Pushpa did not know about the Gospels. In fact, she barely knew anything about Jesus. But she would have appreciated one of his teachings—to be absolutely specific, one image from this teaching—the millstone around the neck. As for Jesus himself, he was a vague shape, remote from the circumstances of her life, someone those Christians believed in—as far away from her life, she would say, as the nation’s Prime Minister. People fretted every five years over the elections; she felt they may as well fret over how long the hotchpotch of alliances would stick together; both efforts were equally unproductive. Whatever government assumed power at the Centre, the outcomes, to her, were more or less similar: prices of essential commodities soared, the condition of the roads grew worse every monsoon, the public transport system, which you thought would explode any moment with the collective mass of the masses, somehow managed to absorb a few more thousands! Incredible, if you thought of it.
As a child in school, she was similarly unappreciative of the impact of the arrival of a new principal on the life of the individual student. This new one’s really one number khadoos, she’d hear them whisper, pukka harami, another girl would claim, solemnly swaying her pigtails. What did it matter, though, who placed their old buttocks on that fake leather chair in the office one caught glimpses of, with its withered plastic flowers in the vase on the table, its newspaper cut-outs and inspirational quotes and stories there was never time enough to fully read sealed under the glass, its dusty portraits of Gandhi and Nehru hanging on the walls, she thought to herself? The lessons would be the same, the same morning assembly, the homework, recess, waiting for the bell…But she kept her opinions to herself.
Now, in her mid-thirties, all she thought about, all she knew about, was what a burden, what a millstone around her neck, her mother-in-law had become. Was it really too much to ask for the old woman to just go off, like their building fuses did with alarming regularity, in the quiet and heat of one night? Was it?
She hated the woman, she did not know why, but from the very moment she set foot into the tiny one BHK apartment, she had decided that she could not stand the sight of her. She had wished that upon her entry, the old woman would just bundle up her belongings and, smiling, make her exit: end of story and performance. She did not want to have her around the house, looming in the background like a mournful shadow, intruding upon the privacy of her and her husband, of their family. When the time came, when the old woman descended further into decrepitude, she did not want to be the one who fetched and tended for her. It did not help matters that her husband was the woman’s only child. Still, she must have some consideration for them, it was her husband’s house after all; weren’t old people supposed to be wise? And yet this one, not even wise enough to grasp this much?
She lay on her mat on the other side of the wooden partition they had put up in one corner of the living room, coughing through the night, apologizing the next morning, saying, I must have disturbed you, so sorry, I don’t know this cough comes only at night…
Her face so wrinkled and pitiable, humpbacked in her cotton saree. What was she supposed to do, to hug her to her bosom and comfort her? Offer to take her to the doctor after she finished her chores and throw away a few hundred rupees from the little money her husband gave her grudgingly each month for the household expenses?
Instead she simply said and did nothing. She continued cooking or sweeping, whatever it was she was doing, without so much as nodding her head in acknowledgement of the woman’s complaints. If work were worship, Pushpa had made out of all of her household duties rewarding meditations on her mother-in-law’s (she kept hoping) imminent death. It was the old woman she was chopping and slicing as she wielded her knife mercilessly over the day’s vegetable. Her skull not a coconut she struck with her the curved blade of her cleaver. Her neck she wrung, not her husband’s shirt or her own blouse.
Incredible to think that she had survived under the same roof with her mother-in-law for the past six years. Incredible that she lived and walked and breathed and performed all her wifely duties though she was filled with so much hate.
This evening, for instance, she was sitting at the table shelling peas. The peas popped out when she snapped open the edges of the pods, green old woman eyes. She was watching her mother-in-law with hawk eyes, and yet when she turned to her son her gaze was immediately more tender, the severity magically dissipated. It was only her son, five now, who had given her the fortitude to put up with the old woman. She shuddered sometimes to think of what she would have done if it weren’t for him. Her husband, she had long decided, was useless; he was a small, unimaginative if highly principled man (he always walked about with an air of self-importance, round balding head held up high) whose life was neatly segregated into work and home; his job in a state bank offered him very little complications, and he would not stand for any at home.
Her mother-in-law was sitting huddled at the other end of the small circular table, mumbling her prayers to herself, rosary in hand. Her son was sitting opposite her, doing some homework. From time to time he looked up from his books, stared at the ceiling, turned to his grandmother, smiled, scratched his head and rhythmically kicked the table leg nearest to him. He had a small weasel-like face, which shrivelled up even more when he forced himself to concentrate. His mother had laid down strict rules: every evening seven to eight he must study; only then would he be allowed to go out to play.
It was a quarter past seven. The neighbourhood was settling into its nightly routine, vessels clanging, mothers shouting, bath water splashing, TV show dialogues echoing. Her son was chewing on his pencil, frowning in deep thought. He was copying sentences now, his eyes carefully absorbing the words in his workbook, then darting from workbook to notebook as he printed out one letter at a time, tongue sticking out, clumsily joining them together to form words, names of objects whose illustrations were printed on the page. Pushpa was about to tell him to get the pencil out of his mouth, when a sound from the street distracted him.
“Mummy,” he said.
She silenced him with a stern look.
“No. Everyday-everyday you must not have it. It is not good.”
“I said no, na? Now go back to your lessons.”
She thought she had been satisfactorily firm with him, but after a few minutes she heard a soft whining in the room. At first she thought it was the old woman, up to some new antic—her memory was failing her, she was forgetting her prayers—but no, it was her son.
He turned desperately to his grandmother.
The grandmother released her rosary and looked beseechingly at her daughter-in-law.
“Let it be, let him have it one more day. He’s studying so hard. I’ll give you money, raja, wait, one minute.”
And with that she had placed her bony elbows on the table and was ready to get up to fetch the money. Pushpa was nearly blind with fury. So this was her new game, to defy and override her authority, to mollycoddle the grandson into going against his mother. She was surprised she hadn’t see it all this while, but now that she had uncovered this master plan, she could think of a hundred other similar instances where the woman had played her against Rohan. The old witch, the devil!
“Rohan, sit down. Aiee, you also please. I have told he will not have any today.”
“But Pushpa, what is there? I’ll get the money from my box. It is a small treat I am giving my grandson. Is that also not allowed?”
Rohan watched the two women in a state of great tension.
“He w-will go…” he muttered in a small voice.
“This is how you are spoiling him! He has no sense of discipline. Anything he wants is given to him. He thinks he is some prince! When we were small, our parents never…”
“Mummy, please, one kulfi.”
“We never dared…”
“Aaji, give fast na…”
And he was out of the room, while the old woman pretended to nod sympathetically at her tales of childhood deprivation.
She was so mad she could have gone down and assaulted the kulfi-wallah. She was breathless with rage. The house was perfectly peaceful; why did he have to come ringing his bell and disrupt everything? As for her mother-in-law, what could she say, whom could she turn to? Neighbours? They each had their own burdens to carry. And she had soon begun to sense that they secretly sided with the old lady. She seemed like such a harmless thing after all. Visited the temple regularly, smiling meekly at all those who crossed her path, inquiring after everyone’s well-being. Who would think her capable of the demonic misdeeds she, Pushpa, accused her? Early into her marriage, as she and her husband lay in bed one night after lovemaking (there was something very brisk and business-like about the way he approached sex; in fact, the first few times, she almost expected him to draw out his briefcase before they got into the act, to pull out forms and start indicating places where her signature was needed), with her nibbling gently on his ear, running her hand through the curly fuzz on his sagging chest, she had tried to plant into his head, very discreetly, the idea of how much better their domestic situation would be if his mother were removed from it. Wouldn’t she be happier among people of her own age? She felt so conscious sometimes of little things she did around the house, she was never really free, she meant whatever she was saying out of goodwill…he must understand, he must not misunderstand her…she was forever worried that she would somehow offend her…
Her husband had lazily scratched a spot on his shoulder. When he raised his hand, she had shivered for a moment, thinking he was about to strike her.
“But she is my mother. Growing up, she has worked hard for me. In old age now, where can she go, hm?”
The words, uttered in his gruff voice, scratched themselves into her consciousness. He may as well have hit her. But, she thought grimly, he had too much respect for women to do so. What she also knew: that was the end of the matter. Her husband was not the kind to entertain further discussion on this topic. Ever again.
Pushpa was walking home from the market. It was not a very long distance but she was covering it more slowly than usual. For the past week or so, she had been plagued by these severe headaches; it felt as if a sharp hollow cavity of pain had been dug out in her brain—every little movement of her head hurt. She also noticed that her vision grew blurry at times; things slipped in and out of focus, as though her surroundings were melting away, so that it was difficult at times to know where she was and what she was doing. And this cursed heat! It was nothing, though, nothing serious. She just needed to rest. A nice good rest. But with all the hundreds of chores she had to do every day…and then the old woman hovering about her all the time…how could she ever hope to have any peace? Even now there was that throbbing in her head, not as painful as it could get, but it was there nevertheless, nagging, insistent. Her right arm, in which she is carrying her shopping bags, suddenly slid flatly against her side, like a sail starved of wind. In the nick of time she transferred her bags to her other hand. But she was finding it difficult to remain steady. She came to a halt, setting her bags down on the road. What was happening to her? It was that witch, that wicked demon-woman; she had probably put some curse on her. What she had to do was rest a bit, catch her breath, get home and then hammer the old hag with this new broom she had got, keep hitting her until she managed to drive her out of her house!
People were shouting around her. What was the commotion about?
“Bus is coming! Bus is coming!”
“Oh lady, can’t see? Get out of the way!”
Bus? Where? She hadn’t seen any bus. She still could see nothing, but was that a horn she could hear? And then, all at once, her senses blacked out.
Three months have passed. Pushpa is back at the flat after spending a month in the ICU; her bed has been moved into the living room. They have engaged a maid to care for her during the day. She was recommended by the nurse, who visits for a few hours every morning, to administer what passes for speech and physiotherapy. The maid used to work at the hospital but she gave up her job there, she claims. She chews areca nut, puts her legs up on the divan and chats loudly with the nurse, her speech coloured with filthy interjections.
The doctor says Pushpa is showing improvement, but very slowly; they must remain hopeful. It’s not that she isn’t responsive: her eyes widen in recognition when her son, her husband, her brother on his token visits, even her mother-in-law, present themselves before her. She registers speech and has begun repeating simple sounds. They have purchased a wheelchair for her and twice a week they take her down to the building compound, but otherwise she mostly lies in bed.
The neighbours never fail to express regret over her present condition.
“Such a young woman, so active she was. Sheh, what is happening?” they ask of her mother-in-law, who has no answers and appears deeply sorrowful. She worries about Pushpa, she says, about Rohan, about her son, who has taken up a second job, helping a friend who is a life insurance agent. After all, there are the many expenses to be borne.
Pushpa can see her son Rohan, who is scowling not very far from her face.
“Aiee, aiee,” he is saying. She tries to smile at him, but he looks at her blankly, so she knows that whatever facial expression she managed to produce was not a smile. She shakes her right hand weakly.
Her mother-in-law, a vague shape in the background, is saying something. Rohan leaves the room. In spite of herself, she is afraid.
He returns after several minutes, bearing paper packages in his hand. His grandmother fetches something from the kitchen. Soon she is at her side. Rohan is gently holding her up. Slowly the old woman, her hand tremulous, is scooping tiny bits out of the leaves she has unfurled. Pushpa’s lips tremble. The cold and milky morsels melt in her mouth.
Image: By Apoorva lakshmi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons