She always woke up before the alarm had a chance to beep. This morning was no different. It was 5.30 in the morning. As usual.
She padded to the bathroom, relieved herself and began to brush her teeth - even numbered swipes on the top, then on the bottom teeth, followed by evenly-paced circular swishes on the molars and the pre-molars. She was methodical, near-OCD-ish in fact. And that particular behaviour applied to how she brushed her teeth too.
Once her business was finished in the bathroom, she headed down a floor to the dining room table where a fruit-laden basket would always welcome anyone who wanted a snack. A healthy snack. None of the pakodas, chips, namkeens for her, thank you very much. She picked up an orange and a banana, peeled them off one by one and then headed to the farthest room in the house - her private gym.
She warmed up with a few stretches while Chris Martin from Coldplay crooned softly, filling up the dull room, and from then on, threw herself into her hour long workout, her footsteps on the treadmill sometimes falling in tandem with the beats of the mellow rock music playing in the background. As usual.
At nearly 7 she took a slug from her bottle of water. The workout and cool down were done. She was ready for the day.
She could hear her father-in-law shuffling about in the next room. It was time to serve him his morning tea. But first came the unlocking of the numerous bolts and locks of the ginormous two-storeyed mansion they lived in. It was another one of her usual morning rituals. They didn’t have guards, they didn’t have house-help to do it for them. And her husband and father-in-law were the only one’s occupying the two floors of the sixty-seven-year-old mansion.
Where they stayed, all the houses were around the same age. It was an old area, characterized by dusty, winding roads where the tarmac willingly obliged the stray boulders and the rambling foliage, foliage so terribly enmeshed that it was hard to tell stone from root. Her father-in-law was old and frail, though sharp as ever, and her husband was never a morning person. That meant that she was the only volunteer... as usual.
She unlocked the huge gate, heaved it open with a hard shove of the hand. As always, she muttered curses at her father-in-law's idea of having everything done in the house at a grand-scale and then running out of money to maintain it. This gate had seen better years but now it looked like it was painted in rust rather than just 'looking' rusted. There were two small wicker baskets attached to the outside of the gate - one for the milk, the other for the paper. She took the milk in one hand and as usual, reached out to the other basket for the newspaper. Only it wasn't there.
To ensure that her eyes were seeing the same thing as her hands were feeling, she went out to the front of the gate to take a look at the wicker basket. Sure enough, the basket lay bare.
She looked around - under the hedges, around the boundary walls of the house, at the other houses of the neighbourhood and as usual, each ancient gate with its own wicker basket held its own copy of their flavor of newspaper. Just not their own.
She called up the delivery boy.
“Of course I dropped it off. Right in that green basket of yours. One copy of the X Times. Look around, Madameji, maybe it fell into a shrub or something.” The line went dead.
She went over to her immediate neighbour’s, Mr Hirani. He was an X Times subscriber too. His paper was missing but that was usual. He was an early riser so he must have already retrieved his copy. She debated whether she should ring his bell and ask him about it, but decided that it would be impolite to do so this early in the morning. It was only a newspaper. Oh, but not to her father-in-law, who read the newspaper like it was a will bequeathing him a fortune.
The thought of him going berserk over his beloved newspaper made her jog over to every gate in the vicinity. They all had newspapers. As usual.
She trod back to her place, deep in thought. The delivery boy sounded sure that he had dropped it this morning. Her thoughts vanished by the sound of her father-in-law clearing his throat.
One look at the folds between his grayed eyebrows told her that he knew the paper was missing. He asked the inevitable, “Where’s the newspaper? Did you lose it again?”
She looked up at him irritatingly. Why does he always have to start in an accusatory tone? But she mellowed her voice to a cool hiss “I didn’t lose it, Papa. It’s not here, but that’s not my fault.”
“Oh, its never your fault. Sometimes its the neighbour’s dog, sometimes its the kid from No.15; sometimes the rain reduces it to mush because you aren't yet done with your workout; sometimes its the delivery boy who missed it. But you never miss it, do you?” he looked down disapprovingly at her from his bespectacled proud nose, as usual. His precious son had married beneath him. And he never let her forget that, or forgave her for it.
She burned with the fire of a thousand smouldering comebacks but they all died at the tip of her tongue, always. Instead she tried to reason with him, “Papa, please. We’re out in the open. The neighbours might hear you…”
“Like I care if they do! I already am the butt of their jokes, thanks to you, what’s a little argument in the open, eh?” he taunted her, alluding to her inferior class.They were high-society snobs, once upon a time, and she came from a working class family. Oddly enough though money was sparse, his pride wasn't. He left no opportunity to remind his 'qualified and working' bahu that while she earned, it was his name that got her the job in the first place.
She rolled her eyes and even though every fiber of her screamed at her to talk back, she didn't. All she did was to hold her head high and walk towards the main door of the house. She would’ve written it off as one of his usual profane outbursts if he hadn’t just muttered “baanjh” – sterile, just as she started to walk past him.
She couldn’t believe her ears!
She spun around to face him.”For God’s sake, Papa. Have some shame! As if it isn’t enough for you to treat me like a pariah, you have to taunt me with something that isn’t my fault?” Incredulous hurt laced her voice and trembled in her shivering hands. Had she ever belonged to this house, to this family? Had those ten years amounted to nothing at all, or did it all just boil down to an heir to a crumbling name and a relic of a mansion?
“Isn’t your fault? How is that not your fault? You ensnared my only son, forced him into marriage when he didn’t even know that you could bear no children…”
“I didn’t know that myself at the time…” she retorted in sheer honesty.
"Ha! You expect me to believe that?!” he sneered.
The two stood there, shaking in their own justified anger, the disguised hatred they had for each other finally finding vent through their their impassioned eyes.
A crowd had begun to gather, eager for a free-for-all, something by way of morning entertainment and a week’s worth of parlour talk. Her husband had heard too. He hurtled down the stairs to them and put himself between them to break up the fight.
“What are you two upto? I can hear you all the way up to the second floor! Let's go inside, for godssake.”
He tried to calm them down but the father-in-law taunted him too, “That’s what you get when you marry riff-raff, son! She has no decorum, no tehzeeb, no sense of sobriety whatsoever…”
“I don’t have decorum and sobriety? What are you doing, Papa? Do you have to always remind me of my background, my family? Do you always have to find fault in everything I do? Ten years! Ten years it’s been since I got married to your son and not once have you let me feel welcome here. I take care of you, I bear all your ill-tempered outpourings, all your profanities. I pay all your bills so we can keep this house to ourselves and this is how you repay me?”
“Nobody asked you to pay our bills…”
“Well someone needed to or we’d have lost this house a long time back and everything in it that you hold dear.” She alluded to her husband’s joblessness and the mountain of debt she had slowly, single-handedly paid off.
The father faked hurt. “You see that, son? She’s so money-minded, she’s now telling us that she’s the one who bailed us out!”
“Well, its the truth, father,” he whispered.
His son's admission was a slap on the old man's face. “Your mother must be turning in her grave at the thought that her only son is ganging up against his poor father. She must weep in despair that her son chose to marry trash who has usurped not just the house she loved and made, but eclipsed the future of a fine family name as well with her barrenness!”
There was a moment of charged silence between the three before the storm in her voice broke out, “That’s it! I’ve had enough… enough!” She started to shake uncontrollably. Hot tears rolled down her pallid face, that had, as yet, been unable to find an outlet.For ten years she had told herself that one day he would understand. But time was endless and her patience had finally run out.
She turned to her husband of ten long years and her solace for none, “I’m sorry for marrying you. I’m sorry for ever believing that my education and my qualifications were enough to elevate me in your father’s eyes. I’m sorry that I could give you no children, because of course that’s the only thing women are fit for…that and keeping a house. I’m sorry but I’m done!”
“No, honey please…” the husband tried to placate her but she shrugged him off, both in body and in mind.There's only so much you can take afterall.
“No! This is as far as I can take it. I’m sorry but I have to go now. I'm sorry...” She trailed off as she ran back upto her room, her husband following her in desperation, trying to reason with her. But she shoved him out of the room and banged the door shut on his face. She started to pack up, throwing whatever caught her attention into the suitcase. She didn't want to carry much. She was so done, she wanted no trace of this life anymore on her.
She had had enough of carrying the burden of trying to live upto a famous name. She was bone tired of his demands, of his insolence. She was wearied from trying to maintain this paper thin relationship that threatened to tear at the mere hint of a storm.
When she was on her way out, her husband tried to stop her. He cried, he begged, he even told her he would come along, leave it all to be by her side. But she only replied, “You have a name to live upto, and someone to take care of,” and she walked out, finally ripping apart that paper thin relationship.
The gardener turned away from the gate and walked back to Mr Hirani’s Gladiolas, mulling over the morning’s fracas. Mr. Hirani came out and asked him what the crowd gathered before the bungalow overlooking his own was gossiping about.
“Oh Hirani Babu, you should have seen it. That poor woman… she is such a kind lady. She would always serve me tea and biscuits whenever I tended to their lawn. That man’s foul mouth pushed her away, forever. She walked out on her husband right now, poor guy… And to think it it was all for a newspaper!” he shook his head sadly.
“Yes! It seems she couldn’t find their newspaper and that man started accusing her of things. That’s when it all got so out of hand…”
“Oh my God!" Mr. Hirani's hands flew upto his bald pate and there was genuine shock and agony in his voice.
His shock incited the gardener's concern. “What happened, Hirani Babu?”
“I….this is all my fault!” he sat down suddenly, his old knees giving way from guilt.
“I didn't get my paper today. I swear I was only borrowing it for an hour before she comes out to take it. I swear I was going to return it. Oh god, but I'm so late... so late..."