My eyes widened in shock at the selcouth sight of my newlywed wife when I entered the bedroom. She was sprawled across the bed, wan and shrivelled. Her face was like a rotten leaf.
“What happened?” I yelled so loud that I feared my throat would explode. “I am going to get the doctor.”
“Can you hear me?”
Devika looked at me.“I am fine. Please stop screaming.”
“You are not.” I softened my tone.
“It is the fatigue.”
She sat straight up, rubbed her face in such a manner as if she wanted to iron it. I sat next to her on the edge of the canopy bed. “I think we should—”
“Please.” She spoke so softly that it was barely audible. She stroked my hair, pressed her pallid lips to my broad forehead and said, “don’t worry”.
The kiss shunned away my worries and brought back fond memories of the first day I had met her at her apartment. She had emerged as a dream from the door into the drawing room where I impatiently waited for a glance of her. In her blue sari with orange border, she looked like a picturesque sunrise. And when she had stepped closer to me, my heart had taken a subservient bow. Her skin looked as refreshing as a pure stream of water. When she had said, “Hello”, it made me want to explore the depths of her full and luscious lips. The way she walked, it was nothing less than a rhythmic choreography. Her hands had trembled; a jingling sound of bangles had caressed my ears, when she had poured me tea. I had told my uncle the very moment that I really liked her. The next day he told me that the girl was in love with my brown eyes, which she had described to her parents as big and expressive. I was delirious with joy.
It had been a few days after our engagement that Devika had called up and expressed her discomfort in meeting me until we got married. When I had asked her for an explanation for this aberrant behaviour, she had told me that she was shy, and her parents were uncomfortable. I had no option. I had agreed.
The next morning—a week after we married—I heard Devika’s laughter while doing office work in my study room. It was so loud that it sounded scary. I ran to our bedroom. My eyes widened in shock. In front of me, she was twisting and turning like a dying snake. I moved closer to her.
“Can you hear me?” I hollered.
After a few minutes of silence, she jolted out of the eerie state and looked at me inquisitively. I shut my eyes briefly in relief.
“I need to know what is going on?” I asked her.
“What is going on?” She stood up straight and scratched behind her right ear.
I was astounded by her nonchalance. “Tell me...please.”
“I don’t know.”
“Let me take you to the doctor.”
“I want to rest, Abhay. Please.”
She trudged towards the window. “Love me, right?” she asked while looking at the garden outside embellished with sprays of tiny pink and white flowers and a large metal gazebo in the center of it.
My hands wrapped around her narrow waist. “I love you.”
She took a deep breath and walked towards the bed to throw herself on it. I turned off the light. I walked out of the room, towards the study room with great difficulty, jumping the hurdles that were the horrific visions of what I had witnessed earlier. Questions billowed in my heart like the restive waves of an ocean being attacked by a ruthless storm.
The intensity of my agony was such that I did not realise when Devika had entered the study to ask me to dinner. I had to rub my eyes for a few seconds to be able to see her face clearly.
Her face looked pale. She sat on the chair next to mine and stared at the floor for some time. Then, she came close to me and kissed my eyes. They were relieved under the shelter of her love. She ran her hand through my hair and while embracing me, she said, “we will go to the doctor.” She scratched behind her right ear. “Can we please have dinner?” she asked.
I nodded and followed her to the dining room. The only sound heard was the clanging of the spoons against the blue and white porcelain plates as we ate our supper. After the meal, she told me that she needed more rest and left the dining room. I decided to go for a short walk outside of the house.
The walk that was supposed to be for thirty minutes took two hours. I had decided to discuss with Devika about her health in detail. I walked inside the house, into the bedroom and found her sleeping like a pearl in a shell. I realised that there was no point in waking her to discuss her odd condition I had witnessed in the morning. I knew that her answers would be intoxicated by rest deprivation. I switched off the light.
The next morning, I woke up from under the black clouds. It was a bad dream: I saw my wife in a pool of blood. I wiped the sweat off my forehead. In an attempt to assure myself that she was fine, I turned my head to the other side of the bed. She wasn’t there.
I breathed a sigh of relief as I heard the jingling of pots and pans. She was in the kitchen. I asked her to come to the room. When she entered the bedroom a changed emotion captured my heart as my eyes moved down from her face and stopped at her breasts. Even though they seemed a tad loose-fitting without the brassiere beneath the diaphanous white chemise, I felt aroused.
I remembered the first night together after we had exchanged the nuptial vows. She had stepped out from the bathroom of the hotel wearing red lace silk lingerie. As she was walking towards me, my mind was imagining certain ways of making love to her. I was engulfed by lust and love as I watched her stand next to the bed, shyly taking off her lingerie.
“Abhay, you have to go to the office.” Her words brought me back to our clustered bedroom.
“I can go late.” Mesmerised by the memory of our first night, I pulled her close to me.
“Abhay, stop!” I couldn’t. “Abhay, please...stop!” She pulled herself away.
“What happened?” Annoyance overcame my desire.
“Get ready for work. You are late,” she said and went back to the kitchen.
The agony of what had happened yesterday—when I saw Devika’s body trembling on the floor—slapped me hard as she walked out of the bedroom. I had to speak with her about it. But, there was an important meeting, I just remembered, scheduled for after two hours in the office that was half hour drive from my house. I had to leave immediately for work.
In the bedroom as I was getting dressed for work, the pleasant aroma of semolina pudding tickled my taste buds. I remembered my mother who used to make for me such delicacies. She left me when I was barely thirteen years old. It was an agonizing time for us when Mom had succumbed to cancer. A few months later, a fatal heart attack took my father away, leaving me to a lonely life, dependent on the charity of relatives. Even though these people helped, I knew that I was a burden to them. For many years, I craved someone who would love me like Mom and Dad. A tear escaped my eyes. I wiped it before Devika could see it.
“Have a good day at work.” She smiled and handed me the lunchbox that had semolina pudding in it.
"I will see you in the evening.” I kissed her on cheek.
“I will be waiting for the evening.” She kissed me back and stood next to my car as I jumped inside it. As I drove away, I watched her in my rear-view mirror, getting smaller and smaller.
When I reached the office, I was informed that the meeting had been cancelled for today. I walked into my cubicle; I took out my wallet inside which was kept a passport photograph of Devika.
“Abhay, how is it going?” It was my boss’s voice.
I hid my wife’s photograph behind my back. “Good morning, sir,” I turned around and answered sheepishly. He was standing at the cubicle entrance.
Mr. Sharma was an understanding person. He was held in high reverence by everyone in the office as he respected everyone from the lowest to the highest rank.
“The meeting we were supposed to have today with those clients from Italy has been postponed until further notice.”
“Yes, Diksha informed me a few minutes ago.” Diksha was my team member. "Sir, can I ask a favour of you?" I asked hesitatingly.
“What is it?”
“Can I go home?”
“Sir, my wife...she wasn’t feeling well yesterday. I want to—”
“I understand, Abhay.” He closed his eyes for a few seconds before speaking again. “I’d be needing you in a con-call around five ‘o’clock. Can you join in the call from home?”
“Yes, thank you.”
I left the office without delay, showering blessings on my boss silently. On the way back, I stopped by a flower shop and bought roses for my wife.
As I reached my house, an idea knocked on my head. I unlocked the door stealthily, slipped out of my shoes and walked into the house. I heard Devika’s voice coming from our bedroom.
“What if Abhay finds out?”
I was astounded. I waited for someone to answer, but then heard Devika say, "Mom, I cannot call you in the evening. I need you to tell me." I realised that she was on the phone. To explore the depth of the words my wife had just spoken, I decided to walk silently towards the drawing room instead of the bedroom.
Inside the drawing room, I walked towards the red telephone.
Am I doing the right thing?
No, you should trust your wife.
I trust her, but—
The burden of arguments was exhausting me. I was standing next to the phone. What could possibly go wrong if I heard the conversation between my wife and mother-in-law, I thought? I picked up the phone.
“Do you hear me? Don’t tell him anything.” It was Devika’s Mom.
“I have already told you that he has been asking me again and again to visit the doctor. He will know the truth.”
“Tell me, Mom.”
“Devika, demand a baby without any delay.”
“What? How is that going to help?”
“Once you have his child, there will be no reason to worry. Even if he finds out about your illness...those convulsions you have, he won’t abandon you.”
“How are you so sure?”
“He was impaired of parental love. He won’t let his child endure the same fate.”
“But a child isn’t born overnight. I cannot control the convulsions. What do I do?”
“You will stay with me until the baby is born. You have only tonight. You understand me?”
“But, Mom, what will I say to Abhay? He won’t let me stay away from him for so long.”
“Don’t worry about him. I will speak to him.”
“What will you say to him?”
“That I am not well. Anyways, you don’t worry about all of this. I will handle it.”
I set down the phone receiver slowly and walked out of the house.
Outside, the sun was burning in such agony that it set my broken heart ablaze. I sat inside the car. Once I had driven a few kilometres away, I stopped the car and reached for a pack of tissues that was kept in the glove compartment. And, then, I realised that the roses I had bought for my wife were not there on the adjacent seat. I remembered, I had placed them next to the red telephone. Those roses, I thought, would soon be dead.