Sheila writes a letter to her husband, an Army major, in the dead of the night. The next morning the sharp ringing of the doorbell brings news of her husband.
It was the rain — the pre-monsoon showers — falling in a slant that provided company to Sheila as she sat on the writing-table at the unearthly time of an hour-and-a- half past midnight. The raindrops struck the windowpane with ferocity like a barrage of bullets unleashed from a machine-gun. The raindrops sometimes sounded like the tireless drumming of a man possessed by a spirit while playing at a temple-festival. What had begun twenty minutes back as hesitant, intermittent, gentle knocks on the windowpane as though an unwelcome guest was trying to gain entry into a house, had steadily gathered strength to develop into a tumultuous crescendo threatening to tear down the house if denied admittance. Occasionally though, a gust of wind would force a change of course in the rain thus relieving the windowpanes of their aches and pains only for them to be revisited by the same affliction a minute later with the onset of a fresh gust from another direction.
Sheila had two other beings for company. The first was her shadow that the table- lamp splashed on the left wall and which had a life of its own and the second was her five-year old son Rohan presently cradled in the lap of sleep on one half of the bed. Sheila loved this time of the day (or rather the night) as it offered her that supreme measure of tranquillity insulated from the jarring noise of the doorbell ringing or the equally obnoxious tring-tring of the telephone. She could read a horror novel or watch a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law go for each other’s jugular in a television sitcom.
The side-drawer of her writing table emitted a loud creak when she tried to open it. She immediately glanced at Rohan to see if she had disturbed him. Rohan, oblivious to the sound, lay fast asleep in his semi-foetal position. A pang of regret stabbed her in the breast as she recalled the manner in which she had made him sleep. Normally, she told him a story from the Panchatantra or sang to him his favourite lullaby: -
“Come, dear sleep
Come and transport me
As does an aero plane
To some place far, far away”
However, today she had to shout at him, thwack him on his buttocks, glower at him with ghoulish eyes and clamp his mouth continually so as to attempt to muzzle those shrieks of “Where is father?” … “I want to see father” … “I will not sleep unless I see father” … “Why does father not come?”
Perhaps the beating was not necessary. Rohan would have succumbed after some time because of exhaustion or boredom but then Sheila’s patience had snapped like a violin-string subjected to too much tightening. Hopefully, Rohan would not recall anything in the morning or else Sheila would have to tackle that ruckus while dressing him up for school not to mention sewing the missing button or locating the packet of crayons, acts that were invariably performed with the school-bus honking as a musical accompaniment. Sheila dusted off the beige-coloured talcum-powder, like residue that the wood-borer had created and then began writing a letter to her husband, a Major in the Infantry now posted to a non-family station near the border.
I received your letter five days back. After that, we had a chat on the telephone, didn’t we? The day-before-yesterday, I think. I mentioned then that I’d received your letter (Isn’t it amazing how a large part of the telephonic conversation is spent discussing what was written in a recent letter? By the way, I’ve to get my cellphone checked as the battery barely lasts a day!) I did answer all your queries on telephone. At least that’s what I recall. So, I don’t have to re-read your letter to answer the queries. You mentioned that the temperature is sub-zero, and that the militant activity has heated up.
I will admit straightaway that life in this sleepy, town is heaven in comparison to the arduous (and what’s more perilous) one you lead there. If you discount the summer that is. This town has only two seasons: The hot season and the very hot season. Of course, town-folks envy us who live in the Cantonment claiming that the greenery absorbs five degrees of temperature. And did I mention that on Christmas Eve, Santa Claus knocked at our door and surprise, surprise gave Rohan a present? And the mother of all surprises: The Centre Commandant throwing protocol to the winds had donned the mantle of Santa! Alas, that has been the one bright spot in the dull, dreary, drab period of eleven months since you left us. The wheels of life are stuck in a rut out here. The residents it seems have turned inward, examining themselves and their relationship with the world as do philosophers. The other day I chanced upon Mrs. Srivastava at the vegetable shop. I waved out to her; she didn’t notice. I called out “Garima”. She was a deer paralyzed with fear on hearing a gunshot. I accosted her and asked her what the matter was. Her eyes had turned into marbles, and she could barely mumble, “Oh, it’s you Sheila…I thought … Never mind …It’s been ages.” I nodded and moved on not wishing to be reminded of our collision at the Bakery two days back. I guess I’ll have to take up some hobby or vocation or fad. Everyone seems to be into Yoga or Reiki or Deep Breathing or Aerobics or Gemmology or Tarot Reading Even gossiping has been jettisoned for some incomprehensible reason.
The Officer’s Club resembles the Sahara at noon. The Oasis is the Billiards Room where there are a few young officers willing to stretch their arms and bend their backs to position themselves better. They take shots and pot-shots with consummate élan. Seeing the conviviality of these guys buttresses my belief that the rest of us are either in perpetual mourning or in a malignant state of depression.
If one thought that the Ladies Club would provide relief, one would be living in an illusory world. For, the only plus points are that one gets to flaunt one’s jewellery and experiment with outrageous shades of eyeshadow and lipstick. The first lady has devised a charming way of taking attendance at the monthly meetings. Each lady is presented a red rose, to the stalk of which is strung a tag bearing her name. The roses that lie in the tray after the Welcome address is over are then gathered and sifted to draw up the list of absentees who are then asked to explain their absence. Gosh, it’s so stifling!
I can picture you frowning, perhaps shaking your head to say that you would a hundred times out of a hundred choose boredom over having to fight an invisible, insane enemy. But I have other problems that plague me. Loneliness, for example. And an erosion of self-belief. Yes, Rohit the fact is that I’ve had to deal with all problems (call them issues if you like) by myself. Like begging the Nuns daily for twenty days for Rohan’s admission to the Convent School. There you go, thumping your fists on the table cursing “Why did she not send Rohan to the Army Public School goddammit?” Now, if a school has a better reputation than the Army Public School, why deprive Rohan of admission there? And branding does matter. Are you not finicky about using only Old Spice aftershave or Reebok sneakers? And then there’s the shopping to do and the household chores – sweeping and swabbing the house, cooking, cleaning the utensils, washing the clothes – a hundred other things …. There’s no domestic help! (I know your response, “But Veena your sister does all those things in Houston – and does not complain! But Rohit, if I were living there, I would have cleaned public drains”) The geyser has not been working for the last two months. The geyser repairman comes on every odd day and blames it on the power line ; the electrician who comes on every even day says that the geyser is at fault. I’ll have to wait for Haley's comet to reappear to see them both visit the house together. The upside: I’m learning plumbing, carpentry, electrical repairs, etc.
Do, you know what an ordeal it is to send your son to school every day? I spend ten minutes shaking him out of his sleep and another ten minutes cajoling him to get out of bed. (In between, I run to the kitchen to boil the milk, prepare the sandwiches or noodles or …) When he does not want to go, he insists, “Daddy should drop me to school” and abuses me and kicks me. I put up with everything. For I want to shove him into the school-bus. The alternative: Having to ride the scooter for five-kilometres with the pillion-rider howling all the way as though he were a toddler lost in Bollywood-fashion in a village fair. It’s a fact hard to digest that these days children don’t take orders. In fact, no one does expect Army men. Infantry men to be precise.
I can picture you shaking your head in disgust and thinking that I’m making a mountain of a molehill. But then can I blame you for being here only during your annual leave which coincides with Rohan’s holidays, a time when he is at his delectable best? You've only seen his Dr. Jekyll side …Perhaps you think I’ve taken membership of the Cribbers' Club. But the indubitable fact is that what drains me the most is having to take all major decisions on my own.
Rohit, did I tell you about the horrible train journey I had from Mathura a few months back? I must have told you – in any case no harm in repeating it. Mummy and Daddy had come to the station to see Rohan and me off. Daddy’s eyes kept discharging unending rivulets of tears; Mummy clung to Rohan as though he was her life support system …Nothing unusual you would say and add, perhaps, why can’t they both stay with me (after all dad’s retired)? But you know how they are …. Prisoners of a custom that forbids one staying in one’s son-in-law’s house for an extended length of time… Just before leaving home, we phoned the Railway Station to find out whether the train was on time. We were told it was half an hour late. Therefore, we left the house as planned. By the time we reached the station, the train was an hour late. An hour later, she was two hours behind schedule. The porter had placed our luggage on the platform at a place where he said the Air-conditioned compartment would take position. Promising to come back when our train arrived, he left to attend to other trains. Since I had not paid him, I was not worried. Daddy found a place to sit on a granite-stone bench; Rohan kept Mummy engaged by demanding ice-cream, chocolates, comics, wafers and lollipops at periodical intervals. I had one eye on the crossword puzzle and the other on the luggage. I paid scant attention to the announcements of the arrival and departure of trains being made on the loudspeaker by a woman with a voice that was more raucous than that of a crow...
The rain had stopped now. Perhaps it had stopped ten minutes back, but Sheila had not noticed this. She suddenly felt her head pounding in pain as though it was being beaten mercilessly as is a bongo drum. On examining her fingers, she saw that they seemed limp and almost fell away as though they belonged to a paralyzed hand. A glance thrown at Rohan drew a yawn from her. She knew that 3a.m. was not the time to be awake especially when one had to get up three hours later to shake Rohan out of his sleep. Later in the day, she would finish the letter describing the awful train journey and more importantly … But how would she break the news? Yet she had to tell him. Inform him. Explanations were not necessary. Some matters are best stated not elaborated. Yes, she had to tell him that she was leaving him to stay with her parents. For good (Or bad). But for good for the present. And the present seemed eternal. She could not handle Rohan by herself without any domestic help. It was not that she only lacked the strength; her confidence was a river run dry without any hope of rain. She had to do this. For her sake. For Rohan’s sake. For everyone’s sake. For the sake of everybody’s sakes. You could term it timidity. Or selfishness. Or cowardice. Or callousness. But she had to arrest this downward spiral … Of course, a year later Rohit would return and get a posting in a decent town … But she would not be joining him because in a couple of years’ time it would be time to separate …This was worse than cowardice, she thought. It was cruelty. … But she had thought things over. Without consulting anyone other than herself. She did not want to be influenced by others. Did others have to live her life...? She switched off the reading lamp and got into bed.
A fire-engine alarm seemed to be reverberating in her ears. Rohan was on top of her beating her with his fists, pulling her hair and screaming “Get up! Get up mother!” She tentatively reached for the switch of the bedside table-lamp but only managed to disturb the lampshade causing it to topple and land on the floor with a twang! This was it. She shoved Rohan aside. She forced her eyes open: an act which seemed like sandpapering a blister … The front doorbell was ringing and ringing …. She stumbled her way into the bathroom, rinsed her mouth and splashed water on her face and then switching on the passage-light, made for the door.
A Lieutenant and a havildar, both in uniform were at the door. The Lieutenant, his brow furrowed, looked at her with a wavering glance and swallowed twice before he spoke, “Madam, I’m sorry to inform you …Your husband Major Rohit Dwivedi was killed in an encounter with militants at about three this morning...”
The Vow that had blessed Savitri with the children she desperately wanted had become the knell of doom for Shambhu.
No sooner had Savitri finished reading the letter she had received from her son than she was consumed by a wave of emotion that not only triggered an uncontrollable bout of sobbing but also uprooted her from the present to transport her back in time. To an evening two years back to be precise.
The sun had gone down and it was gradually becoming dark. The evening Star was visible in the sky. Savitri sat down before the small stool which was placed in one corner of the hut and on which idols of a few Gods had been neatly arranged. There was a faint scent of the jasmine flowers that had been offered to the Gods during the morning pooja. Savitri motioned to her son Shambhu, who, stuffing the last handful of puffed rice into his mouth, wiped his hands on his shirt before sitting down next to his mother, his palms folded together in reverence before the Gods, Savitri’s two other children, Lata and Shankar had gone out with their father. Savitri lit the oil-lamp, closed her eyes and said a small prayer. Shambhu too joined in the recitation. From a corner of his eye, his mother’s face appeared calm yet radiant as though deriving energy from the light of the lamp that flickered and crackled. When Savitri finished her prayer, she looked at Shambhu. Shambhu saw his mother’s lips quiver. He smiled gently but got no response from his mother. She seemed lost in thought.
“What’s the matter, Mother?” Shambhu asked her.
Savitri continued staring at him as though she had not heard the question.
“Did you want to say something?” he asked her.
Her eyes lit up for a second indicating that he had read her mind. After some hesitation she said, “A thought crossed my mind…but leave that…”
Shambhu’s patience was on the wane.
“Is there a secret you want to keep from me, your own son?” he taunted her.
She shook her head to convey that that wasn’t the case.
“Then what is it, mother?” pleaded Shambhu
“Perhaps I’ll tell you later…but first let me tell you something else…” Savitri inhaled deeply before continuing, “Your father and I got married twenty years ago…It was summer and that night as we stared together at the full moon your father told me that he wished that a year later there should not be two but rather three of us. I blushed in agreement. I was not used to hearing such good things…but who was to tell then that not one, not two but five years would pass without our wish being fulfilled. How painfully dark and unending those five years were! The reason was not that we were quarrelling with each other or that we were in a financial mess. The reason was that no child had been born to us. This fact hung like a black cloud, casting a shadow over our lives. We were the subject of constant gossip and subjected to taunts from relatives, neighbours, even friends. We visited several temples, undertook arduous pilgrimages, performed poojas, took holy dips in several rivers, met several holy people – all in order that I would give birth to a child. We had spent all the money we had but were still childless…I was shunned by everyone as I was barren… And I will make a confession… something I’ve hidden even from your father… I even attempted suicide …It was then that a close friend told me to have patience and singlemindedly pray to Lord Shiva. Such was my mental condition that I was prepared to do anything to lessen my pain. And so, I took her advice. It helped me immensely…”
Her voice trailed off and she paused for a few moments before resuming… “But think of it, Shambhu, are we not selfish even in prayer? I mean do we do not pray either in the hope that the lord fulfils some wish of ours or if not, that at least lessens our misery?”
“I don’t really know I have not given it a thought” was Shambhu’s reply.
“Leave that aside …As I was saying I was steadfast in my devotion to Lord Shiva…I was so desperate to become a mother that…” she stopped abruptly.
Shambhu gave her a puzzled look before asking, “And so, mother?”
Savitri’s lips quivered and the reply she gave was in the form of a whisper, “Well… I mean… I do not know whether I should continue...”
“I don’t understand,” confessed a bewildered Shambhu.
“I… mean the thought that had crossed my mind….”
“Speak it out, mother,” begged Shambhu “I cannot bear the suspense any longer.”
Savitri cleared her throat before resuming, “As, I said, I was prepared to do anything… I took a vow before Lord Shiva.”
“What sort of a vow?” asked Shambhu with apprehension.
Savitri gave her son a piercing look. Her countenance had assumed a grave, determined aspect. She replied, “When I asked Lord Shiva to bless me with a child, I vowed to him that should I have more than one child, I’ll sacrifice the first one to him.”
Each one of Savitri’s words struck Shambhu like a whiplash. They echoed from one ear to the other. He was consumed by a sense of shock as he stared at the face of his mother which looked splendidly unrepentant. Moments later, he sank to his knees and clutching his mother’s feet asked her, “Why did you take such a vow, mother?”
“So that I may become a mother, my child,” his mother replied calmly.
“But why me? Why me, mother?”
“Because you’re the first one, my child.”
“Don’t call me your child!” screamed Shambhu suddenly springing to his feet, adding, “You have forfeited your right to call me your son!”
For half an hour Savitri had to bear the brunt of the accusations and abuses hurled at her by Shambhu. Shambhu did eventually quieten down and Savitri made him promise to her that he would not disclose what had occurred between them to anyone. Not even to his father or Sister or brother.
A few days later, Shambhu woke up Savitri in the middle of the night. When Savitri asked him what the matter was, he put a finger to his lips requesting her to keep quiet and taking her hand led her out of the house.
“Mother,” he whispered to her, “I’ve taken a decision. I’ve decided to fulfil your vow.”
“But Shambhu…,” she gasped as a shockwave rushed through her face.
“Don’t worry, mother,” Shambhu reassured her. “I am fully prepared for it. I’ve been thinking about it over the past few days.”
Savitri noticed that as Shambhu spoke his face now bathed in the milky rays of the moon shone with a confidence hitherto alien to it.
“Are you… Sure, I mean?” she asked him.
“Please let me go, mother. I’ve already packed my things.” He pointed to a bundle that he had made.
“Are you certain?” she said.
He nodded and smiled. “But don’t tell father…Tell him that I’ve gone out to look for a job.”
The next morning Savitri woke up her husband much earlier than usual. She literally shook him out of his sleep, feigning a sense of panic. It was her ruse to attempt to absolve herself of the blame for Shambhu’s having run away from the house in the middle of the night. She knew that although no one would be able to accuse her of banishing Shambhu form the house or of complicity in his desertion, nevertheless the very fact that she had not been able to hold him back despite his having told her that he was leaving was sufficient reason to render her blameworthy.
Her husband was aghast. “What do you mean by telling me that he refused to listen to all your pleas despite your falling on your knees begging him not to go?” he thundered shaking her violently.
“I did beg him,” she pleaded.
“You should have slapped him hard… And repeatedly…or beaten him with the stick that we keep at the door at night… I would have woken up with the noise and dealt with him. Why didn’t you do that?”
“I was so sleepy… I didn’t even hear what he said”
“And in that sleepy state, you fell on your knees begging him not to leave?” her husband scowled.
“Believe me,” she implored adding, “Don’t forget. I could have easily lied saying that he did not wake me up…”
Savitri’s husband was too infuriated and wanted to report the matter to the police-station immediately Savitri was against taking such a step as it would throw the field open to rumor-mongering. However, they did report the matter to the police after a few days.
After a month during which they had spent a lot of sleepless nights and anxious days, they received a letter from Shambhu. They would, over the next few months receive many such letters at intervals ranging from a fortnight to two months. In those letters Shambhu mentioned where had been, what he had been doing that is to say whether he had been working in a stone-quarry or wayside restaurant or construction site. He never mentioned his address or even disclosed where he was. His letters were invariably so post-marked that the name of the post-office was not recognizable. In every letter he took pains to explain that he was fine and in good health and that they need not worry about him. Every odd letter contained an assurance that he would visit them after a few months when he had gathered enough money to make the trip and buy presents for all of them.
Savitri had now regained her composure and wiped away she tears that had moistened her face. She would have to destroy this latest letter received from Shambhu lest it serve to exacerbate the existing tension in the household. What luck, she through that I received the letter myself and that too when no one else was around in the house! Before destroying it, she read it once more. In the background of the letter, she saw the face of Shambhu reading the words that he had written.
“Dear Mother, Father, Lata and Shankar,
I am fine and know that all of you are fine too. I came to know how you all were when I was in the town of Hirapur two weeks back for the annual fair. Home is not very far from there. I could not make it home. I was very busy.
Mother, forgive me… the coward that I am that I could not fulfil your vow”
Savitri crumpled the letter into ball and threw it into the fire of the day over upon which a pot of rice was cooking. The flames initially licked the paper and then lapped it up greedily. Thank God, Savitri said to herself that Shambhu was safe and sound. Thank God that Shambhu had lacked the courage to take his own life to fulfil that terrible vow she had taken. That Vow that had seemed so noble then, seemed so hideous now. She resolved to make all out efforts to locate Shambhu to tell him to call off the whole thing. To tell him to return to what was now a devastated home. In the back of her mind there was the fear of incurring the wrath of Lord Shiva for reneging upon her vow. But maternal love had relegated that fear to the rear. Savitri smiled at the prospect of meeting Shambhu and (as it were) rescuing him from his bondage.
A year later, Savitri along with her two children, was taking an afternoon nap when she was woken up rudely by a violent banging on the door.
“Savitri! Savitri!” a woman was calling from outside. She opened the door to see her friend Veena in front of her. Her friend was panting and had a dazed look on her face. She burst out crying with the words,
“Savitri… Savitri… How… How … What can I …They found… the body of Shambhu in the town of Hirapur this morning. He had jumped off a cliff during the Annual Fair…’