The night had been a long one. It was as though everything in the room released the heat absorbed during the day. Not a leaf had stirred in the trees outside and through the open window a horde of blood thirsty mosquitoes flew in and kept Harihar awake through the night.
There were other things on his mind that had kept him awake. Thoughts that refused to dissipate even when the night faded away and the first light of the sun slowly crept into the room. He lay listless on the bed, the patterns on the wall catching his eye. For a brief moment the drabness of the room looked almost beautiful, suffused in the morning sunlight.
Harihar slid out of bed in a languid motion, his feet searching for the sandals that were kept on the mat beside his bed. Ever since his father had passed away he slept in that small room, beneath the staircase at the end of the corridor, away from the rest of the family. He found it peaceful to sleep alone and to meditate on the different aspects of his life, or whatever was left of it.
But of late he found no peace, anywhere.
He walked down the corridor to the washroom. The door to his wife’s bedroom was slightly open and he could hear her gentle snoring. At least she had no problems in sleeping well in spite of all that had happened. He was amazed at her ability to do so.
The door to his son’s bedroom, on the opposite side was locked and for an instant he found it strange. Suddenly, he recalled that he himself had put that lock there two days ago, after his son, Madhav, had stormed out of the house, taking his wife and son along with him. Harihar never intended that they should leave the house but in a way it brought relief to the other family members.
The house seemed unusually quiet without the crying of the baby cleaving the morning calm.
Harihar gently closed the door of his wife’s bedroom and entered the washroom. When he stepped out, after a bath and a fresh set of clothes, he felt somewhat relaxed, physically. His mind, however, refused to stop tossing his thoughts about.
The only other time that he had felt such unease was when he had first laid eyes on Pori, during one of his trips to Jalguri. She was sitting on the wooden bench in a corner of the ferry that was taking them across the river. She looked ethereal, in her simple white mekhala and light blue sador. Her long hair left open carelessly. The afternoon breeze blew her lovely tresses across her face and she desperately tried to tie it up in a loose knot that hung at the nape of her delicate neck. Once, she looked up at him with a fiery glance, catching him off guard. He was embarrassed for having stared at her unabashedly. He wondered what she must have thought of him.
Pori was a nurse at the local city hospital. She lived with her parents and her younger brother at Jalguri village. Harihar met her again on one of his trips to the village. He did not know why he ended up asking about her from his overseer, Ram, who took care of the old house and the land around it…the legacy of Harihar’s grandfather. Pori was a widow, who had lost her newly wedded husband in one of the floods that washed away a large part of the village. She took up the job at the city hospital in order to look after her family.
Pori was always hovering in his dreams ever since, enticing him and just as he would grab her hand or hold her close to him the sun would play spoil sport and wake him up, its rays creeping in through the cracks in the window. But the sun was only being just. After all, he was a married man, married for more than two decades.
Harihar, knocked gently on the door and called out to his wife, “Manjula…Manjula”. There was no response. He decided to make his own cup of tea and settled down in the arm chair in the verandah, looking out onto the street outside. The words of his son Madhav were still ringing in his ears. “He looks more like you. There is nothing of me in him.”
It was Ram who had called Harihar to inform him that Pori’s father had been hospitalized. The old man had suffered a stroke and had to be brought to the city for treatment. Harihar had rushed to the hospital to help in whatever way he could. Pori never left her father’s side for a moment, and Harihar stayed put by her side until her father passed away in the wee hours of the morning. He was unable to push her away when she laid her lovely head on his chest and wept inconsolably. Her father’s sudden demise opened up a floodgate of emotions. They were no longer strangers sailing across the river in a ferry.
Manjula came with her tea cup and plonked herself in the chair next to Harihar. Her eyes were puffy. Had she not slept well then? He wondered.
She seemed lost, with her eyes looking at the street in front, without a flicker of emotion in them. Harihar did not wish to ask her if she was feeling fine. He did not have the courage to bear the brunt of her feelings at a moment when he himself had no answers. What would he do now? He had no idea.
After all, he had not thrown his son and his daughter-in-law out of the house. It was a decision that Madhav and Pori had taken on their own. Pori never wanted to stay in the house after the baby was born. She wanted to go back to Jalguri and wanted Harihar to accompany her.
It was not that he did not want to but it was a hard job to break away from a 25 year old marriage. Agreed that Manjula was a difficult woman to get along with, but she had been with him through thick and thin.
For once he was not too worried about Pori. She was a strong woman, not just physically but emotionally too. She had the power to ignite his passions to unbelievable heights and she could still be a loving wife to Madhav. It was a role she had enacted flawlessly, until the baby was born.
Strange, how motherhood can make a woman so fiercely independent.
It was Madhav that Harihar was worried about. He was worried about how Madhav would take care of his family without any regular source of income. Pori would probably continue her job at the hospital and Madhav would be reduced to taking on the role of a babysitter. How helpless he would be without a job! As if she could read his thoughts, Manjula said, “Where will he get the money to take care of his family?”
“He will have to look for a job soon. This is something he should have done long ago, instead of wasting his time with those drug-addict friends of his.” Harihar responded in irritation. He wished he could remind his wife that it was because of her negligence that their son could not complete his education and had gone astray. But at the moment he knew it was wiser not to provoke her.
But she carried on, “It was you who forced him to get married to that s…”
“I don’t know what you saw in her that you thought she would do him any good! Now you see what good she has done.” Manjula burst out angrily and placing the tea cup on the side table with a bang she walked back into the house.
When his wife was in a bad mood, Harihar always preferred to leave her alone. And this time he did not blame her too. She was right about Madhav. The boy had no common sense and was too dull to do anything on his own. Babysitting would be the only best thing he could do. He had seen the boy so attached to his new born son, always crooning away to the baby, holding him in his arms, while Pori was away at work. He would make a good father, Harihar thought with a pang. His heart felt heavy. He remembered how close he had been to Madhav when he was a little boy. Once the boy had jumped from the terrace on the first floor to imitate Shaktiman and Harihar’s heart had stopped beating for a moment thinking his son was surely dead. Luckily the boy had fallen on a mound of sand that had been dumped there the previous day for some construction work. Harihar, also recalled the times when little Madhav would follow him to the gate, pleading with his father to take him along to office. Harihar would hold him in his arms, promising to come back early and play with him.
Now, Madhav was gone. And he had taken with him a part of Harihar’s soul, leaving him to battle his own monsters.
It was well past noon when Manjula came to his room to announce that she had a headache and was going back to sleep. Lunch was on the table and he could serve himself when he was hungry.
Harihar sat down to eat the frugal meal that she had cooked. Dal, rice and boiled vegetables, salt-less. Was that how she was going to punish him? He wondered. He missed the food cooked by Pori. She was a great cook and whenever he was with her at Jalguri, she would cook special dishes for him, fish curry and mutton, with hot rice and ghee, followed by a big bowl of payash. The way to a man’s heart is surely through the stomach. Was he to be blamed then, for loving the hand that cooked those delicious dishes?
The evening meal was nothing better. Manjula refused to dine with him and went back to her room. Harihar put away the plates, brushed his teeth and lay down to sleep.
Sleep eluded him again. All he could do was to count the number of spiders darting around in the corners of the ceiling above him. The memory of a lithe young body lying close to him in that drab little room made him listless again. He had remained lonely for too long. He had struggled for too long to give his family a comfortable life and was tired of it now. At his age he deserved some peace and happiness.
It was only in the early hours of the night that he could finally sleep. And not before he made up his mind. He would bring them home the next day.
No matter what, he would bring them home…his daughter in law and his sons. After all, family was important and he wanted to be a good father this time round.