After a lapse of 30 years, her sudden informal visit to my home made me feel thrilled and nonplussed. The thrill was due to the lingering memories of the distant past that still haunted my heart. I was wonder-struck as the expectancy of this visit had been lost a long time ago in the whirlwind of the futile desolate wait. When she entered my home, the wafture of the past fragrant moments filled every corner of my heart. I introduced her to my wife and children.
“Listen, she is Pushpa.”
But when she became intimate with them within no time, my children started showing to her their drawings. Now they were talking to their new auntie about their school and complaining against their daddy. My wife beaconed me to the kitchen and asked:
“Who is she?”
“She is my distant relation.”
“What is the relationship?”
“Relationship….. It is very remote….. If you like it, it is a relationship otherwise the relation is insignificant.”
“My uncle, who hailed from Kanpur….. Her mother was a distant cousin of his. Whenever my uncle visited us, he would call on her as she was married in our town. Since then mutual visits to our homes were a casual affair. I have known her since her childhood.”
“What a relationship…..”
“I have already told you, you may or may not acknowledge such a relation.”
She mystiquely smiled and got busy with her household chores and I returned to the drawing-room where she was searching my childhood on the faces of my children.
For a moment I thought that I had betrayed my wife. But it was not possible to share every feeling surging in my heart and the thoughts prevailing in my mind. I myself was not conscious if the waves rising every moment were to spray their water far and wide on the shores or were to flow with the current and lose their existence. How could I tell my wife that the same girl whom I loved like a mad man 30 years ago had revisited my home as a middle-aged woman? How could I tell her that my heart used to yearn to kiss her eyes in the days of my adolescence? Every physical contact was susceptible to send amorous currents in my body. I used to roam around her school in the scorching sun to steal a glimpse of her face, to chat with her by encountering her on way back home. If I tell her all that, what will she think? She may misconstrue or she may not. I will divulge if I were sure that the past memories were still alive and vibrant with her.
After dinner, my wife went on to the housetop with the children. But before going there, as usual, she set the tea kettle on the gas stove and formally asked her if she would like to have a cup of tea.
“Tea? At this time? Anyway, never mind.”
I could make nothing out of this casual acceptance of the offer. She was busy with looking at the photographs in the heaps of albums lying at her knees. I could not make out if she was interested more in having a look at the albums or enjoying my company. After offering us cups of tea, my wife went upstairs to relax.
After a lapse of a few moments of futile silence, I asked:
“Pushpa, time flies at a great speed. Do you remember when did we meet last time? Thirty years ago. Thirty years imply half of the average life-span of a human being.”
She closed the albums and bowed her elbows on them and looked up towards my face.
“Do you remember once you brought for me a ‘bhutta’ concealed in your schoolbag and you had vowed before mother Kali to distribute ‘batashe’ worth five paisa if I met you?”
She just smiled. Her smile, it was quite evident, was artificial and dull. But her smile was so winsome for me that I did not care for the artificiality and the dullness.
“And one day when you were sitting on my bicycle, your dupatta was reduced to rags while it was caught in the wheels. You entered your house stealthily and before your mother could detect, you had hidden the torn dupatta under the wooden almirah and covered yourself with a new one.”
I was confident that this time her artificial smile would evaporate and she would laugh heartily. But she became sober and her face was covered with a pall of gloom. Raising her heavy eyelids, she said:
“Do you wish to know the truth, Chetan I do not remember anything. All that I am conscious is of the prolonged illness of my husband, studies of my children and problems of my job. The rest vanished from my world of experience long time ago.”
My past memories, which were surging out rapidly, started seething fast into quietitude. All the romantic episodes of childhood days went helter-skelter like a crowd at the slightest police firing. Finding me silent, she opened the album again and, fixing her gaze over the photograph of my son, asked:
“isn’t he Vaibhav?”
“You were just like that in your childhood.”
“I wished to tell her that she had forgotten all her past memories, but I shifted the thought and watched her face in silence. She was also watching me stealthily while looking at the album but there was no conversation between us. Folding the last page of the last album, she collected all the albums and put them in the almirah.
“Let us go to sleep. It is getting very late.”
My wife had spread five instead of four cots on the housetop. At the far end, my wife was sleeping and my children were lost in slumber in the middle. At this end the two adjoining cots were for us. She covered herself from feet to neck with a sheet. I, leaning towards her side, was curiously watching her. She had closed her eyes. I saw her in the infiltrating shade of the streetlight. Her small thick lips, narrow black eyes and unattractive features appeared to be vehemently unromantic. I pondered over the flash thought – what was it that made me restless to see this face? I yearned to have a stealing glance at her face.
I closed my eyes in bewilderness. Lo! Once again the colourful mist of the past memories filled her face with enigmatic charm. Her eyes were deep like a lake and her lips were sensually inviting for the divine nectar. I thought that I was hallucinated for a moment. I opened my eyes and looked at her. She was staring at my face with a fixed gaze. The moment I opened my eyes, she closed her eyelids. This time she must have blushed but I could not detect the same in the dim light.
Both of us spent the night on our different cots, facing each other. Before clearing the web of distrust, I closed my eyes again. A single thought was disturbingly raising its head in my head and I wished to give it a practical shape. I leaned further towards her and laid my right hand on one of the arms of her cot. She continued in the same position. After some time, I stretched my hand to her pillow. She did not move. Then I started fondling her hair with my fingers. My eyes opened with the creaking of the cot. She had a stoical glance at me and slipped to the other side. I, too, changed the side out of confusion and covered my face with the sheet of cloth which was already stretched upto neck. I felt as if the light was infiltrating through the wall gratings was getting transformed into pitch dark. A deep pall of gloom must have appeared on my face at that moment.
Now I was facing the direction in which my wife and children were asleep. For a long time I was diving the ocean and riding the surf of memories in the struggle for existence till mother sleep lured me within her fold.
When I woke up in the morning, everybody was still asleep. It was the early hour of dawn. The mild sound of my wife’s snoring was audible. Perhaps she had not changed her side during the whole night. She was still facing the wall in her slumber. The children, as usual, were in deep sleep. I wished to look at Pushpa by leaning towards her. With the slightest movement in changing my side, my ears touched her delicate fingers. She was facing me and her hand was on my pillow. An open hand….. I could not make out the symbolism of her stretched hand. What were its expectations? Was it expecting that I should also forget the past or should I give her a chance to relive the past which I had so delicately preserved?
My lips wished to plant a kiss on her hand but she quickly withdrew the hand and stretched it in the manner as if she was oscillating. Perhaps she had become conscious of my being awake, and, may be, she couldn’t have even a wink of sleep the whole night.