| Megha S Nath | January 2024 | Short Story |
Sohan placed the new glistening 500 rupee note in his pocket, being careful not to make any unnecessary folds in it. He was happy to have a windfall after so long.
He managed to get his rickety cycle going and set out for home. Rani, his wife, would be mighty pleased with the day’s earnings, he thought. Stopping at the town square he bought some fritters. Why not? He wanted something to munch on with the alcohol. Sohan smiled at himself. Country liquor gave him the kick he needed to get on with life. To pursue the kind of job he did.
Rani rushed to the door when she heard his cycle bell. She looked a little disappointed as she saw him empty-handed. “You didn’t bring eggs today either?” she questioned, turning up her nose.
Sohan then pointed to the grimy newspaper-wrapped bundle that he fished out from a bag that hung from the handlebar. ” Even better than eggs. I got pakoras” he quipped.
Rani stomped out of the courtyard raising a tiny cloud of dust about her. “He’ll get drunk, have pakoras and batter me, like always,” she muttered under her breath.
“My Rani, my queen ” Sohan called out suggestively as he saw her standing by the window. He held her curvy waist from behind and kissed her neck.
“Stop it. Love will not fill my hungry stomach. You’ll fill yours with liquor ” she blurted.
He pulled her around to face him and dangled the 500 rupee note in front of her eyes. “How many eggs? How much chicken will my darling have?” he teased.
Rani touched the greenish paper that held so much value, and her face gleamed like the shine of gold. “Is it real?” She asked.
“Yes, and hard-earned too” Sohan replied. The sight of money, especially such a large amount made Rani forget her anger. She hugged Sohan, “I think you had a good day,” she whispered.
Rani then entered the kitchen with a newfound enthusiasm. She got out a yellowing plate and arranged the pakoras on it. She spooned out a huge blob of pickle as a dip. Dinner was modest. Rice and leftover vegetables from lunch, as Sohan had failed to fetch eggs. As expected Sohan got out the bottle of country liquor he treasured so much.
Even the steel glass into which he often poured the drink had borne the brunt of his drunken outbursts many a time – devoid of a flat base, it wobbled.
He drank to his heart’s content, blabbered nonsense to Rani and quarrelled as always. She was used to the sequence of events. The verbal and physical abuse. The thrashing, the allegation of affairs, it was a regular drama that unfolded after drinking.
Rani knew she had to put up with it. She had no choice. He was her husband and moreover the only breadwinner. He would make sure they would survive somehow.
The nature of his work was such that the family had disowned them. Who would explain to them the nobility of what he did. She was proud of him. Rani tried falling asleep dreaming of better days, of a child and smiles on all their faces. She looked at Sohan, sprawled on the mat. Exhausted. His breath was reeking of alcohol. Rani winced as she placed her hand under her head, the moron had really hit her hard today.
In the morning, Sohan woke up groggy. Rani wondered if it was a good time to pick up the topic, but eventually she did. “Listen…,” she broached warily.
Sohan grimaced as he sprinkled the cold water on his face. “What is it?” he roared. “Couldn’t you heat the water at least?”
Rani fell quiet for a moment and mustered her courage. “Give me that money. I have to buy groceries. ” Sohan looked up and then walked to the hanger where he hung his shirt.
He gave the 500 rupees to Rani, “Lets have some ̣sumptous food,” he said. Before she could say anything, he promised her, “I won’t drink today.”
Hearing this made Rani happy. Sohan was a nice man, just a victim of circumstances, she often told herself. Soon it was evening. She heard Sohan’s cycle make a noise as it fell on the aluminum bucket outside. Rani knew he was drunk. This time on his way back from work itself. Something that he usually avoided.
She opened the door for him and placed a glass of water in front of him. “Are you having dinner or is the toddy enough?” she said sarcastically.
“You wicked woman!” He yelled. “You sit here warm at home. I bathe in the freezing water of the river several times. Don’t you understand what it feels like?”
She regretted her words. Without saying anything further she laid out the lovely food she had cooked. Chicken curry and rice. Today Sonaru didn’t beat her up. He just ate like a glutton and crashed into bed.
“How many people today?” She asked softly so as to not anger him.
“None,” he replied. “The Almighty has been so benevolent. There was just one client and Jhumroo got there earlier than me.”
Rani looked disappointed. “You should have gone earlier. Or asked Jhumroo. He could have got the next one, ” she said morosely.
Sohan sat up, “You insane creature. You want me to fight over a dead body?” And he threw a glass at her which missed her by a whisker.
Yes, Sohan helped cremate the dead. He was paid by the family of the deceased for the task – amounts that they deemed suitable. Some gave him 100, some more. The earnings were meager, the job noble, but the couple had paid a heavy price for it. When they moved to the town as newlyweds this was the only job he got. The families were aghast and had broken contact with the couple when Sohan had refused to give up on what they thought was an unacceptable job.
Rani wiped a tear with her saree fold. She failed to understand Sohan. He said God had been benevolent. Which meant…..there was only one departed soul in the town today who had to be offered to the fire. Suhagpur was a medium-sized town and there was just one crematorium. It wasn’t an electric one like those in the big cities but one that needed wood. Sohan’s job was to set up the pyre and help with the formalities. It was also his responsibility to keep the pyre burning and to help collect the ashes.
A very dignified and helpful thing to do. Someone had to do it ultimately.
Rani tossed in her bed. She felt very guilty at times. About how they had to depend on the dead for a living. It was good to see people happy, living their lives with loved ones and family. How could she wish for an adverse situation just so that Sohan and she could thrive? “The intricacies of life,” she sighed and closed her eyes.
Rani said some extra prayers each Friday. Today was a Friday. She had awoken at the crack of dawn and visited the temple before others could wake up. It did hurt her at times to see how the other women shunned her and called her names. Regardless, she made a quick trip and got back home. Sohan awoke to the fragrance of incense. “Oh! Friday “ he said.
“Yes, also the beginning of Chaitra Navratri, ” she replied.
He sighed. “ What did you pray for?” he questioned.
“Lots of money so we can start a family soon,” she answered coyly. All Sohan could do was smile at her optimism. Maybe she was right. He must look for other options. Jobs where they would be accepted by family and society. Where people would not make snide remarks behind their backs.
He looked at Rani. It was ages since he had spent some time with her. She was young, beautiful, a good companion, and a wonderful life partner in every way. She deserved such a better life. His attention was drawn to her wrists, bare except for a couple of cheap glass bangles she wore. The only scrap of gold she owned was in her mangalsutra. A tiny disc on a turmeric thread that he had tied around her neck on their wedding day. A thread that bound her to him and made her tolerate all his whims and outbursts.
He ran to her and hugged her tightly. “Rani. I’ll look for a new job. Life has to improve. I want to keep you happy ” he said, his voice choking.
She took off the cloth she had wrapped around her wet hair and wiped his eyes. “I’m happy when you’re happy. It’s alright. Times will change. Just stop drinking,” she requested.
Sohan made a promise that day to quit drinking. It lit up her face.
Just as he was getting ready to have his breakfast, his friend and neighbour Jhumroo barged in. ” Sohan, come soon. They’re calling us at the muktidham,” he cried out.
“What happened?” Rani enquired.
“Oh! The bridge near the hill collapsed and many people going to the temple lost their lives.”
“That damn rickety bridge,” Rani exclaimed, slapping her forehead.
Sohan was quiet. He was staring at Rani. In a sudden fit he grabbed his slipper and began raining blows on her. Jhumroo tried to intervene and was handed a beating too. Rani screamed in pain but Sohan was a man possessed.
“Are you mad? Leave her!” begged Jhumroo and managed to stop him by grabbing him tightly. “What has come over you?”
Sohan was breathing heavily.
Rani looked at him askance, writhing in pain.
“Speak up you idiot,” Jhumroo rebuked him.
Sohan pointed a finger at Rani accusingly. “This woman…” he began “went to the temple today and prayed.”
“So what?” Rani cried out.
“You wretch,” he screamed at her, “you prayed for a lot of money? You prayed for more lives to be snuffed out? How can I live with a monster like you?”
Jhumroo was finding it difficult to control Sohan. Rage adds strength to a person and he feared for Rani.
Rani was sobbing now. How would she convince Sohan that it was not what she had wished for. All she wanted was to lead a so-called normal life free from social stigma. She had no issues with what he did, only that she wanted him to do something that would generate more income and have them lead a less stressful life.
“Why will I wish ill for anyone?” she asked. “All I wanted was some happiness. Was it too much to ask for?”
Sohan still looked angry. His eyes red. She could see the veins on his forehead and Jhumroo was having a tough time restraining him.
“But you keep crying for money all the time,” Sohan spat at her.
Rani now stood up, a sudden change in her body language. “You know what? I’ve had enough. I keep asking you for money just to satisfy your ego. Wait let me show you something,” she said, and lifted one corner of the mattress. She took out an old purse that was given to her during the wedding. A compliment from a local store.
She unzipped it and emptied the contents on Sohan’s face, flinging the purse at him. It rained money. Currency of various denominations.
Jhumroo and Sohan were shocked. “How did you get so much cash? What have you been doing?” Sohan lunged at Rani. Jhumroo had to let go.
Rani laughed like a mad woman. “Why do you think people gave us sly looks? It wasn’t you Sohan, it was me. All the talks, the glances, what do you think triggered that?”
Sohan now imagined the worst. “You are selling yourself? You dirty woman!”
Rani leaned against the wall and merely smiled. “What do you expect? How do you think I could survive? Have you ever given a thought to my feelings, my wants and needs, my happiness? Did you ever think of anyone but yourself? Drowning yourself in liquor!”
Sohan now dropped to his knees and hung his head in shame. “Why didn’t I get to know?” he tugged at his hair now moist with sweat. He grabbed Jhumroo’s collar. “You knew?”
“You were always drunk,” She intervened. “How can a drunkard see reality?”
Sohan looked into Jhumroo’s eyes, who avoided his gaze. Sohan now knew that in his quest of escaping from the travails of life, he had lit the pyre of his marriage.
From wedding vows to funeral flames, it had died a slow death.
Megha S Nath is a dental surgeon and feels at home in the world of books. She enjoys writing short stories and has self published a collection of short stories. She loves travelling and creative journaling.
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