One day, my wife insisted, "Tell me about your first love, please. There must have been someone special before I walked into your life. Someone you loved during your student life. “
I smiled and tried to avert replying. However, she was stubborn, "You have to tell me everything today, I want to know everything about you. Look, this is an aspect of your life that predates my coming. I will not feel bad at all. Stay assured of that from my side. Tell me, please.”
It felt like I was skating on a surface of a lake of frozen memories. The danger was in not knowing on which part of the surface the snow remained thin. Barely does your foot get in there than the surface crack and you find yourself drowning in that lake. I wanted to avert my wife. However, she was unwilling. Giving up, I took the decision to proceed with the risk.
“Today I shall tell you the story of the broom" I said. There was a beautiful image stuck somewhere in my memory. They continued to remain like half-erased letters in the pages of my memory. A sort of faint, reverberating tone still rings in the bosom of my universe.
"I want to hear the story of your first love, not of a broom," My wife said a little irritatingly.
"Will you be able to listen?" I asked.
“Yes, I am ready” was the response.
“Whenever I see a broom, I am reminded of someone,” I said.
“Who?” asked my wife.
She is the one who said – ‘Tortures of hundreds and thousands of years are alive in the broom.”
Some words take you back in time. To the bygone days that lie like a dead butterfly inside the forgotten pages of a children’s book.
On days when the domestic house cleaner did not show up, I would pick up a broom and clean the whole house myself. My wife would stop me saying, "Here, let me do the sweeping. Why do you trouble yourself?”
However, I do not stop. Seeing this the son would turn up his nose. He studied at the Convent School. One day he said, "Dad, this is dirty work. It is house cleaners' job. Why do you do this dirty work?"
I explained to him, "Son, one should learn to do all the chores required to manage one’s house. There is nothing like a dirty job. If a house cleaner does not turn up you see yourself living in filth? Any work that requires sweat and hard labor can never be dirty."
Slowly the son also understood this point. Every now and then when the house cleaner is absent, he too helps sweep the house.
"Do not toss riddles at me. Tell me clearly who comes to your mind every time you see the broom?" my wife asked impatiently.
“She was my classmate in college. Her mother used to sweep and mop in people’s homes. A teacher living in that area had taken her as a namesake daughter and educated her. She could have any name, ‘Dhaniya’, ‘Jhuniya’... But actually, her name was Kamala” I said.
“So you fell in love with the daughter of a maid!" my wife said sarcastically.
"Why? Isn’t the daughter of a house cleaner also a human? Is it a crime to love her?” I asked.
My wife was silent hearing this.
I continued, "She was as beautiful a personality as she was meritorious as a student".
“What happened then? Why did you not marry her? “, the wife asked. There was a little jealousy in her voice.
"Although she studied with me and we used to laugh and talk to each other, her painful history was always etched on her face. Between us was the barbed-wire fence that divided our castes. I wanted to cross over the sharp wires of the fence. She was on one side of the fence. Me, on the other.
JJ Cluster, the slum where Kamla's mother has lived, was bought over by a builder. The goons hired by the builder to evict the slum dwellers were not threatening them to leave. Although Kamala stayed at the teacher's house, about a couple of times each week she would visit her mother and siblings in the slum.”
“Did Kamla not have a father?”. This was my wife’s voice. “You must have read or heard about the incidents of Khairlanji and Mirchpur. Kamala's father sacrificed his life in the village during the ethnic violence of that time. In the attack by the upper castes, Kamala's uncle, grandfather and others too lost their lives. Kamala's mother somehow managed to save her life and escaped to the city with Kamala and her two younger siblings", I said.
“Oh!” the wife said,” Then what happened?” The builder's goons were constantly intimidating the slum dwellers. One night Kamala went to meet her disturbed mother and siblings. As it was late, she stayed in her mother's slum that night. That was the last night of her life. The world lay collapsing outside.
“ God!”, the wife said shocked. “What happened next?”
The builder’s goons set off fires across the entire slum. The slum dwellers were charred to death in the middle of their sleep. Amongst those who died were Kamala, her mother, and siblings.” My voice was full of sorrow. Something had been stuck in my throat. My eyes were moist.
My wife held my hand and rested my head on her lap. Bending over me, she asked slowly - "Did you love her so much?"
Outside it had turned slaty grey and it was almost gettingdark. A rock-like tremor passed through my arteries. That tremor was silent, hiding his face in his wife's bosom.
“Wasn't any action taken against the builder?" my wife asked.
He had ‘approach’ all the way to the top. He had money. He had contracts. He escaped saying that the accident happened due to the short circuit. The report was that the slum dwellers had taken dozens of illegal electrical connections from the poles. It was due to sparking that this tragic incident had taken place. Do you know what stands at that place now? "I asked, raising my head from my wife's lap.
"The famous Atlantic Mall of our city with gleaming shops of all the multinational companies stands there now. Show-windows sport decorated mannequins. It has escalators, glass lifts, all popular brands and attracts a big crowd of daily shoppers on a daily basis. That was the place where Kamala’s mother, her siblings and dozens of unfortunate slum dwellers like them were killed."
“How do you feel when you pass that way now?" she asked.
"I had read somewhere - that place has no significance in itself. Every time I look at that mall, I am reminded of Kamala and the painful death that consumed the other slum dwellers. This mall stands on their dead bodies. I said, “Feels like an old pain, just like the one that rears its head yet again on the onset of cold weather.”
"Can I ask you something? Did you have an intimate relationship with your Kamala?" This was my wife. She was holding forte within the boundaries of her jurisdiction, like an alert guard.
I remembered the evening when Kamala came to my rented house after college had got over...
In the morning, I had left for college early. The whole room was untidy. My wet towel lay twisted over the crumpled bed sheet. The inner wear , was lying on the chair. A bowl that worked as a makeshift ashtray was filled with ashes and along with it was a cigarette, half of which had been smoked and the butt left in great hurry. I had forgotten to sweep the floor that morning. The floor was dirty.
A used teacup was on the table along with a saucer that still had leftover crumbs of the bread omelets that I had hurriedly made and eaten that morning. There were cobwebs at the corners. On the wall was a poster of Madhubala who seemed to be aging under the weight of dust not cleaned by a piece of cloth. This was the state of my room that I had not even given a thought of before I invited Kamala.
I quickly tried setting right the disorganized mess in the room. Kamala sat on the chair with some diffidence. I took the broom from under the cot and started sweeping.
And then Kamala had said, ”Prashant, tortures of a hundred, thousand years are alive in the broom.” Her face was partly under the light and partly in the dark. The question mark in her unsaid statement posed a burning interrogation point that needed resolution. The pains of millennia seemed to have frozen on her face.
Placing the broom under the bed, I approached her voluntarily.
Holding her hands, I said affectionately,” Do not scratch the scalp of old memories. Blood may ooze out of the wounds”.
Saying this I moved strands of hair that had fallen on her face backwards and kissed her forehead. The tenseness on Kamala’s face started thawing under my touch. Then her face filled with a beautiful smile made me crazy. Within us, our desires were rearing their wings such as those of the nocturnal birds.
Then the tube-light of the room was put off and a zero watt bulb was switched on. Whispers of fond desires erupted. Then there was an echo of intoxicating laughter.
Outside the window, the dark night was beginning to weave away the strands of light that remained. But within the confines of our room, our conscience stayed bright and illuminated.
Gradually the air was filled with tautness. The inseparable bodies of two lizards were seen on the wall. I was caught in my beloved’s passion. From within her emanated odors of extreme passion. In the coppery brightness of the zero watt light, our carnal pleasures were spreading out their legs. My sweet angel was in my arms. My mermaid was in my vision. On the top, her breasts shaped like a conch shell expressed eagerness with the jamun-like round nipples. Down below was her slender waist curved like a cool earthen pot and from around which came the sweet aroma of a forest full of mahua trees. The ship that was waylaid in the middle of the ocean, had now come to anchor in an island of greenery.
There comes a time when the wounds of the body and mind start healing. When dreams begin to come true, when happiness is in our grasp and the closed eyes do not wish to open again. When all the wishes turn into fragrant flowers and the tongue savours the taste of honey. It was such a moment - dense and heavy and yet extremely light. The chariot of time was passing through a festive path.
Now we were both on the same side of the thorny fence. We carried the brightness in our minds. That night, sleeping in each other’s embrace, we had chatted a lot. We fancied dreams together. How could I know that death was lurking within the folds of our dreams? How could I know that I was watching a transparent bubble that was just about to burst? Exactly two days later Kamala had passed on. She was part of history. I had lost the very sky where I was to fly.
“Please tell me. Did you have an intimate relationship with her?” It was as though my wife was trying to look at my distant past with a telescope.
Just then I heard the sound of the surface of a lake of frozen memories cracking. There was the impending danger of drowning in it.
I did not say anything in response and simply kissed my wife’s forehead. I loved my wife as well. She was the mother of my children.
I don’t know what my wife concluded based on my actions. Perhaps she sensed it all. A woman’s sixth sense understands everything. She could withstand a matter as serious as this one. She must have a large heart. I salute her for this.
This incident managed to change our life in just one way. Every time the domestic house cleaner goes on leave and I try sweeping the entire house, my wife never attempts to take the broom away from me.
Original Hindi story titled झाड़ू by Sushant Supriy★★★★★