I feared him more. It’s not just the hammering of the heart but the way it now hammered. More in the throat like a woodpecker’s beak beating into my gullet. Sometimes I wondered if my hair glistened with fear. Could Harsh actually see it go wet with clamminess? But why would he notice? He would take the time instead to examine himself, the bald patch at the back of his head so he could cover it carefully with limp strands of dyed hair; to brood sorrowfully on the little bulge at his waistline till he had sucked in all his breath in wish-fulfilment.
When did my fear worsen? It began much after I had started on the sleeping pills. It was Lekha who had suggested I see a doctor so I could sleep better at night. That’s all I could tell her – my friend from childhood – that I wasn’t getting enough sleep at night. The doctor had suggested I take the pills for a month and then stop. But I didn’t, couldn’t stop as they helped me through the night and sometimes through the day, especially when I took extra. Then one day I did stop them, though they remained at hand, always at hand. That’s when I took up the business of supplying clothes to boutiques, thanks to our old cook telling me casually one day that the mali1’s wife knew traditional sujani embroidery. I had her come over and soon enough a whole art form unfolded in our garage with the mali’s wife training more women to sew together patches of colored cloth and embroider on them folkish motifs in simple running stitch. Like my other initiatives, he had allowed them for a while, sometimes for a long while, and then the deliberate anger, the vehement anger. He had yelled at the huddle of women in the garage and thrown them out with the stocks after them. What was the pretext? It didn’t matter, the pretext never mattered.
I went back to the sleeping pills. It was only after the breathlessness and disorientation began that I summoned the courage to speak to Lekha. She could not take it in at first, not even my mildest version – of what lay behind Harsh the charmer, the successful real estate businessman, the plethora of social friendships.
“Does he hit you, Malti?” she had asked with innocent shock.
At my silence, she had urged, “I mean does he actually hit you… like with his hands or a…? When he is drunk?”
“He doesn’t have to drink.”
After a long pause, she said: “You said you could not have children. But you must have wanted a child. I often wondered why you both had never gone to a fertility specialist.”
“He did not want children. He made sure. He had a vasectomy done soon after we married.”
“A vasectomy? But men don’t go in for vasectomies… wait a minute; he had a vasectomy done even before you had conceived? God… what are you saying?”
I let it soak in. “But you could have adopted a child, Malti. There are good adoption agencies now and they are helpful.”
“You don’t understand, Lekha,” I said. “Life is only about him. His business, his trips, his friends, his bar cabinet, his bed, his hair cut, his massage, his hangover, his…”
“But you are also you, Malti. You have so much talent. You’ve held classes in flower arrangements, taught children folk tales, designed patterns for boutiques. You do yoga. You have people you are close to – maybe not your parents but your brother Tushar, your masi2 Manorama, me.”
“I don’t feel attractive to anyone,” I said flatly. “My talents don’t make me attractive even to myself. They don’t reach this secret I carry in my soul: that I live with a man who cannot care for anyone but himself; that I live so I can cater to his self-obsession. I feel breathless all the time; my chest goes so tight...”
“You must go to a psychoanalyst, Malti, to a counselor, to someone. You cannot manage this alone. Can you confide in Tushar? America is continents apart, yes; but it’s also just an email away… from a sister.”
A sister. How does a sister tell her distant brother after years and years that she fears her husband even more than before? He barely suspected she feared him at all in the first place, despite his tease that she was a suppressed little Hindu wife.
My fears increased around the time that land prices crashed. Harsh had gotten used to buying cheap and selling dear – buying cheap and selling dear. The crash finished all that. To get land somehow, he and his cohorts tried to forcibly take over village common lands beyond Gurgaon through illegal transfers by conniving with panchayat members and local politicians. There were enquiries when the villagers protested. His name was in the news, and for days I worried about the papers he had made me sign. He must have paid a lot to hush it all up, for the one thing he could not suffer was a crack in his image. He let the dust raised by the media settle down before refurbishing himself. He purchased a brand new SUV, had the terrace re-laid to grow Mexican grass and took me on a cruise abroad.
We had just returned from that impossibly blue cruise and Harsh had been pacing the back garden, glued to his cell phone.
Back in our bedroom he eyed himself gloomily in the full length mirror. Then breaking away, he turned to me as I tried reading to exclaim, “Those bastards.”
The woodpecker’s hammer started in my throat. I took a deep breath.
“Those peasant bastards want their land back,” he said. “It’s common land. What is it worth? A few trees to chop down for fuel? Some grass to feed bony cattle? In that god-forsaken land we could build high-rise buildings of chrome and glass; homes that resemble villas and castles. Like Gurgaon.”
“But won’t the panchayats allow that to happen? Local officials and politicians usually help.” I asked obliquely.
“They did but now the bastards are changing their line and talking of restoring common property. To serve local peasants who can grow things for themselves. Livelihood they call it – the two-faced bastards.”
“I read about it. The government plans to invest in forestry and train locals to form groups to manage these commons.”
“So?” He waited to reach the toilet. “Why do you leave your brush with this bloody mess of hair in it?” My heavy hair brush came whizzing out, missing my head by a whisker.
My throat throbbed as if the woodpecker was using a sledgehammer instead of her beak. I decided to find a counselor.
I searched the net again and again till I stood before this cool modest institution, with flowers in the front lawn and a spacious garden at the back, offering services that were free. I liked my counselor Sarita so I came only during her timings. She never pushed, listened quietly, like as if she was trained to be someone else – without emotions, pleasantly without emotions – till my whole dark and festering secret was out.
One day she asked, “You mentioned that your husband suffered violence as a child. What sort of violence?”
“His father was an alcoholic; he would beat his mother.”
“How do you view his relations with his parents?”
“His father died before we married. But his mother made him feel he was a prince from some other era. If he bought a car he went straight to show it off to her, so he could bask in her lavish praise. It was the same for everything he bought and did. Oh, she knew how to praise him. I used to wonder why he never let her live with us. Then I realized he only used her to be praised. And… used me to demean me.”
“Can you be yourself with him? Like show affection and warmth because you feel affection and warmth?”
“No. How can one be natural if one is either abused or seduced? He can’t let go of me. It’s as if as long as I am around he doesn’t have to face the fact that he feels completely hollow inside.”
“Hollow. He lives his life without any guilt, without allowing any conflict that would call for some soul searching. If he feels stress, he vents his anger on me. If I confront him, he abuses me verbally or hits me. He sleeps most peacefully after both. It is me who trembles through the night, despite the sleeping pills.”
“Are your pills on prescription?”
Sarita referred me to a psychiatrist. But I clung to her. I told her of the party. Harsh was hosting it at home. I started a fever that morning that touched 102 degrees Fahrenheit by the evening. He forced me to stand and smile through the evening. By the night, I had collapsed into a haze of delirium.
Sarita helped me see that I would have to involve Lekha more, and tell Tushar the truth. If enough people who cared for me confronted Harsh with what lay behind his mask, he would have to face the man behind the charm. It was a dangerous reality to face, a double-edged sword. There could be a severe backlash. Or he could actually concede to being helped.
I suddenly realized that I would have to leave Harsh. Leave Harsh. I had to find a chair. The realization came with a great rush of relief, but left with the same rush. The woodpecker throbbed at my throat in frenzy. Yet I could open my laptop and stare at the blue screen without any hesitation.
“Dear Tushar… I am ready to talk now of an ugly truth that has plagued my life for 25 long years… I have to leave him, it is impossible now to do anything else.” It was a long mail that left me more exhausted than relieved.
Tushar swung into action swifter than I thought. He talked to masi Manorama long-distance and urged her to have me stay with her for a while till I could sort out my future. Despite the shock, poor masi willingly agreed. But was it going to be really that simple? My simply leaving with a few things till some settlement could be worked out for me to live independently from him?
I asked this question of Sarita in that cool bare counselor’s room where we sat one afternoon. I added, “I already see him as a phantom figure everywhere. I am here – 15 kms from home – and I just see him go down this very lane in his new SUV. He has no idea I am in counseling. The other day I saw him walk past the coffee shop where Lekha and me sat by the glass facade.”
For the first time I saw Sarita stiffen. “Will you feel safe after you leave him?”
“Masi offers only safety and love.”
“Yes, but deep inside your husband is dependent on you. What will your leaving him do to him?”
“He will have to face himself as he really is. No dump pit, no punching bag at hand.”
She waited. I said, “The problem is that his image will suffer a big blow – his charm, his big-spend generosity, his success.”
My laugh sounded harsh, “First of all, I have to deal with my own fear. It seems to be throttling me. It should not be there at all, if I am leaving him – putting him at a safe distance; making sense of my future; my future, at last.”
“Will he persuade you to return to him?”
“Yes, he will.”
She waited. “But I won’t go back. I can’t.”
The day I left Harsh was strangely like a picnic. I had packed my bags and hidden them in the garage under a tarpaulin. I waited till we finished breakfast together. Then I jerked up from the table to announce to him that I was leaving him. Lekha was there a few minutes later. The cook and mali loaded my stuff into Lekha’s and my car boots and we drove away without so much as a backward glance.
Tushar, masi and Lekha: my community strategy, my community. Despite masi’s gentle unease with my situation, I settled into her life with her dogs, her ancient servant, her daily walks, and her Bhagavad Gita classes. We talked regularly to Tushar. He said he would try and come by Christmas – a month away – so we could start the process of legal separation and financial settlement. It would have to be a court battle as we knew Harsh would not agree to a divorce by mutual consent.
Then I saw Harsh at the department store in masi’s neighborhood. My heart hammered as I lurched towards the exit door. What was Harsh doing here? An hour later he called masi. Despite her extreme reluctance to talk, he put her at ease as if for him to call and chat to her was the most normal thing in the world. Then he asked to speak to me but I waved the phone off vehemently. I thought I saw disappointment in masi’s eyes. But she did not refer to the issue.
Then his calls to me began. I let the phone ring till I counted 12 missed calls in two days. I switched off my phone for a while. When I switched it on again, there were 12 messages from him. Then nothing. When he called two weeks later, I answered and let him talk. He pleaded that I return to him, that he had seen his mistakes, which he wanted to set right – badly. He begged that I give him one chance, just one chance. If it then didn’t work, he would accept it. Agree to a divorce, work out a settlement by mutual consent and let me go. His voice broke again and again. I called off. It was masi who pleaded with me to consider his need – pleaded silently, vocally, reasonably, persuasively – as if we had had a lover’s spat. When I agreed to return to give Harsh one last chance, we kept it as a pact between masi and me. But the woodpecker had begun to hammer in my throat.
By the time Tushar could reach India, Malti had been cremated and the chautha3 ceremony concluded. Suicide, said the newspapers. ‘Suicide, overdose of sleeping pills, depression’ were the keywords that stood out in public glare. Malti’s picture, the same picture was everywhere. She smiled at Tushar with innocent eyes. He had to tear his eyes off the pages to return to studying a copy of the post mortem report. Apparent cause of death: excess use of sleeping pills with evidence of anti-emetic drugs. Anti-emetic drugs? He checked out their meaning only later – to learn they prevented vomiting. Before that, he had already stridden into the room of the officer-in-charge of the police headquarters. To record a First Information Report suspecting murder.
1. Mali: Gardener.
2. Masi: Mother’s sister.
3. Chautha: A Punjabi ceremony held after the third day of a death when the ashes are collected and immersed in a holy river and a prayer ceremony performed to conclude this ritual.