It was a busy start to the day as usual. Everyone called out for Chitra.
“Bahu, where is my lota of water?” her father-in-law asked in the middle of his puja.
“Mom, where are my breakfast and milk? I am getting late for school,” Parth, her ten-year-old son, yelled.
“Chitra, have you seen my belt? I am not able to find it,” her husband, Gopal, shouted from their bedroom.
“Bhabhi, it’s scorching in the terrace,” Samyak, her brother-in-law called out from halfway through his gym routine. “Can I have a glass of water, please?”
“Be right there,” she shouted from the kitchen at the top of her lungs, hoping that her voice reached all of them.
She turned back to finish her work. All four of the hob’s burners had something cooking in them at varying degrees of heat. The cutlery was neatly arranged in a three-rack shelf hung beside the cabinet. Assorted jars holding myriad spices stood organised on one side of the kitchen counter. She was furiously searching for a condiment amongst them, not being able to recall the colour of the container that contained the same. A strong aroma from the kitchen permeated the rest of the house.
Chitra was the only woman in the household of five. Her mother-in-law had died long before she had entered the house as Gopal’s wife. The two of them had met and fallen in love at the National Police Academy. Both of them had entered into wedlock when they were posted as police officers. The pregnancy within six months of marriage led her to quit her job and focus on her family full time. Her rebellious teenaged brother-in-law also required a mother figure to look after him.
Chitra had forgotten the promises she had made to her younger self and was happy in the family.
That morning she had gotten up from bed later than usual. She had awakened at the regular time and waited for her husband to get up. When Gopal did, he was surprised to see Chitra still in bed.
“Are you alright?” Gopal had asked, concerned.
“Yes,” she said.
“Then isn’t it late for breakfast and other tasks? Everyone would be up starting their day.”
Chitra had looked at him, inwardly sighed, and got up.
Now, struggling in the kitchen, she smiled ruefully. Everyone simultaneously made different demands on her, thinking that she was some sort of a wizard and not a human being. Even she had forgotten herself amid the humdrum of her daily life.
‘We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were,’ Chitra mused while shuffling the boiling pasta stock with her ladle, willing it to cook fast.
She adored her family; they meant the world to her. She had lost track of her aspirations, dreams, and desires while taking care of them. But was she anything more to them apart from a worker who made their lives convenient?
She forced the thought out of her mind and stepped out of the kitchen with both her hands occupied. She first went to the puja room and put the lota of holy water beside the idols in the mandir. Babuji was not there. Very unusual of him to leave the puja in the middle.
She then went to Parth’s room. “Have the milk first; breakfast will soon be ready,” she said in an autopilot mode. But her son wasn’t in the room. His room seemed different with the bed made up, the previous night’s clothes sorted in the clothes basket, and no loud music deafening the ears.
‘Perhaps he is in the bathroom,’ Chitra thought and knocked on the door. It was empty.
She kept the milk on her son’s table and hurried out with a sense of foreboding in her heart.
She dashed to their bedroom to speak to her husband. The room was empty.
Where is everyone? Could all of them have gone to the terrace?
She dashed to the terrace, climbing the stairs two at a time.
Even before she entered the open door, Chitra could make out that no one was at the terrace. In despair, she steadied herself against the railing, and her eyes went down to the basement garden of their home.
She blinked lest her eyes were misleading her.
The garden was decorated with balloons and sprinklers. A table holding an enormous three-layered Black Forrestor cake was placed at the centre of the garden. “Happy Birthday Chitra” was boldly engraved on top of this cake.
Before she could react, a chorus of Happy Birthday broke on the ground. All her family members were gathered around the table, set for the celebrations.
“Happy birthday, Bahu,” her father-in-law said.
“Many happy returns of the day, Chitra,” her husband echoed.
“Have a great birthday, mom,” her son quipped.
“Bhabhi, happy birthday,” Samyak chimed in.
Tears of joy sprang in Chitra’s eyes. This was such a lovely surprise.
“Would you come down, Bahu?” her father-in-law implored. “We all are waiting for you to cut the cake.”
Chitra nodded through her tears and turned to climb down the stairs. She couldn’t wait to join her family in the park.
In her hurry, she overlooked the stray dumble lying down on one side at the apex of the staircase. It came below Chitra’s foot, and she slipped down the stairs.
Thud. Everyone outside heard the loud noise as Chitra’s head hit the ground floor. They ran inside to see her lying unconscious on her back. The white marble floor was interspersed with drops of trickling red from somewhere at the back of her head.
“Gopal, call an ambulance,” his father ordered even as Chitra’s husband stood transfixed at the sight.
“You brought her in time,” the doctor said to Gopal. They were at the city’s largest hospital, near their home, and the doctor had just come out after attending to Chitra. “We were able to stem the blood loss. Miraculously, there are no internal injuries. We will keep her in observation for today. If everything is fine, you can take her home tomorrow.”
Gopal turned back to his family members. The relief in his father’s eyes reflected the feelings of his heart. Samyak closed his eyes while Parth cried out in relief. None of them had taken a drop of water for the last two hours as they waited at the hospital.
“Can we meet Chitra?” the older man asked the doctor.
“She is conscious now, though still in shock. Only one person may go at a time, please. Also, one of you may stay here as an attendant.”
“You go and meet her first, Gopal,” his father said.
Gopal nodded. They walked outside the doctor’s room. While the others sat down in the waiting lounge, Gopal briskly crossed the corridor to take the lift on the far right. He pressed the button for the fourth floor and impatiently waited to reach his destination.
Chitra gave a wan smile as soon as she saw him. A white sheet covered her body on the bed. A saline drip ran from the palm of her right hand to the stand beside her.
“Happy Birthday,” Gopal said.
“Thank You. In the morning when you awoke, I thought that you had forgotten,” she confided.
“How could I? Though I wished that we had planned for a simple celebration as always. Then you would not have ended like this.”
“It is not your fault that I slipped,” Chitra said firmly.
“What was the need for such a hurry?” he admonished her.
“Out of habit,” she said. “Plus, I was very excited.”
“What if something had happened to you?” he asked, trying to keep his voice from quivering.
“Nothing has happened to me. Nothing will. How are the others?”
“Worried sick about you. All of them are here.”
“Take me home, Gopal,” she entreated.
“Tomorrow, dear. You will be kept under observation today. I will stay back with you.”
“I am feeling fine, just a little bit tired. Please ask the doctor to discharge me today itself. I don’t want to spend my birthday here. We can consult him over the phone if required. I want to celebrate the day with all of you,” she pleaded.
Gopal looked at his wife’s earnest face and clasped her hand in both of his. He saw the fearless girl that he had fallen in love with all those years ago. She was one of the top police officers in their batch. Sometimes, even though he had not expressed this to her, he felt guilty of clipping her wings by tying her down in domestic responsibilities.
“You will have a wonderful birthday celebration at home. Let me talk to the doctor,” Gopal reassured her. Chitra’s lips parted wide.
Chitra was glad to be back at her home. Her son had greeted her with squeals of delight when she had come out of the hospital room. The happiness was visible in her father and brother-in-law’s faces. They had travelled the short distance back quietly.
An eerily silent house had greeted them on return. The perpetual hustle-bustle in the place had given way to quiet apprehension. The short journey had made Chitra tired, and Gopal straightaway made her lie down in bed.
It felt strange to Chitra to be the one to take rest while others took care of her and the house. Gopal had taken leave from work and took charge of the kitchen. Samyak said that he will supervise the cleaning maid for a few days. Her son, who had missed school, was reticent and uncomplaining. Her father-in-law was the family’s calm figurehead cheering up all during the storm that had fortunately passed them.
Chitra had her birthday celebrations later in the evening. Along with the three-layered cake, sumptuous food was also ordered from outside.
“I don’t cook as well as you, and you deserve to eat well today for several reasons. So I ordered this mixed cuisine from outside,” Gopal explained.
Chitra, who in the ordinary course would have frowned upon the indulgence and extravagance of consuming unhealthy food cooked outside the home, smiled at her husband.
Samyak lighted a candle at the centre of the cake and wheeled the table near the bed while Gopal helped Chitra to get up. Chitra slowly took the knife in her hand and blew the candle.
“Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday dear Bahu/Bhabhi/Mummy/Chitra. Happy birthday to you.” The chorus was deafening.
Chitra looked at her family with teary eyes. She felt fortunate to be surrounded by so much love.
“Thank you,” she said. “I am so happy to be here, celebrating my special day with you all, after what happened earlier in the morning.”
“You gave us all quite a scare, Bahu. We had all prepared a lot for this special day. Little did we know that our surprise will lead to this unfortunate incident.” Everybody was quiet for a few seconds before her father-in-law continued, “Everyone kindly stick to a predictable routine in the future. No more surprises in our house, please.”
A few chuckles were to be heard before Chitra’s devar said quietly, “Bhabhi, it was all because of me. You always tell me to put everything in its proper place. If only I had kept the dumble at its proper place and not left it lying where it was in my hurry.”
“Forget it, Samyak,” Chitra said. “No one can stop what is destined. I am ok now.”
Gopal and Chitra’s bedroom became a dining room for the rest of the evening as the family bonded over food, laughter, and life.
“I had a great birthday today, the fall notwithstanding,” Chitra said to her husband. Both of them were curled up on the bed. The lights were off, though neither of them was sleepy. “Thanks to your convincing skills in making the doctor relent.”
“To be honest, I wasn’t convinced myself about your discharge. I didn’t want you to suffer from any complications later. God knows how I could convince the doctor. But I sure am glad to have you home with me,” Gopal said softly. He clasped her hand.
Both of them listened to the silence in the room.
“Gopal,” Chitra whispered after a few minutes, “Now that Parth is reasonably grown-up and Samyak is independent, I was thinking of pursuing some activity outside the home. Perhaps some interest group, hobby classes, or even a part-time job.”
“Why a part-time job, Chitra?” Gopal asked. “You may even think about taking up a full-time job.”
“What?” Chitra was astonished. She hadn’t expected Gopal to be this supportive.
“Why not? I am sorry, Chitra. I have been guilty of making you sacrifice your career. Even though I hadn’t explicitly told you to do so, I did nothing to discourage you from nipping a flourishing career in the bud to look after my family and me.” Gopal was emotional.
“It is my family too, Gopal.”
“True, you are the integral fulcrum binding the family together. I was too occupied with my work to see your youth fade away under the burden of responsibilities. The smile of the carefree young girl that I fell in love with has vanished from our constant demands. When you were at the hospital, somewhere, I saw that girl crying. I don’t want her to cry anymore.”
Chitra was silent.
“What is in your mind, Chitra? Do what you want to do. I will support you. Do you want to give it a try in the police force once more?”
“Oh no. That is a closed chapter. Right now, I have a vague idea to explore converting my passion for writing into a pursuit. You remember the stories and poems that I used to write back in our IPS academy days?” Chitra asked eagerly.
She could make out Gopal slowly nodding his head in the dark.
“Even now, you always have encouraging words to say when I write a para here or a short story there.”
“I think you have a flair for writing. Your words are simple, but the meanings are profound.”
“Thanks. So, I was thinking of honing my writing skills. Would like to take a creative writing course first and then see how and where it goes. And I will be out of home only for a few hours on certain days, so there will be minimal disruption at home.”
“Excellent idea, Chitra. Don’t worry about things at home; I am sure you will manage it well. Besides, it is also time for the rest of us to take more responsibility towards home.”
“Will Babuji agree?” she asked.
“Leave him to me. You do your research and decide on the course. I will talk to him at an appropriate time,” Gopal assured her.
Chitra hugged her husband. “Thank you so much,” she said.
“What for? I should have brought it up sooner. But better late than never.”
Both of them slept peacefully that night.
“Bahu will step out of the house, without you?” Chitra’s father-in-law asked with an eyebrow raised.
It was a week after Gopal and Chitra’s heart-to-heart discussion. Gopal had informed his father-in-law of Chitra’s decision during their evening tea after returning from work.
“Chitra doesn’t need me to step out of the house, Babuji,” Gopal said matter-of-factly, “especially within the city. The venue of the writing workshop is just twenty minutes away. She will go thrice a week for three hours each.”
Babuji looked at Chitra, who sat silently beside Gopal. She averted her eyes down in front of his stare.
“Why do you need to go for the writing workshop, bahu? What good will come of it?” he asked Chitra directly.
“I like writing, Babuji. I want to develop my writing techniques and explore taking something related to it as a vocation,” she replied.
“You plan to work!” The old man was astonished. “Why? Gopal, there is no cash crunch in the house, is it?” he asked anxiously.
“Of course not, Babuji.” Between his salary and ancestral properties, the family had enough to be comfortable.
“Then why does Chitra need to go out to earn money?”
“Because she would like to do it. She is a well-educated woman, and it is time that she puts her capabilities to good use.”
“What nonsense!” Babuji said in a raised voice. “Women don’t step out of the house to do a man’s job. Who will look after the home then?”
“The world has changed a lot, Babuji. Men and women are equal. Most of my colleagues’ wives were working. In fact, Chitra was one too when we got married, which I think you have forgotten.”
“I remember. I had my apprehensions about your marriage then, but after meeting her,” Babuji nodded at Chitra, “my doubts had vanished. Then she had promised to quit work after childbirth,” Gopal’s father reminded him.
“Which she did. She has kept putting her dreams on hold for the last fifteen years and given her all to the family. She has been a wife-par-excellence to me, a good mother to our child, a mother figure to Samyak, and I am sure you will agree when I say a wonderful daughter-in-law to you. Somewhere, while playing all these roles, the individual within her, which has its own identity, is lost. It is time for this unique incredible woman to come to the fore,” Gopal said.
“Nonsense,” the old man said.
“No, Babuji, it is not nonsense at all. She wants to do this, and we need to support her in her decision.”
“And who will look after the house when she goes out?”
“There are other adults at home apart from her. I am sure that we can all hold our own for three hours during the day when she goes,” Gopal concluded.
“Babuji, I will complete the necessary work before leaving the house so that no one faces any inconvenience. Trust me,” Chitra pleaded. “But I won’t do anything without your concurrence. If you are not happy with me taking these classes, then I won’t,” she assured him.
Gopal glanced at his wife. ‘You don’t have to sacrifice your aspirations once again,’ his glance said.
The patriarch looked at his son to daughter-in-law and back. He loved them both. He had always thought that his dutiful bahu was busy and happy in the house. It seems he was mistaken. However, the very thought of Chitra going out for work or work-related matters was an anathema for him.
“Bahu, I am not comfortable with the thought of you going out of the house on your own. Is there not anything that you can do inside the house? Painting, singing, or something similar. All of these are creative pursuits after all.”
Chitra’s eyes welled up.
“Babuji, but…” Gopal started to argue, but Chitra interrupted him with a gesture of her hand.
“Let it be. Babuji is distressed at the thought of my working. Even if he agrees today under our pressure, he would be unhappy. That will be too heavy a cost to pay for my ambitions, and I am not ready to pay the cost, especially after all my hard work in the last decade and a half,” she concluded.
Her words made both the men go quiet. Gopal was torn between his love for his wife and respect for his father. Babuji didn’t like to say no to his children but would not compromise on traditions and heritage.
“I will go and make dinner,” Chitra got up.
She went to the kitchen and reheated the dal prepared earlier. The flames from the open pressure cooker reached her eyes, and the tears started to come out.
“Are you alright?” Chitra gave a start when Gopal put a hand on her shoulder from behind.
“Oh, yes,” Chitra hastily wiped her eyes without looking at him. “My eyes are stinging from the high gas flame.”
“I am sorry, Chitra,” Gopal said.
“Please don’t say sorry,” this time, Chitra looked at him. “You tried your best, and I am happy with the care and concern that you have for me. This is my home, and I will do what it takes for all to be happy.”
Gopal wanted to say that she needs to be happy too but kept quiet.
The next morning dawned as usual.
Chitra was busy preparing different things for the family in the kitchen. Her son, husband, and brother-in-law were asking for her.
“Here is your lota, Babuji,” Chitra smiled at her father-in-law. She held a glass of hot milk for her son in her other hand.
“God bless you, Beti,” he said and got up from the puja, surprising his daughter-in-law.
The patriarch moved to the central hall of the house and called out to everyone.
“Gopal, Samyak, Parth,” his deep voice boomed, “everyone come here.”
If a pin had dropped at that moment, it would not have escaped the attention of any of the household members. The sound of shuffling feet could be heard from all directions as everyone hurried to where Babuji was standing.
“What happened, Babuji? Are you not feeling well?” Gopal was concerned.
“I am absolutely fine,” the old man replied. “I wanted to tell you that we need to hire a good cooking maid to assist bahu in the kitchen. It is tiring for her to look into different culinary demands for each one of us. Please find a good one right away.”
Gopal’s mouth opened, but no words came out. He looked at Chitra.
“Babuji, I am ok with the cooking, really.” Chitra was equally surprised. From Day One in this house, she knew that her father-in-law was opposed to eating food cooked by an outsider’s hands.
“No, you aren’t, Bahu, and I have understood that you will never say otherwise. You need to have more time to yourself. Besides, we would also need the help when you go outside for your classes.”
“Classes, Babuji??” Chitra was stunned.
“Your writing classes. The one that Gopal had mentioned about yesterday.”
“But you had said No,” she said.
“And today, I am saying yes. I do have the right to change my mind, don’t I?” he said with a straight face and added, “Why should I stop you, Bahu, when your husband is in agreement with your plans? Go ahead and explore your passions,” he said.
“Thank you so much, Babuji,” Chitra took a deep breath and looked at Gopal. Her husband was grinning from ear to ear.
‘What happened?’ her eyes asked her better-half.
Gopal shook his head. He had no idea of what had intervened between last night and today morning for his father to change his mind.
“But Bahu, you will share your writings with me first before showing it to anyone else. I also want to admire your talents. Hope I have made myself clear?” His eyes twinkled.
“Sure, Babuji.” Chitra’s vocabulary was failing her.
The old man looked over Gopal’s shoulder to his younger son.
Samyak blinked his eyes in agreement.
Last evening, the young man had returned from his college at a delicate moment in the conversation and listened to a large part of it quietly outside the door. Chitra was like a mother to him, and he could not imagine the slightest frown in her generous face. For the first time in his life, he had dared to enter his father’s room without knocking and have a heart-to-heart conversation with him. He was now glad that he did.
A loud hiss emanated from the kitchen.
“The vegetables in the cooker,” Chitra exclaimed and hurried away. She whistled to herself. The kitchen counter looked colourful with all its assorted jars. There was something different about the routine task of preparing lunch today.
“Thank You, God,” she whispered with eyes closed, “for everything.” She opened her eyes to the reflection staring at her from the shiny steel cookware. Her younger self smiled back. Nothing in life goes in vain. And it is never too late, in fiction or in life, to revise.
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