By: Dorothy Sinha
A Treasure Trove
ili made a noise each time she tossed on the creaky old cot. It was a gift in marriage from her father. This had been her bed all these years - in fact a family bed. So today it felt strange to lie on the cot alone. She had her transister radio for company. Yet she did not feel like turning it on.
It was the end of February and the chill in the wind was now gone. The last of the dahlias and petunias in her garden were blooming in a hurry, aware that summer was not far. After curling up all winter, nature was peeping out to the warmth in the winds. It was spring. The weather was comfortable, yet Mili couldn’t sleep. Restless, she tossed again. She thought of her family. Her children- now all grown up; her husband – who wanted all the attention in the world; almost childlike, leaving little time to indulge in her favourite activities - like plucking her brows. She had a pair of tweezers which plucked unwanted hair from her brows with the finesse of her gardener who plucked weeds from the garden.
“Mother, look!” her daughter-in-law cried one evening holding a simple-looking bangle. On a closer look, Mili found it to be diamond-encrusted. “A gift from my husband” the daughter-in-law declared with pride in her cheeks. “It’s beautiful, suits you” Mili blurted with a lump in her throat.
“Stop snoring, please” Mili would implore. “Huh, ohh” her husband would turn away. It would be peaceful for a few seconds until Mili would be jolted from sleep again by his throaty grunts. “An irritating old man”, she would grumble. “Doesn’t let me sleep. It was better when he was away.” Softly, she turned on her radio. It countered the ghastly noise of her husband’s snores and she fell asleep.
Whenever in town, her husband left early for the office and would be home late in the evening. He enjoyed his dinner early and would soon be blissfully asleep.
“An engineer!” was her father’s curt reply on being asked about the credentials of her prospective groom. Mili later learned that he was a diploma holder who called himself a government engineer. A good ten years older than her, she believed his mindset was even older than his age. Luckily for her, he was softly spoken so they never fought. It was a silent marriage, each one accepted the other in silent resignation.
Mili was grateful that she lacked compatibility with her husband. At least that brought her closer to her sons. Her older son managed a meagre job somewhere but neither came home nor kept in touch much with his parents. It was the younger one who showed promise. As he grew older, he became her confidante.
“Mother, you would be surprised to know...” he would begin, managing to gobble his food and speak at the same time, “...Sid smoked a cig today.”
“While still in his teens?” she gasped.
“Manu has two girlfriends!” He mocked his mother’s naivete.
“Our teacher cracked such a silly joke in class!”
“What about you, sonny?” she asked “Don’t you like girls?”
He ended on a sweeter note: “Oh, mother, how can I? I will only marry the girl you choose”.
How the days had flown past. It seemed only yesterday that he was completely dependent on her.
“She’s a Marwari” he told her one day with a gloomy face.
“I am sorry I never told you before. I knew you would throw a fit”.
“I am happy for you...” she finally said “...as long as you are happy for yourself.”
“Of course, I would be happy. Unlike my parents!” he added with sarcasm.
She gulped her ridicule. He had married secretly.
These days he spoke less and shared no details of his personal life. The old bond was snapped. He had grown distant and selfish in recent years. She wondered if the distance with his father had affected the mother-son bond. She comforted herself with the thought - “he still needs me”.
Amidst all this, her husband of three decades breathed his last. He died even before the formalities of his retirement could be completed. Although she never celebrated his existence, she was never prepared for his sudden demise. She informed her younger son. He lived abroad with his wife in her large house. She remembered the lonely nights he would be fever-ridden as a child.
“There’s a rock over my head!” he would howl.
“Thats only your pillow, silly boy,” she would laugh.
She knew his incoherent talk was a sign of his rising fever. She dipped a cotton pad in water and placed it over his forehead. He would soon be asleep but she would be wide awake all night, placing her soft palms on his forehead in frequent worry. Her radio was a faithful companion. She would turn the radio on scouring for a byte of sound. There was no FM in the small town where she lived,
“Brrr – Saaaa- brrr”.
She had hit upon something. She moved the knob slowly to catch the correct frequency.
“Saaa Raaa –brrr- Raaa Gaaa Paaa- brrr…” Mili hung onto every word. Each noisy note was a solace. Someone was awake.
“Why dont we live with our son?” Mili had proposed one day.
“To die in that foreign country?” her husband asked sarcastically, setting his book aside.
“But of course you may go to live with your son,“ he suggested almost immediately, scared at having hurt his wife.
“You know I cannot possibly go alone. But I would have been long gone, if I could. What have you ever given me?” she blurted in a rare outburst. A burning rage swept all over her body. She knew her absence was gnawing away at her dearest son. Forever incapable in her eyes, now old and haggard, her husband was more intolerable than ever. He buried his nose in his pile of books and any discussion was futile. With him away on work, she had grown used to a life taking her own decisions.
“Whom are you staying back for?” she finally asked, half angry, half sad.
“For our dear house, Mili”, was his calm reply.
At her husband’s funeral, tears were hard to come by. Yet she wept.
“I cannot leave my mother alone in such a place, can I?” her son declared, on the day the last rites were completed.
“I will come back very soon to take her away with me.”
“When are you leaving?” asked a well-wisher.
“On the 5th.”
“Why dont you take me away?” as she grabbed the first opportunity that came her way.
“How can I possibly live in this place with your father’s memories etched all over?”
Mili wept a little and her son consoled her. “Mother, you want the formalities completed and the pension sanctioned, don’t you?” he added with a smile.
“Who cares for the meagre pension when I have an NRI son?” she added with pride in her face. (NRI stood for Non Resident Indian).
Her son was left speechless.
Now one of her sons would be forced to take her with them. Not that she wanted to be with her older son. She wanted the comfort that life with her younger son brought. Also, there was power she could wield living with an NRI son.
“Mother, you need a passport to leave this country” he spoke to her at dinner clearing his throat. She knew it was a sign of discomfort from him.
“But I already have one!”
She laughed and produced the neat passport with clean pages before his bewildered eyes. She could see the surprise in his eyes. He was left with no choice now.
“Marriage will unfurl your hidden talents, Mili,” her eldest sister-in-law had once remarked.
“You may discover, one day, that you are a fine actress. On other days you may discover that you are a fabulous story teller. Marriage will surely bring out the best in you” she added with a wink, laughing hysterically at her own joke.
Not that Mili liked her, but her words rang in her ears today. She knew she had to make arrangements for the house and find a tenant. She had to leave with her son now.
The tenants were a young couple who agreed to move in the first week of March. Mili handed them the spare set of keys.
“Please pay the bills on time.”
Calculating for the future, she knew that in a couple of years she would have to sell this house. And unpaid bills would increase her travels to the local municipal office and hinder the process.
“Please keep me informed” she asked her neighbor gesturing towards her own house. And before the lady could react, Mili added “I would search for an NRI groom for your eligible daughter.” That sealed the deal.
Mili was bubbling with energy now. She avoided her neighbours, lest anybody caught her rejoicing, when she was supposed to be a mourning widow. One warm morning, she carried her woolens upstairs on the terrace to be dried. Then, she brought out her saris from the almirah and placed them on the bed. It was a difficult task since each was dear to her. “Mother, please don’t load” goaded her son “I will be heavily penalized”. Discouraged, she unpacked her belongings.
But that night she had a strange dream. She pictured the young couple frolicking on her bed. The old bed creaking, and the radio lying abandoned. Suddenly, the bed gave in and Mili saw herself rolling down a slope crying for help but her voice choked. She awoke with a startle and sat gasping for breath, happy that it was all a dream. Afterwards Mili could not manage a wink of sleep. Her son slept bissfully beside her. Much like the earlier days, only he had grown big and the cot seemed small for him now. Yet they had slept as a family in this very bed.
“You will wake up the boys with your clumsy ways,” Mili would admonish her husband. Her husband would only manage a shy grin. She never loved her husband and felt bound by a strange thread in the name of marriage which neither could dare to break away from. She was secretly happy that he was no more, yet in a strange way she missed him tonight. She feared her son would put her up in an old age home back in a foreign country where she would not even understand the language. She never felt any attachment to the house, nor to anything else in this place apart from this old cot, which reminded of her father, and her faithful old radio.
Unable to sleep, she finally woke up . “I would have to visit the library tomorrow” she reminded herself. Mili had decided to gift them her husband’s books. She began dusting a few of them. Each one had a touch of her husband. At places he had written their names - Mili and Manav.
“29 Feb 1980 - the day we got married. A pity that I can only gift my wife once in four years” he wrote on the cover of one.
“Mili suffered a miscarriage and I was away for a month. This book was my only solace in those days of fear and desperation” he had penned in another.
“Mili tweaked her brows today. May this book of poetry lend me words to tell her someday how beautiful she looks, even with her brows overgrown”
He had bared his heart.
“Visited the kitchen, cooked up a recipe from this book, yet threw it down the drain. Too bad, Mili had to cook even when she was ill.”
He sounded miserable.
“P.S: Even washed the utensils to remove traces of my misadventure” he had added in a corner. With each book, her life story unfolded before her eyes albeit in his perspective.
A sense of guilt overcame Mili.
She realised that he loved her more than he ever showed and perhaps he died a sad man. She remembered how she had hurt him with words and regaled in the joys of his crushed ego, partly because of her own unhappiness of a life with him. “But happiness is a state of mind” she reminded herself “ Is it worthwhile to chase happiness in a foreign country, away from all things dear to me “ she finally asked herself.
This reminded her of her radio. She searched for it but the radio was not to be found. She searched the entire house and turned things upside down. But the radio had simply vanished. She remembered she had listened to it in the morning of the day her husband died. But what happened to the radio thereafter? Frantically, she searched every corner of the house. She found long lost items but not the transister. At last, she found it lying in a corner of the bed, alone and forlorn. It had been in her view all along!
She tried to turn it on but it did not play. She repeated this a number of times. Frustrated she shook it once and it felt empty.
She carefully removed the covered back of the transister with adept hands and almost instantaneously a small white envelope fell on her lap. Curious, she opened the envelope to find a glittering bracelet encrusted with small diamonds. It was beautiful. Much more beautiful than anything Mili had ever laid her eyes on. Her husband had carefully removed the batteries and hidden it inside the radio. He knew that she would surely search for it. The receipt was dated 4th February 2012.
“This was a week before his death” Mili calculated.
The clock struck 2am.
“Perhaps my anniversary gift!” Mili exclaimed “It is 29th Feb today! How thoughtful!”
Mili wore her bracelet and kissed it affectionately, the last token of her husband’s silent love. The husband she never cared for was now gone. Her own house had turned out to be a treasure trove - she had never been aware.BW
Dorothy is an engineer by profession, and a writer at heart. She studied Software Engineering from Bangalore, India and works in the Software Industry in India.
She is a prolific writer and snippets of her work is visible on https://www.facebook.com/ARandomRumble?ref=hl
She is an avid admirer of Indian Classical Music and plays the sitar (a Classical instrument) in her spare time. She is also into translating works of Rabindranath Tagore and Sukumar Ray for children in English.
Dorothy is also an ace driver and frequently takes off for long rides with friends and family or at times alone, enjoying her solitude.