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What Happened Next...

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"What Happened Next". The column which will bring you back for more!!
In Gopali's words "The short story is a form that is now enjoying a revival but has always been a part of mainstream literature. The stories in this column are not based on a particular event or person but on a conglomeration of both fact and fiction, to entertain, to bring a smile to your lips and most importantly perhaps, to make you wonder- "what happened next?

 

 

 

URMILA who,waited

(an excerpt from an incomplete long "Short story")

There is a man sitting next to me on the small sofa; he is wearing a white linen shirt and the cuffs are casually rolled up; his arm is resting along the sofa’s back. The late afternoon sun glints faintly golden on the small, fine hairs of his forearm; a very subdued smell of cedar wood rises from his sun warmed skin. I can feel its heat along my bare spine; out of the corner of my eye I can see his hand stroke my crepe silk sari. He is not really aware he is doing it; it’s a habit we are both aware about, his way of telling me something I already know. He smiles as we watch the three beautiful young women, our daughters, talking animatedly in front of us.  Their ages range from mid twenties to late teens and they are unlike each other as can be. They are laying the table for a celebratory meal; their gleaming black hair sparkles like the fine crystal wine glasses they are putting on the table.

It is our first anniversary: you ask me, first anniversary? I will explain, explain all. He takes my hand in his as they come up to us taking us to the table. There is a miniature two tier wedding style cake complete with bride and groom which we have to cut together. Silversweet laughter rebounds off the china and crystal. And now the filled champagne glasses are pressed into our hands as they toast us on our first year together as a family. It has been a long time in coming, nearly quarter of a century give or take a year. As we walk together, his arm is firmly around me; the gorgeous trio point and roll their eyes; Come on Baba, they tease him, she’s not going anywhere is she, not without you any way. He does not budge; the arm remains firmly around me but its strength is gentle. They are right, I am not going anywhere without him. He looks at me to see if I am alright; could I be anything else? All those empty years of a barren, lifeless existence: where I have gone through the motions of being alive, when I have been dead in my heart. Only the thought of this man has sustained me and nothing else: even though the girls are the beatings of our hearts, he is my life.

Yes, he is my life and he knows it. It is only now he has realised. A small part of my life, he had said some years ago with a smile and I have been happy with that. I would have died happy with that, but life takes you by surprises doesn’t it?  But that’s another story for another day. My life is yours, he had whispered that day, “yadidam hridayam tava, twadidam hridayang mama”. Do I need to know anything else; no, my heart is filled to the brim, “my cup runneth over”.  I am blessed, doubly so because of the girls and more so because we are together. Perhaps I do not have that much time with him, but each moment with him is a lifetime for me. When I breathe my last, it will be in his arms. He will find it perhaps difficult for a while but time will heal. Our daughters will help and the memories of our time together will assuage some of the hurt. But that is yet to come, I will not think of that now. I am in his arms, in his heart and that is the reality now, my reality……

My first clear memory of myself is a painful one. I am about 3 years old and there is a sharp stinging pain in my knee; I can feel the broken skin through which seeps  bright red blood. It is my first experience of blood and it horrifies and hypnotises me at the same time. There is grit and gravel in the knee too and I remember the pink polka dotted dress I am wearing is quite badly ripped. As my first howl of pain rends the air summoning the horrified household, I remember being picked up in a pair of strong arms and a voice soothing me by saying nonsense that makes sense only to babies. He took me to the hand pumped tube well at the edge of the courtyard and drew fresh clean water; gently washing away the grit he told me to look for the parrots sitting in the branches of the mango tree above us. And there were a dozen of them or so right above us and I forgot the pain and the blood. My pretty young mother, anklets musically announcing her hasty arrival could not thank him enough and I too would not let him go. He carried me indoors while the household gathered to see me, bedraggled curls, wet dress, bloodied knee and all. The knee was cleaned and bandaged and all  agreed that I had been lucky to have had it cleaned so quickly by him, otherwise who knows what the outcome might have been.
And that was that. I became his shadow, his adoring pet and anything he wanted me to be. I think he must have been bored as well, home from boarding school, for the long  summer and nothing to do. At least this 3 year old provided a little respite from relief. And I fell in love. Well and truly. It's been that way ever since.

Growing up just outside of  Shimla meant that I was not sent to boarding school. My mother never too strong any way, pleaded with my father about the unsuitability of the convents in Mussoorie and Nainital when there were such good schools to hand. Her frail, petite beauty meant my father was putty in her hands and so I stayed put. The years passed by in a halcyon kaleidoscope of colours and adolescence only was a small twinge of discomfort in the soft cocoon that was those years. Unhampered by anything and allowed to read everything in my grandfather’s library, I realise now I was a bit of brat then.
Coming home from University in Europe and later from the dolomite mines that his family owned,  my proprietary interest in what ever he did provided him with “divertiment”. The pet, owning the owner?  There were one or two girl friends who came sometimes, but soon left in sulky huffs. Perhaps my behaviour did contribute towards that. Did it? Perhaps.

But to the Thakurs of the Bari Haveli, who hankered for a girl in a family that for generations had bred only male children, I could do no wrong. If a day went by without a visit or call from me, the evening would see a note sent to ask if I was ill or the huge old black Buick turning into our driveway with his mother, eyes dark with concern. And he would stand smiling a little and shaking his head as I basked in the warmth of her love.

On my 20th birthday, I was told that my marriage had been fixed and it felt natural for me not to question that. I was going to marry him; that had been decided years ago hadn’t it? The mango orchard that adjoined the scrubland at the back of the house was sibilant with cicadas, as I sat on a branch swinging my legs, biting into a nearly ripe, greeny red Chausa mango and asked him idly where he was going to take me on honeymoon. There was no reply and I wiped some of the sticky juice off my chin and queried again. Turning to me he used his white handkerchief to clean the rest of the juice off; it was very quiet in the mid afternoon and to be honest I should not even have  been there.  Speaking very quietly, so quietly that I had to strain to hear him, I learned that I was marrying Shrikanth. The younger brother.

I lay on the bed with my diary dry eyed; the house had become a carnival and all had become temporarily insane. My mother had been made to lie in a cool dark room with a blinding migraine. Soft linen strips dipped in eau de cologne and iced water were being applied to her furrowed brow. She would have to find the strength for the next morning. To see me in bridal finery, red satins and costly jamewar silk brocades that would compete with the heavy gold ornaments well over  a hundred years old. But that was tomorrow, a good twelve hours away. So much could happen but I knew it would all go to plan. A grand design, a juggernaut rolling upon me and crushing me.

 Shrikanth. My husband. Yes, already, as the official legal papers for registering the marriage were signed this morning. I was merely given my grandfather’s heavy old Mont Blanc and  I signed my name away. He, Shrikanth was a pale shadow that flitted on the periphery of my existence, a silver moth, a closed window. Nothing more. And now he was all. I could not see his face behind closed lids.

Only one face was clear as always.“Sat patim dehi parameshwara.”. The family priest had written these words on my open palms with holy water this morning. The mehendi filigree on them, a deep rich brown glittered in the crystal droplets.
The diary was going with me in one of the large metal trunks that would be sent, packed with my trousseau. I looked at the verse again and did not quite understand what I had written. Or why.

Upon this bank by the wide river that flows
Painfilled are the sounds of spring and mirth
Even though I recognise - duty is all,
Knowledge is poor balm for the heart.
Shoulder to shoulder we stand and I weep
Heartsease you are, and I take comfort
I yield to Dharma; not become an obstacle:
Think not of me when you are gone,
As lidded dams blind me with brine.

It was raining very heavily; thudding drops of rain on the roof and on the trees and beating in steady streams into the verandah of the haveli. I was drenched with the rain but I was beyond the cold and damp. The sharp shards of the intricate handworked zari cut into my skin making grazes on the tender skin of my inner arms but I did not care. I wanted the pain more than anything else now. I was shut out on this verandah with the rain weeping along with me. Behind the louvred tall doors that were firmly shut was my husband. And his lover. On the bed that was hung with tuberoses and camellias in shimmering processional lines, a young man sat at the foot of the bed wth my husband's feet in his lap, massaging them with the pink tips of his fingers. They had pushed me out on the verandah and I had smelt the sickly sweet smell of hashish on them as they dragged me out of the room and shut the door and I stood there my tears mingling with the the rain water; I could feel the vermillion powder in my parting running down my forehead and nose in a red torrent, like blood.

I don't remember how long I stood there; all I remember was that I was swaying with tiredness and cold and almost on the verge of collapsing into unconciousness when I heard a stifled curse and then footsteps running towards me and arms catching me before I fell to the floor.
The smell of brandy was in the room as I came to. He was sitting on the bed rubbing my feet with a fine Napoleon cognac VSOP and the feet in question were quite blue. I could not feel my toes and then there was the blessed warmth of a hotwater bottle beneath them and a warm soft quilt put gently on shaking limbs. I could not stop shaking or prevent my teeth chattering. The old "dai" in the room clicked her tongue disapprovingly and said something in low tones as she left. He made me sit up slightly and held a cup of warm millk laced with brandy to my lips and I sputtered all the way but He made me drink it all. And the shaking slowly stopped. He sat on the edge of the bed face buried in his hands, the image of despair; I could not bear to see him so shaken, so broken down. He turned to look at me and the look in his eyes boded ill. For Shreekanth, my husband.Reaching forward, he gently brushed aside the loose strands of  hair from my face and then turning me around, began to gently undo the stiff Joora or bun into which my long hair had been stuffed. It was covered with numerous diamond studded hair pins and these were taken out one by one till I felt my neck become less tense after the heavy weight was removed. I was  three years again and had fallen over..... and he was taking care of me.

My huge Jadau earrings, that were pulling on the lobes were the next to be slowly removed without caisng me any pain. He did not speak at all; only an occasional "Shhh it's going to be ok." And I believed him; after all who better than him to make it ok?

I could see  the bedside table now laden with a plethora of gem studded jewellery and I could breathe again. I struggeld to get the heavy gold bangles off too and he obliged by helping me.  At first we didn't hear the knock and then he leaned forward listening intently. It came again, a little more insistent and I tried to move my feet but he stilled me. He got up and opened the door a little and I saw my mother-in-law's ashen face. He stood aside as she came in and sat on the bed and took me in her arms. I felt safe as she stroked my hair over and over again. This was Bari Ma, Thakurain of the household who had comforted me like this since I was a baby. I saw her tears blotching her beautiful face and a voice asking for my forgiveness. Why I wondered? Why forgiveness? I asked her and noticed that He had come back into the room and his face was sombre. My mother in law was weeping uncontrollably and I was comforting her now; I heard him say very softly, " She needs to be told now, Maaji." I was curious and then fear enveloped me;something had happened to my parents and I voiced my fears aloud. He too sat on the bed and took my hand in his and Maaji's as well. A well of leaden silence hung over us and then I heard the words  as though from far far away; " No no,Urmi... Shreekanth was found collapsed in his room, the doctor has just been and pronounced hin dead. An overdose he said. I have to go and arrange for the antim kriya and cremation. Just stay here in this room. I will come back and explain."

I had never felt so cold in my life before.

It was the wedding season again at the Haveli; I was there dressed in a Benarasi specially woven for me. In shimmering. silvery white. Widow's weeds. And that was what I was, a widow of twenty. Shreekant's death had not been allowed to touch me; I had been shrouded in cottonwool and silk and life carried on as before. My mother-in-law took very long to recover from the shock of Shreekanth's death. I privately thought it was the shock and shame of a having borne a homosexual son, that brought on the paroxyms of chest pain that were not angina. She took to her bed, a huge carved mahogony affair that needed steps to get into. The running of the Bari Haveli fell to me and I had to hit the ground running.
Those early months passed in a haze and I was aware that He had created this cocoon to shield me. There were no rituals, no shorn locks, no widow's diet, no curbing of any freedoms that I had before. The only bit that irked me was the fact that I had to wear white. Hundreds of exquiste, handwoven sarees in silk and finest muslin filled the almirahs in my rooms. My mother in law as she recovered, began to take  an interest in life again and more so, in me. I was the widowed "daughter" home in her "maike"( maternal home). I began to learn how to run an enormous household and to understand the family business of  dolomite mining. The Bari Thakurain wept a lot in those early days and the only consolation she seemed to get, was to look at me, stroke my hair, braid it and dress it. I let her. She was after all, my other " mother".

We went to Haridwar, Delhi and Benaras the winter of the year Shreekanth died. He did the "Pind Daan" at Haridwar and we travelled on later to Delhi and Benaras. The marriage was fixed then. In Delhi. I saw her on the day of the Roka ceremony. Romy Singhvi, the only daughter of a wealthy industrialist tycoon and his wife was to become His wife. She was beautiful, glossy, sophisticated down to her last red painted pedicured toenail. She did not deign to speak to me at all. In fact He was not there for the ceremony; my mother in law blessed her with gifts of jewellery which she looked at and passed to her mother. I saw the glance that passed between them and guessed that the traditional heirlooms over a hundred years old did not please them.

And now it was His wedding day; I had no time to think in terms of reality because of what had to be arranged. I was glad in a way because I could not comprehend what I would do next. He was much more sombre than before. He smiled very briefly at times and sometimes I saw him watching me with a quizzical expression on his face. Sometimes I thought He had a question to ask but it never was asked. We never spoke of that night ever again, although he knew I had seen him come back from the cremation grounds early that morning, pristine white garb besmirched with ash and soot.

I stood outside the mandap watching the ceremony. As a widow I could not take part but I could watch. Romy was resplendent in orchid red and pink. Her creamy skin looked like butter as she garlanded Him and His eyes met mine  during the yagna that followed.

That night I stayed in the Bari Thakurain's room; she was glad because she wanted to talk to me. But the strain of the day had worn her out and she feel asleep soon. I lay on one side, frozen in pain as I thought of the suite upstairs that had been decorated according to my directions in cream and pink roses. Hundreds of them filled the room and the fourposter bed was hung with a lacy "mosquito net" made of these very flowers. For Him and Romy on their first night together. As man and wife.

The retching did not stop. The vomiting was endless. I stood there in paralysed embarrasment and anxiety as spasm after spasm upended itself on the floor and the sink as Romi crouched down almost fainting with with the intensity of the nausea. I wiped her face with a wet cloth and washed her hands like a child while she stood there, all tears and rage spent. The smell of sour vomit made the bile rise in my throat but I swallowed hard and led her out of the bathroom to the cool haven of her room. She collapsed in a heap on the bed and I straightened her clothes and the coverlet out before the family doctor came. It  had been the same for nearly three weeks now, these bouts of vomiting. She could not keep anything down and it had fallen to me to make sure that she would atleast sip the juices and drinks I made for her. Romy was so exhausted she would say nothing but her eyes pleaded with me not to leave her.

The Haveli was filled with subdued merriment at the longed for news of the advent of a new generation. He was grimfaced as he went about the estate and said little. Coming back very late at night, He would eat silently after I served him at the table. He sat alone at the twenty seater mahogany table as I heated the food and a raised eyebrow would enquire whether I had eaten or not even before he had the first mouthful. I usually had. He spoke very little and the light in the library room burned till the small hours of the morning. One morning He announced that He was going back to the mines that day; the business could not carry on without his presence. He left and that week itself Romy decided to go back to Delhi to her parents. My mother in law pleaded in vain but she was adamant and seeing her febrile bright eyes I asked the Bari Thakurain to agree. Which she did. I went with her to Delhi and returned the next morning.

There were few phonecalls from Delhi for the next few months; sometimes I rang to ask how Romy was and she was always thin voiced when she spoke. Her mother would commandeer the phone and fill my ears about the delicate state that her darling daughter was in, due to the pregnancy. As though we were responsible. That spring, leading to summer was filled with beautiful balmy days, soft whispering winds and even when the sun's rays hardened the soil and drained its moisture, I did not feel the heat of summer. I waited for the first rain of the Monsoon and forgetting that I was a widow, I ran into the courtyard, soaring on light feet. My hair opened out and the white mulmul sari I was wearing was soon drenched. My arms were outspread as the warm rain bathed me, careening down my cheeks and I realised that I was crying. What ever for, I thought. My mother-in-law watched from an upper floor balcony and I smiled at her. Her eyes were indulgent and sad. Then I saw Him; watching my childish antics from a dark corner, leaning against a pillar. I stopped my impromptu raindance and tried to restore some vestiges of propriety. Like a bedraggled child , long hair in rats tails stuck to skull and back, I tried to shrink into myself and skulk past him. He said nothing but looked utterly exhausted.
That night the phone rang as I was getting ready to get into bed. I glanced at the clock and saw it was past midnight. Opening my door I went to the corridor to pick up the hall phone but He got it before me. I could hear what seemed to be hysterical shouting from the other end and His brows came together in a thunderous frown. After a very brief conversation he put the phone down. "There 's no need to wake Maaji now; pack a bag quickly while I see about a car and driver. When you are ready tell Maaji we have to go to Delhi now. I am ringing to see if I can get emergency plane tickets". He paused and then said quietly, "She has gone into labour". I clutched the wall for support. Romi was only just seven months pregnant; the traditional Godh bharai ceremony , the baby shower was still being planned  and it was only yesterday that the family priest had indicated a good few dates were possible next month. She was very weak according to her mother's phone call about three weeks ago, and spent all her time in bed. Would a  premature baby survive such an early arrival? We left within the next two hours after reassuring Maaji we would ring her and keep her informed on an hourly basis. He had managed the plane tickets but looked so grim and sombre I dared not ask what thoughts troubled him. If this had been before, I would have pestered him for details till out of exasperation he would have pulled my plaits gently and told me. But now there was a gulf between us. Or so it seemed, as I  sat next to him on the plane. His eyes looked bleak and devoid of any light. Looking at me as the plane rose on its wheels and took flight, He said, " Urmi we need to be prepared." My heart juddered in my chest at those words; what did he mean that we needed to be prepared?

It was silence that greeted us; an uncanny silence that seemed out of place in this large villa that was Romy's maternal home. The old chowkidaar at the gates met us and indicated we should go in. I was surprised that no one had come to see us in but I did not comment. He strode through the long, cool, marble corridors till it turned at right angles towards the left; I assumed this was where her room was. Inside was another story. Romy was still being attended to by the doctor and nurses. Her labour's onset had been a surprise and frighteningly brief; both her parents were in the room along with a couple of maids. Within a few minutes the medical team left and Romy, looking very pale, looked at both of us with tearful eyes. I noticed that her father looked very grim and her mother, visibly frightened.

No one seemed to be bothered that a birth had taken place and there should be a wailing infant in the room. I began to fear for the worst and looked at Him praying with my heart that there had not been a still birth. And then I saw the swaddled bundle on a makeshift crib in a far corner of the room. There were small sounds of whimpering coming in that direction. I could not control myself any further and blurted out,

"Why is the baby there in the crib, why is Romy not feeding the infant?"

There was silence and in that silence the whimpers grew louder and louder. Without asking anyone's permission, I ran over to the crib and picked up the swaddled bundle. All I could see was a round head topped with fine, soft, dark hair, a pair of large dark eyes and the sweetest cupid's bow mouth I had ever seen which was now pouted and about to break into a full throated roar of frustration and hunger.

Romy's shouted out, " I don't want to see her, don't bring that ... thing.. near me.. go away... take her away" galvanised her mother into action and she ran to the bed, gathering her weeping daughter close and making soothing noises. I looked at Him and my shock was reflected in his eyes. One of the maids, touched my elbow and indicated I should come with her. I followed with the baby in my arms and no one protested. In a small anteroom off the corridor, the maid showed me a basic nursery but there were bottles and tins of baby milk and nappies and paraphernalia that babies needed. She hastily said that there were some sterilised bottles in the kitchen and returned soon with them.
I supervised the making of that first much needed bottle. It was tiny but the rosebud mouth latched onto it with ferocity. She fell asleep as the last drops dribbled out of the side of her mouth and I wiped them away with a soft cloth. I saw her properly for the first time. She wasn't scrawny like some premature babies were and had plump cheeks. There were folds of fat on her wrists and I noticed that my arms were beginning to feel her weight. It was puzzling that a seven month old premature baby could be so so big, but I dismissed the thought.

He was standing at the door looking in on the both of us. We must look incongruous I thought; me in a white widow's saree with a sleeping babe in my arms. He came in and looked at her, gently touching one rounded cheek with a large,careful, male finger. She did not stir and I saw a small smile twitch his lips. I stood up and started to go towards Romy's room when he stopped me and said slowly,
"Urmi, you need to be prepared for Romi's reaction when you go in and for what her parents will say"
There was a pause and then he continued, " I am afraid it is not going to be pleasant at all."
I could only gawp as what he said sunk in. What could it be, I asked myself opening the door of the bedroom.

Romy was sitting up supported by huge pillows and her mother was encouraging her to take small sips of what seemed to be juice.Her father still looked very grim and as we sat down, I held on to the sleeping infant. He locked the door behind us and Romy started to cry again in huge noisy sobs. Her mother tried to comfort her and after a while succeed. It was beginning to get too much for me. Her father looked at us and then to my horror folded his hands a pleading namaste; I was horrified.What was happening? He held out  signed legal document and I could see Romy's scrawled signature across the bottom. I looked at Romy but she would not meet my eyes at all.

The plane journey back later that night was uneventful except that I had a day old infant in my arms. I had not wanted to fly back that day itself but eventually it made sense to go home. He was silent all the way back home and I was too exhausted to ask anything. The lights at the haveli were on still when we arrived at about two o'clock in the morning. I was gathered into my mother- in law's arms, baby and all, and she wept copious tears. Soon I was in my room; the heavily carved walnut wood cradle that had been in a storeroom, was next to my bed. I laid the baby in it after a final feed and made sure she was secure. I could feel fatigue pouring out of me and longed for the soft comfort of the bed. A maid came in and sat down next to the cradle; I sensed this rather than saw it as sleep claimed in. I heard voices but was too far gone to register who it was.

It was bright in the room when I awoke; my sleep jammed brain remembered the events of the night before and I turned to the cradle; she was there; sleeping and dreaming. There was no maid in the room and then I saw Him get up from one of the chairs - he did not look as though he had slept very much. Silently he handed me a cup of tea and waited for me to finish. Taking the cup from me he shut the door and sat on the edge of the bed. His voice was very sombre as he took my hands in his and said, " I need to tell you somethings, perhaps I should have confided in you earlier"....

(to be continued)

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About the Author : Gopali Chakraborti Ghosh was born and educated in Calcutta (India), the city that inspires much of what she writes. She studied English Literature and currently works as an English teacher in a secondary school in the North West of the UK. which has been her home for the last 20 years. She enjoys films, music, reading and ‘people watching’ because often a stray incident sparks off a new story.Apart from short stories, she writes poetry and anything else that may take her fancy.

 

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Great read!

I am a huge fan of Urmila Who Waited - what a wonderful opportunity to savor every word and read larger chunks at one time. One day this will be available in book form, I am sure!

Admirable!

Lopa's picture

This is one of your classic masterpieces, Gopali di! As usual, I am in sheer awe of your depiction of the characters, the settings, and the inner world of Urmila's turmoils. You have woven the narrative with so much style, grace and lyricism! Hats off!!

Lopa Banerjee

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