, well-married daughter possibly be unhappy? “A little tension is natural with all newly-weds”, they said, “It will pass”. Your mother even accused me (sweetly, of course) of a little jealous at your amazing good fortune. They were so convincing, so scornful of my suspicion, that they made me feel like a bitter, interfering, busybody. But only till the next time I saw you,  with your broken jaw and the car accident story. The fear all came rushing back, and with it the helplessness. By then, it was too late. Your parents, with their silence, had sealed you into the life you were living. You had finally understood that you would not be saved.

I think what hurt most was the silence. You would sit in front of me on one of your rare visits back home, and chatter about the city, and your friends and your girls, and all I could see was the latest scar. Was it anger that we had all let you down? Was it shame, that someone as intelligent and educated as you was being beaten every night by your famous husband? For 17 years I hardly saw you, other than for the occasional wedding. You looked increasingly expensive and made-up and gaunt. As you talked endlessly about frivolous meaningless things, your eyes would challenge me to speak up, to confront you, to ask you if I dared. I didn’t have the courage.

Till you called me that Sunday, I didn’t know the spark was alive; that you were biding time. I was so cold, so distant, when I heard your voice. And you said, “He’s dead, Nammo.” Nobody had called me that for twenty years. Even my parents called me Savitri now. When you said it again, that’s when I heard the relief, and underneath it, something like joy. I remember looking up at Prakash at the dining table, my eyes brimming over. He thought I cried for the death of my friend’s husband.

You were 47 years old, rich and unencumbered by in-laws. The brains you had held in abeyance for years, you finally put to good use. It has been twenty years since then. I have watched you heal slowly over this period, though the scars will remain. You have remembered to laugh with your mouth wide open and uncovered. But you haven’t yet spoken to me about the past.

When Prakash died and you came and asked me to live with you, you said we were two old women and old people are happier together.  My sons and their wives made the token objections. I doubt they would have been even that vociferous if there was a chance I’d change my mind and actually live with them! Its far better this way. We have all learnt to be civil. Now, when I speak on the phone with my daughters-in-law, I can even feel affection for them.

I turn 70 today. The way my body is packing up, all it will take now is a fall or a stroke to end it all. So today I will say what you haven’t said, and what I have never had the courage to say before – what I knew from the moment I saw you across the fence between our houses. One could even ask—after 58 years does it need to be said?

They said I had a successful life because I married at a good age and my husband didn’t drink or smoke or beat me, and I had sons, and they had sons, and my daughters-in-law are beautiful and dutiful and child-bearing, and my health is relatively good and I have enough money for my old age to not be dependent on the young. They have qualified it and quantified it and judged me happy and satisfied. They have expected me to mourn and be joyful and angry and righteous at all the appropriate moments. And I have complied. I have done my duty.

I speak now because that living is complete. If I am to give space and breath to this life, my secret life, then I must tell you that it has always been you – you that I loved and grieved and hungered for. The touch of your skin, the way you smelt when you returned from a long day’s work, when the perfume had faded and the sweat was predominant; the way you would look straight at me when other people were saying something and you thought they were fools and I always knew; these and so many countless moments – I have lived from one to the next and these comprise my true life. Over 58 years I have loved only you and today I reclaim the right to say so.

I live in Bangalore, India, and write in my spare time.  This is my first ever story submission.  I dream of making
writing a full-time job.

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