This morning, Kamala Kapoor woke up, entered the kitchen to make the morning tea for herself and her husband, and was surprised to see that he had already started the process. Rajinder had never brought her even a glass of water – so this was unexpected. After so many years together, she had cultivated the persona that best suited their marriage; conflict had not served her well, so resignation had been her best alternative. Although she was startled to see him milling about with the pots and pans, she remained inert and in a matter-of-fact but gentle manner took over the task from him.
As he exited the kitchen, he turned to look at her. She was standing in front of the stove, stirring the sugar in his tea, with the loose end of her sari wrapped around her body and the tail end caught between her teeth. He knew what she would do next – place the lid of the sugar pot and screw it on tight, always particular to keep the omnipresent ants out. She would then place the container of milk back in the fridge, double check that she had switched the stove off, pick up the two cups of tea, and walk over to the living room. She would place one cup on the coffee table in front of his chair and then sit down in her chair. A heavy sigh would precede her first sip of tea and then she will visibly relax. As he visualized the events that would follow in the next minute or so, he smiled and decided to put his prediction to test. He walked out of the kitchen to sit in his chair; he pretended to pick up his newspaper while he watched her through the open kitchen door and as she followed through with each action meticulously and precisely in the order that he had anticipated.
“What are you smiling about?” She asked as she sank into her chair, sighing heavily, with the cup of tea in her hand and poised near her lips.
“Oh, nothing,” he mumbled. After a pause, he said, “Kamala, we have been married for almost 53 years.”
“I know that!” she said. “Rani will be 52 next month, which makes our marriage almost 53. What brought this on? Don’t you want to finish your newspaper before you go out for your walk with Sharma Ji?”
“Yes, I’ll get to the paper,” Rajinder said. “These days it’s the same news every day: some terrorist attacks, the high rate of inflation, a new politician caught in some corruption scandal. It’s begun to tire me.”
She looked up to scrutinize his familiar face. He was usually so focused on getting to the day’s news. As a retired journalist, he still hungered for news like when he was young reporter going after a story with enthusiasm. But that was his obsession and he always excluded her from it. Their communication was generally about mundane household details – the maid is late again or we need to go to the bank and check if the pension check has been deposited or we need to replenish the stock of your heart medicines or why didn’t Rani call this weekend?
Kamala was caught off-guard when she found him intently looking at her; there was a brief moment of eye contact, and his eyes smiled back at her. In all these years she had not seen him look at her like this – not even on their wedding night – and she sensed anger building up in her. Why was he looking at her like this? Why now, after so many years, was he finally trying to rope her in and bait the old Kamala to come out from this wrinkled, shriveled up and pain-riddled body of hers?
“You know, we hadn’t ever really lived just by ourselves until Baebae ji passed away last year?” he said. “I don’t think we have ever really done anything together, just the two of us – like young couples do. We haven’t ever gone out for a film or dinner to a restaurant or sat down to just talk about life?”
At this point, her anger really started to boil over. Now he is starting to notice this? she thought. Did I not pray for it when we first got married, or when Rani was born, or each time I had a miscarriage? Did he not see that after the loss of each child, I was the one suffering through all the physical and emotional pain and not his mother? And now after all these years of silence, when I am content in my solitude, he wants to talk to me?
“Have you ever thought about it?” he persisted.
She waited to see if he really wanted an answer or if he was just talking to himself and would continue with his reverie. She didn’t want to look up and meet his gaze again.
“Hmmm? Not really,” she said.
“How about going out for lunch at a restaurant and follow that with a matinee show?” he asked.
Does he not see his gray haired mustache and balding head? She thought. How could he not have any consideration for her bad back and failing knees? I can’t sit in a movie hall for three hours!
“What has gotten into your head?” she asked. “You know I have work to do. The maid will be here any minute, and I have to supervise all the cleaning and make sure she does the laundry and kneads the dough for the rotis for lunch. You do realize that if I don’t pay close attention to her work, she does such a shoddy job that I have to do it all over again? I can’t suddenly get up and go for your crazy ideas.”
For a moment, he looked hurt by her rejection. He felt a pang of jealousy as he thought about the countless occasions when their daughter had just turned up in town and had taken her mother shopping for a new saree in Shanker Market or visit her in-law or take the grandchildren to the zoo. At each occasion, Kamala had jumped at the chance and not once had she complained about being taken away from the daily chores, so why was she being so rigid with him?
“Come on, Kamala,” Rajinder said. “Don’t cook anything for lunch. I really want to do something different today.”
To Kamala, he sounded like a five-year-old child asking for a new toy. She was used to him being the extremely patient and responsible man who took charge of every situation with consistent seriousness. This is what had made him the foundation for the whole extended family. Even in his twenties, when they’d just gotten married, he seemed to have the personality of a middle-aged man, laden with the responsibilities and gravity of life. There wasn’t a frivolous or even a spontaneous bone in this man’s body. He always planned every micro-detail of their lives with deliberation, and that’s why his sudden idea to abandon his routine in exchange for an impromptu outing had caught her completely off guard. In order to avoid all conflict in her marriage, she had spent years trying to reign in the impulsive little girl in her and had given in to his disciplined approach, and now he wanted to undo her years of cultivated restraint.
“Why don’t you go out for your walk with Sharma ji, and when you come back, we can discuss this,” she said. “You know how bad your asthma gets when you don’t do the breathing exercises in the morning?”
“Yes, as usual, you are right. I’ll skip the paper today and get on with the walk.”
He raised himself out of the chair slowly and then bent to pick up the cup of tea, taking the last swig out of it. As he walked by his wife, he leaned over and affectionately passed his hand through her gray hair, petting her as if she were a little child and then headed for the front door.
Kamala was left stunned, fixed in her chair. He had never before touched her outside their bedroom, and even in their most intimate moments, their exchange had almost been business-like. It had been years since they had sex, and even though age had slowly petered out his desire, she still remembered the details of their interactions vividly. There had always been a protocol that he followed, and not once had he deviated.
Their love-making was always in the dark. He’d keep his shirt on and undress below the waist and coax her to do the same…unravel her sari, raise the petticoat to the level of her waist but leave her blouse on. He had never even kissed her on the mouth! Just occasionally his hand would wander under her blouse and cradle her breasts in his hands or pinch her nipples while he entered her in missionary position. At first, when they had just been married, she had tried to move herself in rhythmic sync with him so as to be part of the process and try to hold him affectionately or make some sounds of arousal and satisfaction, but when there was never any reciprocal cue that approved of her participation, she had taken to being a quiet partner.
Running his hand through her hair had never been part of the routine.
As he softly shut the front door behind him, she sighed in relief, ruminating in the warmth of his touch she had longed for when they were younger. She imagined what the neighbors would think, or what the grandchildren would say, if they knew how he was behaving. Is this what happens when you become senile? Does it happen that quickly?
She walked into the kitchen and measured out four cups of dry flour for the maid to knead into dough. She soaked some lentils in hot water and rushed to the bathroom to take a quick shower. She needed some time for herself before he came back, and the most practical way was to retreat to the puja room. He never disturbed her there. In her great hurry, she did not even wait for the water to warm and instead took a cold shower. She brushed her wet grey hair into place, quickly wrapped a crisp starched cotton sari, placed a red stick-on Bindi in the center of her forehead, and slipped into the puja room.
The small room had been her refuge for years. Every time she had felt oppressed by the stress and tension of her household, she’d shut herself here for hours at a time. The family had assumed she was deeply religious and must’ve been brought up to pray on a daily basis. Kamala felt safe and cocooned in the small haven. Here, she was surrounded by the statues of the Hindu deities and the strong smells of incense and dried marigold flowers. On most days, with folded hands, she’d go through the rituals of prayer seated on the floor; but on other days she’d just swaddle herself and shut out the world.
“Kamala, are you here?” he called out as he opened the door to the puja room. “I got Sharma ji with me. Why don’t you come out and meet him?”
“I’ll be out in a second.”
Sharma ji was an old friend of Rajinder’s. The two of them had been colleagues at the city desk of the same newspaper for more than two decades, and their friendship went even further back. It was Om Prakash Sharma who had helped Rajinder move from his small-time reporter’s job at a Hindi newspaper to the largest English daily in Delhi. When Rajinder’s father had a heart attack in the middle of the night, Sharma ji had rushed him to the emergency room in his car. At a time of financial crisis when they couldn’t afford all the expenses associated with Rani’s wedding, Sharma ji had loaned them a sizeable amount. Clearly a better friend was not to be found.
“So Bhabi ji, I know I wasn’t invited, but do I need an invitation to come to this house?” Sharma ji asked jovially as Kamala entered the living room.
“No, Bhai Saheb, this is your own house and you know that,” she replied with the welcoming smile that was her hallmark. “Just tell me what you’d prefer – a cup of tea or coffee with your pakoras?”
“I would really like a cup of tea but when did you have time to hatch the plan for pakoras? I assumed you two must be in a rush to get on with your engagement – or what is it they call it nowadays…a date?” Sharma ji’s tone was teasing. “Oh look, Rajinder, your wife is blushing at the prospect.”
Kamala had no idea how to respond to this absurdity. She was upset with her husband for discussing his foolish plan with his friend, but she was more worried that the maid was already in the kitchen, and if the Bai had heard all this strange talk, then who knows where the gossip might spread! She chose not to respond to the juvenile talk of these two idle-minded old men and went to the kitchen to give instructions to the Bai about chai and pakoras.
“Saroj, just make three cups of tea for us and make one for yourself as well. Remember Sharma ji doesn’t take any sugar in his chai. And while the water is boiling, cut some onions and potatoes in small pieces. I’ll mix the batter for pakoras.”
Kamala gave the instructions to Saroj in the kitchen as calmly as she could.
“You’ll just knead the dough; I’ve put out the dry flour. I heard the vegetable vendor’s call earlier; he must already be setting up his stall around the corner of the street. After you’re done with this work and the dishes from last night, go down and get some more onions and any of the vegetables that look fresh. Don’t get any cauliflower, I am sick of cauliflower…maybe you can get okra, you know how my husband never tires of okra.”
Saroj was usually a talkative woman, but today she didn’t appear in the mood for conversation. On getting no response, Kamala asked. “Why are you so quiet this morning? Did it happen again?”
“It’s the same old story each time,” Saroj said softly. “He came back drunk again last night and beat me up with a stick. Fortunately the kids were already asleep. I’m not badly hurt; I just didn’t get any sleep and now I have a headache.”
“Arey, Saroj, he’ll never learn his lesson; you should leave this man. I don’t know how many times I’ve told you to leave him. I will help you…you can live with your kids in the room above our garage. You have an independent income. It’s enough to feed your children.” While Kamala spoke, she peered over Saroj’s bruised face.
“Bibi ji, I can’t leave him. In our caste, no woman is allowed to leave her husband. You know that. If I leave him, I’ll be ex-communicated, and then who will marry my daughters?”
Kamala washed the cut on Saroj’s face with cold water and applied an ointment.
“Women of my caste are not as lucky as women like you who have the freedom to decide their own course of action.” Saroj continued. “All the men in our caste are the same and all the women in our community suffer the same fate. This is our destiny…otherwise, why would God allow us to suffer so?”
Before Kamala could answer this rhetorical question, she heard Rajinder yelling from the living room, “What happened to our tea? Did you forget all about us?”
“Just another minute or so,” she replied, hurrying through the process of pouring the tea out in three cups. The hot oil was beginning to smoke, and she hadn’t even made the batter for the pakoras. She mixed the batter, slid in the cut vegetables, and dropped the dumplings into the hot oil. While mechanically going through the motions, her mind raced through what Saroj had just said to her. She wondered about the decisions she could have made for herself but drew a blank. Her father chose everything when she was young, then her husband or parents-in-law after she was married.
“Saroj, can you watch over the frying pan while I go give them their cups of tea? And here, this one is for you,” Kamala said. “Be careful; don’t go into your absent-minded reveries or they’ll get burnt and then I’ll have to face the consequences with my husband.” She walked out of the kitchen carrying the tray with the cups of tea.
It was already mid-morning and here she was, still not done with any of the household chores. She was fretting about the laundry that was still drying on the clothesline, the garbage she needed to put out for the garbage-collector, the fact that the milkman hadn’t delivered any milk, and what to cook for lunch or dinner. On top of that, the bed had not been made and the floors had not been swept.
“Bhabi ji, these pakoras are good, but they are nothing compared to the dosas that Rajinder’s planning to take you out for,” said Sharma ji while Kamala was serving him pakoras and chutney to go along with his tea. “You’re lucky you can still get out and do exciting things. With my wife’s condition, we never manage to do anything.”
Mrs. Sharma’s Alzhemier’s had progressed slowly over the past six years, and its effect on the entire family had been devastating. But Sharma ji still had such a pleasant disposition, and their marriage still seemed as strong as ever.
The evening of Karva Chauth, when all the women had gathered to go through the ceremony of breaking the fast, Mr. Sharma had brought his wife to the Community Hall so she could just watch the festivities. Clearly, Mrs. Sharma was in no condition to fast or go through the rituals, but he didn’t want her to miss out completely. So while all the women sat in a circle, sang their folk songs, went through the motions of passing their karva plates around the group, held up their sieves to look at the moon and throw grains of rice and drops of water at it, Mr. and Mrs. Sharma stood looking at the bunch of women dressed in their festive red saris, holding hands. What had touched Kamala while witnessing this scene, was the fact that in the group of women going through their various stages of married life, some old and some just newly married, some with young kids and others in the midst of their empty-nest phase, Mrs. Sharma was probably the most loved and cherished by her husband and she did not even know it.
Kamala knew that bound by custom, Saroj had fasted for her husband, as well. For a whole day she had deprived herself of water or food, just as she had done year after year for ten years. She had prayed for his long life and good health, even though it meant that the healthier he was or the longer he lived, the more he was going to abuse her. She knew that there was no reciprocal tradition or custom that asked for a man to fast for his wife’s health. She knew that there was no Hindu festival, followed by any sect or caste that celebrated or commemorated the wife’s role in a man’s life. And there was no rule, religious or otherwise, that made a man want to go out with his wife for a day.
While Mr. Sharma and Rajinder sat in her living room, drinking the freshly made tea and the crispy fried pakoras, Kamala got up from her chair and said, “While you men continue talking, I am going to take the opportunity to change into my new silk sari before we go out.”