The characters in this story are nameless. This is by no means an original story. Most readers will easily identify with the incidents and the characters as if this is their story or a story plucked out from some of their immediate families. It is more a series of questions raised after the death of a close family member. The questions are important because they were never raised when the person was alive. The questions are rhetorical because the ones raising them already know the answers. And the one they are raising the questions about is no longer around to answer them. Within these questions, a strange, yet everyday story emerges – of marginalisation, suppression, tolerance and perhaps, revenge? Who knows?
The bahu takes her mother-in-law’s bunch of keys to open the older lady’s locker in the cupboard the lady had brought as part of her dowry. Does the jingle sound familiar? Does it carry the cheer it did when her mother-in-law used it? Or does it carry the familiar ring of expected money or its symbolic variations? What does she find? A bundle of letters tied up with a pink ribbon? Maybe they are love letters she penned to her husband as a new bride, or to a lover she could not marry? Maybe, they are fictitious love notes she composed, imagining a love story that never was, except in her dreams? Maybe, they are scraps of the novel she always wished to write but couldn’t, burdened as she was with her chores of housewifery and motherhood? But the young woman insists on untying the pink ribbon from the bundle. She does not need anyone’s permission to do so, does she?
The owner of that bundle is now held captive and frozen in a two-by-two wooden frame garlanded with a ring of fresh white bel flowers. Why is she wearing that benign smile on her face? Or can one glimpse amused tolerance there? The bahu has untied the pink ribbon. The letters fall away and float in the air suffused with pregnant silence randomly on the floor spoiling the harmonious rhythm of the smooth, white marble floor with its faded yellowness. Does one discern a suggestion of malicious glee on the young woman’s face, even as she tries to hide it by bending to pick up those sheets of yellowed paper? One would have thought that she would be embarrassed for digging into the secrets of a dead woman. But embarrassment is a stranger in the emotional vocabulary of young women today. She smirks as she rises to dig into the secrets of the locker all over again. Is the smirk a subterfuge for the surprise in chancing upon a bundle of letters tied in pink ribbon belonging to a mother-in-law she drew and quartered all the time as uneducated, ignorant and stupid?
What is the bereaved husband doing? Why is he not stopping the young woman from opening the bundle? Doesn’t he know what the letters contain? Are they the first love letters they exchanged when she went to her parents’ the first time after the wedding? Had he ever bothered to find out what his wife did when she was not bending backwards doing household chores, bringing up children, supervising their studies, negotiating their marriages, and taking care of his diabetic diet? Looking back on her 24/7 schedules, did she ever have any ‘me’ time at all? Did she like to read? Or did she like to watch films? What did she like to eat? He, at least, would have to know surely because didn’t the shraddha rituals demand a mandatory offering of the favourite dishes of the dead person for the final rites? Oh yes, the maid knew! She has been with them for a decade or more! She would help, wouldn’t she?
What is the point of looking under the bed of a dead person to see what she hid under the mattress? Why should people wish to know her secrets when it did not matter anymore whether she had any or lived out her life like the clichéd open book? Did you say that she had things to hide? What things? Are they of any importance to anyone? Will one of you enlighten me please? Yes. Go ahead and look under the mattress, will you? What do you find? A packet of detergent, still sealed? An old photograph of hers with her husband? A leather-bound diary with her name embossed in gold? A bunch of keys she thought she had misplaced? A bar of chocolate? A baby’s layette? Is that all? Is that really all?
Is he too busy trying to put on the grief act? After all, had he not lost a wife of 30 years? His son turns over the mattress. “She always had this habit of hiding things under the mattress,” the young man explains to no one in particular. There are baby clothes and a layette bought for their second daughter who died before she was born. The young man picks up a woolen babasuit. His sister was born on a freezing night in January. His father keeps looking, suddenly remembering that they had had a second daughter who forgot to breathe when she was born. How is it that he had forgotten about it completely, but she hadn’t? His son picks the baby clothes gingerly and hands them over to him, disappointed to find something so mundane and confusing. His father touches the suit. Is he trying to feel the touch of his wife’s hands through them? How often and unknown to them all, did she feel the baby clothes of the infant she could never carry in her arms?
“What made her hide a brand-new packet of washing powder here?” asked the son to himself. His father knew why. Hadn’t he been a very stingy householder who handed out the house expenses to her on a daily basis as if he were giving her alms every day? Hadn’t he demanded to see the empty packet of washing powder each time before he gave her money for a new one? Had it not taken her at least a week to convince him that they needed more washing powder with every addition to the family? So, she had devised her own strategy of negotiating her way through the winding lanes of a slim household budget. She had taken to hiding a new packet because it helped her tide over the week, he took his time to give her the money for it. And he had never guessed. He handed her the money as if he was obliging her. It made him feel big. But was that the real reason? Or was it because it made her look small and that was what pleased him no end?
He earned well. He was over-generous to his children. He was conscious of his duties towards his younger sisters and brothers. He did not forget to send his widowed sister the money order each month to help her tide over. At the same time, did it not give him a strange sense of power to hand over the money for the expenses knowing fully well that it was his sole responsibility to do so? Hadn’t he put his foot down on her blooming career in vocal music when they got married? Hadn’t he asked her to keep all her medals and certificates and newspaper clippings and cassettes in a kits bag and shelve it in the storeroom? Did he not wish that the world should never know that it was he who had stopped her from getting on with her music? “She gave up singing on her own because she loved being a good housewife and mother,” he would lie blithely to all and sundry whether they asked or not, as if the two were mutually exclusive.
Where did she manage to get all those new saris then? He had never bothered to find out. Or maybe, the inheritance she received from her father in the form of a fixed deposit helped see her through her personal needs? She had been fiercely possessive of this legacy. She held the passbook and chequebook like a long-held secret only her husband knew of. But they were not in her locker. Where she had kept it, the financial documents, he wondered. His male ego stopped him from asking what she did with the interest that came from the deposit. And she had not bothered to keep him informed. Was it to help him nurture his ego? Or was it because this was the only financial backing, she knew she could fall back on? Maybe, it was her love for her dead father she felt through the legacy that she staunchly refused to share with people who would never understand?
A thin brown notebook covered in leather with gold embossed letters carrying her maiden name lay among the things under the mattress. It looked old and jaded. The older man stepped forward to pick it up. It looked like the secret diary they did not know about yet were all looking for. What did it contain? It contained the lyrics and the notations of her favourite songs. He had never heard her sing. He had only heard about her singing. The handwriting did not seem to be hers. But then, he would never know, would he, considering that he had hardly read her handwriting after those first love letters they exchanged when she went to live with her parents after marriage? The letters in the diary had turned faint with time and so had the notations. He closed the diary and caressed the cover, as if he was caressing her. When had he last caressed her? It was too long back into a past he had shrugged off as unimportant. He hurriedly kept the diary on the bookshelf because he could sense the sharp sting of tears in his eyes. He hated to cry in front of his children. Men are not supposed to cry, remember? Even when they suddenly lose a wife of 30 years?
The bar of chocolate appeared to be fresh and new. She had never let on that she loved chocolates. Now, there was no way of knowing whether the bar was for her or whether it was for someone else. There were no grandchildren yet. The husband was a diabetic, wasn’t he? The only son looked at the wrapper with a bemused expression. He did not know about his mother’s fondness for chocolates. Or for any specific item of food, clothing, books, films, television programmes for that matter. He handed it to his father. The older man felt through the wrapper. He tore off the outer wrapper to reveal the golden wrapper inside. It felt it soften in his hands. Had the bar turned mushy with time? Gingerly, he peeled off the gold paper with hands that trembled more out of a funny sense of fear than because of age. There was no bar of chocolate inside. What came out of the wrapper were the passbooks, the cheque books, and some unused booklets of deposit slips. He wanted to open the passbook and look at the balance. But once again, fear took over and he handed the papers back to his son. He had no need for them; they did.
An old photograph, sepia with time, was the only item left under the mattress now. It had been clicked by a professional photographer in a studio where newlyweds and brand new graduates with their robes and their hoods go to get themselves photographed. There was the usual painted backdrop of a synthetic landscape. He looked at what he was, 30 years ago, with a thick wave of hair, wearing a happy smile. And then he looked at the woman by his side. She was very young then, looking into the camera with the wide-eyed innocence of a 20-year-old bride. Then, without bothering to pick it up, he turned away. He realized with shock, that the young woman in the photograph and the woman who had died were not the same. Yes, they were two different women. The features were the same, barring the wrinkles and the gray hair. There was more flesh around the cheeks than the faded old picture showed. But the innocence was absent. It had been replaced with that smile of amused tolerance only he could read into. Which of these two women was he looking back to right now? The younger one in the faded picture he held in his hand? Or was it the framed and garlanded one up on that wall?
He turned his eyes to the floor where a few sheets from the bundle still lay uncared for, neglected and forlorn. The bahu had gone back to rummaging through her mother-in-law’s things. She had not picked up the sheets scattered across the floor. Why would she? They were neither money nor jewellery nor the sizable FD receipt she hoped to inherit, were they? He began to pick the sheets up, one by one. As he looked into one of them and then another and yet another, expecting to read something that given the choice, he would have preferred not to, he found that the sheets were blank. Not a line was drawn, nor a word written in them. Why then, had she folded them so neatly and tied them into a bundle with a pink ribbon. Perhaps, she had dreamt of filling her emptied and hollowed out life with fictitious love letters she hoped she would write to an imaginary lover but never quite managed to? Or, maybe, she had wanted her family to find them after she was no more? Did she know that her husband and children would be conducting a postmortem only to find in the things left behind a stranger they had lived with but had never got to know?