Kasturi Patra | October 2022
The day was just an ordinary one for the rest of the world. The fish sellers clamouring for attention, assessing customers’ worth before luring them into their stalls. ‘Show me better quality bhetki in the whole market, and you’ll get this for free!’ The buses trying to overtake one another. The children prattling on their way to school, their Milton water bottles and colourful satchels swaying rhythmically on their shoulders and backs.
She slid into the armchair in the balcony and stretched her legs. Closing her eyes she sighed lazily. The languid day stretched ahead of her. She wasn’t used to soaking in the morning colours and sounds.
At first, she felt as if she was drowning in a pool of stimuli—the honking buses, the chattering children, the smoke belching auto rickshaws, the ripe smell of mangoes and fish coming from the bajar downstairs—but after a while, the cacophony melded into a perfect symphony that made her senses come alive. This must be what it felt like to be released from a prison cell, she thought.
This wealth of time was all hers. No sweeping and mopping the tiled floor of this two-storied house, no dusting behind the sofa, no rushing to fry luchis for her husband’s breakfast before sitting with a heap of clothes to scrub and clean.
‘Why waste money on a maid when you have all the time in the world?’ her husband used to say.
But she didn’t want to spend all her time doing the same set of mindless chores every day.
‘Can I tutor children at home, please?’ she’d requested him when he’d refused to let her go out to work.
‘Dhyat…what will people say? Don’t I earn enough?’
It wasn’t like he always said no. He allowed her to go to the neighbourhood beauty parlour to get her eyebrows and upper lip done.
‘Get your face bleached, too! Look, how dark you’ve become.’
Crying, she’d called her mother once he’d left for work.
‘Men like beautiful wives. Put in some effort. You’re lucky he at least notices you!’
She wiped her tears and applied red sandalwood paste all over her face. Never called her mother to complain again.
But he called her parents screaming when he found out that she went for a movie with a friend without his permission.
She was afraid he’d physically hurt her. Instead, he was fiercer that night. Thrusting himself in before she could mentally prepare herself. Twisting her nipples, clawing at her stomach, yanking her hair till she cried out in agony.
Sex wasn’t any better on other days, but at least, she could get into the zone by staring at the damp patches on the wall and thinking about what she’d prepare for next day’s lunch or whether her girlfriends were also being straddled by their husbands and hoping for it to get over soon.
Life was a little better right after her daughter was born. She might have been the only mother who was thankful to her daughter for crying all night. He’d shunned them to the smaller bedroom where she’d cradle the baby’s tender head against her chest and bask in her milky smell.
Staying up all night with her tiny bundle of a daughter—her soft, pudgy body nestled against her breasts—was a wonderful change from staying awake nursing bruises and trying to keep the regrets of a wasted life at bay.
Life went by as usual below her balcony. The Mitra siblings played a game of ‘colour, colour’ on their way to school. ‘Colour, colour, what colour do you choose?’
‘I choose red!’ She shrieked and giggled at her own childishness as the children waved at her.
Just then the main gate creaked open. More relatives.
She slinked into her bedroom and drew shut the curtains.
Her daughter came in shortly afterwards. ‘Ritu Mashi and her son have come to pay their respects. Would you like to meet them?’
She sighed and massaged her temples. ‘Can you please manage, Mithi? Don’t feel like meeting people anymore.’
‘I know, Ma. It’s been a never ending stream of relatives since yesterday. You rest. I’ll send you tea and luchi torkari. Eat it, okay?’
She slumped on the bed. This king size bed was all hers now. Looking up at the ceiling, she recognized every crack and fissure on it. She’d memorized the map of the ceiling while he’d thrust and grinded on top of her till he was empty.
It was ridiculous how she believed sex was excruciatingly painful for women till she saw those magazines in her daughter’s room.
Twenty years ago, at forty five, she learned that women also found pleasure in sex. In consensual sex, that is. Girls nowadays wouldn’t believe how arranged marriages in her time were fixed on the basis of a sepia-toned photo and the would-be groom’s income. And then, for the rest of their lives, women were expected to ‘adjust’ to their fates.
She’d tried her best. For over forty years, she’d erased herself bit by bit in the day to day grind that rewarded her with the label of a ‘good housewife’. Relatives praised her cooking, neighbours envied how she managed everything single-handedly, his friends lovingly demanded her crispy fish chops and tangy ghugni while she quietly toiled in the small, fanless kitchen in the summer’s sticky heat. Not because she cared for their opinions, but because she feared his outbursts if things weren’t perfect.
At least, she could read books while he was at work. But after his retirement, she couldn’t even rest for a few minutes in the afternoon. Tired after watching TV and reading the newspaper all morning, he needed a leg massage with lukewarm mustard oil.
Monday afternoon, she was in the kitchen descaling those goddamned puti mach when she heard the thud. She’d finished preparing lunch when he brought a bag full of the tiny fish even though he knew how she hated descaling them. He was in the mood for the sweet and sour puti macher tok.
She scrubbed her hands with the Dettol soap kept in the soap dish next to the kitchen sink. Sniffing them once she was done, she repeated the process (he hated the fishy smell on her hands). Then she ambled towards the bathroom from where the sound had come.
He was sprawled on the floor—his limbs at odd angles—looking like a human version of the swastikas she drew with sindur and oil on the brass pots during Lokkhi pujo. One side of his face was clean shaven while the other side was still lathered. His tongue poked out like he was in the middle of a joke. He was the funny one among his group of friends for whom she prepared snacks and tea every evening. Water dripped from the tap into the basin—tip, tip, tip…He’d scold her if she didn’t turn it off all the way through, and now look at this!
She gingerly crouched next to him; her arthritis had flared up again. She’d been looking for a help. All the cooking, cleaning, washing, scrubbing at sixty five wasn’t good for her knees, the doctor had said.
But he’d been so picky, pointing out the dusty corner of the drawing room or the tiny ink stain on his kurta; no maid had lasted for over a month.
His breathing was jagged. She took his face gently onto her lap and with the still wet razor started shaving the other side of his face.
They were on a vacation in Darjeeling when she’d fallen down like this. He was holding ten-year-old Mithi’s hand and leading the way along with the tour guide. They’d gone for a North Bengal package tour.
That day, they were visiting a temple on the top of a hill.
She was lagging behind because her knee pain had worsened with all the hiking during the trip. As she tried catching up with her husband and daughter, she tripped on a stone and fell flat on her face. The crowd gasped and her daughter came running to give her a hand.
‘Sorry,’ she apologetically smiled at the crowd that was in a hurry to reach the temple and have lunch at a restaurant nearby. It was half past two and they were all hungry.
‘This is what happens when all you do is eat a mound of rice and sleep in the afternoons. How many times have I asked you to go for a morning walk and do some exercise?’
A few men snickered. He caught her eye and they communicated in silence. The kind of communication that couples were used to after years of marriage. ‘Can’t you even put one foot before another without creating a scene?’ His eyes said.
She pleaded for the group to go ahead without her.
A boy in his early twenties stayed back. He washed her wound with water from a roadside tea stall and dressed it with Dettol and bandage that he carried in his fanny pack.
She shivered when he lifted her sari to check her knee. No man had ever touched her this tenderly before.
She finally allowed her tears of humiliation to flow when the antiseptic stung her raw, bloodied skin.
‘We can wait for them at the tea shop.’ He took her hand in his.
She refused at first, not wanting his trip to be wasted because of her.
‘I’ve been to the temple before. It’s no big deal. Come, let’s sit.’
And for that one hour, they sipped on sweet, milky tea, ate buttered toasts and omelettes, and talked about their lives.
He was soon to leave for his PhD at London School of Economics.
How alive she felt talking with him about their college lives, friends, politics, and favourite movies.
The boy was over a decade younger than her but it felt as if she was back in the college canteen with her friends, still worrying about exams and assignments, still dreaming impossible dreams of having a career and traveling the world.
When she learned about pleasuring herself from her daughter’s magazines, she tried it in the bathroom while thinking about that boy. She wasn’t in love with him or anything. But even if for a moment, his face had held genuine concern for her pain and for her that was enough.
It wasn’t like her husband wasn’t capable of kindness. He was sweet to their daughter and also to that woman co-worker he’d brought home a few times. Maybe he regretted their marriage as much as she did.
On that stifling Moday afternoon, she’d wiped the last bit of lather from her husband’s face with her sari’s anchal.
She told her husband everything that’d been collecting in her chest for the last few decades. She also mentioned the young man whose face made her feel more pleasure than she’d ever felt for him. For the first time in their marriage, she could really talk without being silenced or ridiculed.
By the time she was done talking, an hour had passed. Then she’d called the ambulance.
Kasturi’s debut novel, A Mother’s Goodbye, won a novel pitch competition and was published in July 2021 by Half Baked Beans publishers. Her work has appeared in literary magazines like Jaggery, Litbreak, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition, TMYS Review, 50-WordStories, and in print anthologies like Escape Velocity, When Women Speak Up, Bengal Write Ahead, Equiverse Space, and Kunti’s Confessions.
Kasturi is currently working on her second novel and a collection of linked short stories. She works as a content writer and coparents four rescued animals (two dogs and two cats) along with her husband.
Photo by Ruati Chhangte
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