Sharada’s departure and the dusk ending its ritual left an empty box of space in my evening. For so many days I had been alone — by choice — that when someone came and took away a bit of the solitude, I was surprised to find that I was grateful for it. And that’s when I knew my grieving was near its end, that the worst of it was over.
You see, if I’ve given you the impression that I was grieving for a husband who died, I am sorry. My grief is not for a dead husband. It is for a cycle, a snake that eats itself for without birth, there’s no death. I was mourning the death of my marriage and the birth of a man I barely knew, even though I was married to his likeness for a good long while.
Every dusk left a darkness that became my hair or the pupils of my eyes. Today was no different. The fireflies came out for me, reluctantly tonight, as if they had grown tired of my audience. The night breeze too was halfhearted in its flirtation with the soft black around me. The night was bereft of wickedness tonight. Tonight the night was me and now Sharada. I countinued sitting on the steps of my shack, sweat taking birth in my scalp, under my breasts, behind my knees. As thoughts go, I found myself thinking what sweet pleasure it would be to go take a dip in the pond that I visit every morning for my bath, now. Or just to take off my clothes and lie with absolutely nothing on the cool mud floor.
And I thought of the last time I had lain naked on a floor — a participant in some excellent love-making. Delighted in the knowledge that 12 years of marriage may have dimmed some things but not the sex. Secure that my stretch marks and not-so-taut stomach were too old to feel shy and unsexy about. Till I got off the floor to wash up and found him miles away from me, even though his arm served as my pillow. On an impulse I asked what the matter was. And perhaps because it was so unlike me to talk after sex that he didn’t hold back from the truth. He looked at my naked face with eyes that were flat, revealing nothing but unknowing preparation for battle. There was someone else. There had been for a few years now. And now, like a bad Hindi film, he had to choose.
Okay, I said. Is it a man or a woman, I asked. Losing him to another man would be tolerable. Another woman – especially if she was smarter and younger than me, now that would have killed me. He laughed, delightedly, and said when I asked questions like that, he wasn’t sure this is over. I smiled back and said, so, who is it? And in excruciating detail he told me about the woman he wanted to spend the next 12 years with. Well, he said it was the rest of his life that he wanted to give her but I am giving him 12 years. Everything from the mole on her jawline to the way she wore her sari, from the what she did for a living to the way they met, he told me everything. After all, we were best friends. And this is what best friends do. Especially after sex.
When jealousy took over, curiosity slinking away futilely, I asked him to stop. He asked me then, “Will you be okay without me,” and I asked him with a little melodrama, “Do I have a choice?” He was kind enough to say he wouldn’t leave me if I truly couldn’t manage. But that’s like a hunter telling a deer he wouldn’t kill it if the deer only said the words.
And so we went our own ways. I packed the many pieces of my life to travel my lonely road. He packed for a honeymoon. We decided we’d send each other post cards.
I had come to the village of my ancestors to heal and understand. I could have sent him word pictures of how idyllic and untouched it was. Green, innocent days, golden, sensuous evenings — all quiet mostly except for the familiar and jarring tone of technology, the mobile phone, the village’s only allowance for modernity. But then I would hear back from him and read between the lines that his heart was singing with joy and he was a new man. That just would not do. And so I grieved on my own. I grieved that I didn’t love him enough to fight for him. I mourned that he didn’t love me enough to lie to me. I questioned morality, its boundaries and its compulsions. I questioned guilt. I looked at it this way and that. I thought about it when I swept the floor in the mornings, or washed my clothes at the pond. I pondered over it when I made my kanji, I questioned it when I watched endlessly the rippling of the paddy on breezy evenings. And the more I beat these questions on their head, the farther the answers drifted from me.
It was on one such evening of futility that Sharada came and left a spark in me.
Sharada and Maya
After that first visit, I looked forward to Sharada’s next, hoping her village curiosity about me would bring her to me the very next day. But she was a sly one. She played her game well and just when I almost gave up, she came to see me again. This time, she green ribbons and looked positively school-girlish. She twirled a twig in her hand and said insolently as soon as she saw me. “I knew you’d be waiting for me. I didn’t come to see you on purpose, even though I have nothing much to do.”
I was taken aback, a little embarrassed that I was so transparent and then amused at her honesty and limited-game playing. “Why would you do that,” I asked her. “All you city folk think we are all so curious about you and want things from you. You become short and ungracious with us. So I decided to make you wait a little,” she said. “But I wasn’t waiting for you,” I lied. “Then why did you ask the milk man about me,” she asked and added, “He told his wife that I had come to see you and that you asked about me. His wife told her sister who told my mother,” she explained unnecessarily. Ah, the village grapevine.
This time she was in a mood to talk and directly launched into questions, unfettered and unlimited. How old I was. If I’ve seen movie stars. Did I make a feast for Onam? Where did I get flowers for the pookalam during Onam? Irrelevant and so soothing in their unimportance that I didn’t want my time with her to end.
Soon, her river of questions ebbed and she asked me if I had a house in the city. I did, I told her. “When I marry Rajan, can we go and live there for a few days,” she asked. Again, off the curve. Her unpredictability was getting to be predictable. And endearing. “Why do you want to do that?”
“Only till the uproar our wedding is going to cause. After that we’ll come back here or move to the city permanently. But I don’t want to start my life with Rajan on a bad note. What do you city folk call it, a honeymoon, if you will,” she said.
I was hesitant to commit so I began asking her about Rajan. And thankfully, I didn’t have to ask too many questions. She revealed all. He was much older, was married, widowed, had children who lived with his wife’s parents. He was a carpenter and made enough to eke out a living anywhere he chose to. “So, can we stay in your house for a few days,” she asked again. This time I gave her a non-committal we’ll see. Satisfied that she was a step closer to what she wanted, she stood up and said she had to leave. And that if I didn’t hear from her next week, it was because she had eloped or because she had been murdered by her family.
And as she had cautioned me, I didn’t hear from her. A week, two weeks. In all this time I found my answers coming up at me when I least expected them. I began forgiving myself for not loving my husband, for not taking care of my marriage. Hating myself for never having looked at another man. Some more for never having looked carefully enough at my man to see that it was not just me that he was with. I walked the mazes and through the fogs; I endured the darkness and let the noise wash through me, without any assurance that there would be light or music. But there was. The morning that I got intensely curious as to why Sharada had not come, I decided to go into the village. And I knew that on my way back, I’d be packing to leave. My process here was done. The land of my mothers, the soil of my forefathers, the song and the rain, the village god had all worked their poultices and I had healed. Healing is only a stopgap arrangement till you find something else to cut open your wounds again.
Sharada’s house was easy to find. I asked but one person and he guided me. It was a smallish house. Part brick, part thatch. Inside were a handful of kids and an old woman feeding them. She looked up at me and I knew from her eyes that she recognised me from my reputation. “Have you come looking for that evil spawn of mine,” she asked me. I said I had. “See, what she’s left me with,” she asked gesturing to the children. I said I didn’t understand.
“Oh ho, so she hasn’t told you,” said the old woman. She took her time feeding the children while I waited and watched. When she was done, she sat down and told me a practiced tale of woe and shame. Sharada had been married at 16 to a kind and decent man. She had had three children with him, although no one is sure if the last child belonged to her husband or Rajan. For a few years now, she had left her husband and had taken up with Rajan. Her husband hadn’t said a word. He had come to see the kids every single day but hadn’t said a word about Sharada returning to him.
I sat in some amount of shock as the story unfolded. It seemed like a mirror image of my own life. Like an old-world negative (you know, from the analogue camera days) where black was white and green was orange. The details were many and I only assimilated a few. All I kept thinking was how long it was going to last for Sharada this time. Or my husband. Of how she could live without her children. Of how he could live without me. Sharada became him, and he became Sharada. Sometimes Sharada became who he ran away with. All my answers from that morning shapeshifted and became questions again.
I took my leave at Sharada’s house and headed back. Whether I had answers or no, my time here was finished. That evening I boarded a train with my luggage, which seemed lighter than everything that was weighing me down. I was tempted to call and torture myself with the joy in my husband’s voice. I was tempted to ask to give things one more chance. As the train outran the paddy fields, I knew I wouldn’t do any of that. Like Sharada, I too would move on and get to the next chapter in my book.
It was years before I went back to the village. When I went, I pretended it was to see the place that made my soul whole, but if I were honest with myself, I’d tell you it was because I wanted to know what became of Sharada. The evening of the day of my arrival, I visited Sharada’s home. Her mother was lighting the lamp and the children were no where to be seen. Her mother squinted at me and asked who I was and what I wanted.
“Isn’t Sharada here,” I asked. The old woman stood for a moment and told me, “Sharada is always here. She will always be.” With that she gestured at me to dollow her and took me to the back of the house. I saw mango trees and jackfruit, a coconut palm too. I felt a shimmer of anticipation at meeting Sharada, wondering what her life had been like. The old woman came to stop near the jackfruit tree and left lit wick on a stone. “This is where we bury our ancestors remains after the cremation,” she told me and I told her again, that I didn’t understand. “It was Sharada’s wish that her ashes be kept here till her son grew up to decide which holy river he wanted to offer them to,” she said. Sharada, she told me, with tears coursing down her smooth cheeks had died giving birth to Rajan’s child soon after she had run away. She had come back three months after the elopement, fretting and fuming that she was pregnant again. Rajan hadn’t come then. She had spent her confinement with her older children, deliriously joyful in their company. Rajan visited often. “It’s fate, kutty. Sharada took away the mother of her own children to be with the man she chose. And so fate took away the mother of this child. It’s fate,” said the old woman.
I wished her well, left some money for the children and walked away. The village looked the same. This time dusty and thirsty, waiting for the monsoon to drench it and make it come alive. I thought of Sharada and her life. Her fearlessness and her foolishness. And I couldn’t tell the difference. And as I thought of her, I thought of my husband and wondered what fate had given him. Questions brought their flood and soon, in my head, Sharada became him and he became Sharada.