It is a quiet Friday morning. Sitting by the window in his bedroom, Sankaran watches the street bustling with activity. Men hurrying to work, children walking to school, and women, busy with their daily chores – some sending off their husbands and children, a few rushing to work themselves, some getting back from the temple. He also sees the old men and women warming up their feet for the day. Even as the world goes on with its life at a hectic pace, Sankaran has very little to do, at least that morning.
“Vasu..” he calls out, “Get me coffee.”
A retired man, sitting in a house that he has proudly called his own in the last 30 years, Sankaran lets his memories take charge – a sort of planned indulgence for the morning.
He recollects the story that saw its beginning almost four decades back.
The year was 1970. The start to Sankaran’s married life had been somewhat reel-life like. He had spotted Vasundhara in his family friend Swami’s wedding. The bride, Neela, was Swami’s classmate. Swami was about eight years younger to him and Sankaran’s mother hadn’t failed to remind him then that it was high time he got married as well. As was his practice in those days, Sankaran had simply kept mum. Marriage had never interested him, till of course he had landed his eyes on that young girl, who had fluttered around in Swami’s wedding.
When Sankaran saw Vasu, he had realized that he desperately wanted to live with the girl, only with her. It was as if some divine hand had pulled the strings of the so-long dormant bell inside his heart. Vasu was dressed in a mango-yellow, green-border silk saree that day. She had worn her thick black hair in a single plait that ran well below her waist, and had decorated it with dense strings of jasmine. Sankaran’s eyes had followed her wherever she went, as she laughed around with a bunch of people – whom he had presumed to be cousins or friends.
Within a week from the wedding, Sankaran had discovered that her name was Vasundara and that she was the daughter of a retired teacher in Triplicane. He had also found out that she was Swami and Neela’s classmate at the Presidency College, Chennai. Exactly a week from the day he had seen her, Sankaran’s mother had met Vasu’s parents, exchanged horoscopes and soon, he had visited her place, for the official girl-seeing.
Vasu’s dad had been exceptionally impressed with Sankaran. After all, he held a masters degree in Physics, a big thing in those days. Add to that, a cozy government job, and who wouldn’t have been impressed?
Sankaran could still remember how his mother had beamed, proud of her son’s choice, when Vasu came around with coffee and snacks. It seemed like she was quietly celebrating the fact that Sankaran’s refusal to marry all those days had indeed been for a good ending.
He had married his dream girl exactly a month from that day. During their first night together, he had been visibly nervous. When Vasu had stepped in, he had felt a strange feeling surge through his body. Her beauty had had that narcotic effect on him. Sankaran had slowly and hesitantly moved his hand to hold hers, but she had quickly withdrawn, looked at him straight and said, “I need time.”
All he had said in reply was, “ok, I understand.”
A voice interrupts Sankaran’s train of thoughts. It is Varshini, his first daughter. “Appa, Coffee.” Sankaran nods. Varshini looks around the room, glances her father’s way and quickly leaves.
Sankaran places the cup of coffee on the wooden table next to the bed. It is his wife’s writing desk – been one for years. A scratch pad is left open and pens and pencils lie scattered around. There is a picture of Vasu and him, smiling gently, feeling totally at ease, framed and placed at the right corner. There are few of Vasu’s books – books of her favorite authors – in the small rack above. He had got that designed for her for their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. The desk looks a typical writer’s desk. A reflection of his wife’s deepest love, her nature at the very core that she had tried to preserve over the years. After all, she had been a literature student.
Sankaran runs his fingers over the table, they tremble slightly and he breaks into a sweat. The house is quiet. The radio is not on. This is the time Vasu usually visits the temple. But, not that day.
Two weeks back, before leaving for the temple, Vasu had, as was the routine, placed the filter coffee for him in a duvrah tumbler on the table and turned. The next thing Sankaran had heard was a thud and she was on the floor. He had rushed to her side – and grabbed her into his arms. But, the life in her eyes had ebbed out and a glazed look had taken over, as he held her helplessly. Her lips had worn a vague smile and were slightly parted. Perhaps she had wanted to utter Shanka, for one last time.
It was a massive heart attack – the second one in six months.
Slowly, Sankaran gathers himself and walks back to the window.
His wife’s death was the biggest challenge that life had thrown at him. What was he to do - He still had not stopped calling her for coffee. The last few days had indeed been difficult. Her absence had been painful and he had found it almost impossible to cope.
As he absent mindedly sips the coffee, Sankaran recollects how women had always played a crucial role in his life. His dad had passed away when he was too young to even comprehend death; forget that, even distinguish between presence and absence. His mother had been his world, till he had seen Vasu. With his mother still alive and Vasu gone, he had come face to face with the harsh reality of the death of a dear one – try how much ever he could not accept it gracefully.
Sankaran recalls how Vasu was different. She had always enjoyed the company of men. Vasu’s best world had always featured them. In fact, she had agreed to their marriage for the sole reason that her father, her role model, was thoroughly impressed with Sankaran. What’s more – Swami had been her best friend. He had always visited the Sankarans at least twice a week, for their homes were just two streets apart.
Not just that, while Sankaran felt the proudest father after Varshini and Haasini’s birth, Vasu had insisted that she wanted a third child. “I need a son to prank around with,” she had said and her belief had come true. With Sashank, their lives, more importantly hers, had come a full circle.
Sankaran had always felt that his wife’s beauty had a particular boldness and her character, a certain firmness – one that would attract men. Her sharp eyes along with her graceful appearance had always remained a deadly combination.
It was that very boldness that had given her character a defiant touch – the woman who had said a no to his approach in the beginning.
Yet, Sankaran could never forget that one particular night, when they had sat in the balcony, gazing at stars, while Haasini and Varshini slept inside. It was that time he had popped a question.
“Vasu, I had wanted to ask you this when I came to see you at your house for the first time, but we never had the chance to speak.”
She had turned around, a little surprised,
“hmm..what is it?”
“What do you think about marriage?” he had asked matter-of-factly.
Vasu had taken his hand into hers, a rare gesture – and had told him – marriage was about boundless love, unquestioning faith, and accepting each other’s eccentricities as much as their lovable traits. “Marriage is you and me,” she had said.
Sankaran had found her soft nature so wonderful, so refreshingly different from her often bold self. He had even wished she stayed like that always. But, he had quickly dismissed that idea for it was these rare displays of her demure side that had made her real personality all the more beautiful.
Yet, she had transformed, through all those years of their being together. The reason, he had never been sure of. But, Sankaran could remember a few instances, when she had been as tender as she could get. The change had happened slowly in those in-between years of listening to Binaca Geet Mala huddled together(Khilte Hain Gul Yahaan had been their favourite, one that had sparked the first act of love between them), of secretly dancing together for “Unnidam Mayangugiren”(Vasu had taught the shy Sankaran to shake his leg), of becoming parents and feeling responsible for the lives of their children – and till her last day, Sankaran’s sweet gesture of buying jasmine strings for her almost every other day. (Jasmine and her husband’s move used to melt her each time and she had never failed to reveal that to Sankaran by looking straight into his eyes and beaming a divine smile.)
“Sankara..”, someone calls out. It is Swami. He gently puts a hand on Sankaran’s shoulder.
“How are you?”
Sankaran smiles and sighs. Nods.
“When are the kids leaving?”
“Varshini is going to be here for a week with her sons. Haasini is leaving tomorrow for Bangalore. Sashank has to get back to work on Monday. He is flying to Bombay on Sunday. Both of them have told me that they would visit me soon.”
Swami presses Sankaran’s hand.
“I have something for you.”
Swami hands over a white envelope with the words “For Mr.Sankaran” written in bright green ink. “It is from Karthi,” Swami informs him. “He left for the U.S. today morning.”
Sankaran is surprised.
Swami turns to leave. He stops near the door. “Sankara,” he hesitates, “any help please ask me.”
Sankaran raises his hand to acknowledge. He looks at the envelope. Karthikeyan had visited their house three days after Vasu’s death. Swami had introduced him as their – his and Vasu’s classmate at college.
He opens the envelope and finds a few pages clipped together. He immediately recognizes the handwriting. It is Vasu’s.
30th March 2008
It’s been 38 years. Yes, I have broken the promise. I asked Swami about you yesterday. I know you didn’t, all these years, which is why I have always been proud of you. You kept your word and that is one of the many reasons why I love the man you are. Wait a while till I tell you why am finally writing to you.
Don’t ironies rule our lives? Remember what our dear friend Swami had said on the day he had wedded our darling Neela? He was so sure that the next wedding would be ours – you and me – Karthikeyan weds Vasundara. Ah, those remained just words. The other irony – the poor fellow had said he would come to the marriage with his son. Those beautiful souls have been so unlucky. They haven’t had a kid and continue to be each other’s child. And the third irony, I have two men in my life – one who did not marry because of me and the other who married because of me.
Life is such a weird experience, you know, Karthi. It wants to keep us on our toes, keep guessing what’s going to come up next. It often tests our ability to stay balanced through happiness and sorrow. Of course, it is an altogether different point that happiness or sorrow is the creation of our mind – essentially a perspective. But, we being what we are, plain human beings, have evolved a boring pattern of seeing things. Something as simple as –when things go our way, we are happy, and when they don’t, we are just that- plain sad. So much so that, we don’t even take an effort look beyond a point and see what we can do to go ahead. But, I have learnt to change myself.
I gather from Swami that you teach Journalism in the U.S. You have lived your dream, haven’t you? But, why didn’t you marry, Karthi? I have to tell you what a beautiful experience it has been – to have a caring husband, to have lovely children. A family can make even the worst of challenges seem conquerable. I really wish you had married. But, knowing you, I understand you made up your mind. I remember the last conversation we had before my marriage. I am indeed delighted you have found your happiness in your profession.
I am sure you think – if you call me the man who doesn’t budge after he makes up his mind, what is she? You are right. After all, I was the one who adamantly made you promise that you wouldn’t ask a word about me to Swami. Looking back, I wonder today, if what I did was right. I mean, I did not breathe a word about this to Shanka. Have I betrayed him by holding back the ghosts of my past? But, what do I do? I was worried that it would lead to unrest in all our lives. Perhaps, I have been selfish too.
I should admit that there have been many times when I had wanted to share it all with him. But, I was afraid, very much, that I would lose the affection of a loving husband. Shanka is a gem, Karthi. He made me realize that you can definitely rediscover love in a new person. I don’t have an iota of regret that I agreed to this marriage. My life indeed feels so complete. We have two daughters and a son, who fill our lives with delight. And then, there are the grandchildren too. But, you never know how certain matters can turn the flow of life.
I am sure you will be happy for me, aren’t you? I am often plagued by guilt that I dramatically altered the course of your life. Pulled you into something that finally never materialized. I perhaps didn’t understand the workings of the society back then. I should have put as much heart into that as I had done in loving you – truly, madly, deeply. I never really understood back then what it meant to belong to an orthodox family, to be a daughter who never went against her father’s words, but still out of a stupid boldness chose to fall in love with a man of another caste.
But, what was I to do? During our days together, I didn’t even know when I fell in love. It just happened and when my dad objected, it was as if my whole world had come to an end. What an irony again, that the same marriage in which we spoke of our wedding, my husband decided that I would be his life partner. What strange patterns fate creates!
But as they say, all is for good. Of late, Shanka seems very worried and I am deeply troubled. Why? Because I have a weak heart – quite ironically, not mentally, but physically. I suffered my first attack (a mild one) a few months back and ever since Shanka has been broken. I know he is smiling for my sake, to keep me happy. I smile too, to make him happy. I am worried Karthi, as to what he would do after the eventual thing happens. No, I am not being pessimistic. It may happen anytime, that’s what the doctors say. But, I am insistent (adamant?) that I will carry out certain aspects of my daily routine even now – like my temple visits and some cooking.
Why I am writing to you is for this. I have a responsibility to complete. I need to tell Shanka everything, before it is too late, but in your presence. I want you to meet him, and I want to tell all that I have told you now to him, while you are there. I know I am asking for a costly help – an unreasonable thing to expect – asking you to come down all the way. But, if you can do it, I will be really happy. It’s been so long, Karthi. I want to see you.
You can write to me or call me or if you still don’t want to do these, at least keep Swami posted of your plans. My house address and phone no. are enclosed.
Here’s what all that your wife wanted to tell you. I wish we had had a happier get together. I am terribly sorry for what happened to you and it was unfortunate that I had to meet you under these circumstances. I considered it an absolutely wrong time to reveal what Vasu wanted to share, when we met.
The truth is that I received her letter a day before I was scheduled to leave for India for a seminar. But, by the time I had landed in Chennai and tried your number, someone answered the call to give me the bad news. Destiny’s designs, they are so fuzzy. Aren’t they?
Sankaran, I really don’t know what’s running in your mind now. But, I need to tell you this – you are a nice man with a good heart. I gather Vasu was really happy being with you. You made her life truly beautiful.
I wish the days ahead are filled with peace for you, ones in which you go back again and again to those evergreen memories of your days together; ones that make you smile.
And here’s something that would unlock the gates to those memories. It belongs to you.
Sankaran turns the paper and to it is clipped a rare colour photograph of Vasu – in the mango- yellow and green-border saree – taken during Swami’s wedding.
He holds the picture and as he watches, a tear trickles down and wets the photograph. He is perplexed. Should he feel guilty that he snatched Vasu away from the man she had loved? Or should he think why she considered him a stranger to not tell him something from her past? Was he that stiff? He did not know. But, all he knew was that Vasu had grown to love him, through the years.
He walks towards her photograph hanging on the wall and touches the jasmine string adorning it. “Vasu,” he mutters and breaks down, inconsolably.