The old man woke up with a start. He looked around groggily and squinted as his eyes settled on the cloudy sky above. A droplet of rain landed on his forehead. He brushed it off and sat up. The little puppy that had been sleeping beside him on the stone bench sat up too. The inclement weather had driven most of the people back home and apart from a few stray dogs, a couple of cab drivers and some pedestrians, the lane was largely empty.
He ran a hand through his unkempt hair, rose, stumbled and then steadying himself, began to walk towards the little tea shop at the end of the lane. The puppy followed him. It knew that a treat was in store. He sat on the little stool outside the tea stall while the puppy settled at his feet.
“Will pay tomorrow,” he grunted as the young boy, who worked at the stall handed him a cup of black tea and two biscuits. The boy nodded and held out a biscuit to the puppy.
“Here, take these too,” the old man dropped the two biscuits on the ground, much to the delight of the puppy. He sipped his tea noisily and stared into the distance.
He wasn’t sure what had woken him up. It wasn’t the drizzle of rain. It was something else. Perhaps it was a dream. Hazy images of faces came flooding into his mind. Had he really seen those faces in his dream? He shook his head restlessly. Perhaps he needed to go back.
He rose and turned involuntarily to the path that leads to his home, the pup trailing faithfully behind him. The sugared tea was slowly picking his system up from the effects of the alcoholic overdose of the previous evening. Flashes of his dream began to flood his mind, clearing his memory a little, yet leaving him befuddled.
Unknown masked men uttering a slew of incomprehensible words… the look on his son’s face when he last saw him… the fire…
His surroundings appeared clean, washed anew, filled with songs of dawn and scents of quenched earth, but it all failed to touch him. His morning walk back home was usually an unpleasant affair. Though the arguments and verbal fireworks had resolved into a ceasefire of unsettling silence, it wouldn’t lessen his trepidation for the encounter with his wife. He reached his roofed house with faded wall paint.
He had made his way with some difficulty over the rain-washed road, but the last few steps seemed impossible to mount today. He turned around retracing his steps back to the tavern. The little pup, however, woofed happily at the door and ran towards the backyard, wagging its tail, looking for his more generous patron.
He plodded back on a busier street; the tea stall was now full of men on their way to work. He missed a passing rickshaw narrowly, but this narrow escape didn’t distract him from the images that were now crowding in his head. As they threatened to overwhelm him, he quickened his pace to his refuge. It would be some time before the country bar was open to customers. This was his first time, entering in the place morning. He waited by the side, hoping to be invisible to passersby.
He had answered to the name Mansingh all his life but was known as Babu to his comrades of happy hours. Years after carrying around a respectable face of a hardworking clerk, he had himself thrown into the golden potion for the last couple of years, to drown the burden of domestic sorrows.
Mansingh had married a widow with two little kids, at the cost of his parent’s happiness. But he was lauded by many in neighborhood and at work for his nobility. He provided well for his family during the eighteen years of his married life. A daughter now married off and a son busy with his inherited government job left a retired Mansingh with too much time and little to do. His only company at home would talk little and glare a lot.
“Babu Bhai!” the owner Manilal exclaimed, unlocking the shutter locks, “What fortune to have you here in the morning! Happy day today, eh? Bhabhi off to her maika is it? Come, come! We’ll blame the weather.”
Mansingh shrugged. “I needed a place to lay low…”
“Of course, of course,” the owner grinned toothily, “Wives! They are the complete undoing of a man. Look at you! Two years ago, I’d have wagered against anybody who’d claim to see you here regularly. Such a man… I’d see you walk straight on this very road like a horse with his blinkers. And now look at you! All the Devdas’ aside, you manly men come with same old grief of nagging hags… Tch, tch… She could, at least, have been mindful of all you’ve done for her…”
You married a widow out of pity for her children. Sometimes I wonder if I would have been happier without your obligations, but to utter it out loud would make me ungrateful. I do not ask for your regard, I’m too lowly, a touched woman. But since I am family, I demand to be informed, to be spoken to. Would it be so hard?
“… Drive a lord out of his own rightful house, these women… Tell me honestly, would there be brothels if love was found at home? Was just telling Ratan yesterday, you men should start counseling all these heartbroken Devdas’ that throng here. It’s good riddance. I tell you Babu Bhai, marriage is this caramelized dessert, that invites you for a bite and before you know it your jaws are glued together. Can’t swallow it, can’t spit it out. Yes, Sir! A sticky situation indeed…”
…It’s your house! I’ll just be the maid to tend it for you! You can come and go as you please. O Lord of the world!
“You ought to be thanking these wives, for doing so well, eh,” Mansingh mumbled face in his palms, rubbing his face wearily, taking his usual seat in the corner.
“Oh no, no Babu Bhai! You think it makes me happy, to watch you able men waste yourselves here? It’s a legacy I’m obliged to continue… Really despise this way of living but what to do? Too many mouths to feed… It’s good to have you in the morning. You’re not so talkative in the evenings. So, what can I offer for your troubles? Good old rum and coke?”
“No. I just need a place to wait a while… And I couldn’t pay you anyways…”
“That’s all right Bhai. I know where you live.”
“You prepare bhajiyas, Mani?”
“Hun? Bhajiyas? You’d want to go to Ramu’s tea stall now, Babu Bhai. My cook isn’t here yet. Should I ask my boy to get a plate?”
“No. Won’t be the same…” Mansingh mumbled, shaking his head.
“Babu Bhai? Is everything alright? I heard you had a fight with your son yesterday. What’s the matter?”
“Nothing. Keep talking, Mani my friend.”
“Should I have a word with him? He ought to care for you like he does for his mother. After all you’ve done for them…”
Are you happy now father? She is gone! Pray stay away from her pyre! Let her pass in peace!
And the previous night, Mansingh had watched her burn, from a distance, just as he had watched her live. He couldn’t mount the steps of his house, she had owned with her care, that morning. He was so accustomed to her being around, he thought she was immortal. A sudden stroke had freed her of his obligations. He was now trapped in his solitude.
“Please tell your cook to keep something aside for me,” Mansingh told Manilal, as he got up again, “the pup will need feeding.”
Bhabhi: Sister in law
Maika: Wife’s childhood home
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