It was three years. To the day. Three years ago, on this day, Mama had gone away never to return. Raji stood before her open wardrobe staring at the stacks of sarees inside. She hadn’t worn many of them since he had gone. Tonight she was looking for a soft cotton saree to wear to bed. She inhaled the faint aroma of sandalwood that wafted across from the pouches of sandal powder she had placed inside the wardrobe. Reaching into the cupboard she gently pulled out a saree which she knew had been Mama’s favourite. She felt a mild sense of dread as she held it close to herself, fearing the memories it carried with it, fearing the flood of emotions it might open up in her. Made of rich purple silk, with a narrow saffron border, the saree had very tiny shimmery gold checks woven into it. She had a strong urge to wear it, even though it was time to sleep, almost as if Mama was urging her. She slipped on the gold threaded loose, shirt-sleeved blouse that went with it and opened out the saree and wrapped it around herself slowly and gently. She stood before the mirror and looked at herself, liking what she saw in the dim light of the lamp by the mirror. Soft tendrils of hair framed her face, mild beads of perspiration added a sheen to her skin and her eyes held a glow.
The windows were open, and the fragrance of oleanders mingling with the heady scent of the night queen flowers which bloomed only after nightfall entered the room. It was a night made for love and the feel of silk on her body, the aroma of sandalwood and the falling darkness outside made her breath come shorter, her heart beat faster. She didn’t want to feel any of this. So she hurried away from the window and tried reading in the dim lamplight, tried distracting herself with other thoughts, but to no avail. Her body was crying for attention. And there was no one to give it that attention. She was throbbing, wet with desire by now. She lay down on the snow white sheets and felt herself yielding to the urge; she was touching herself, almost out of control, and a confusing, confounding medley was playing in her head. It was Mama’s touch she was feeling through her fingers but the touch had Damodar’s face on it. She tried to push him away. He had no business invading her thoughts. It was Mama, her husband who must be in them. And yet, Damodar’s eyes seemed to traverse over her body, his touch seemed to find all the pleasure spots on her body and before long she was sighing with the pleasure of release. Much later, sated and spent, she slept, clad in the same saree. She was alone on her cot, but she felt the presence of two men occupying the empty space next to her. Her dreams that night were tortuous. Both men called out to her. She loved both and couldn’t have either.
She woke up the next morning, heavy-eyed because the night had been so restless. But her body felt strangely light. And there was no guilt in her that two men lived in her heart. No one knew. No one need know. This was her own secret to hold and cherish. Raji dressed up that day. She wore flowers in her hair, which she asked Ponni to fetch. Her diamonds made a reappearance on her nostrils, around her neck and on her hands. She wore a bright red silk saree and stepped out of her room. Malar was in the central hall, reading. Padma sat by her doing some school work. They both sat up with pleasure when they saw her. Malar came and hugged her tightly. “Amma, you look so beautiful today!” she squealed. Harihara walked in just then and he smiled too, happy to see his mother all dressed up. “Is it some special day?” he asked.
“Yes Hari, it is a special day,” Raji replied, “I just made a new move on the chess board.” He gaped, not comprehending what she had just said. “But what will people say Amma? Are you allowed to wear all this?”
“Who are these people you refer to Hari? Can you name them and tell me what place they have in my life? If I’m convinced they matter, I’ll go back to my whites.” Before he could reply, Raji hustled them all off for breakfast. He knew better than to argue with his mother.
Ponni had to fetch her flowers everyday after that and all her silk sarees made a reappearance. Visitors to the house went back with stories of the change in her. They felt the late Judge’s wife was losing her mind with grief but Raji was having the last laugh. They didn’t know she had just crossed another threshold and had learnt to listen to her own body and give in to its demands. What would they say if they knew?
A month later, they had an early morning visitor. It was Sivakami, Padma’s mother. She had aged, looked tired and sad. Maybe she was tired from the long journey. Raji brought her a glass of hot coffee and waited for her to speak. When she did, it was through sobs that made her story incomprehensible. “My daughter’s life is over now,” she repeated again and again. Slowly the story revealed itself. Padma’s husband had been ailing for a while with tuberculosis and had died a week ago. Sivakami had come to take her daughter back. “She’s a widow now. I need to take her back. She can’t be roaming free here. What will people say?”
Raji exploded with anger. “Who are these people you all keep talking about Sivu? My son said the same too when he saw me in coloured clothes the other day. Who are these people? Tell me! Are they the same people who jeered at your daughter because her husband deserted her and married another? Are they the same people who wanted to condemn her and shame her that she couldn’t retain her husband when they knew he was the one to blame? Padma hasn’t set eyes on him for so many years now. Did he once come to check on how she was living? What does it matter to her if he is dead or alive? Who must she grieve for? Why must she grieve?”
Sivakami bristled with anger. “He was her husband Raji. So what if he didn’t live with her? She was his wife. And he’s dead now. That makes her his widow.”
Raji retorted, “It’s good she is her widow now. She can move on. Make a new life for herself. I know how lonely she had been. I know she loves Seshadri who works with her in the school. She hasn’t told me about it but I know. And they both have been responsible and held themselves back, knowing she had a husband somewhere who didn’t want her. Now they can marry and live happily.”
Padma had surprise writ on her face. How did Raji know? It was true. Seshadri and she loved each other. They wanted to be married. But they had almost given up hope. Now, a glimmer had appeared on the horizon. But her mother was hysterical by now. She was cursing, abusing and yelling at Raji. Raji let her go on and when she was spent, there was silence in the room.
Raji spoke finally. “Alright Sivu, take your daughter back, but only if she willingly wants to go back with you. If she refuses, I will not allow it. Ask her. Does she want to return?”
Sivu went up to Padma. She dragged her by the hand and said, “Come on, pack your bags, let’s leave.”
Padma pushed her away. “No Amma, I’ll not go with you. I don’t want the life you are offering me. I don’t have to do what you’re asking of me.”
Sivakami stepped back, stunned. She was convinced her daughter had come under Raji’s spell. She called Raji a witch, an enchantress and an evil woman. Padma and Raji let her go on. Eventually, when nothing worked, Sivakami decided to leave. “I never want to see you both again. You both are evil.” She asked to be taken back to the railway station.
Padma held on to Raji for a long time after her mother left, weeping. But when she calmed down, she knew she had done the right thing. A week later, she and Seshadri were married. Raji had taught her to play chess too. She was becoming quite adept at it.
To be continued…