No sooner did the doorbell ring that she rushed to open the door. An hour ago she had received a call on her landline from the local office of a courier service confirming her name, address and her mobile number. Over-excitement had made her forget that the lift had been out of order since yesterday evening.
Irritation of the delivery man changed into annoyance when, after climbing two hundred steps or so, he discovered that he was still two floors away from his destination. Finally, when his feet landed on the corridor of the ninth floor, a wave of dizziness swept over his head. The spasm in his knees compelled him to squat on the dusty floor and light a country cigar. Curls of smoke were exhaling relief from his nostrils and mouth when to his utter disappointment, he noticed that the name printed on the cover of the parcel did not match any of the ones embossed on the doorplates in front of him. While he sat there bewildered, fanning himself with the papers that documented the delivery of the consignment to the receiver, one of the doors opened suddenly. A young woman in western clothes and a little boy loaded with a satchel on his back walked out of it. Behind them, the door slammed with such an echoing bang that the latches and locks on the other two doors jingled for a couple of seconds. Although the delivery man had enough sense to understand as to where the mother and the son were going, he asked, “Tuition class, beta?” When the child nodded and smiled back, he asked if anybody called “Maya Devi” lived there. The little one pointed at the right side of the door which had the name “Ashoke Kr Gupta” inscribed on a dull and discoloured plate. The young woman twitched her lips as a sign of dislike for the name the man had uttered and pulled the little one away down the stairs.
After collecting the parcel, Maya was about to shut the door outright when the delivery man forwarded his copy of the statement on which she had to put her signature against her address. She thought for a while to bring a glass of cold water for the man as sweat was dripping from his bald head but then she checked herself, conjecturing the possibilities of being robbed and murdered like the octogenarian Mrs Desai, who had lived all alone like her in the next housing society.
Maya was in her early sixties. Streaks of grey hair glittered all over her head. Although her complexion could not be called fair, there was an unusual radiance on her cheeks, which the neighbours gossiped was a recent development from the time the retired headmaster and she started having an affair. Now that she was living all alone in the apartment there was no need to tiptoe to her room, grabbing the parcel to her bosom to cut open the wrapper in seclusion. The scissors were inside the chest-drawers of the engraved Burma teak, which her husband had purchased on their seventh wedding anniversary. The drawing-cum-dining hall of the 1500 square feet apartment was furnished with an exquisite suite of furniture and décor, each piece sparkling bright with her daily efforts of cleaning and nostalgia. Whether it was their wedding anniversary or her birthday, Ashoke knew that she would love to have something for the household rather than having anything such as a golden bracelet or a bejewelled sari for herself. He never forbade her from splurging on gorgeous lampshades, vases, paintings, handicrafts and variety of crockery sets. That she had a fetish for imported fragrances was known to none except him. So, whenever, he went abroad on his office tours, he always bought one of the brands she loved.
She pulled out and pushed in the chest drawers one after another, rummaging through each box in vain. She decided to recheck the ones in the middle row as she felt confident that the day before yesterday when Masterji had used them while cutting the marble papers into colourful numericals, she had seen him keeping them there. One by one, she took out the items from the drawer—empty bottles of perfumes, cut-outs from tanned newspapers, toy cars, a camera with a scratch on the lens, a dozen conch shells of different shapes and sizes, and a black-and-white photograph in which Sunny was swinging hand-in-hand between his parents on the seashore. He was just four years old at that time. Ashoke’s trousers were folded up to his knees. The loose end of Maya’s block-printed sari was fluttering like the sail of a country boat. That year Ashoke was posted in Bhubaneshwar, the capital of Odisha. Every weekend, he used to bring them to the seashore in his second-hand Fiat that remained his favourite asset even after he had purchased a limousine in Stockholm.
Twenty years later when she informed him over the phone that she had sold the Fiat, he was heartbroken. Before she could explain that she had to sell it for paying Sunny’s tuition fee and hostel charges, the line was disconnected. Maya had sat on the bench outside the telephone booth for the next four hours waiting anxiously for Ashoke to call back. Thereafter, every day for one long month, she had come to the telephone booth and had asked the booth-wallah, “Bhaisahab! Did Mr Ashoke Kumar Gupta call from Sweden?” It was both awkward and embarrassing to sit for hours in the bazaar with all sorts of eyes ogling at her while the shopkeeper of the grocery store loudly reminded her of the dues. She could not tell her son about the indigence that had befallen them as that could have diverted the boy’s attention from his studies at All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi.
Having found the scissors, she started to cut open the parcel. She knew that these were the study materials for the second semester’s course at the open university. For a while she felt elated that she would become a university graduate after two years but the enormous silence of the house reminded her of the misgivings and the accusations that had ravage its walls repeatedly against her. Every day after Sunny and his wife Ria would leave for the hospital, she would get busy with her chores. Although she tried to be slow and fastidious, all her work was completed within a few hours and then loneliness seemed to asphyxiate the hall, the kitchen and the rooms of the big apartment. Neither the TV serials nor the puja rituals could slacken the ennui that had taken her in its grasp. Digestive problems, inflammation in the joints and erratic attacks of asthma made her look more aged than what she was in reality.
After a thorough checkup she was diagnosed with diabetes and respiratory disorders. “Go for a walk regularly and spend some time in the open air,” the doctor had advised. It was during her walks that she had seen Masterji teaching in the park, under the shade of a jamun (a certain type of berry) tree. More often than not he narrated the stories of the patriots and social reformers to his students. Sometimes he scribbled the multiplication tables on the portable blackboard that stood leaning against the tree trunk. In the morning, his students were the children of the neighbouring slum. In the evening came the adult learners, mostly the parents of the children who thronged the place in the morning, and a group of eunuchs, who recited the multiplication tables with their typical clapping and lyrical tone. Every day, she watched them from a distance and recalled the childhood memories where she had played the role of a teacher to her dolls.
Her friendship with Masterji shocked her son and daughter-in-law. The other inhabitants of the housing society, where they lived, were also critical of her whereabouts. Their musings had gone so far that one day Ria’s mother had rung her up from Sydney, where she lived with her son, and had tried to explain to Maya that her eccentricity was spoiling the reputation of their children. Even Ria had told her many times that at her age a woman should engage herself in pious activities such as reading the scriptures and counting the holy beads. “What wonders will you make with an academic degree at the age of sixty?” Sunny had asked, when she had told them about her decision to take admission in the open university. The banter in his tone had reminded her of her own father, who had upset her forty years ago by making the following remarks: “What will you do with a university degree, dear daughter? You are getting married to a university topper, an officer in the Administrative Service. You shall live like a queen with all sorts of amenities waiting at your feet.” It was true that her conjugal life was encircled by the dazzling aura of Ashoke’s academic and professional accomplishments. He had given her what every woman of her generation dreamt of—a big house, authority of the household, love, affluence and social status. Ashoke wasn’t against her taking a job but when she had qualified for the primary teacher’s job in a village school, he wasn’t pleased. He had remarked that it would have been better if she could join a convent school like the wives of some of his colleagues. The thought of teaching in a convent school intimidated her as the key criterion of eligibility there was fluency in English. Having studied throughout in the vernacular school of her village, she managed somehow to read and write in English, but speaking the language fluently was a really difficult task for her. The anxiety of becoming a cause of her husband’s embarrassment due to her non-fluency in English had been her primary reason for not accompanying him on his foreign tours.
Ashoke’s trips to Europe had become frequent since he had been promoted and transferred to the department of Foreign Affairs. Neither Maya nor his colleagues had the faintest idea that at this juncture of his career, when his prospects were soaring, he would resign from the administrative service and would join a biotechnology firm in Sweden. While some of his friends and their wives gossiped that he was having an affair abroad, few others said that he had joined hands with an international mafia gang. Maya had decided to pounce on him for the scandalous uproars, but after seven months, when she saw his emaciated figure, her rage melted into an emotional downpour of gripe, and she wept like a child holding him tight in her arms. Her faith in her husband was restored when she discovered a bottle of French perfume while unpacking his baggage. In an envelope which had the following inscription – “To Maya…from Ashoke” – she found a photograph of her husband leaning against his white sedan car. This time, during his stay in India for a month, he opened a joint account in the names of his wife and son, and deposited a lump sum in it. For the next eight months, Maya had no financial worries in managing the household expenses and in paying Sunny’s semester fees. However, the only thing that disturbed her was that Ashoke did not contact them after he had left. Although ISD calls were very expensive then, she had called on his mobile phone several times. Every time the call was received by a female voice, which said, “Sorry! You are mistaken. There’s nobody called Aa-showk over here.” After a year, she had received a letter from him which said:
I know that you would never be able to forgive me for what I have done but I feel that now I should disclose everything to you and unburden my heart. For the last two years, I have been in a live-in relationship with Bronwyn, my secretary. I know I have wronged you and have hurt you terribly but circumstances were such that I could not restrain myself. Although she is twenty-one years younger than me she wants us to get married. Time and again, I have refused her proposal but she is desperate. Last week, she tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. Now the situation is such that I have to marry her. Next month, I am coming to India. I have already spoken to a lawyer who would prepare the papers of our divorce. I hope that you will cooperate with me. I assure you that you shall be well-provided throughout your life and our son shall inherit my property after my death. As far as our apartment is concerned, it will always be yours.
I have come to know from one my friends that Sunny has found a job in a government hospital. I am proud of my son but I do not have the face to hug him to my heart. Perhaps he will hate me forever.
Her eyes gawked at her husband’s handwriting. Gradually, the letters blurred and tears blotted the blue words scribbled on the white paper. The ceiling fan whirred noisily over her head. Perhaps, in his reckoning, her dedication as a wife and a mother for twenty-six years had fallen short before a young woman’s desperation. Her eyes rolled over and around the objects of the household as she tried to visualise their conjugal journey from the beginning till that day. “Was this pageantry an illusion, then?” she had asked herself. She had been literally alone for the last few years as Ashoke’s postings changed every two years and Sunny was in Delhi for the last six years but she felt lonely for the first time. Days went by. This time, she waited anxiously not for Ashoke but for the divorce papers on which her signature was required. She had decided that she would not speak much to him as words have the capacity to rekindle the flickers of dying bonds. She must accept the fact that he no longer belonged to her. She had also made up her mind to leave his apartment and move to Sunny’s quarters in the hospital campus. She could not sleep the night before the day of his arrival. She woke up at 4:30 am and started cooking his favourite dishes. She kept a set of his undergarments and pajamas ready in the bathroom. Taking out the brass ashtray from the cupboard, she wiped it first with a ball of cotton and then scrubbed it with a lump of raw tamarind. The thought that she was doing these things for the last time disturbed her more than the fact that a signature on a set of legal documents would bring a change in her marital status.
After the maid left, she set the table for lunch. The previous morning, Ashoke had said that he would arrive an hour before lunch time. Maya looked at the wall-clock and thought about the possibility of delay in the flight’s takeoff. Hours passed from one half of the day to another. Nightfall stirred a feeling of eeriness in her mind. Hesitatingly, she rang his mobile a couple of times but found it switched off. She could not negate the possibility of his landing up in a hotel room with the other woman. A prickly hedge spread its thorny stems in her heart. The household for which she could even mortgage the last drop of blood in her body was nothing more than a charitable gift given to her as an act of atonement. In spite of her acceptance of the harsh reality that her shoes had been stepped into by a younger woman, she stayed awake with the stubborn expectation that he might turn up late at night just as he had done during his previous visit. In order to fight her midnight drowsiness, she had switched on the TV. While surfing through the channels, all of a sudden she saw his name and passport being displayed on a news channel as one of the three hostages who were killed on a plane hijacked by a terrorist group. Even after twelve years of widowhood, the memory of that cursed night still shook her to the core.
Running short of breath, she fumbled for the medicated inhaler on the bedside table. A couple of puffs from it comforted her but the silence and the loneliness of the night blew a chill under her spine. She shivered for a few minutes and wrapped herself with as many quilts as she could find on the bed. Gradually, sweat dampened her forehead, neck and armpits. Throwing off the quilt, she ran to the balcony where fragrances of rose, jasmine and kamini flowers soothed her body and mind. The breeze ran through her hair. In those moments of stillness and relief, thoughts of Masterji came to her mind. What a strange man he was! His wife had succumbed to leukemia after suffering for four years. All his savings were spent in paying for her medical treatment. Now, he lived all alone in a rented room in the slum. After the death of his wife, his daughter had run away with a ruffian and hadn’t turned up in the last seven years. In spite of these bitter experiences, he neither cursed the stars nor did he weep about bygone miseries. His presence was like a ray of hope to the people who surrounded him. She recalled the evening when he had introduced himself to her and in the course of their conversation had requested her to give a few tips on nutrition and sanitation to his students. After that day, Maya had taken classes with them regularly, either teaching the children the basics of Hindi grammar, or training women to accumulate savings in the bank and the post office by curtailing unnecessary household expenses. Within a few months the number of students increased and then Masterji and Maya had to take parallel classes by dividing the students into two groups. During the rainy season, it had become very difficult to take classes in the park. Both of them had realised that they should make arrangements for two rooms in order to run the school. Masterji could not accommodate all the students in his rented room; nor could Maya convince her son and daughter-in-law to use the spacious hall in her apartment. Instead of cooperating, they started to question her character, which annoyed Maya so much that one afternoon she asked them to leave her house. Next morning, they left the house and rented a flat in another part of the city. Maya was left heartbroken once again but this time she did not feel lonely.
The school had become a mission for her but arranging funds for it was not an easy matter. The banks doubted the prospects of their project and rejected their applications for a loan. They approached some of the business tycoons in the city but no one was ready to finance their non-profit undertaking. When other efforts went in vain, she decided to sell her apartment. Masterji did not agree to her proposal at first and had requested her to give up the idea. However, when he saw that nothing could swerve her from her decision, he accepted her decision. After making several surveys in and around the city, they selected the location where they could set up their free school. They spoke to the owner of the plot who consented to reduce ten thousand rupees from the negotiated price after knowing the purpose of the purchase. The owner’s wife, a retired nurse, promised to provide books and stationery to the students. Her brother, a well-to-do farmer, expressed his wish of donating a pair of cows to the school so that students suffering from malnutrition could be given a glass of milk every day.
Maya looked at the vast sky encompassing the dark silhouettes of skyscrapers. In between two tall buildings, a convex moon was fading gradually. Below the ninth floor balcony, street lamps flickered like candles. As a procession of mourners walked in two lines along the lonely streets that ran up and down and across like a crossword puzzle. All of a sudden, a chorus of chirping voices pierced the stillness of the sleeping city. Maya realised that soon, it would be dawn. Today, she would talk to the young couple who responded to her advertisement “Well-Furnished Flat on Sale” published in the classified column of a local daily.