She leans against the parapet on the roof.
What if I end up dead like her? What if I fall and die for sure? But there’s a chance I’ll end up on some hospital bed, my mind sharp as nails, my body numb as a sponge.
She pulls back.
Boys on other rooftops are straining skywards, clutching spools of kite string and shouting. The desperate utter of kites and boyish voices sink into her with the late-afternoon torpor as she makes her way down the stairs.
She has repeatedly imagined drifting into a quiet death, floating away without demanding too much care or attention, without lingering. A gentle death. Without violence. Not the kind of death her neighbour fell to. She remembers the wailing women bathing her neighbour’s corpse. The woman had plummeted down; the loose bricks of the parapet had given way when she went up to collect the laundry. They used to chat on the landing in the hot evenings, while their children played downstairs. She would speak of her husband’s absence and about his occasional weekend visits, which would turn her into a busy woman of the house. Flustered, brow furrowed, she would bury herself in her kitchen. She would stuff his tiffin box with his favourite dishes and he would carry the loaded tiffin box back on the train to the small town he worked in.
When he was gone, she would appear on the landing once more. “He hardly speaks with me,” she would say wistfully, addressing her, but facing the still, unstirring air. “And even less with the boys.”
The day she fell from the roof, neither her husband nor her sons were with her to ease her frenzied breathing before her body became still.
On the flight to the city of her in-laws, she looks across the aisle at her husband and her daughter.
Do I know them? I’m supposed to know them intimately, but I’m not sure I do.
This unsettling thought leads to other frightening thoughts. I don’t belong to them. There’s no relationship, no ownership without belonging. We are just balls of energy. How can you expect a ball of energy to own another ball of energy? How can one possess or be possessed by that which is substanceless? Formless? Undefined?
At night, in her in-laws’ flat, she can’t sleep. She enters the dark living room and throws open the windows. The scene is set for a play just about to begin. Two men, with their backs to her, are sitting on the railway tracks across the street. What or who are they waiting for? Another man passes by on a bicycle. After he has gone, the street settles into its desolate look again. Except for the two men sitting on the tracks and her, watching them, there are no witnesses to this silent play in which she is both actor and spectator. The street has changed into its nightly garb; no longer the bustling, noisy thoroughfare it is during the day, it wears a smoky, haunted look. The eerie glow from streetlights hovers over the two men. The newly sprouted leaves on the Ashok trees gleam bronze-gold. An hour passes, maybe, two; she still sits watching them...
The latch on the gate clinks. The streetlights have gone out. A deep blue dawn is about to break. The latch on the gate clicks open. The newspaper delivery man has arrived. He is quick – in and out in an instant. She hears the latch click again as he leaves. Astride his motorbike, he’s hurrying on to the next building. If only she could muster as much of a sense of purpose, if her life could be as packed with things to do from dawn to dusk so that she had no time to squander staring at strange men sitting on railway tracks. It is an affliction of the unoccupied.
She’s back to what she’s got into the habit of calling her house over the years, where she is even less sure of her relationship to her surroundings, whose vast emptiness seldom leaves her.
I suppose I’m depressed. I’m not supposed to be depressed. Life’s not that bad. Things aren’t that bad. Food. Shelter. Money. Don’t I have it all?
“Life isn’t that bad,” she repeats, but repetition doesn’t lead to conviction. She repeats the list of affirmations she has copied from a self-help website to prop up her fast-fading sense of self. She comes out of the shower and standing in front of the mirror, repeats each affirmation ten times. Life is good. I am good. Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better. But why, why should she repeat what doesn’t feel true? Because that’s how things begin to feel better eventually, say the self-help gurus. Fake it till you make it. Life’s not a bed of roses for anybody. Every cup is either half-full or half-empty. The optimist tries to focus on the cup’s fullness, the pessimist on its emptiness.
Well, I’m no optimist, I suppose.
But on some days, she is. She manages, after repeating the list of affirmations, to see her cup as half-full. She thanks the Sustainer for her privileges: house, husband, child, maid. But on other days, when she’s totally honest with herself, her cup gapes at her, totally empty.
“I’m waiting for you to go to college, so I can leave this prison,” she says to her daughter.
“But, Mamma, why do you call your home a prison?” the girl retorts. “So many women are living much worse lives. What makes you feel imprisoned? I don’t understand why you can’t be happy here. You are free to do whatever you like. Write, read, travel. So why talk of leaving?”
She replies, shielding herself from the familiar accusation of ingratitude, “Free? Free? But I don’t feel free! Have you lived inside my head for twenty years?”
“What do you want to do? Where will you go?”
“I don’t know. I’m tired of hearing how good my life supposedly is.”
“You think you’ll find freedom somewhere else? Away from your family?”
How can she forget the family? How can she forget what serving time in the family means? Who knows such security better than her? How can she forget stability, protection, sameness? Was it the fear of abandonment in her daughter’s heart that had made her ask, “What’s wrong with your life? I don’t understand why you can’t be happy here.”
On a cool, blue morning in October, when she has expressly asked the maid not to come before seven, she’s the only one to hear her ring the bell. She lies, corpse-like, hugging her pillow, pretending, waiting fruitlessly for someone else to let Binu in, even though she knows nobody will. The slow whir of the fan above her almost drowns out the faint singing of a bird outside. Beyond the window, beyond her husband’s white kurta-clad form, she glimpses the reckless swaying of the gangly, weak-trunked papaya tree. The room is bathed in blue light filtering in through the blue curtains they had bought together in the days when she was a good wife.
“What time is it?” asks her husband’s sleep-muffled voice.
“It must be seven, because I told Binu to come at seven,” she replies irritably, sitting up, her feet feeling around for her slippers.
She unlocks the kitchen door, lets Binu in and returns to her side of the bed. But Binu wants to know what she is to cook for lunch, what she should do with the beans in the fridge. Will yesterday’s bhindi be enough for today’s lunch?
Will yesterday’s bhindi be enough for today’s lunch? Does she have to answer such questions so early in the morning? Can’t anybody else answer them for her? Can’t Binu make such decisions on her own after working for so many years in this house?
Her daughter sleeps through the morning, because there’s no school due to a nationwide protest by Catholic schools over the killing and raping of nuns in Orissa. Just a moment longer, she thinks; if she could prolong this morning, stretch it out like a sheath that’s not allowed to snap back, she could merge the blue shadows in the room with the floating thoughts in her head into an exquisite poem. She could stubbornly decide to stay in bed. But her daily anxieties are already on the march. Binu needs to be watched or she’ll waste time in the kitchen, start flirting with the cleaner. The cleaner will be here soon. He has to be told he didn’t do a proper job of mopping behind the toilet bowl. There are strands of hair lying on the floor. And the sink in the guest bathroom hasn’t been scrubbed. She’ll be the only one in the house to fret over hair on the bathroom floor and the unscrubbed sink.
She hears her husband in the shower. Why does he take these hurried showers? Why is he always hurrying to work?
“The water pump is on. Turn it off in an hour or so,” he instructs her, as he comes out of the bathroom.
“Okay,” she mutters.
It’s not a death sentence, just instructions about the water pump, she muses, turning away from him to snuff out the rage that’s foaming at her edges.
He senses her displeasure, the loss of her morning peace. Isn’t he doing his share for the family? He’s a good husband, a good provider. He can’t help it if she doesn’t want to see the maid or the cleaner in the morning or check on the water pump.
“I’m worried, because there wasn’t enough water in the tank upstairs,” he explains, continuing to violate her morning solitude.
Water! Water is an urgent matter. Where would we be without water?
She tries to disregard the infringement of space, imagines the room’s walls caving in on her, sees herself wafting out, leaving behind her body, hugging the papaya tree. But her body falls back limply against the bed and her heart files away the theft of yet another morning in its secret ledger.
It’s not his fault. But whose fault is it?
He continues, “There was no power yesterday, so the pump didn’t run. But now there’ll be enough water if the pump runs today.”
Of course, there will be enough water if the pump runs today, if the power doesn’t go off! If she does what is expected of her, there’ll be enough water for everybody in the house. She recalls the Phil Collins song, “It’s another day in paradise,” playing in the cyber café of that mountain retreat she had managed to escape to for a week last year.
Self-deprecation is a hard-to-kill habit and like a daily dose, she swallows its poison. Her repetition of affirmations today is not effective as an antidote to the poison of self- hatred coursing through her veins:
You’re a privileged woman. You’re a fortunate woman. You know the struggles of other women? You know what time Binu has to wake up to be at your house at six or seven? And you mourn the loss of a mere morning?
There are no silent mornings for Binu.
But does Binu want silent mornings?
Do you know what the life of those nuns in Orissa was like, the ones who ran the orphanage? The ones who got raped and killed?
If only you could be more grateful for all you have.
Yes, if only I could be more grateful.
Fake it till you make it.
I’ve tried. You must believe me. I’ve tried for twenty years.
Excerpted with permission from Waiting: A Collection Of Stories, Nighat Gandhi, Zubaan.