Raj does not come.
I sat on the window, playing with the shawl. It was typically his liking. Dark with red roses woven on the border. The clouds were also dark above the skyline. I rocked myself and the pendant of my locket fell on my chest. It was always tucked in the shirt’s neckline. I pressed it closer, forcing its edges to cut into my skin. My soul aches for company, someone’s fingers in my hair, arms around me. But Raj does not come.
In the afternoon, I cooked Raj’s favourite dishes, playing the radio at high volume. At 6 pm, Sanjay came again. I sat down to tea with him.
“When I was doing college, I wanted to kill myself…! I was failing at everything. Who was ever going to employee me? ” Sanjay started laughing, lips covered with the biscuit’s cream. He ate like children and looked away when I adjusted my shawl. He lived at the end of our street. Sanjay’s innocence reminded me of my life before Raj came along. I smiled, lowering my head. It struck me later that Sanjay was staring.
He laughed, his feet touching mine under the table. When I opened the door for Sanjay, his motorcycle was getting wet in the drizzle. He was in a rush to go home and his arm grazed my waist.
My daughter came home from her hostel one afternoon when I had left the main door open for Sanjay. It was a fine day. She walked inside, screaming about my pup having ‘attacked’ her at the gate. All the while, the dog was cuddling in her arms like a new-born baby. And then she stopped dead, looking at us. Sanjay was sitting cross-legged on the sagging couch. He was on sick leave and had come over to congratulate me on my new poem in the local paper. Eventually he shifted to Ghalib’s poetry, coughing at every clause.
When Sanjay looked at Neela, I blushed. She is the most beautiful thing I have a right over. Neela has dark silk hair and two deep-set eyes in a slightly dusky face. “You like… poetry…?” Sanjay mumbled.
Neela looked from him to me and back at him. Her eyes brightened. “Pastry! Yeah. Just look at my face.” She laughed, pulling her own cheeks vigorously.
“Is closed for now. Chill… buddy!” Neela snapped. Then she saw my face, flopped on the sofa and hid her face in a cushion. I was white with shock. Sanjay was white too. He doubled over, coughing violently. For the first time, I was afraid he would throw up. Neela patted his shoulder, suppressing her laughter. I had never expected their meeting to be like this. Sanjay was almost nine years older than her and Neela was still studying.
“Do you… know each… other?” I hissed.
“Yup.” Neela said, “At New Year three years ago. I said to Sanjay Sir, ‘uncle, pass me a chair.’ He thought he was looking so old that he ran away from the party. Didn’t you?”
“Yeah…” Sanjay gasped for breath. “I had… gone home to dye my hair…”
My eyes were burning in the corners. I made a face and slipped inside the kitchen in the name of a running tap. From there, I ran out into the backyard. Of course no taps were running there. But I needed a place to hide and wipe my tears. And wait for new tears to wash my eyes. Neela and Sanjay were chirping like birds. The sky was my witness and the rose bushes.
When I was as old as my daughter, I had fallen for Raj. I teased him about the dark circles around his eyes. He got angry, hardly knowing that I was mad after those large black eyes. When he stared at me, my knees weakened and I had to look for support. He was far more attractive than me. I had puffy cheeks, spotted skin and messy hair. But Raj had discovered me. When he lifted my chin with his fingers, I looked down in shame, struggling with my happiness. He killed me with the slowness of his movements…. It made me think how shallow and disgusting those men were whom I had dated before. They tried to touch and pull me close before rejecting me for my looks…. Raj slowly leaned closer, until we breathed together.
I was sitting with the family album on my lap. The clouds had broken in the evening and red sunlight was stealing into my room.
Neela was spiralling in her own world, “And you know, what that Sanjay… Sanjay Uncle tried to chat with me about…? New-Year Day, just imagine! Sea-birds, seagulls. And I was wearing the best cocktail dress I had at that time. Even my history teacher was more pleasant than him. You remember him, don’t you… who had started coughing when…”
“When you were a child, you were a rebel. I said come by six, you came by nine!” I said suddenly. Neela used to throw things at me and threaten to run away as a child. I and my husband both loved her but we still had to beat her.
Neela was thoughtful for a minute. “I wanted to be a rebel. Then I saw you sad… and crying. So I realized…” She laughed again. Her face was turned to the other side. She was still weaving in and out of her imaginary romantic tales. Suddenly I felt the rustling of silk and Neela popped up on the window beside me. Then she checked my face, “What is this?”
“No…nothing!” I hiccuped.
“Poor dear!” She said, pulling the album out of my hands. My tears fell still faster. I felt how much younger and more youthful she was. My life had practically ended. Vomit began to rise from my stomach. I hid in Neela’s chest while she rocked me like a baby.
Sanjay got well as quickly as he had fallen ill. Four days later he came back to tell us that he was going to someone’s family function. Small town. Everyone knows everyone. “Just get back by nine, or I will go there and get you, girl!” I told Neela, pulling her aside. She laughed and nodded. Some other girl would be lying. But Neela had become sincere in these two years. I gave her a slight peck; Sanjay had wandered into the courtyard, to give us time.
When Neela had gone upstairs to dress, Sanjay slipped inside again. I avoided his glance by scratching our German Shepherd’s head. It barely responded and lay on my feet snugly. Sanjay cleared his throat, walking directly up to me, “Happy birthday!”
My cheeks reddened. “It is…isn’t… who told you?”
“Neela. Come, please.”
“It is so sweet of you but…” I stopped to grin; he pleaded again. I said, “I can’t.”
“But we all want you to be happy.” He said, taking out a bracelet from his pocket, “If you accept this little thing please…” The bracelet matched very well with my locket but it was not a point.
I struggled with my voice. “No, thanks.”
It was nauseating to see Sanjay offer me a piece of jewellery. When Neela had gone with him, I fell on the bed and clawed the bed-sheets. But it was not Sanjay I thought about. I remembered Raj. When I had held his hands that last time, he could only smile. He could not put his arms around me for an embrace but I felt protected by the wheezing of his breath. I remembered his warmth and my body began to hurt. I opened the pendant of my locket and put the photo inside it, against my lips.
“I hate you!” I whispered, hoping that he would know. Then I fell silent in terror. Because I never spoke to myself.
It struck me that Sanjay could never understand this. He was too young to know what my relationship with Raj meant… No one could really understand how deeply I ran inside my blood. Sanjay’s father knew Raj and had stuck with us to the end. I remembered Sanjay’s Dad bringing Raj’s friendship request to me. He had said, “Raj likes you.” Sanjay’s father was ten years older than both of us but he was the lovers’ messiah in our little hamlet. I had laughed madly and sent him away. Eventually Raj got over his shyness and came to me directly.
Today as Sanjay came up to my daughter, he somehow wanted me to be happy too. Why didn’t he just realize that my life was over and I wanted to hide in my room among the furnitures?
“Wait! I am coming.” Sanjay shouted.
“No…please!” I gasped. It was three days after Neela returned to college. While watring my rose bushes, I had become restless and begun to sweat. I was so frightened that I rang up Sanjay. He understood because he knew about my heart condition. As he struggled to keep me calm, I said “If I die… tell my daughter… that she is…”
I don’t know what I wanted to say. Any ways, I passed out…
When I woke up, I had been injected with sedatives and a doctor was sitting in the armchair. Sanjay was sitting on my bed and I felt very awkward. The doctor wrote medication and went. Sanjay kept sitting with closed eyes while I tried to thank him. Later in the day, he appointed a nurse and promised to come back. When the sedatives and other drugs wore off, I knew my heart was wearing out. I had had one major heart attack before.
I did not have long to live. All night, tears kept slipping down from my eyes and a strange desire to embrace Sanjay and ask him to propose my daughter. Because I knew from her behaviour that she liked him.
Six days later when I had started recovering, I woke with a start one noon. Sanjay was very very close to me, his hand in mine. He picked it up and pressed it to his lips, “Sanjay…” I whispered.
“I mean it… sincerely. You don’t know how much…”
I mustered all the power in me and shouted, “Get out!”
“I respect you… I don’t mean it like that but I do love y…”
“Get out before my second heart attack. I have lost my husband two years ago. Raj was lying on this bed. And he still said he loved me. My relationship with him was longer than your life…! So just get out!” I hid my head in my pillow and screamed as hard as I could. Sanjay got up and went home. Before two hours had passed, I was myself crumpled by stabs of chest pain. The nurse gave me medication and called for the ambulance.
Sanjay and Neela often sat at my bedside. Sometimes they both wandered outside the room together. Once I sort of ‘caught’ Neela crying over Sanjay’s chest. But I am not sure about that. Still on heavy drugs, I could barely talk and hallucinated lots of things. But I had flashes of my own life rushing through my mind.
I remembered with clarity, sharing my last kiss with Raj, the kiss before he died, seven months after his cancer diagnosis. Seven months of pain, vomiting and drugs had weakened him but his eyes remained beautiful. He again held me with his gaze on his deathbed. And whispered in my ears, “You have got to live… for our daughter.”
Raj had looked directly at Neela before slipping away.
A few days ago, I had wanted Neela and Sanjay to be together. When I discovered that Sanjay loved me, my reaction was terror. I was ashamed about all the tea and poetry I had shared with Sanjay… But now I realized that his love was not love, it was a thought. He liked me as a person and mistook it for love. Death is wandering close to me. I am not ashamed of Sanjay’s feelings any more. I just close my eyes when he comes into the room…
The day Neela brought me back home, I found shining white pearls on her wrist and crystals among them. Sanjay had offered the same bracelet to me on my birthday.
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