A Second Chance
A Second Chance18 mins 21.5K 18 mins 21.5K
I was sitting on a chair near the window, deeply immersed in my thoughts. At first, I admired the outside beautiful garden view of Shanti Ashram for a while. But one thought led to another and I ended up getting lost in my own world. I remembered my childhood first, then my youth and my wife Mamta. My wife reminded me of my two sons Harish and Anish who were now settled in USA. Harish was a renowned Oncologist in Michigan while Anish a successful civil engineer in California. Both of them were married with kids.
I still remember the day I came over here, almost two years ago. I vividly remember crying like a little kid going to school for the very first time. I did not want to end my life in an old age home. I wanted to spend my remaining life with my kids just like any other parent would. But my elder son Harish was adamant. When I did not stop my crying and begging, he gave me a stern reply.
“ Papa, let me make things clear. Anish and I cannot leave our families just to stay with you. You will have to adjust over here. We will call you and will try to visit you whenever possible. I hope you will understand.”
In the last two years, Anish had visited once. He had come alone for an hour or so. During that one hour, he kept showing me pictures of his kids on his Tab. Seeing my kids happy made me happy. He would call me once a week, mostly every Sunday. Harish, on the other hand, was stubborn just like me. He would rarely call me. And even if he did, it was as if he was sitting on a time bomb. Always in a hurry. When I decided to send both my sons abroad for higher education, my wife Mamta had warned me. She had warned me that my sons would never return back. I mocked her and didn’t pay heed to her advice.
It didn’t take me much time to realise the bitter truth. After my sons completed their education, they started working in the USA itself and the rest is history. But I did not bother much as long as Mamta was there with me by my side. She was beautiful, intelligent and meant the world to me. She never hesitated to pinpoint my mistakes and I loved her for her honesty. Life was going on smoothly until she left me for her heavenly abode six years ago. She passed away within a year of diagnosis of her breast cancer. I was devastated. I didn’t know what to do or who to look upto.
I managed staying alone for four years in my two bedroom apartment even though loneliness ate me up from within. I kept a maid for doing my cooking and cleaning and spent my days jogging, reading newspapers and watching TV. It was only after my accident that I requested my sons to take me to USA with them. I injured my right leg in a road accident and now started limping while walking. My sons blatantly refused to include me in their lives and that is how I ended up staying at Shanti Ashram.
I was disturbed and dragged out from my thoughts by my friend Kishan’s screeching voice.
“ Mukesh!!!!! Did you hear the news?” Kishan’s voice sounded excited as he came upto me. We had just finished our morning tea and had an entire day lined up ahead of us. I looked at him, irritated to the core.
“ No. What is it?” I asked him.
“ We have a new entrant coming in today. I wonder what she is like.” Kishan would always be excited whenever a new entrant came at Shanti Ashram. We would have snacks, juices and a party-like atmosphere to make the new entrant feel like home. He would be even more ecstatic whenever a woman was a new entrant. I smiled abruptly and looked up at him, raising my eyebrows.
“ So, what is her name?” I asked him generically, just to gather information.
“ Nirmala.” Came his reply. The name ‘Nirmala’ gave me a huge shock. It instantly reminded me of someone from my past. A past, which I wasn’t exactly proud of. It can’t be her, Mukesh. It can’t be her. I kept saying that to myself in my mind. Just to make sure that this Nirmala wasn’t the one I knew, I asked him her surname.
“ I don’t know. Maybe it is Shankar. I am not exactly sure. But I am excited to meet her.” Kishan replied back with double the enthusiasm. Typical Kishan.
As evening approached, the fear in my mind started gripping me. I prayed to the Almighty that this new entrant should not be her. I wasn’t ready to face her. But God Almighty didn’t listen to my prayers. At around 6 pm, Nirmala arrived, dressed in a plain white saree. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was still beautiful at the age of 70, even with wrinkles on her face. Her long black hair had now turned grey but it made her look more cute. I stood far behind while the others greeted her. She met everyone with a smile on her face. She kept looking at me in a mysterious way, as if she was trying to recall something. Within a few seconds, I could see the smile on my ex-wife’s face disappear. She turned the other way around, as if she had seen a ghost. Frankly speaking, that didn’t come as a surprise.
I am a retired professor of Economics from Bangalore University. I don’t want to brag, but I was one of the most eligible bachelors in my family. My good looks,my education and my personality impressed all. Distant relatives and friends whom my family knew wanted me to marry their respective daughters. But my heart was already set on marrying Mamta who was my college friend. I got the shock of my life on the day my parents told me that my marriage had already been fixed with Nirmala without my consent.
I retaliated and revolted as much as I could to fight for my love. But my parents didn’t budge and I had no choice left but to marry Nirmala. Nirmala was a matriculate and barely 19 years old when I married her. As I was a post graduate, I never found her worthy of me. She served me selflessly and treated me like a God inspite of all the criticisms and insults I threw at her every now and then. Her multiple attempts to lure me failed as I never allowed her the access to my heart. She still continued loving me unconditionally even though she knew I didn’t love her. Despite all her love and concern for me, I ended up cheating on her with Mamta and divorced her after three years of marriage.
When I declared my decision of divorcing Nirmala at home, my parents were hugely disappointed in me. They kept saying that I was a disgrace to the family and supported Nirmala instead. They were right. It was not her fault that I didn’t love her. But this time, I was way too adamant and I did not give in to their emotional blackmail. Nirmala, on the other hand was quiet. Maybe she had already seen everything coming and was mentally prepared to face the situation. She just asked me one question- Why did you marry me if you already loved Mamta?
Silence was the only answer I could give her. If it were not for my parents, I would have never married her. She requested me not to divorce her but allowed me to marry Mamta as well. She kept claiming that she loved me and could not live without me. I couldn’t believe that the poor girl was ready to share me with another woman. She tried to ensure me that she and Mamta would stay like sisters. But I wasn’t ready to fiddle with two women and refused her demands. I don’t regret my decision till today. I wanted her to be happy as she deserved someone who would love her.
Two years after my marriage with Mamta, I heard from one of my relatives that Nirmala’s parents had gotten her married to someone else. I was happy to hear the news. After what I did to her, she deserved a tad bit of happiness in her life. But, at present, one question is troubling me the most. Why was she here at Shanti Ashram? Did her husband die and her children leave her just like me? There are four rooms in Shanti Ashram. The men’s room, the ladies room, the dining room and play area and the office. Since the last two months, both of us have been successful in avoiding each other as much as possible. We made sure that we were never in the same room and even if we were, we would stay poles apart.
In the last few days I have noticed the otherwise jovial and carefree Nirmala turn pale and quiet in my presence. Maybe she still hasn’t forgiven me for what I did to her. I certainly deserved that distant behavior of hers. But her cold attitude towards me has made me all the more inquisitive to know about her. I wanted to know about her life after her second marriage. What made her stay in an old age home? I tried to enquire from my friends about her. But the only information that I got was that she was alone and there was nobody to look after her. This was definitely not the answer I was looking for and continued my enquiry and interrogation.
My interrogation led to my friends thinking the other way around. They thought that I was interested in her and started jumping to conclusions. All I wanted to know was the reason of her stay and if I had any connection to it whatsoever. I didn’t want to be the prime reason of her depressed state. My fear of death and my afterlife had increased after meeting Nirmala. All I wanted was a peaceful life and a peaceful death. Only she had the answers that could end my fear.
Amongst all the men in the ashram, Kishan was my best friend. He was a year older than me and had started staying at around the same time I started staying here. Even though I was a recluse and he was talkative by nature, we both got along well like a house on fire. We discussed everything with each other from our family issues to current affairs. Kishan did not have any kids and decided to stay at the ashram after his wife’s death. He did not have a hidden past like me and had opted for his stay voluntarily. The best part about being with Kishan was that he never hesitated in giving me his honest opinion. In a way, he was just like Mamta and reminded me a lot of her. Honesty was the one quality I appreciated in both of them.
What I didn’t know was that, one day, Kishan’s honesty, the very quality I appreciated in him, would leave me flabbergasted. We were having our evening tea on our beds itself unlike the usual dining room. Kishan had suggested this idea and I agreed immediately as I wouldn’t have to face Nirmala. We were discussing about politics, and out of nowhere, he dropped the big question on me.
“ So, Mukesh, when are you giving me the big news?” He spoke casually, as if it was a general question he’d ask everyday. I tried to act innocent and gave him a confused look.
“ Which news? I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“ What’s the deal between you and that Nirmala lady? Is she someone you know?”
“ I don’t know her.” I replied back, irritated. I knew Kishan would not leave me until I told him the entire story.
“ Then why do you keep asking about her? Do you know what others are saying about you? That you are planning on a second innings at the age of retirement. I am your friend. It hurts me to hear such things about you. So, tell me, why are you so keen on knowing about her? I won’t tell anyone. Trust me.”
That is, when I told him everything with a promise that I know, he will definitely keep. Our marriage, my behavior towards her and my relationship with Mamta. I did not hide anything from him. As expected, he gave me a straightforward answer.
“ Just go and talk to her directly, Mukesh. She may not agree, at first, but she will, sooner or later. That is, if you wish to clear your doubts. I sincerely feel you were too harsh on her. You should have bucked up before marrying her. Atleast, you wouldn’t have spoilt the girl’s life. What’s the use in loving someone and marrying someone else? If she is, indeed here, because you left her, then you are in big trouble, my friend. I can only pray that you are safe from God’s wrath.”
The news of my inquisitiveness reached Nirmala’s ears within a few days. The embarrassing part was that all the Shanti Ashram members were claiming us to be a couple now. Even though I tried convincing them that we were not even friends, nobody believed me. Kishan was right. I could make out from Nirmala’s body language that she was furious and tried to control herself as much as possible.
Even though I didn’t have the courage, the day came when I had to speak to her personally. Maybe she couldn’t take it anymore. On a rainy Sunday, I was sitting in the main office area talking to Anish over the phone. After our conversation ended, I turned behind and saw Nirmala standing a few inches behind me, dressed in an ocean blue colored saree. Her face was cold and eyes emotionless. After 52 years, I heard her calling out my name.
“ Can I speak to you for awhile, Mukeshji?” I just nodded my head in response. The office staff was on leave and it was just the two of us sitting on two chairs beside each other. I had never ever imagined that I would have to sit next to my ex-wife one day and talk about what happened. An awkward silence filled the room for a few minutes. Maybe Nirmala didn’t know where to start. So I decided to break the ice. It was now or never.
“ I am sorry for everything, Nirmala. The past as well as the present. I am sorry for all the embarrassment you have had to face because of me. I swear to God that my intentions were pure.”
“ I know your intentions are pure. Otherwise you would have never left me.” She replied back immediately, leaving me stunned for a second. I lowered my gaze quickly to avoid eye contact with her. Her words made me feel like a criminal.
“ What would you like to know about me? Why now? After so many years? I don’t like people talking about us. Ask me whatever you want so that I don’t have to talk to you ever again.” Nirmala’s voice was stern, clearly reflecting that she was in no mood for a reconciliation.
“ Why are you here? What happened to your husband? And your kids.” I asked her in a low voice.
“ I don’t have any kids. As far as my husband is concerned, he left me years ago. I am sure you know about that.”
“ I heard you got married after our divorce. I was asking about………………………….” She interrupted me in the middle.
“ Yes, I did marry again. But I never considered him as my husband. I couldn’t give him the love he deserved. Just like you never loved me. I was not able to forget you, just like you never forgot Mamta. My husband waited for a few years. Then, he too decided to get rid of me as I was of no use to him.”
I looked up to stare at the woman sitting next to me. How could she waste her entire life loving a man who never loved her in return? A man who didn’t respect her, care for her or appreciate her. I just couldn’t believe my ears. I felt ashamed of myself and my past actions. I didn’t even deserve to sit next to her and ask her about her life. Whether I like it or not, I was the reason for her current state of misery. I wanted to bow down at her feet and beg for her forgiveness. But even that wouldn’t be able to erase the pain that I had given her all these years.
I felt like doing something for her before I died. Something which will act as a means of reconciliation. Otherwise I would never be able to forgive myself. The guilt will kill me up from within even before the hellfire does. She kept looking at the ground while I mustered the courage to speak to her again.
“ I guess this is karma. This is what I get in return for treating you like a doormat. For disrespecting you and not appreciating you and your love for me. I still don’t understand how you managed to survive all alone, all these years. You should not have wasted your life for me. I never deserved you, Nirmala. I never did.”
“ I did not waste my life, Mukeshji. I think you forgot that I was a good cook. After my second divorce, I started preparing and selling pickles and masalas from home. Even though it was on a very small scale, I learnt to feed myself on my own. My parents never stopped supporting me and my small business helped me earn a decent amount of income. My younger sister Ujala also helped me a lot after my parents’ death.”
“ I don’t understand why you are here? If you have Ujala and her family’s support and a small business to look after, I don’t think you should be here.” I felt like knowing more and more about her.
“ I don’t work anymore. I am an old woman now. Ujala can’t leave her family for me. She has two children- a boy and a girl who are already married with kids. She wants me to stay with them. But I don’t want to be a burden on anyone. I have lived my entire life alone. But now that I am close to death, I don’t want to be lonely as well. I want someone to look after me. I want to die happy in the presence of a few friends and not alone. So I decided that an old age home is the best place to stay in.”
I couldn’t control my tears. Nirmala spoke with a determination that I had never seen in her in the past. A woman whom I always considered worthless taught me how to be self-dependent and to never expect anything in returnfrom anyone. At the age of 75, she taught me that love is selfless. That is why she kept loving me even though I never loved her. I didn’t know what to say. But my silence would mean an insult to this prudent woman and I had to appreciate her.
“ You are a brave woman, Nirmala. I’ve always underestimated you. A woman like you deserves to be happy. I was unable to give you the happiness you deserved. Maybe that’s why Mamta and my kids left me alone.”
“ What happened to Mamta?” Her once stern voice now showed concern.
“ She passed away six years ago. She couldn’t survive from breast cancer. My children don’t have time for me. Harish and Anish are settled in USA. They call sometimes but they are too busy to meet me. But this is what I get for hurting you. I deserve it. I deserve to be left all alone.”
“ I am sorry to hear about Mamta. She was a noble woman. May God bless her soul.” Nirmala stood up to leave the room. I slightly touched her hand to stop her and immediately took it back.
“ Will you ever be able to forgive me, Nirmala?”
“ I have already forgiven you. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here, sitting next to you. In a way, you taught me how to survive on my own and to live on my own terms. As far as your love is concerned, I can’t blame you. I cannot force you to love me. I believe Mamta was a lucky woman. Because you loved her so much.”
“ Nirmala, I know it is too much of me to ask. But, only if you think it is right, can I get a second chance? I know I cannot return you your youth back and the life you have spent without me. The past cannot be rectified or changed. But I want to correct the present and the future. I would like to be your friend. That is the only way I can forgive myself and beg God for his forgiveness.” Nirmala was quick to reply this time.
“ Why should I give a second chance to a man who abandoned me years ago? Would you have given me a second chance if I were to be in your place?”
I realized that this conversation would be the last one I would have with her. I didn’t have the guts to answer her question. So I just stayed quiet.
“ Maybe not, Mukeshji. But life is short. Who knows who will die first? It could be you or me. Life is all about forgiving and forgetting. So I think we should forget everything. As far as my love is concerned, I never stopped loving you. I never hated you as well. I always prayed for your well-being. I never thought that God would make us meet again like this, before we die. Maybe God wants me to give you that second chance and accept your friendship. He never gave me your love but he is ready to give me your company before I die. And for that reason, I will give you a second chance.”
Nirmala smiled at me warmly and I smiled back at her. Even after losing everything in life, I gained a new friend in my ex-wife. A woman who I now respected and had huge admiration for. Even after all the hate I gave her, she continued loving me. She gave me a second chance. A chance I never deserved.