When Roma first walked to the door, its face looked grim and unyielding. Despite the peeling green paint, it stood guard over the old house she had married into, its large brass knobs steady in their grooves. Against the sheer obduracy of that door, the welcoming designs drawn on the floor with powdered rice and sandalwood looked puny, and although its panels stood open for her, its old face bore a resolve to keep all inhabitants in and intruders at bay. She felt like the intruder.
Roma spent the first night with her husband Satyabrata on his bed, but they were too exhausted by hours of Hindu family traditions and prayers to do anything other than fall asleep, only to wake up to ritual teasing from his nieces and cousins.
Like all Indian village brides, Roma had entered into a lifelong marriage with not just a person, but also a home and its inhabitants. Her first morning gave her the opportunity to get better acquainted with them all. Roma’s eldest sister-in-law, the portly Trishna, showed her where to take her bath and leave her washing, and then took her on a tour of the old kitchen. Roma felt grateful to have found a friend and guide in a strange household, guarded by its grizzled, formidable door.
But after a year of marriage, the door seemed friendlier. She now knew its grooves and scratches just as well as she did the angles and planes on the body of her young husband. This door stood firm, the guardian she leaned against when she watched Satya set off for work to a nearby town, and waited for him to come home.
“Come here just for a minute.” Satya stood one winter morning near the door.
“No, someone will wake up!” Roma stepped back.
“Who will wake up? Both my brothers are snoring away.” Satya grabbed her upper arms and pulled her close.
“What about your nephews? And their mothers? Besides, you’ll be late for work.”
“And it’ll be all your fault,”Satya let her go with a laugh. He opened the door into the morning fog.
Roma stood at the doorstep, waving to him as he walked on the cracked driveway that had never seen a car, and clanged shut the rusty old gate. Mist hung over the sprawling village pond on the other side of the road. Bits of mist clung to Satya’s curly hair as he turned to smile at Roma. He pedalled his big black bicycle on to the winding road, around the sprawling expanse of dull green fields, and she watched him until he disappeared from view. She continued to see him in her imagination as she shut the door and walked back into the dark house as he deposited the bicycle at the stand near the railway station, waited at the platform, exchanging words of greeting with the regulars, boarded the green-and-yellow train that would carry him to his factory in the nearby town.
Roma stepped into the dark kitchen, wrapped her shawl tighter about her, and switched on the dim yellow light. She pumped the kerosene stove and lit it. As the wife of the youngest son of the family and its newest member, she woke up the earliest and made tea for everyone. After Satya, his eldest brother Gokul, Trishna’s husband, left for work. Roma had to start chopping vegetables in preparation for his breakfast, and the family’s lunch later.
“Is the hot water ready, Roma? Give me a cup, I need a gargle.”
Lila, the wife of the middle brother Paresh, walked into the kitchen. At twenty-two, she was a year younger than Roma, but being city-educated, Lila wore sleeveless blouses with her sarees and took her rights as a senior wife seriously, ordering Roma about as much as she dared.
“Yes, Liladi, here you go.”
Roma smiled at her hoarse sister-in-law, who glared back. Roma didn’t mind. She breathed in the smells of incense wafting across the courtyard into the kitchen, which never failed to cheer her up. Satya’s parents sat in the prayer room and would want their tea soon. She hurried to the stove.
Through the morning Roma fetched and carried for Satya’s nephews before they left for school, helped draw bath water from the well for Satya’s parents, put the buckets to warm in the sunny courtyard, and gave a hand to Trishna and Lila as they cooked lunch. She fried onions for the fish curry, peeled, chopped and fried potatoes, washed the lentils, rubbing their coarseness in her hands before pouring them into boiling water. She sampled the bubbling chutney Trishna asked her to watch on the stove, tasting the tart gooseberries and tomatoes on her tongue. She made replies when addressed and seldom asked questions of her own, going about her chores as bidden, like a body possessed by another soul, with no will of its own.
In the quiet part of Roma, a tenuous yet sinewy thread connected her to Satya as she went about her chores. She saw him operating machines and joking with his fellow workers. Satya had to work to pay for the upkeep of the old house and the education of his nephews. His father had bought the huge house for a bargain, but never had the cash to renovate it. The sons were supposed to do that, and Satya had to do his bit.
She knew the downside of living in a joint family, but liked having people walk about her, distracting her as she waited for her husband to return. Satya’s father, always in his dhoti and kurta, who loved to quote from the Geeta, and his mother, with her obsession for newspapers and betel-leaves, had become Roma’s new set of parents. Besides, Gokul and Paresh worked too, and pooled in to the family kitty — Gokul as a teacher in the next village, and Paresh as a clerk for a construction company that had newly set up office in the village. Trishna and Lila often grumbled at each other about how their sons did not have enough clothes or toys, or a city education, but they stood together when things got rough. Though Roma found Trishna a little old-fashioned, and Lila quite affected, they were now her sisters, and their husbands and children her new extended family.
Her old family called from time to time, but she had little to say to them. The antique rotary phone sat in the middle of the corridor and allowed no privacy. Not that she wanted to complain about her in-laws, but watching them walk around stilted her speech.
It amazed her that a man, a stranger to her only a year ago, had now become the reason and meaning of her existence. She had fallen in love with her husband. That was much better than marrying the man you fell in love with, as she often told Nishi, her cousin and best friend.
Nishi had the knack of calling when no one was around, during afternoons when the entire household lay comatose, napping, or when Trishna and Lila went out.
“So, you miss him?” Nishi often asked, stifling a giggle.
“So what?” Roma turned red, very grateful to be alone.
“All this daily missing and sighing will disappear after that first baby pops out of you. By the way, aren’t you guys doing it often enough? How come we have no news? It’s been a year!”
Perhaps Nishi was right, they needed to have a child now. She had always proved herself right, ever since they played together as girls. She ran away from home, got a job at an accountancy firm, fell in love with her boss, married him. In spite of all that, her family had forgiven her, and now sang praises of her shiny, modern flat in Delhi, and her English-spewing kids.
“Oh shut up, you, Nishi! Nothing stays your tongue, does it?”
“Ah, why do you have to act so embarrassed? Enjoy your honeymoon while you can. It won’t last long, I can tell you that. Can’t remember the last time Kumar and I got into bed together. I love him, but there are the children, the expenses, keeping up the house, and he always gets pushed down the list.”
“I don’t need the details.” Roma blushed, cutting her cousin off,“Is he still writing?
“First thing when he comes back from work, and most weekends. He tells me his novel may be published next year. Things will get better then, I hope. Not that we’ve seen a paisa yet.”
“Kumarda is a good man, Nishi, and will be a famous author one day, you’ll see! Besides, you can always make time. Remember how our mothers used to say: a husband is everything to a wife? Grab on to him with both hands, because you never know when you’re old and your teeth rattle in your mouth.”
“I’ll pretend you didn’t say that, sister. We’ve stepped into a new millennium you know.” Nishi’s voice broke into a laugh.
“I was only trying to say your husband’s happiness is with you and yours with him.”
“Sometimes I think Kumar’s happiness is in his writing. I tried reading his stuff but I can’t separate him from his writing, so I stopped. I worry, you know, what if he becomes famous some day and finds a sexy young thing?”
Paresh walked past right then, back home early for some reason, and Roma put the phone down after a few pleasantries. Her cousin knew when she was not alone.
After lunch, she spread a reed mat on the floor and lay down, her damp long hair spread above her head in a blue-black halo, a streak of vermillion glowing fiery red in the tiny parting at the centre of her hair. The air hung heavy with the scent of guavas ripening in the garden, and all was quiet other than the occasional squawking of the parrots feasting on them. Roma knew she ought to go shoo away the pests, but her eyes drooped with the exhaustion of the day, and the large meal of fish and rice she had eaten for lunch.
She had begun to doze off, when a sense of being watched awakened her. Her eyes fluttered open, and she let out a cry at the face that hovered right above her mouth. When the blurred face settled into the familiar features of Satya, she broke into a grin: curly hair, snub nose and laughing eyes. She raised her hands and draped them around his neck.
“Somebody is back early.”
“You sound excited.” She smiled.
“I could be making some extra money. There’s an opening coming up.”
Her expression did not change.
“What kind of opening?”
“One of our foremen cannot work night duty any more, so they’ll promote me if I do the night shift for the next few months.”
“Night shift?” Her eyes narrowed a little.
“I’ll be gone in the afternoon and return the next morning.”
“Ah, Satya, do girls work in your factory?”
“A few at the reception and in the quality control department. Why?”
“Na, baba, nothing. You’ll be doing a double shift though.”
“Not really. My shift will finish at four, but the trains don’t start that early. I will be home by six at the latest. And then we can lie in.”
A smile crossed his face as he bent to kiss her.
“Stop! The door’s unlocked.”
“Then let me lock it.”
“You know we can’t lock the door in the afternoon. Let me go and get you something to eat. You must be hungry.”
She jumped up and walked out of the room, his laughter like a moth flitting about her neck as she left.
The pattern of Roma’s days changed that week. She had never slept alone. As a child she slept with her parents, then her grandmother. When she got married, she slept with her hand on her husband’s chest or arm. But for the last seven days, sleep had eluded her. The weather had turned unseasonably warm at the end of February. The curtains in her room fluttered when she left the window open, bringing in the dank breeze from the pond. When she shut the window, she suffocated despite the ceiling fan. When she did fall asleep she woke up in a sweat, her eyes full of Satya, waving and fading away into the distance.
One night towards dawn, she sat up with a start. She had seen herself waiting for Satya without her vermillion, her hands bare of the red and white bangles that she had not taken off since she got married. She splashed her face with water, washed, and walked out to the door, despite her father-in-law’s words the night before. “There have been robberies in some villages last week, my dear. It is better you do not step out in the dark.”
Roma held her vigil in the cool morning, watching the sky redden over the bamboo grove beside the Santhal village, on the far side of the sprawling pond. She leaned on the door, bracing against it, sure it would protect her from all ill. Between the pond and the gate lay the road along which Satya would return. She wondered if Nishi longed for Kumar this way when Kumar went away on his business trips, or locked himself with his novel.
She waited for the dark speck that would flit intermittently through the trees, and take the shape of Satya, pedalling as if pursued.
“There is really no difference,” she stroked the door, running her fingers over the bits of peeling paint, “Only nowadays he sets off in the afternoon instead of returning. But he always comes back to me, and he is home all day. We’ll never be like Kumar and Nishi, never lose each other.”
When Satya reached the gate, she could not hug him at the door, because the household had begun to stir in the darkness inside. She smiled at him, and rushed to the kitchen to make him his breakfast before she got caught up in her day of chores. She looked in on her tired, sleeping husband throughout the morning, entering their bedroom on one pretext or the other.
She longed to smooth his unruly hair, to lay herself beside him, nuzzle his neck, place her ears over his beating heart, smell soap and sweat on his skin, let his breath fan her hair. But instead she had to make do with arranging the curtains or pulling up the covers he kicked aside in his sleep. She never stayed in the room for more than a minute or two, in order to escape the censure of her sisters-in-law. It maddened her that she could touch him with her eyes alone. She kept her hands away from the steady rise and fall of Satya’s chest, from his face that tore at her womb, made her long for his son, a boy who would sleep Satya’s untrammelled sleep. She ran away each time she found herself drawn to the bed.
That Saturday, as Roma handed Satya the plastic tiffin-box packed with his dinner at the end of the hallway between the outer rooms, he drew her to him, “It’s been just two weeks, but I can’t take this any more.” He dipped his neck.
In the muted heat of the February afternoon, Roma kissed him back, plastered against the big green door. She could hear the pigeons mating on the eaves, gurgling away, the flapping of banana leaves outside the window, the breeze rustling though coconut palms, a cow mooing in the distance, but the blood rushing through her ears drowned them out one by one.
“Me neither,” Roma came up for air, “Is it so important to earn this extra money?”
“You know it is. But it is not as important as you. Look at your eyes, like someone rubbed red chilli into them,” he whispered, “Besides, I haven’t touched you properly this week.”
He ran his hand on her stomach, sneaking it under her pale cream-and-red saree. He stroked his knuckle against her left breast, heavy against the red blouse she wore, damp with her sweat.
“Hey, stop! What if one of your nephews walks in?” Roma breathed in the shaving cream her husband had used minutes ago, and tried not to exhale. It would have to last till the next morning.
“High time they found out they didn’t all just drop from the sky. Anyway, today is the last time I’m doing this. I’m not going for night shift next week. Enough, as far as I’m concerned.”
“Really?” Roma’s face lit up.
“Of course, be back early tomorrow morning.” Satya planted a kiss on her nose.
Roma held the door open and gave him a playful shove, her eyes on the flex of his shoulders as he lifted the bicycle and took it out. Beyond the gate, ducks swam at the far bank of the pond, and she spotted a Santhal woman smacking the bare buttocks of her small son. The woman’s high voice carried in the breeze — her son had ventured in a little too far in the pond’s deep waters. Distracted, Roma forgot to wave Satya goodbye.
He pedalled off and looked back, almost colliding into a lone rickshaw coming the other way. He wobbled, righted himself and was off again when Roma lifted her hand in a wave. The Santhal woman dragged her naked and bawling son away by the ear as Roma stood watching her husband grow smaller and smaller into the distance. She shut the door and walked into her room, but Satya’s touch stayed with her. She traced it on her body with her hands, but that just made her restless. Just one more night, and then everything would be as before.
Since this was the last night of sleeping alone, Roma relaxed enough to oversleep. The household had begun bustling about when she opened her bedroom door. She freshened up and hurried into the kitchen, wondering why Satya hadn’t returned yet. Trishna and Lila must be upset with her for not waking up early enough to make tea. They didn’t mention it though. They discussed the menu they had decided for lunch instead, and told her she should chop potatoes and cauliflowers to roughly the same big size to go into the fish curry. One of Gokul’s students, a fisherman’s son, had gifted him a big rohu fish the day before. She did not dare ask them about Satya and if he had called to say he would be late.
Satya returned way past lunchtime. Men she did not know carried him into the outer room. He lay on a cot, covered with white cloth and scented white flowers. She ran to him and shook him hard. But he just moved under her hand like a ragtag bundle of clothes. Through all the smells of incense, chanting, and his mother’s wails, her husband did not sit up once, his face asleep, as calm and absorbed as she had seen him last afternoon before he woke up to go to the factory.
Roma shook him. Convention dictated that she not call her husband by name, nor use terms of endearment in front of the family. But Roma didn’t care who heard her.
“Look at everyone, Satya, see how worried they are! Get up, ok? I know you promised me you’ll be back by morning, and you’re scared to open your eyes because you’re late. I promise I won’t say a thing. Just wake up now, sweetheart.”
When he did not listen to her, she flared up.
“Enough! See, Trishnadi is so upset. Trishnadi, ask him to get up, why don’t you?” She pulled at the end of Trishna’s saree. Trishna and Lila sat beside her then, their palms gentle on her back.
In the end it took Trishna, Lila and three other women to restrain her. She escaped and dashed to the door, where she stopped, as Satya left on the shoulders of his silent father and weeping brothers.
Roma knew he would return. He always did. All she had to do was wait at the door. She would not wipe the vermillion from her forehead, would not break her bangles, nor change into a white saree.
“Satya is on his way back, why don’t you get it?” Roma asked Trishna, and anyone who would listen. The exhausted neighbours gave up and retired, promising to return in the evening. Satya’s mother, Trishna, Lila, and their children cried themselves unconscious or asleep on the floor, on different chairs and beds in the house.
When the men returned in the evening, grim and disconsolate, Roma was at the door. Paresh and Gokul supported their father between them, who dragged his feet as he walked in.
“Where is he? Where have you left my husband?”
She repeated her question to Gokul and Paresh in turn. They said a lot of things in response, all of it gibberish. Something about trains, how Satya was in a hurry and slipped. She answered back, something she hadn’t done ever since she married into the house.
“He slipped and fell, so what? People fall all the time. They get up and walk again!”
She made her way to the big green door, opened it, and stood there, waiting, till Trishna drew her inside.
It became a habit, each day after finishing all the household chores and her bath, she waited by the door. When Nishi came, she ran to her friend, told her the whole story and begged her to believe Satya would be back. Nishi said nothing, tears streaming down her face as she held Roma.
Roma did not want to meet Satya in shabby clothes when he returned, so she decked herself up as best as she could. After lunch each afternoon, she stood by the door, hidden from the road. No one protested with her after a few days, not even Trishna or Nishi. They left her alone, unable to bear Roma’s hopeful, smiling face before her vigil, and the way it closed up like an evening sunflower when Satya did not turn up by dinnertime.
Lila took care of Roma’s meals, making sure her widowed sister-in-law ate, forgetting all about her stance as the senior wife. She tried to get Roma to nap with her in the afternoons, because anyone could see Roma did not sleep at night.
But Roma waited each day as the household relaxed into siesta, her eyes on the road. As the days passed, her make-up turned more elaborate to hide her pale skin and the dark circles under her eyes. Her sarees grew brighter. She refused to sit anywhere near the thirteenth day ceremony they held for Satya, the traditional way a Hindu family ensures the smooth journey of a departed soul into afterlife. She closed her ears to the pealing bells and the drone of the purohit’s prayers, shutting her door and windows against the cleansing fumes of the ceremonial fire.
The day Nishi left, she held Roma’s hand and drew her to the prayer room. Roma’s mother-in-law had just finished her morning prayers, and left the air perfumed with sandalwood incense and the fragrance of white bel flowers.
“You can come stay with me, Roma. There is always a home for you in Delhi. You have to stop this.”
“This waiting for Satya. His name was Satyabrata, not Satyavan. And you’re not Savitri. He is dead, Roma. You cannot bring him back. No. Don’t answer me.”
Roma did not speak. For the first time in her life she ignored her best friend’s advice, and went to the door, the only companion of her daily vigils.
She did not wait in vain. A few weeks later, Satya stood at the gate smiling. Roma had spared no pains that day, she stood lightly sweating in her bridal regalia. In the hushed afternoon, her bangles tinkled as she adjusted the heavy vermilion saree woven through with gold. It slipped off her shoulders, the lavish Banarasi she’d worn when she crossed this very doorstep for the first time. She had lost weight, so the blouse hung from her shoulders, and the pins could no longer hold the saree in place.
“Satya?” Roma did not breathe. “It is really you?”
“Where have you been all these days?” A faint anger touched Roma’s voice.
Satya’s smile brightened, his curly black hair glinting blue in the sun, waving in the breeze that had begun to pick up.
“Why do you keep smiling like an idiot? Where were you? Didn’t you think of me? Why didn’t you wake up that day? You slept through that insane racket. You know they’ve been crying, telling me all kinds of stories, wanting me to change into white. Nonsense, I told them!”
His expression turned sombre, his eyes luminous with unshed tears. He stretched out his left hand.
“What do you mean? Go where?” Roma decided rightaway that after waking up the household, Nishi would be the first person she would call. Not her mother or sister, but her cousin. She would relish proving Nishi wrong for the first time, and Nishi would be happy for her sake.
“Oh shut up!” She was oblivious that he hadn’t uttered a word so far. Her left hand on the door, Roma held her ground.
“I’m not going anywhere with you. Come in and sort it all out first! Tell them you’re here. You know I can’t go out.”
He looked a little hurt at that but nodded again, beckoning. Roma held out for another minute, and then stepped over the threshold she had crossed a year ago to enter the old house. Her saree caught in the hinges of the big wooden door. It jerked her back as she took a stride. She stumbled on the steps, looked back and ripped it free, leaving a strip behind. She walked out, her bare feet burning on the cracked pavement leading to the gate.
He kept walking away, the gate open behind him. Roma followed in silence. If he wouldn’t come in, she had to go out to him. She would explain to Nishi later. She followed him across the deserted, scalding asphalt road, and into the pond as he waded in. The water embraced her, shocked her with its sudden cold, but then it became a blessed relief. The bottom lay smooth, slimy beneath her feet. She took in all of it, yet stood unfeeling, her eyes on him. The late March sun fell warm upon her shoulders, on her neck where her flaming red saree did not cover it. Seeking the cold, she walked up to her chin in the water. She held his hand, stretching under the surface.
The water closed in above her, and the world contracted into a breath. She had to hold on to it, not let it escape. He was beside her, pulling her down when she would have risen. Her breath dissolved into pain, darkness, and then, nothing.
Back at the house, the big green door clutched the piece of red cloth in its hinges. It furled and swayed like a ribbon in the breeze.
Illustration Courtesy: Vishnu Prasad © All Rights Reserved