The mango tree was the same. The shade under it was just as cool. The oleander bushes around it were in bloom as always. The birds on the branches sang just as full-throated. Everything was as normal as it should be. And yet, nothing was the same. Damodar was dead and Raji, sitting on the bench below the tree was distraught. She was writing furiously in her red diary, even as tears flowed unchecked down her cheeks.
That day, when we returned from Damodar’s funeral, the family was speaking the way people usually do after someone dies. They were wondering about his last moments. Radha had told us he had died in his sleep, healthy as he seemed when he went to bed. Harihara too had been surprised because they worked together and Damodar had seemed well. He just seemed to have quietened over the years. Was he depressed? Ambuja pitied him and even spoke with a little humor on how difficult living with Radha must have been on him.
Their talk grated on my nerves. I was getting a headache. Nobody knew how I was really feeling. They didn’t even suspect. It hit me with force when we came past the cottage that I would never see him or speak to him again. He would never visit the cottage again. I wanted to be left alone so I went into my room and locked myself in. That night was probably the most difficult one of my life. I didn’t sleep at all. I just sat and relived our non-relationship.
Two men… I had lived with one, been intimate with him, borne him a child and shared everything I had with him. That made him the most important person in my life. The other lived on the periphery. He was merely a business partner, a friend and relative, and someone who didn’t have a place in my life beyond that and certainly not in my thoughts. In reality, it was the other way round. Mama was the husband chosen for me for reasons that did not have me in it. Damodar had been my soul. I had just lost a partner who wasn’t really one and yet was the only partner I had ever wanted.
The next morning I went out in whites. The family thought I had suffered another memory lapse and was reliving Mama’s death. But I wasn’t. I was fully aware of what I was doing. I knew within myself that I had been widowed for the second time in my life. I allowed them to think what they wanted. It gave me the space to give expression to my grief.
Society is such a tyrant. It prescribes rules for everything, even the way your heart beats. I’ve always wondered why I did not declare my love for Damodar to the world. It was love after all, not an intent to murder or something more horrible. If I was expected to love my husband’s daughters born out of his intimacy with another woman, why couldn’t I, out of my own free will, love another man? Why was love always confused with intimacy? And intimacy itself was such a strong corollary to love. So why did so much stigma go with it? Why so much denial? I stayed away from Damodar not because I feared society but because my heart didn’t seem to need the intimacy. In the process, I was so selfish. I didn’t think about his needs and desires at all.
What would Hari say if he knew about the storm in my heart now? I had seen Amma with Rajagopal Mama. I was shocked then but when I grew up, I understood her need for a male touch when she was at her lowest ebb in life. It probably comforted her to feel physically wanted. How much do we know about the intimate desires of our families? Do we know each other at all? I hope that one day if Hari reads this diary, he understands his mother and her need for emotional comfort. And the difficult decision she and Damodar took to move away from each other.
Radha came home a month after Damodar’s death. After her usual spell of hysterical ranting, she spoke to Hari about the paper and her future. She wanted to sell her share to us. Now that Damodar was not alive, she had no interest in it and had no knowledge of how to run it either. Hari sought my opinion. I dispassionately told him he could do as he wanted. I had no interest in running it anymore, or even writing for it. He was shocked. He knew how much I loved Penn Kural. It was also so successful. I don’t remember now what was decided that day. I think Hari decided to employ writers and run it by himself. I’m a little confused now. I’m tired. My head hurts. I need to rest.
Raji entered the cottage and put the diary away carefully in the drawer of her desk. She locked the drawer and clasped the keys on to her waist. As she turned away, the red pouch on the desk caught her eye. Reaching out for it, she opened it and drew out the turquoise stone. It felt smooth and cool and comforting to the touch. She held it to her cheek. She stroked it, feeling a lump in her throat. Putting it back carefully in the pouch, she drew it close and tucked it into her saree. The pouch never left her after that day.
Penn Kural continued to run successfully. Only Raji’s voice was missing from it. People stopped asking after a while. They too moved on to other writers. But Raji got busy with the school. The children who came to the school loved her. She didn’t run classes with textbooks in her hand. She relied on stories instead. She relied on conversations. She encouraged her students to speak, and she spoke too. She never tired of telling them that freedom, independence and honesty were foundations for strong relationships. Strangely, she did not suffer a single episode of memory loss while in school. All those happened only when she was home. The most severe happened the day the family spoke about Damodar.
To be continued…