He was gone. For good. The dead told no tales, did not lie. All Shanti felt was relief. He was gone, he was gone hewasgone. The words repeated themselves in her mind. She wanted to dance. A war dance. A vigorous dance. A dance of relief. A dance that made her feel free. One of gay abandon. At last the suppression that weighed her down was gone and she felt light. Full of hope – a fresh new leaf, delicate green, lush and plump. Unfolding at dawn, awakening and looking at life with crisp new vision. Dewy eyed and full of wonder.
But before all of that the ACT had to be performed. It had to be picture perfect and convincing. For one last time. She had to appear miserable and had to pretend. She would do it. It went against her very grain, but she would do it. ‘Just this once,’ she promised herself, ‘then I will be me. The real me.’ She was young, only 30 and strong.
All those aerobic classes and sensible eating that were a part of the rigor she followed kept her that way.
The body had arrived. His mortal remains. Just looking at him, lying there with his hands folded and his mouth bound shut, sent shivers up her spine. Contempt nearly curled her lips. ‘Serves you right,’ her brain smirked, while her instinct took over as she wailed and wept like a good wife. It was not at all difficult, this putting on an act.
In fact Shanti thought she was pretty good at it.
Mourners came in droves. Her husband was supposed to be a ‘good’ man. A man who helped others. Someone who only gave and never asked. Maybe so. But he made her miserable. ‘Oh what a sheltered and protected life he gave you,’ one of the mourners was whispering in her ear.
‘Yes,’ wailed Shanti, ‘I had never stepped out of this house without him by my side. Now that he’s gone, what will I do?’ The tears came, pouring out of her eyes like broken floodgates. ‘He never let me shop. Never have I seen the inside of a saree shop or chosen the clothes I would wear….’ The mourner seeing her in this state was at a loss, and moved on. Shanti was relieved. How much longer would they keep coming in offering her sympathy?
Mechanically she went through the motions, one after another. She liked the silent ones the best. They did not expect her to respond, just came in, marked their presence and drifted away, a few minutes later. They were dumbstruck. She enjoyed looking at their confusion and gave them pathetic looks, appealing looks. Did her expression convey what she was trying to say? When nobody was around she tried it out, looking at herself in the dressing table mirror. Yes. She did have the look of a recent widow. Bewildered and confused. Satisfied, she turned to greet the latest entrant with her best look so far. He seemed impressed.
Once the last mourner was gone, she turned to those who were close to the couple and asked, ‘Please. Can I be alone with him? For just a few hours before they take him away?’
A conference of sorts followed. It was traditional that till the body remained in the house, nobody would sleep or eat. But the old ladies agreed. Shanti’s case was not a ‘regular’ one. The couple had no children. Prashant was an only child. Born late in the marriage of an elderly couple. He was their ‘last chance’. The elders agreed.
That was it. She was finally alone with Prashant and his body. She looked at him with barely disguised contempt.
She was alive and he was not. The man who was so brutish and who beat her to a pulp with his big strong hands and who even resorted to whipping her with his trouser belt. Lay there helpless and bound. The irony of it all made her want to laugh out loud. Even his mouth was bound shut with a gauze bandage.
‘You deserve this,’ she murmured. His eyes were stitched shut as she had donated them. His body felt no pain – it was dead, but Shanti had experienced a perverse kind of pleasure as she signed the form permitting the hospital authorities to harvest all his organs and use them to keep someone else alive. Those around her thought she was doing it as the last generosity of a departed soul. For she had sobbed poignantly as she made the signed one form after another. The pen trembled in her hands. It even fell to the ground. The pleasure she felt was so akin to the pain he had inflicted on her, every single day of their lives together. 'There's a hiarline difference between pleasure and pain,' he had once said, the pervert.
It was time for the confession. He had to go to hell knowing he deserved it. ‘Well, Prashant, when you were alive, you did as you jolly well pleased,’ she said, ‘spoilt brat,’ she added, ‘crazy coot’. And he did not respond. ‘Remember the time I asked you if I could accompany you when you went to the US? And you said no. I pleaded, begged. It was the one country I had not visited. You unbuckled your belt and whipped me like the devil had got into you.’ He had drawn blood. Welts had swelled on her waist. The lashing belt had torn her nightie into raggedy bloody ribbons offering her body no protection from the violence. That was when she had decided. Bearing the torture silently, she let her mind wander. Just tuned off.
‘I was always a good student, Prashant. You could never keep me down – not if you tried. The inherent self-confidence I had, came to my rescue. The first few times really got me down. I didn’t know where to go, what to do…. Till I realized the only person who could help me was me.’ Shanti looked at Prashant’s face defiantly.
‘you know what I did Prashant? I free lanced. As a features writer. Yes, Prashant, all those articles you read and told me about were actually written by me. It was me….’ A hysterical little laugh escaped her lips. Shanti quickly composed herself, before the hysteria could manifest itself further and become a full blown storm. It took her a while and a lot of effort. A few minutes later, when she was composed, she continued.
‘I wrote under a pen-name. I called myself Sampa. All the topics I chose were ones that concerned me, and each time I wrote, I was afraid, terrified you would find out it was me. But your being a typical man saved me, Prashant. The time I wrote about being childless by choice, remember, you had read it and you had said to me, ‘look, even the famous writer, Sampa, endorses my views. I think adding to the population is criminal. Anybody who has more than one child should be penalized. India needs fewer people.’ How I had wanted to laugh. That article was written because of us, you dummy.
‘The editor was a friend of mine, she was the only one in this whole wide world who knew about us. She was my best buddy in college, remember her? My friend Sweta? We were as thick as thieves, and you were at one point even jealous of her?
‘I had met up with her for lunch the day after you had gone on your bashing spree, and was at the lowest ebb in my life. Sweta sensed my reserve, she knew I was miserable, and without being soppy or too inquisitive she drew my story out of me. Then she gently told me that she was looking for writers, and asked if I would be interested. Sweta suggested I use a pseudonym. I thought about it, carefully. Took one week. To arrive at my decision. I planned to do all interviews over the phone. You and I knew too many people and if I were to be spotted outside, you would definitely hear of it. Your questions would begin and then your physical abuse. I could take no more of that….. yet I had to so something. I agreed.
‘I kept all my work hidden on CDs. You did not care much about the comp, nor did you surf the net. More the fool you.
‘As an extra precaution I cleaned up the mail box every hour, every day. It was hard, it was exciting, and the money was good. Now, I can come out in the open, I can let the world know who Sampa really is…. And believe it or not, your death comes at the most opportune time. My book is ready. The publisher is in line and so is all the publicity. So, wish me luck Prashant, before they take you away, do me one big favour and never come back again, not ever, for you were one horrible man.’
Shanti felt a sense of relief. She had unburdened herself, even if it was to Prashant’s mortal remains. She was ready for the old widows who came to break her glass bangles and to wipe away her sindoor (the red powder married Indian women wear in the parting of their hair) and smudge her bindi (the red dot on the forehead)…. All senseless rituals that would set her free.