Today was her birthday. She looked at the calendar and asked herself, was it her birthday? Had she forgotten her own birthday? She turned her eyes at the date blankly, stared at the letters like a statue. Something told her that the date was familiar. She tried to think. Her eyes moistened as she remembered. She breathed heavily. A strange calm settled upon her, she stood there, staring at those letters, as if they resembled something dead. Something lifeless, like her mother.

It has been a long time.

Her vision seemed to fade, and in the next instant, she found herself crying. Cupping her face with her pale palms, she opened her dimmed eyes to a burning sensation. She rubbed her cheeks, but tears rolled down, breaking all forces. She looked at her palms. It dawned upon her that she possessed a very ugly palm, crooked and rough. She had an old woman’s palm, she thought. Naturally.

She was old. Seventy-nine years old.

How old, helpless, and weak she had become, it dawned upon her now. She is old and dying. She will die soon then, she thought, as if comforting herself. She looked at her palms again. She checked the lines on her left palm carefully. Which one was the lifeline? Oh, how could she forget? Her age allowed her to forget things, but she clung to them, fearing they would abandon her forever, like everyone else. Okay, the topmost line was the one, she recollected. On her left hand, the line stretched itself like a stream, stopping just beneath the forefinger, vanishing like a trickle. What does it signify, she thought, bewildered. How many more years to spend over here, she wanted to know.

She paused her thoughts to turn around and found herself staring at the mirror, at herself. The mirror, “aayna’ she called it in Bengali, was long and narrow, reflecting her body from top to toe. Though she looked at herself daily after her morning bath, past her evening prayers, at night for braiding her loose hair but still felt a bit shocked now, examining her very own presence, unmoved and unblinking. What was so striking about her now? Her swollen feet, the crumpled white sari, the protesting collarbones, the long striking neck, and then her face, she observed herself. She saw something in those eyes which shocked her. It was pity, plain simple pity. Pity at herself, on her state, on everything around her for which she had moulded all her life. Pity on her existence, seventy-eight years of existence. A tough player, she thought.

She knew where she was. In her son’s room. Her son, Subodh, was out with his wife and daughter. Subodh was an artist. It was she who had always encouraged Subodh to take up art. That night, they went to the birthday party of his daughter’s friend. Sumona, her granddaughter, had told her friend Kaushiki to invite her parents only.

“You won’t feel comfortable there, Dida.” Sumona had told her only that evening, asking if the new skirt suited her.

She looked at the walls, painted a shocking yellow. The room seemed to shine upon her like the sun, dazzling her eyes. She sat on the wooden stool in front of the mirror.

She felt elevated now, and she straightened her backbone, widened her shrunken shoulders. Amused at her foolishness, she thought, “What an ugly queen!”

She found herself inspecting the accessories on the small wooden space in front of the mirror. A deodorant, a white squarish box beside it, a lipstick, some bangles, and a hairpin. She picked up the lipstick, held it with her palms, like a precious little gem. She revolved the flat base curiously. A small red circle appeared and its narrow length increased. How she grimaced. All the harmful colour and chemicals entering the mouth and then the stomach. Boroline is far better than this. Deliberating upon its uselessness, she brought it near her lips, to try it once. She succumbed to her temptation, dabbing the red stain on her lower lip and then keeping the precious thing hurriedly back in its place with guilt. She looked now, touching her lower lip with her fingers, slowly. How soft and desirable! Well, she had to admit now that she looked beautiful, smiling to herself

She then noticed a red bindi on the extreme left on the mirror. Subodh’s wife detested the bindi, which according to her, did not suit her personality. Maybe Sumona had tried it and then discarded it there. The next moment she found her fingers scraping it off the mirror, balancing the red dot on the tip of her forefinger, breathing tensely. She knew her limits, that of a widow’s. She closed her eyes, reminding herself that she was committing a sin. Suddenly, she imagined herself as a bride. She imagined her face, brightened with charm; her forehead adorned with white patterns, the red bindi looking dignified between her brows. She opened her eyes, aghast, ashamed. Her forehead seemed heavy with the unaccustomed weight of the bindi, but still, she withstood all the pain, clutching her sari in despair, astonished at her own courage yet somehow proud of herself.

She heard a knock outside, the sound of the main door lock. She froze. They had come back. If she was found in his room it would be disastrous. She rushed to the door, limping as fast as she could, her backbone bent perennially. She switched off the lights. Downstairs she could hear their footsteps, Sumona’s childish voice. She hurried out of the room, closing the door behind her, leaving the room into darkness.

“Maa...?” Subodh shouted suddenly.

Resembling a mourning wail, she managed to whisper loud enough. “Hain..?” She could feel gooseflesh rising.

Not wasting another second, she rushed to the bathroom. Shutting the door from inside, she gasped for breath as she crouched, sobbing and trembling. The footsteps reached upstairs, stopping outside the door. “What are you doing inside the bathroom?” Subodh asked.

She found herself struggling to answer. She breathed heavily, asking herself the same question.

“Nothing,” her voice choked. “Just washing my face.”

“Oh, OK. Come out and have your dinner.” He said huskily, his footsteps treading downstairs.

She crouched on the bathroom floor, clutching her face, sobbing hysterically yet softly, lest the sound reach downstairs.

She finally got up and stood by the wash basin. She turned on the tap and splashed water on her face. The bindi slipped off and went into the sink. Rubbing her lips, she managed to get the colour off. She splashed water until she was satisfied that she was cleansed. Yes, now she looked like herself, she felt satisfied.

She went downstairs, drying her face with the end of her sari. She entered the room and sat on the kitchen floor, cross-legged, her hands still shaking mildly.

“Oh Dida,” exclaimed Sumona. “The birthday cake was so huge, and so tasty! We danced and played for so long. We should have brought one piece for you…” she paused. “Well, leave it. We can order it someday…” her eyes lit up in delight, “Why, on your birthday itself!”

Excerpted with permission from ‘Her Day’ by Santanu Das in The Thief’s Funeral: The Book Review Anthology of Short Fiction, edited by Sucharita Sengupta, Chandra Chari, and Uma Iyengar, Aleph Book Company.