How long would it survive? How long?  

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Zafar H. Anjum

The question stuffed her head while she walked briskly on the footpath, the evening breeze gently tugging at the hem of her sari. The footpath was uneven; the tiles jagged and broken at places, making pedestrians walk carefully. People moved about like blurred shadows, as the sun was about to go down its crimson horizon. A putrid stench coming off an uncovered drain that flanked the sidewalk, mixed happily with the pollution of the traffic, making her pinch her nostrils shut every few steps. The only eye-soothing view in this windy summer evening was the heap of fruits shining under the glow of gas lamps sanguine apples, green guavas, yellow bananas and thick-skinned, matted maroon pomegranates, all lying on scores of pushcarts, lining the sidewalk. Hawkers sat on the pavement waiting for customers or stood by their carts touting cheap rates.

She walked past them all. A handloom jute bag hung from her right shoulder. She meandered a little to prevent knocking down a sleeping naked beggar, a skeleton with a battered aluminum bowl, a few muddy coins lying resigned in its bottom. Was he alive or dead? She couldn t guess, and above all, like everybody else, she couldn t care less. The beggar s fly-covered nudity was just a stumble, a blockade, meant to be grumbled at and ignored. The journey had to continue.

And she? She didn t know if she herself was alive or dead. She was breathing and all, but she didn t know for sure if she was alive, in case being alive meant not feeling helpless, and not being terminally sad. At the moment, she was just walking to a destination, to shop, to fulfill the duties of a wife. Five years ago, it would have been a romantic experience going for shopping with her lover, her husband. They would have walked huddled, enamoured of each other s smell, holding hands and even kissing hurriedly and shyly in the twilight s cover. Today it was a drill drab and unpleasant like a bland round of routine sex.

How long would it survive? How long? The sentence echoed in her mind again.

Her husband, the pot-bellied, balding bully, was walking in front of her, taking long strides with his short legs. His walk resembled the jumping of a bullfrog. His figure looked sadly diminutive in a gray T-shirt and faded blue jeans. With an idiotic gusto, he pressed forward through a thin human traffic on the footpath. To her, he seemed like a bull with a missionary zeal, headed in a wrong direction. Off and on, he halted and looked back at her as if he had to measure the gap between them and maintain it.

This gap would never close in to intimacy again, she thought.

Five years ago, this gap was unthinkable, sacrilegious. A love marriage, and before that a love affair two years of romantic courting in the college. Like all good times, these years passed by swiftly too. Seven years later, it all seemed dream s stuff. She never had realized that dreams were dreams, and they stayed till one was asleep. The reality of open eyes was different. It took her seven long years to realize that, to see the real face of Ashu behind his charming mask.

Memory played a trick and images from an idyllic past flickered across her eyes. Their courting days had just begun and the first kiss still hung in the air to happen.

Sitting in a small Chinese joint amid non-chalant stares, Ashu had asked her:

May I kiss your nose?

She had laughed aloud. Her plump body had shivered at this question and her knees had gone limp. And before she could say anything to him, he had kissed her nose and then, his lips had unwaveringly wandered to her red lipsticked lips, under the menu card s shelter. The mere touch of his lips had set her nerves on fire, and she felt as much quenched as thirsty at once.

The following two years passed by like a tornado, quick and devastating. She floundered to figure out the difference between thirst and quenching of thirst in the darkness of cinema halls or in the lush green obscurity of public parks. Like other thirsty couples, they too discovered and experienced the peak of subliminal satisfaction. Their bodies, from being distant and strange in the beginning, congealed into an intimate union, singing mellifluously and dancing like a dervish.

By the end of two years, she was happier, plumper and above all, pregnant. That was it. The courtship was over.

Can t you drop it? He had asked her.

Drop what? she had demanded to know.

The baby, the foetus in there, he had said pointing towards her stomach.

No, she replied firmly, as she believed in life and love. His protests yielded nothing.

Thankfully, Ashu had finished off his MCA course. A quick marriage had been arranged despite caste differences. Love marriage, explained their parents when the relatives frowned at this. The couple was given a warm send off to a month-long honeymoon in the hills.

The initial few months had been romantic. Her stomach's bulge increased inch by inch, almost becoming a natural part of her body. When she delivered the baby, everyone seemed to be so happy. Even Ashu was happy for a change. She became engrossed in the thrills of motherhood. She didn t realize then that Ashu was slipping away from her.

She tried to tighten her fist. The move boomeranged at her.

Her education had already come to a standstill. She had traded it for the joys of motherhood. Later, she wanted to undertake further studies or start a working life. Ashu declined her initiatives, denied her any option. He wanted her to stay at home and take care of the domestic things. They fought on this. Her dreams were cracking apart, one by one.

The wind picked up a bit. She entered the super bazaar s subsidized outlet, her soul limp with a crazy feeling of helplessness. The shop was empty as ever and they were the only customers at the moment. It was a small shop with an L-shaped counter and a couple of racks in the back, each stuffed with different categories of items: provisions, spices, cosmetics, toiletries and so on. They had frequented this shop ever since they lived in that area. They loved its crowdlessness, its subsidized rates and the freedom to pick and choose stuff on their own.

The shop attendant, barely 12-13, smiled at her. She left her bag glumly on the counter and walked straight to the racks in the back. Ashu, out of habit, started pestering the attendant with his demands of seeing this gel and that perfume. Also, he was indulging that boy in his witless humour. She found him pathetic and phoniest when he tried to show off his sense of humour.

The store manager was not in his seat. Instead, his young son, in his early twenties, was there in the store, busy conversing on the phone:

Listen yaar, is there a point in carrying it on any further? he said. He was wearing a green collared blue T-shirt and blue jeans.

She scanned various brands of detergents: Surf, Ariel, Henko, Gain, Rin, Nirma. She picked up a packet after doing some thinking. Then, she moved on, looking for bath soaps.

Any way, we will hardly meet as our computer courses are over, the young man said on the phone. He was speaking very loudly, his face flushed with disgust.

She picked up a couple of bath soaps. It didn t take much time as she used only a particular brand of ayurvedic soaps. She scrutinized a few toothpaste brands and then settled for a new brand. Then she picked up shampoos in pouches and antiseptic and vanishing creams. For a moment her hands stayed on a pack of nappy pads. She used to buy them once. Not any more. Only last year, her son had died of pneumonia. Her fingers trembled for a trice and a current of pain swept her body. Her son s smiling face appeared before her, and the little kid on the pack seemed to be just him. Her eyes turned moist.

If only Ashu could be a little more caring! the thought recrossed her mind.

Our son would have survived had Ashu been a little more caring. If we had taken him to the doctor earlier, he would have lived. But Ashu couldn t help late shifts in his office as if office were more important than one s family. And all that was a bundle of lies! All those late shifts an excuse to spend time with that skinny bitch! She hated all her female colleagues, especially Ritika. That bitch now calls him up at home and they go out&how dare she? someone talked in her head. Perhaps she herself!

She wiped clean her eyes. For a brief moment, she looked at Ashu. He was still busy humouring the little chap. He was laughing and gesticulating. Her eyes filled with disgust at his insensitivity. She could never forgive him.

Dekh yaar, I have an offer from USA and I m going there. I ll be back after three years. Who knows what ll happen in three years? the manager s son almost roared into the mouthpiece.

She walked over to other counters. Her hands moved from packets to packets: rice, sugar, lentils, sauces, powdered spices and salt.

Her inner voice spoke to her again: Why the hell I m still living with this man? There is no love left. He goes to other women and may be even sleeps with them. Why should I hang out with him then? What for?

Suddenly she became enraged. Frenzy thundered through her soul at her own helplessness. Her husband had been deceiving her, mocking at her love. When he laughed, he seemed to make faces at her. She seethed with anger because only she seemed to be the loser. Her son was gone. All her dreams were gone. The ugly knuckles of reality knocked at her wronged consciousness.

No, no way. Three years is a long time and I can t commit for anything. I want to be free and have fun. I want to enjoy my life, he said calmly, caressing the collar of his T-shirt.

She had instantly known that this young guy was talking to his girl friend, and was breaking off with her. How clear and direct he is, she wondered. His girlfriend must be weeping down on the other side of the phone.

For a moment, she could see the face of that crying girl. She could see her dreams crumbling down, like her own. But in a way that was better, she thought. At least, she didn't waste as many years like herself, discovering the real man in the husband. It is better to come out of illusion sooner than later, she guessed.

When she stepped out of the shop, it was almost dark. The moon shimmered on a clear summer sky. Her eyes shone with the glimmer of determination and her steps had the swerve of a satisfied soul. She had decided to say goodbye to Ashu.

This copy is posted as it was received. It has not been edited by TLM

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