The Parting – A Short Story

Perhaps, it is a dream. But I look around. I see myself stretched upon the bed. I am wearing the same saree from last night that I had gotten sick on. The dried puke is still smeared upon the floral print of the silk. Oh, how I love floral prints! I must’ve fallen asleep right after throwing up. Some of the spew has clung to my chin. I reach out to wipe off the mess. My hand can’t touch my face. My fingers feel like meeting vacuum. That’s how I know, I am dead.

I stare on.

My eighty-year old darling husband has fallen asleep on the chair. He is bent by the neck in an awkward position. Is he too…? We made promises that the two of us would be together, in life and death. And should one leave sooner, the other will soon follow. Suddenly, he moves. Even from the beyond, he can hear me. I always knew we were different. Always connected. In my last days too, we never spoke, but communicated all the same. We could read each other’s minds. He would always know when I was craving a cup of tea. Or there was nature’s call to be attended.

We were one. We still are.

He wakes up. He comes and sits next to my leftovers. The soulless sack of a body, the beatless hollow of a heart. He touches me lightly; just like he used to – a little below my jawline. Even in death, shivers run down my being. His brow cringes. He is worried. He holds my face in both his palms, like I was a baby. ‘Rumi’….. ‘Rumiiii’… Now in even quick successions. Rumi, Rumi, Rumina,… It is devastating to see him break. I go sit next to him. I loop my arms around his waist while he cradles my body. I put my head on his shoulder.

Together we weep.

My son comes running into our bedroom. He hasn’t visited me in four days. I look at him. I know what he is thinking, what he is feeling. After all, I carved him a heart out of my own. The rush is a relief he tries to hide. He just wants the confirmation. Is it for sure? He shakes the leftovers vigorously; like one does to a tumbler of beer to ensure there’s nothing left in the bottom. Whether he wants me to wake or just fall deeper into a stupor, I’ll never know. ‘Maa’, he calls out. Ahh! That word. How I craved for it more than my last breaths! But he’ll never know. ‘You can’t leave me, maa,’ he says.

Stay, I had always begged him.

My husband is too weak to speak. ‘Rumi, Rumi, Rumi…’ is all he manages. My grandson puts him into a chair and the world changes. Everything is a haze, once again. Like a drunken night when you don’t remember what happened or how. My kind and beautiful daughter-in-law and her daughters stare a bit too long at me. It is weird, because they could never spare a few seconds for me before. And then it begins. My silk saree swaps places with a cotton khadi. My gold bangles soon exchange hands, and disappear in whispers and folds. Glass ones are forced on that tear the skin on my wrist, but I don’t feel a thing. Next come the earrings, anklets, the neck chain, and last to lose place is the golden cap on my tooth.

I am newly born.

And then over calls, they create an uproar. If telephones had hearts, I swear, they would’ve cried a river. Soon after there’s the obvious affair – people pouring, neighbors enquiring, the haters rejoicing, the admirers grieving. I take it all in with a solemn mind. Women of the family enquiring after things that hardly matter – What really happened? How it happened? Who was the last one I spoke to? What did I last eat? For weeks, for months, I had longed for this company.

I was pining in vain, for those in vain.

Later, they bathe me, dress me up, the red saree, my wedding saree, I had wished for my final journey is tucked away carefully by my daughter-in-law. When someone asks for it, ever so conveniently she replies of never having heard of such a thing. I left my body while my husband lives so essentially I am to be dressed up like a bride, as per rituals. But I look a widow. In both, body and soul. I can’t say that’s my vessel. After all, in all our living moments, what do we love more than this sack of skin? We care for it, adorn it, pamper it, more than anything else. But after breath has abandoned it, it is to be dealt with, by those you either loved or hated, as they deem fit.

You are mere spectacle of a show you don’t run anymore.

My daughter arrives. She won’t leave my side. The rest of my family are careful not to get any closer. What is it about a lifeless body that humans are so scared of? Isn’t it the vultures in disguise you live with, love as your own flesh and blood, you should be scared of? I am telling you this – I’ve learnt it over my dead body that carcasses won’t do you harm as your own kin are capable of. This pack that surrounds me now, I know them all. I know their tears, their hearts, and the malices within. I wish there was  a pinch of love, genuine grieving I could feel now, and this lonely journey ahead wouldn’t feel such a tedious burden.

I’ve seen enough. I’m ready to leave.

Sturdy hands lift me up. Two on each side. My final bedding is prepared. They sprinkle holy water and place garlands over me. I am in a haze. My last moments on earth. I am too heartbroken at the revelation of the hidden faces of people, their true motives, their real feelings. But there is something that is holding me back. I look around. My world is empty, without him, it feels emptier still. I glide past the hoards of people. These faces that don’t care. But I seek just one thing, one face, one final glimpse, one last wish I want to make.

Where is he?

They’ve lifted me on their shoulders. A burden they are not happy to bear. I feel their drooping shoulders, cursing to be rid of the weight fast. And I know I don’t have time left. I have to leave. I am running now. At last, I see a figure walking away from the crowd. He can barely move. I run into him, and he stops in his step. I know he feels my presence. I know he knows I’m there. He stares right at me. Bloodshot eyes. He is too drunk on his eternal loss.

I stare back. A last glimpse. Until we meet again.

But what do I see? His face is buried in his chest. His hands are folded at his stomach. He is holding a pair of sandals. We live a thousand memories from birthdays, anniversaries, the movies, parties, dinners, our special ones, in just a few seconds. He is looking at me. He holds the sandals tighter. And I feel a squeeze in my chest. I know there’s no such thing as breath now, and yet I choke on breathlessness. Then I’m hugging him, holding him, so hard, as a parting gift, I want to take away his pain, and then I’m crying. His tears run afresh. It rips my soul into a thousand pieces. And then it’s time for me to leave.

15 years ago…

Amrita is waiting for me in the lobby. Our dinner schedule is delayed, thanks to Ravi’s client meeting. He enters in just in time for me to leave, and has a horrible headache, he complains. I know that isn’t true. He hates having to be alone without me. I’ll be back before you know, I tell him. I turn to the door and I realise, my sandals are missing. I had taken them off the shoe rack just a few minutes ago and now they’re gone. I know the culprit and go to his room. He denies at first, but soon takes them out from under his work table. ‘Just this evening. I won’t ever ask you to cancel your plans for me,’ he pleads.

I smile, and so does he, because he knows he’s won me over. ‘Just so you know – not always, will hiding away my sandals, help you. One of these days, I’ll go without them.’ He flashes his brightest smile as he walks over to me. ‘Thank you. I’ll try to never mess up your plans again,’ he says pulling me into a hug. I look into his eyes and relish the mischief dancing there.

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© Asha Seth

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