Holding on tight to the headboard with one hand, she swung legs that weighed a ton onto the bed. That took as much effort as it took time. Flopping her head and shoulders back onto her bed, she lay for a few seconds as the sweat she worked up with the effort cooled on her forehead. Madras was always unforgiving, she mused. She wanted a sheet to cover her feet but there was no one awake so she could ask; she lay down willing her body to ignore the pinpricks that the sharp breeze the fan generated turned into when it hit her skin. She lay quiet and stared at the ceiling, a canvas for her life, where, everyday, she watched and rewatched, as if on loop or shuffle, moments from her life of 73 years. Sometimes the scenes had her children when they were young, at other times when she herself was a pampered little darling of the household. Sometimes, she’d watch her life all in one go as if on fast forward and ponder in amazement at all the strangeness of it, much stranger than any fiction that her repugnant TV shows would ever offer her. She took out her favourite bits on some days and carefully played them out in vivid colour, replete with music, smells and weather, a smile draping her bad teeth without her knowing, her strong fingers laced on her stomach, keeping time gently to a rhythm only she heard.
Then someone would come, either her grandchildren for their ritual hello or their mother. Or the maid, for it would be tea time and someone would exclaim that she had forgotten to take off her glasses when she lay down in the afternoon. She had wanted to ask, “Why should I take them off? How else would I clearly see all that I see when I lie down?” But she reined in her wicked sense of humour these days; apparently grandmothers were supposed to be well behaved, she sighed, and sipped on yet another cup of coffee that no one in the house could get right. She drank it gratefully, however.
If there was one wish she had when she realised she had grown old at around 69, it was that she wouldn’t be dependent. Having thought often about impending death, she knew she wanted to die without having to bother anyone, even her children. A fall when she lived alone in her house in the village, however, took care of that. She thought she’d heal, that she’d walk again and for sometime she did. She used a walker painstakingly, and walked. Stiffening up her body for the onslaught of pain and unwillingness that her legs and hips presented her with when she grabbed the four-legged aid and tried to stand up, she told herself every day that she would walk without this. She plays that bit on the ceiling some days, watching slowly to see when it was that she stopped even doing that. She watched carefully to see who was to blame for allowing her muscles to atrophy, so much so that her ability to even sit up on her own was taken away. She knew, though, just like everyone else did, that she would never blame anyone but herself.
This afternoon, she took out one particular memory, a favourite, in fact. It wasn’t so much a memory as it was a theme into which a series of memories fit. The memory of her husband when he was angry. She smiled as she remembered his handsome face. At first look, they were an unlikely pair. If you were to strip down to genetics and look at physical beauty, not taking into account the flattering makeup years of loving and experience bring, he was the more attractive of the two. Tall, a classic face that comprised an aquiline nose, balanced lips and eyes that held a lifetime of calm. Her face, she laughed to think of it, was half forehead and half a big wide smile. Aishwaryam, they’d say her face had, as she placed a perfect circle of kumkum in the middle of her forehead.
Temperaments too differed, as with most well-matched couples. It took an entire week of extra salt in his food to elicit even the smallest bit of remonstrance from him, and even then, a stern comment is all that he’d indulge in. She had the temper of the devil’s handmaid. She’d explode in a series of threats, words and before she turned on her heel and walked away, it would be gone, that tempest of rage. This time, she played on the ceiling the quiet vignette of an afternoon where something she had done had irked him. The sunny, ill-constructed hall, the larger than necessary table, the inexpensive curtains, the alcove for the fridge all came into fuzzy focus, awash with the faded colours of memory. She had just woken up from her nap and had brought them tea and a snack, a comforting retirement ritual they had developed. She said something and when she got no response, she thought he hadn’t heard her, considering he was pretty deaf. She touched his arm and spoke again, gesticulating mildly and enunciating so he could read her lips. Silence. Mildly amused and mostly puzzled, she wondered what had happened between tea and a bite of the snack for him to ignore her, his usual way of showing his displeasure.
She quickly took another bite of the snack, did it taste okay? The tea was fine too. What, then? She asked him with a raise of her eyebrows, an almost-smile waiting to burst free on her lips. He quietly murmured something; it took a while but when she remembered that they had quarreled over something silly before their nap, that smile she’d been taming flowed like a gentle waterfall and hit the silence with drops of laughter, shattering a quiet only she heard. Her laughter too, only she heard. He saw her teeth, the habitual covering of her mouth with her hand and he deigned to smile, a small excuse for one, because the mirth was all behind the thick-rimmed spectacles, in his eyes. And just like that they had made up.
As she lay there feeling the afternoon sun that fought with leaves of jack-fruit and mango to reach their courtyard, she couldn’t feel the prickle of the breeze from the fan any more. She lay there waiting for sunset when the sun would wrap her home in a rare gold light, and her husband would perhaps play the flute even though his asthma didn’t let him; when she would walk barefoot, less than a mere kilometre away, to the temple where she went every dawn and dusk to offer her thanks, because that is all her prayer ever was. She lay there waiting for the night to come when both of them would have a simple dinner and stay up late into the night in the small bedroom that was decades old, counting and recounting the panels on the wooden ceiling, listening to classical music on the radio. And as sleep claimed that old couple in a small room full of memories, cantankerous noises of something the rest of the family was watching in the hall brought her away from that bedroom of domesticity of another time. Her ears were filled with familiar tears that had crept into them as she lay down and cried without knowing. The silver hair at the nape of her neck was damp and the spot on the bed where her head touched it, too.
Dinner would be ready soon and one of them from the family would come and sit with her a few minutes to ease their own conscience or perhaps to genuinely give her whatever little time they could afford to. As she wiped her blurring eyes, she didn’t mind that her glasses didn’t help her vision — it was impossible for her to be taken to the optometrist because getting her out of bed, onto a wheelchair and into a car required way more effort than most people could make. She was just grateful to have her hearing intact, she relied on it so much. Life went on in a full swirl around her, outside that room she had been laying down and being seated up in for the past two years. Guests came, birthday parties happened, once in a while she’d be dressed up in starched clothes and taken to the hall. She didn’t know what was more depressing: to be left in the room or to be taken out. Because then she hated going back in.
It had been at least two years since she had felt the sun on her skin. Or seen the rain. She had heard it often enough alright, but she longed to see fat drops coming fast and compulsive, like someone had lost control up in the skies, drenching sun-warmed clothes. She longed to feel the cruel poke of gravel on the clean, soft soles of her feet. She sighed as she smelt dinner being brought in. Ah well, maybe it’s the rain that I’ll watch on the ceiling tomorrow, she thought as a hand slipped under her shoulders to sit her up.