Joined: 11 May 2010
Sunitha was excited that morning. She woke up as usual around 7 a.m. and got ready for her morning walk. It was a lovely day, a typical monsoon day in Bangalore, which meant more wind than rain with sudden thundershowers on some evenings. Sunitha loved the monsoon season in Bangalore. The only problem was the water-logging when it rained and the consequent traffic jams, but it didn't affect her much personally as she was essentially a homebound person. She went out only if necessary, like shopping for groceries, the library and meeting friends once in a while, most of which could be arranged when the weather was suitable. There was nothing that made it necessary to go out when it rained, unless it was by choice because she wanted to get wet in the rain, so she just enjoyed the breeze and the coolness and made the most of it before the weather turned hot in October.
The reason for her excitement was the fact that her daughter was coming home for the weekend that day. As she started her walk, and she usually walked alone, she thought of her daughter, Shruthi, pretty Shruthi. Was she really the mother of a nearly 27-year-old, mused Sunitha smiling to herself. How quickly the years had passed. Her daughter was an important part of her life and Sunitha's thoughts ran over events of the recent past as she continued to walk at a brisk pace.
Shruthi worked in a private company near Whitefield which was quite a distance from Jayanagar where Sunitha had a small flat in which she lived. Shruthi, after a few months of commuting the distance every day, had been exasperated at the time it took and the associated strain. Commuting to her workplace daily left her with no time or energy for good things of life, like an evening out with friends or working out at a gym. Shruthi was a smart girl who had landed a job immediately after her postgraduate course, and the sudden financial freedom had gone to her head. She wanted to "enjoy" life; she wanted to earn during the day and party during the night. Sunitha had found it hard to accept the philosophy, but she had not set up any real curbs in her daughter's life. She had given enough freedom to Shruthi, keeping the changing times in mind. Sunitha only insisted that Shruthi come home at a decent hour, but what consisted a "decent hour" was the bone of contention between the two. Sunitha felt that Shruthi should be home by 9 p.m. at the latest, since they lived in a completely residential area which sort of shut down early with empty streets after 9 in the night and it was not safe to be out alone. At times, one of her friends would drop her home, but that did not happen all the time and there was no guarantee that a couple of riders on a motorbike or scooter were safer than a girl out alone. One read of so many ghastly incidents in the newspaper every day, and Sunitha spent many an anxious hour waiting for her daughter to come home safe and sound. So when Shruthi suggested moving out of home to a place near her office, Sunitha was relieved to a certain extent. With a lot of advice on how to manage alone as Shruthi had never stayed away from home even for her studies, Sunitha saw her daughter off with mixed feelings.
The arrangement was that she would come home on weekends unless she had a trek planned (Shruthi had recently taken to trekking as a hobby) over the weekend or some work related to her office (she occasionally had to work over the weekends when the need arose). In the beginning, the weekends at home had gone on fairly smoothly, but as time passed, Sunitha began to notice changes in her daughter, which were rather disquieting. She tried to comfort herself it was just her imagination, but a vague feeling of impending doom hovered just outside her consciousness. Still she welcomed the weekends when Shruthi was home with eagerness and cooked all her favorite dishes and tried to connect with her daughter in every way possible.
Sunitha finished her walk and returned to her flat as the clock struck 8. She relaxed under the fan for a few minutes to get her breathing back to normal and then made a cup of coffee for herself and went over the newspaper. This was something she enjoyed very much, reading the newspaper lingering over her morning cuppa. But that day, she was too excited to enjoy her usual quiet read and quickly folded the paper and put it away. There was lunch to be cooked as Shruthi would be home soon. Sunitha had planned the lunch in detail the previous day and set to work systematically, cutting the veggies, setting up the rice cooker, etc. Soon the small flat filled with delicious smells of a traditional meal, the kind Shruthi loved, thought Sunitha fondly as she gave finishing touches to the spread.
Shruthi arrived with all the hullaballoo that usually followed her. Sunitha smiled at her and just stopped herself from hugging her daughter; children of today do not like hugs from parents, only from friends. She asked to her freshen up and said that lunch would be ready soon, and they could have an early lunch if Shruthi was hungry.
"Oh, I am not home for lunch Mom. I am meeting friends for lunch and then we have some other plans for the evening. I actually have to go quite a distance to our meeting place. I will be leaving soon."
Sunitha stared at Shruthi in shocked disappointment. "You are going out now? Why did you not tell me earlier? I have prepared your favorite lunch and I thought'.." her voice trailed off and she felt a sudden desire to bawl loudly.
"Oh I am sorry; I guess I forgot to tell you! I will not be in for dinner either; it will be quite late by the time we are finished. Don't wait up for me, I will take the key, it may be as late as 11 p.m. so," Shruthi said hardly realizing the impact of her words on her mother. She was unpacking the bag she had brought and threw a pile of clothes on the floor. "I actually came home because I wanted to leave these clothes for washing. Be a dear and do them for me and then I can give them for ironing tomorrow and take them back with me in the evening when I go back to my rooms."
Sunitha was taken aback. Is that what Shruthi thought of her home now? Was it just a laundry station for her to get her clothes done over the weekend? Sunitha felt tears stinging her eyes and she turned away to hide them. Shruthi went to her room to change into a suitable outfit for the day out. She came out looking very attractive in a blue top and jeans and walked out of the flat waving a breezy goodbye to her mother.
Sunitha sighed and looked at the array of dishes on the kitchen counter. All that work for nothing, she thought, as she started to put the food away in Tupperware containers for storage in the refrigerator. Well, Shruthi can eat it for lunch tomorrow although it would not be freshly cooked and not as tasty. She served herself some of the food and forced it down her throat. She had skipped breakfast in order to prepare the lavish spread, and skipping lunch as well was not a good idea because it would trigger her acidity problem. Her appetite was gone and the food turned to ashes in her mouth, but she chewed determinedly and swallowed it trying to control her tears all the time.
After lunch, Sunitha gathered up the pile of dirty clothes and sorted them into lots to be washed. As she went through the motions automatically, measuring out the required amount of detergent and punching the right buttons on the washing machine, her thoughts went over her past. She felt a torrent of memories flooding her mind, things she thought she had forgotten but had only learned not to remember. As the memories washed over her, she was transported back in time, to those points in time which she would give anything to forget.
"The marriage proposal seems to be a good one. Family related through Preetha's in-laws. Guess we should look into it." That was her mother talking to her father. Preetha was her cousin who had got married recently and Sunitha had been "noticed" at the wedding. It was how marriages got arranged in those times. If the bride had a bevy of cousins of marriageable age, they were "noticed" at the ceremony and the girls of course would be decked out in their best clothes and jewelry. One wedding usually led to a series of weddings which in turn led to some more! Sunitha was a quiet, obedient girl. She had finished her graduation 2 years back and had spent those 2 years learning household skills, cooking and management of a home. She was being groomed for marriage and she was agreeable as she had no ambitions to be a career woman. Her mother as her role model, and her mother was a homemaker who had queened it over her home for years and she wanted a similar life. She wanted a nice husband, 2 to 3 kids, and a lovely home to run with lots of good food cooked by her and which was spic and span and tastefully decorated with samples of her creativity. So when the proposal was put in her front of her, she agreed to the marriage, a traditional arranged one, content that her parents knew what was best for her.
The wedding had taken place with all the pomp and show that her parents could afford and she had left for her marital home the same day. But Sunitha's dream of a nice husband and charming children and a lovely home shattered soon, too soon for her to even grasp what was happening in her life. Her husband and, in fact, all the men in the family, she soon realized, were addicted to alcohol. They were a business family, a joint family, and in the evenings, the men would gather in front of the TV in the hall and alcohol flowed freely. Some of the men had self-control and would just sleep off the effects, but some like her husband turned unruly and violent after a few drinks. Sunitha was shell-shocked the first time her husband had laid his hands on her after a bout of drinking. She had wept herself to sleep, cringing on the marital bed next to her snoring husband after the attack. Soon she realized that her marriage was a farce. When Sunitha's pregnancy came to be known, it created a lull in her stormy life. For a time, her husband showed some self-control and she went through the pregnancy without any mishap. She was taken home by her parents for the delivery and her husband visited her there and was a real gentleman in her family's presence. Sunitha was thankful for it as she had not told her parents anything of the turbulence in her married life and they believed her to be happy at her in-laws' place.
Soon Shruthi was born and, though it was a girl, her in-laws did not create any unpleasantness. Sunitha had been apprehensive and was relieved when the naming ceremony went smoothly with everyone participating with gusto and apparent joy. She returned to her husband with the baby 3 months after delivery as was the custom and hoped and prayed that life would be better now with the added responsibilities of a child.
The washing machine gave off its musical sound indicating the end of the washing cycle bringing Sunitha back to the present. She took out the almost dry clothes and threw in the next lot and set the machine again. She went out to her bedroom balcony and put out the clean clothes for drying. She looked out the balcony which faced the front gate of the apartments and watched the school buses which were bringing the kids back home from school, the younger ones who finished the day earlier than the others. She remembered how she used to wait for Shruthi to come home from her playschool, but that was the sum of waiting for the school bus for Sunitha as she had a 9 to 5 job by the time Shruthi started proper school and it was Shruthi who waited for her mom to come home from work after that.
Unfortunately, the period of idyll did not last long. Within a few weeks of Sunitha returning home with the child, her husband showed his true colors again. In a state of inebriation, he kicked his wife in the stomach which led to sudden bleeding and hospitalization. Those few days in the hospital were the worst so far in Sunitha's life because she was forced to leave the baby at home. She was in tears most of time wondering what was happening at home, whether the child was being looked after or whether she was left alone in the room to fend for herself. The doctor chided her that she would take longer to recover if she cried all the time, and this served only to bring on a fresh bout of tears. In spite of all this, Sunitha kept quiet about the actual reason for her hospitalization, and her parents and others outside the immediate family remained unaware of her situation.
Life bumped along with more lows than highs, and Shruthi started playschool. Sunitha by this time was determined that she should not get pregnant again and did her best with contraceptive methods within her reach. By the time Shruthi was two, her mother- in-law began hinting about a second child, but Shruthi had decided she would not have another one to share in this hellish life. Her husband's addiction had started worsening and so had the violent spells. Sunitha spent many a night sitting outside the bedroom on the stairs with a sometimes awake and scared Shruthi in her arms, crying and soothing alternately.
The washing machine again gave off its signal that its work was over, and Sunitha came back to the present with a thud. She found that she had been silently crying remembering that terrible period in her life, which she had thought she had forgotten but memories of which she had remained in the recesses of her mind. She wiped her eyes and emptied the washing machine and put out the second lot of clothes to dry.
Sunitha looked at the clock and realized it was just 4 in the afternoon, but reliving her past, it had seemed much longer. Maybe I should try and take a small nap to calm myself before it is time for tea, she thought and lay down on the bed. Even as she closed her eyes, more memories flooded her mind. She opened her eyes and stared at the clock on the opposite wall and was soon lost in a fresh wave of bitter flashbacks.
"Amma, if you love me and Shruthi, you will come and take me home tomorrow. If you are not here tomorrow, you will come the next day to attend our funerals." Was that her, Sunitha, the quiet woman who hardly ever lost control of herself? Yes, it was her and she was talking to her mother over the phone. It was midmorning and she was alone in her room. Shruthi was away at her preschool and her husband at his office. The previous night had been the worst ever. She had been out with her husband and her daughter to a restaurant for dinner with one of his friends and his family. Of late, Sunitha had started hating these outings because they all ended the same way, a drunken husband and bruises on her body. She tried to avoid them with some excuse or the other, but this only seemed to infuriate her husband and the end result was more violent than ever. So she tried to make the best of things and tried to be pleasant and made small talk with the friend's wife whom she knew slightly. As she toyed with her food and helped Shruthi eat, she had had a sudden feeling of doom and her instinct had not proved false.
That evening ended in disaster with her husband drinking more than was good for him. His friend recognizing the signs had made his escape with his wife, leaving Sunitha to fend for herself. Luckily, they had come in a car with a driver and she managed to get her raving, blustering husband home with a scared and silent Shruthi in tow. As the evening took its course, Sunitha retired bruised and weeping with Shruthi in her arms to the stairs and spent the rest of the night there. Shruthi refused to sleep and kept wiping her mother's tears, but she did not ask anything. Looking at her, Sunitha wondered what kind of a childhood this was for her. That was when she made her decision that it was high time she took the matter into her hands. What use was maintaining the norms of the society and family when neither cared two hoots for you? She made up her mind to call her mother the next day and tell her that she wanted out of this marriage.
Sunitha stirred uneasily in bed as she remembered the events that followed.
Her parents did not fail her, and they traveled by car from Bangalore to Coimbatore to her matrimonial home the same night. They came along with her 2 uncles and their wives who had traveled from Kerala and all six of them were at the doorstep at 11 in the night. Sunitha hugged her mother and felt a flood of relief and slept better that night knowing that they were close at hand and that she would not be a punching bag.
The next day had been a nightmare, an unforgettable day. Her parents with the uncles and aunts had come to the house quite early in the morning and what followed was a series of charges and countercharges. Sunitha's in-laws resented that she had exposed them to her parents and accused her of all kinds of crimes. Sunitha had sobbed and refuted the accusations but to no avail. After a long round of talks, Sunitha's in-laws had agreed to let her go with her parents under the impression that when things cooled down, she would return with the child, but Sunitha had walked out of the house with her daughter, determined never to return again.
Sunitha sat up in bed. It was no use trying to sleep; her memories would not let her. She found that she had been weeping again and wiped her eyes. She got out of bed and went to the kitchen to make herself a cup of coffee. She looked at the kitchen clock and it lacked 20 minutes to 5 o'clock. Why was the time passing so slowly today, she wondered. In her mind she had lived through 4 years of her life in less than 3 hours and the terrible memories had drained her. She fixed herself a cup of coffee and went to the living room balcony. There was a swing there and she sat down with the cup in her hand, sipping the hot liquid, feeling comforted by the warmth and the aroma.
As she watched the kids playing in the garden below, memories crept back into her mind again. Long back, she had watched Shruthi play on the ground below from the 3rd floor balcony. The only difference now was that there was no Shruthi down there, and she was sitting on the 10th floor balcony, which made the people on the ground appear that much smaller.
"No dear, you cannot have a birthday party at the resort like your friend did. But I will arrange for a nice party at home for your friends, a small party, and we will have cake and snacks and games." It had been hard bringing up Shruthi in Bangalore though she lived with her parents. Shruthi was too young to understand the upheavals in her life and though she calmly accepted the fact that she would not have a father (was it because of what she had witnessed those nights in the bedroom?), she had all the desires of a normal child. Sunitha had admitted her to a good school nearby, realizing that education was going to be very important for her and she didn't want to compromise on that aspect. The school while it lived up to her expectations as to the quality of education and extra-curricular activities also had its drawbacks in that the children who attended the school were from the upper strata of the society with much better facilities at home, and Sunitha could not provide her daughter all the luxuries that her friends had. As soon as she was old enough, Sunitha explained the situation to her and provided her with treats within her means, and at that time, Shruthi seemed to accept it and did not question too much.
No, it had not been easy. Living with her parents again, Sunitha realized the pitfalls soon enough. While her parents were understanding and supportive, they also felt the frustrations of the situation. Their quality of life was irretrievably spoiled, however much they loved their daughter and adored their granddaughter. Sunitha soon realized that she was living in a cage, much less disastrous than her matrimonial home, but a cage nevertheless. Her mother held the reins of the home in her hands and refused to give up her authority in any way. Sunitha had to fall in line with her wishes and just be a helper as far as home matters were concerned. Also, since Sunitha had had to take up a job to supplement the family income, her mother had assumed care of Shruthi when she returned from school, and she made it clear that as she had been a parent to 2 children, she knew better than Sunitha as to what was best for the child. As a grandparent, she spoiled Shruthi to some extent, and Sunitha did not have any say on the matter. She realized she was totally helpless as things stood and decided to go with the flow and not protest too much, more to give a stable environment for Shruthi to grow up in than anything else.
"Was I wrong in my decision at that time?" wondered Sunitha as she finished her coffee and leaned back on the swing. "Has Shruthi been spoiled by her grandparents and is that why she is behaving like this now?" Even as the thought came, Sunitha knew that it was not really her parents' fault; they had not spoiled her that way. Her parents had been good enough to give her support when she needed it and she accepted the help gratefully and that had been the reason why she had swallowed the occasional barbs and insinuations, the outbursts of frustration on her parents' part. She had tried not to react to anything they said and had succeeded most of the time, losing her self-control very few times when it was inevitable. In a sudden moment of truth, she knew why Shruthi was so caught up in what she called "enjoyment" in life. It was probably because she had been deprived of many things that her friends had, like the birthday party at the resort. Shruthi for the first time in her life had money of her own which she was earning herself and she was an adult, and she wanted to have all the things she had missed either due to lack of money or the lack of a father figure who usually arranged the treats for the family. Well, Sunitha did not grudge her daughter her enjoyment in life, but at the same time, it would not do for her to turn out to be insensitive to others' feelings. Sunitha firmly believed that one had the right to one's pleasure but not if it caused someone else pain.
Sunitha got up from the swing and went to kitchen and washed the cup and put it away. She looked at the clock again and wondered why time was passing so slowly. She wanted the day to end so that she could take a sleeping pill and just sink into oblivion in the dark of the night. She had been trying to get rid of the sleeping pill habit and had managed to reduce her intake, but there were days like this, when she knew she could not sleep without the pill.
Sunitha busied herself with small household chores, like folding and putting away clothes, putting the books and magazines on the center table in order, and dusting the knickknacks on the side table. Anything that would keep memories at bay, she thought. As she was rearranging the items on the side table, her eyes fell on a photograph there. It was a family photo, of her parents, herself, and her daughter. It was taken just before she had moved into this flat to live on her own after living with her parents for nearly 2 decades. As she stared at the faces in the photograph, hurtful memories flooded back into her mind, and she was overcome with tears again.
"We have decided we want to live with you in our old age. We would like to move in with you as soon as it can be arranged. We want to spend the last years of our life with our son." Sunitha entering the house was shocked to hear these words. It was her father was talking to her brother on the phone. Sunitha walked in as if in a dream and sat down on the sofa. When her father finished his call, he saw her and said, "We have decided to move in with Ramesh. You can decide if you want to stay in this flat or if it is too big for you, maybe you can think of moving to a smaller place with Shruthi." He said it casually as if it was an everyday matter to be moving houses. No discussion, no asking her opinion. Sunitha had not said anything at the time; she had been too stunned to react. Later she had asked her mother for an explanation and her mother had told her that she was tired of housekeeping. Sunitha had argued that they could have handed over the housekeeping to her long back, that she would have taken care, but her mother had her own reasons. Since Sunitha was working outside home, she would have to arrange for a housekeeper to do the work and her mother could not adjust to that. Sunitha had in fact tried that experiment once, but the housekeeper had been out within 2 weeks because her mother would not cooperate. "Manju does not go to work and manages the house herself and we will be better off there." Manju was her brother's wife. Sunitha could not have given up her job with Shruthi's higher education and her own old age to be provided for, and so she had given in silently to her parents' decision.
Things had moved fast after that, and in no time, she and Shruthi were settled in the small flat in the same group of apartments where her brother had purchased a much bigger one to make space for their parents. To give him his due, her brother had not refused to take them in and had made them welcome. But the whole experience had left Sunitha shattered because she had felt unwanted by her family; none had realized the impact of the split on her mind. She had put up a brave front and hidden her tears on the pillow at night.
Sunitha put the photograph back and wiped her eyes. She had put up with a lot of humiliation, barbs, and potshots at her: from the society, from her own parents, from her brother and other extended family members. She had built up her life from scratch again at the age of 26 to reach where she was today. She had by sheer grit and willpower built up enough capital so she could take retirement from her stressful job at the age of 50. She had bought this flat under her own steam and had managed to close the mortgage before giving up her job. She looked forward to a peaceful life now, at least for the next 10 years, by which time, it would be necessary to plan again. If she did not kick the bucket by that time, she would move into a senior citizen community. Sunitha was quite pragmatic over her future and was determined she would not be a burden on her daughter. She would live independently and accept community living, there were many such centers coming up in Bangalore as well as other places in India and she had saved up enough for that. She had been alone most of her life and was not inclined to give up her freedom in old age.
As these thoughts raced through her mind, she had a sudden fit of weeping. She had borne a lot of unpleasantness, had swallowed her pride and her self-esteem, and had fought tooth and nail with society and circumstances to provide a good life to her daughter. She had done her best to provide an appropriate value system, a good education, and reasonable comforts to her daughter although she could not provide her with luxuries. She had put aside a lot of her own aspirations and desires, including a possible second marriage for the sake of her daughter. Now her daughter was treating her as if she was a piece of furniture, with no feelings. What had she done to deserve this? Even as the thought came to her mind, she pushed it away. That would be indulging in self-pity and that was something she had avoided all her life. She wiped her tears and decided she would not allow anyone, not even her daughter, to spoil her remaining years of life. Tomorrow, she would have a talk with Shruthi and lay her cards on the table. Shruthi was not going to get away with her behavior; she would have to choose her life style from the options Sunitha would offer her. If it meant losing Shruthi temporarily, well, Sunitha could deal with that. She felt sure that once Shruthi got a taste of life on her own, she would come back to her, wiser for her experience. And if she didn't, well, that was a risk Sunitha was ready to take.
Sunitha felt energized and got up from the sofa where she had collapsed weeping. She looked at the clock and it showed 7:30. It was not time for dinner, but Sunitha decided to call it a day. The memories had made the day too long for comfort, and she felt as if she had been put through the wringer. She heated up some of the food in the microwave, had dinner, and then cleared up. She closed the kitchen, put out the garbage, and then turned to the calendar to change the date. Tomorrow was June 21, and a vague school memory came to her mind, and she remembered that it was the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. She smiled to herself; no day could be longer than today, in which she had lived through the past 25 or so years of her life. She swallowed a sleeping pill with half a glass of water and then turned off all lights except one which was left on to welcome Shruthi when she came home.As she snuggled down in bed, Sunitha felt at peace with herself. The whole day had been a kind of catharsis, and she felt clean and light in mind. Tomorrow was another day, and she would face it squarely as she had every day in her past.
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Beautifully written Shobs!
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