My husband had been very ill, and the doctor was insistent that we must give up living in the town. It was essential for him to breathe the purer air of the country if he was to get strong again. So, I was feverishly house-hunting. Of course, I had seen innumerable houses, but there was something foreboding with all of them.
Finally, I found one. It was located at the top of a small hill, a little, quaint cottage, a few kilometres from Ooty’s main square. It was fairly remote and yet not very far from modern accessibilities in emergencies. Most importantly, I fell in love with it.
A 3-feet veranda ran right around the one-floor house. It had two entrances, the front door and a back door leading into the kitchen. The dining area was part of the living area, towards the open kitchen. Two doors on the left of the living area led into medium-sized bedrooms. It was nothing fancy. But perfect for a couple like us, perfect for my husband’s convalescence.
He was diagnosed with throat cancer. Luckily, it was the initial stages, and after the tumour’s removal, he seemed to recover well, at least physically. Unfortunately, his voice box had to be removed to prevent further spread. More than the illness, having lost the power of his speech affected my husband a lot more.
He was the CEO of his own tire company. His sales pitches during the initial days of his career were legendary. He garnered a lot of experience doing door-to-door sales for the tires from his own factory near the outskirts of Bangalore. He was able to develop his business and take his company to great heights, thanks to his hard work combined with his amazing selling and talking skills.
His employees adored him for the way he could exhort them to give their best. Many of them worked for free or half-pay when business was down. But he made up for that when business was good.
At the age of 65, he handed over his company to his sons. But my husband was like a pillar and continued to go to work every day. He couldn’t relax. His company was his life until he lost his voice, I think he realised the truth about himself. Yes, he loved to talk. But only about his desires, needs, and achievements. When he couldn’t express these, his personality underwent a change.
“Some of our employees want to meet you, Appa,” said Santosh, the elder son, one day.
My husband shook his head vigorously, his eyes red with anger. He didn’t want his workers to see him in this state. They had always seen him perfectly groomed in his impeccable suit; clean-shaven, not a hair out of place, his shoes polished till they glistened! He hated to present himself in his dishevelled state.
“It’ll do you good, Appa,” said Karthik, the younger son. “It’ll do us good too. The workers are highly worried about you. We have to respect their concern. It will be a big morale booster for them if you meet them.”
After a lot of cajoling, my husband agreed to meet them. He tried his best to look as good as before. But it was not to be. He cut himself a couple of times when shaving. His suit and shoes were as impeccable as before. But he didn’t like what he saw when he looked in the mirror. He tried to say something that came out like an angry grunt of frustration through the artificial voice box.
He again tried to persuade his sons to cancel the meeting. But the workers were already at our house in the living room downstairs. It would be rude if they were sent off now. So, he agreed reluctantly.
As he walked down the stairs, some of the workers’ eyes welled up with tears. In the last year, my husband had lost a lot of weight, and he looked skinny and ill. There was no resemblance to his earlier personality. His face was gaunt, and his cheeks sallow and sunken, almost like a corpse.
“Oh, sir! What has happened to you?” One of the workers cried aloud. Others followed suit, and soon all the 10-15 people gathered there started crying.
My husband was not consoled by his workers’ concern. On the contrary, he became angry at them. The rasping voice through the artificial box said, “Oh! Shut up! Don’t give me your pity. I hate it. Now go away from here.”
Luckily only I was able to understand the scratchy words that came from the box. Only I, the devoted wife! Even his sons turned to me to understand what their father said. They were quite unnerved by the raspy sounds.
I translated for the workers gently, even if wrongly. “He thanks you for your concern and pity. But he would prefer that you give your best to his favourite baby, the factory.” They nodded their ascent, wiped away their tears, and left.
For the first time in his life, Santhosh and Karthik looked me in the eye, and an almost imperceptible tinge of gratitude seemed to come through. I nodded and took my husband back to his room. His moroseness and depression increased every day until very soon, he stopped speaking altogether.
And that’s when the doctor advised a change of scene for better recovery. He said, “The frustration of not being able to be in charge increases manifold when he sees others going about their normal work. So, a new place, preferably surrounded by serene nature. Maybe that will help him. Physically, he is perfectly fine. He needs mental and emotional healing.”
Santhosh and Karthik were also keen on following this advice. The moroseness affected them and their families. They wanted him out of their hair. They were happy when I offered to shift out with my husband to Ooty. The company paid for the cottage. The vistas from the cottage were beautiful, replete with verdant valleys, soft breeze, and wonderful peace. It was paradise.
I smiled at my husband on the first morning in our new home. He was in his wheelchair on the veranda looking at the amazing scenery. But I don’t think he was as happy as I was with the shift although he didn’t say anything.
I still remember my wedding day, more than 25 years ago. My heart was filled with warm feelings. The smells of rose, jasmine, and marigold that decorated my wedding venue and the heads of all the ladies wafted through the air, making me heady. As a 20-year-old girl waiting to step into a new adventure, I felt lust tugging at my loins as the soft silkiness of my wedding saree caressed my skin.
I tried to steal glances with my groom throughout the ceremony. But we could catch one another’s eyes only a couple of times, and except for a fleeting smile, he went back to doing the rituals with complete seriousness. Everyone complimented me on how young and lovely I looked! How handsome my groom looked! What a great match we were! The wedding day was exactly as I had expected. Emotional and filled with happiness.
So what if he was a widower with two children? Only a selfless man would marry a villager like me. He took no dowry and took care of the wedding expenses too. My parents were poor farmers. My marriage was a deal they struck with my husband who promised us that he would take care of them for the rest of their lives as well as get my two younger sisters married suitably.
He was a nice man and I was happy to be of help to my family. As the eldest daughter, I was duty-bound to help my family. I was quite smart and intelligent, and the first girl from my village to finish college, thanks to scholarships right through. I even got a job in a rural bank. However, the salary was nowhere close to what my parents needed to fulfil all their desires.
So when this marriage proposal came for me, they were happy. He had seen me at a village function his company had sponsored. I was the local compere for the various competitions held for the villagers. He was impressed with the way I handled myself. He said he was amazed at my language skills. I could speak English, Tamil, Kannada, and Hindi fluently.
I blushed when he said these things to me. Words of praise from a tall, handsome man are sure to make any girl blush. He said his first wife had died a year ago, and he wanted a loving, intelligent mother for his children, one who would nurture like their own mother. I was as happy as my parents with the proposal. I agreed to marry him despite the age difference. Yes, he was 20 years older.
All that mattered to me was love. And I promised myself I will give and take love in my marriage. I even quit my job so that I could dedicate my entire time to him, his children, and his house.
I moved into his palatial home in Bangalore which was filled with all the conveniences of a modern house. In a few days, I mastered the management of the house. I learnt to cook the favourite dishes of 12-year-old Santhosh and 11-year-old Karthik.
Every day I packed their meals, laid out their school uniforms, and did everything for their comfort and happiness. I was their tutor too and helped them with their homework and studies.
I worked hard to make their birthdays special. And worked even harder on festival days. I told them a lot of our stories based on our religion and mythology. I wanted to inculcate a sense of our culture into their upbringing. I was happy to be a hands-on mother.
I showered the same kind of love on my husband. I didn’t want them to think I was an outsider. I gave up my own desires to make place for theirs. But my marriage was anything but normal. For starters, we never consummated our marriage.
“I cannot think of laying with you, Padma, at least not immediately. My late wife’s face keeps coming up when I think of making love to you. Please give me some time.”
I was happy to give him time. After all, if he could love his first wife so much, then if I give him enough time to get over her, he will love me with equal fervour. Days passed into months and months into years. But he didn’t even make an effort in that realm.
But I was a woman of patience. So I waited, thinking that soon he would learn to love me. Of course, I was a naive fool. I realised I was living in a dream world. Many times, he would reek of feminine scent.
When I asked him, he would say, “An important client gifted me the perfume, and I had to wear it to their meeting. All part of business plans.”
I was a fool, yes. But even I couldn’t be fooled all the time. I realised he didn’t care for me. I was nothing more than a maid-cum-governess for his children. He had ample lady friends to satisfy his desires. After all, he was a big business honcho. I confronted him one day.
“Why did you choose to marry me at all? You would’ve got maids and governesses easily for a salary.”
He kept dodging my question. “No, I do like you. You are a good mother and a good wife. Don’t worry. Things will get better between us.”
But nothing changed. After three years of being in a joyless marriage, I decided to end it, and I told him so one day.
“I’ve had enough. I don’t think I can continue this charade anymore. Your children also treat me like domestic help. Both of them don’t even call me amma. They use my name to address me, or don’t speak to me at all.”
Strangely, he didn’t argue with me. He said, “Talk to your parents and do as you please.” Maybe, he also wanted to end this sham, or so I thought.
As I was packing my bags, he came from behind and said, “Don’t you dare take the jewellery I bought you! They are mine, not yours.” His voice was bitter.
I was gutted! “Do you think so lowly of me? Have you seen me wearing jewellery except when you told me to?”
He replied, “I don’t know, If your parents were willing to sell you for a few lakhs, maybe you are of the same mould.”
A fit of wild anger rose from the depths of my being. Unthinking, I rushed forward to slap him. He easily caught my hand and said, “Hello! Don’t act like a saint. Haven’t you been living far above your station in my house? You think I would stoop so low as to marry someone like you; a village bumpkin. Oh yes! Your intelligence came to be of use to my children. I can see their grades improving significantly, thanks to your excellent tutoring skills. You cook well. You keep a good home and play a reasonably good hostess though I would never introduce you to many of my friends. You are to be nothing more than a homebound wife and mother.”
My face stung with tears of shame and embarrassment. “How dare you!” I screamed as I tried to yank my hands from his tight grip. He laughed haughtily, let go of my hand, and left the room before I could react.
“Believe me when I say you will be crawling back to my house, sooner than later. But go now. You deserve the break. Go and learn what you can from your parents, and if you still want to leave, I’ll let you go.”
I hid my embarrassment and anger, packed my bags, and left that night to my village. It suddenly struck me that my parents hadn’t come to visit me at all. I hadn’t seen them in the last three years. When I called occasionally, they were always happy and asked after my husband and the children. Yet, I sensed a certain coolness in their attitude towards me.
When I reached my village, I was surprised to see a new house in the place of my old, thatched home. I walked in and found my two sisters, two men I didn’t recognize, two little babies, and my parents together in the hall, talking and laughing. When they saw me, they stopped talking in mid-sentence.
“What are you doing here?” My father asked. He seemed angry.
I was shocked! “Your question is strange, Appa. I come home after three years, and you ask what I am doing here? No joyous welcome!”
My mother felt guilty, I think. She came forward, hugged me, and said, “Come, come in, Padma. This is your house. Let me introduce you to your brothers-in-law and your little niece.”
“My sisters are married?” I thought I was going crazy. I didn’t even know. And one had a baby too.
“Didn’t your husband tell you? He only arranged their weddings as he had promised at your wedding,” said my father. “He told us you were very busy getting used to the new luxury, and you cannot visit us anymore. That’s why I was angry when you came now.”
“No! He didn’t tell me.” After formal introductions, I went into the kitchen with my mother and told her everything about my marriage till now.
She had tears in her eyes. “I knew something was amiss when he came forward to marry you. I thought he was being genuinely nice, that’s all. I didn’t realise you were unhappy at all. Why didn’t you tell us?”
“Because I also thought it was a passing phase, and things would settle soon. And you and Appa seemed so happy for me. By the way, neither did you tell me about my sisters!” I threw back at her.
“That’s because he said you were not interested in keeping any connections with us!”
“Oh! That man! How could he!” I fumed in helpless rage.
“I’m not going back there. I will get back my job here.”
“Oh! I don’t think you can do that, my dear,” my mother said.
I looked at her incredulously. “How can you say that?”
“Because I now realise he’s played us really well. The boys he arranged for your sisters are from his factory. I feel he has a reason for that. If you don’t go back, he will throw them out of their jobs, and your sisters will come to the street. He only pays us for our upkeep too. He kept saying that these are small things he does in return for giving us a wonderful wife. He kept apologising for your rude behaviour to us. This entire village now thinks you are the villain, and he is the hero. We have got ourselves deeply entrenched in his play-acting.”
“So what! Now we will tell the truth to everyone,” I said vehemently.
“You think anyone will believe us? It’ll be his word against ours. And you know he’s such a charmer. Moreover, I don’t think we have the strength to deal with the insults and humiliation of a daughter who couldn’t stay married! You think this village will accept you as a divorcee! Oh, God! Don’t do anything rash, my dear! We need to be careful. Now, seven lives depend on your decision. Please I beg of you. Continue living as before till we find a suitable solution.” My mother pleaded with me.
I was flabbergasted. She wanted me to go back to living with that cheat! And suddenly it struck me. That’s why he was so sure I would come crawling back to his house! He knew my parents would convince me to go back. That fiend!
I stayed with my parents for an entire month. After that, people including my sisters, their husbands, and even my parents started nagging me to go back to my husband’s house.
“What will people say? How long can you stay away from your husband? What more do you want? A big bungalow with all the modern amenities! What else can someone like you want from a marriage?”
Soon, my patience wore thin. There was nowhere to go. I didn’t have anything in my name. I had my parent’s house or my husband’s house. And I hated them both.
I pulled along for another month. He came at the end of the second month. He had a glint in his eyes when he saw the welcome he received from my family. He knew I had lost. I lost my confidence. I went back with him to his house.
That night I asked him again, “Why did you marry me? You could’ve managed with paid help? Why take a wife?” But again he laughed haughtily and didn’t bother to answer me.
Now I was intrigued. I had to find out why he had to marry anyone at all. Again I found myself frustrated when I realised that I didn’t have anyone I could trust or talk to in his house. Everyone maintained a respectful distance from me. None of the domestic helpers spoke to me except to take orders about cleaning and stuff. Often, the helpers kept changing too.
I went back to the old routine of being a dutiful wife and mother in my husband’s house. The more I did for them, the emptier my heart became. There was nothing to look forward to. I lived the life of a robot. No joy! No love! Nothing!
Nearly 25 years of my marriage was like this. My parents passed away, I lost all connections with my sisters, and Santhosh and Karthik were married and had kids too during that time. I became habituated to this life, a life filled with doing for others, and none of my own desires being fulfilled. I knew I was a capable woman. I could’ve easily been part of my husband’s company helping him run and manage it if he had allowed me. I could’ve taken it to greater heights if I was at the helm.
But he made me do company-related work too. Once, he was stuck with a tax issue, and he kept ranting about it. I asked him if he would like me to look at it. I had passed my CA inter and have a good working knowledge of finances and taxes. Hesitatingly, he agreed to let me look at it. Within a day, I came up with a simple but powerful solution. He was amazed. And after that, he simply brought work for me daily. I should’ve resented the extra work., But I didn’t because I enjoyed it. It kept my mind active and alert. I learnt a lot about the company.
Another day, while working on a client contract, I noticed something odd. The company represented by my husband was one party, and the client was the other party. Strangely, my husband was listed as a “Power of Attorney Holder.” I was confused and asked him about it. He mumbled unintelligibly under his breath, and then told me not to worry about it.
“Just focus on the clauses and ensure they are in order.” He commanded.
I left it at that. After that incident, I never got to work on contracts, only invoices and other accounts-related stuff. Still, that thought nagged me for a while. And that thing about why he had to marry me instead of getting paid help also nagged me. Somewhere deep within, I felt there was some connection between the two. I wondered who had the answers.
That’s when I recalled a lawyer who was present at my wedding. He didn’t seem like a friend, and yet he was there. In fact, I remember signing on a couple of documents too. Naive that I was then, I didn’t think much, and the overwhelming feeling of marrying a rich, handsome man made my brain fuzzy. I had just signed the documents. When he had finished the paperwork, he handed over his card to me, and whispered, “Don’t hesitate to call me for anything, okay?” In retrospect, his voice had a conspiratorial tone.
That memory from so many years ago hit me like a bolt from the blue. Why didn’t I think of him earlier? Now, how will I find that card? Surely I won’t be able to find it after all these years.
Often, things take time to happen. But when they do, they happen rapidly, almost crazily. My mind was now affixed with finding this lawyer. I couldn’t even recall his name. I rummaged through my old suitcases and bags. Nothing!
Exhausted, I sat down and wondered how I managed to get trapped like this. The day of my marriage and my life aspirations seemed like a long-forgotten dream. I hated that I allowed myself to get to such a position. I hated myself for allowing others to ride over me.
What happened to the smart person I was before my marriage? Was I so blind that I didn’t see what was coming? Was I so dumb and carried away by Bollywood movies that I allowed myself to believe that a poor girl would live happily ever after with a rich, handsome man?
As I struggled with these thoughts, cursing myself for not being wiser, the news about my husband’s cancer diagnosis came through. I was dumbstruck, and again, I forgot these questions and put my heart and soul into helping him deal with his illness. Again, I overlooked my need to be a wife.
At last, when his mood and health did not improve despite the cancer being safely removed, the doctor suggested a change of place. That night, as I lay in bed, I thought to myself that the doctor’s suggestion would be excellent for me even if it was not what my husband wanted. I could get away from this mess, and live alone with him in some remote part of the world. Finally, I’d be a mistress.
That is why I began house-hunting for a home that would be far enough to deter visitors and close enough for my needs. I will continue to do what I was doing but now under my terms. That the children wanted their father away helped my cause. The cottage suited me fine.
We moved in and the peace of the place slowly soothed my troubled soul. My desires and aspirations came ashore from the deep place in my psyche where I had hidden them. I embraced them and let them go! I was truly at peace.
Most importantly, my husband was in a state that made it very easy for me to live peacefully. He never talked. He never asked for anything. I fed, bathed and clothed him, took him for a walk in his wheelchair, and everything, but under my terms. He accepted everything I did for him without a murmur. Sometimes, he would have tears in his eyes. But often he had a blank stare. This phase of my life lasted two years. I was almost fifty! But I had moved from resentment to peace, and I was grateful for that.
One night while I was feeding him dinner, he said something. I was startled by his voice since it had been a long time since any sound came from the voice box. I just made sure I maintained it and kept the machine in working condition even if it was not used at all.
I asked, “What did you say?”
“I’m sorry!” He crackled through the machine.
I was flabbergasted but kept my control.
“Why are you apologising now, after so many years?”
“You deserved better. I’ve caused you a lot of grief. I regret all that I did to you.”
It took a long time for me to understand these words. And he had to repeat it many times. I didn’t reply to his apology, but an idea formed in my head.
“Maybe there’s a way to redeem yourself,” I said.
“Do tell me how. I want to get rid of these gnawing feelings of guilt.”
“Tell me the truth. Why did you marry me at all when there were easier options.”
Tears filled his eyes and he sobbed unabashedly. I was shocked. But I didn’t let my veneer of not-caring-a-damn fall apart. I gave him time to get over his emotions and asked again.
“After all these years of serving you and your sons, I deserve to know, right?”
He nodded and told me everything.
His company was not his brainchild. It was that of his first wife, Kusum, a brilliant engineer. They had studied together and had fallen in love. Yes, he was good at sales. But he didn’t know engineering at all. He couldn’t even complete his degree.
But Kusum loved him a lot. She was an orphan and was dying for love. He gave that to her, and his family was good to her too. They were married and started the factory. Her hard work and his sales pitches helped the company grow. The children were born, and they were happy for a while.
But soon, my husband got bored with his monotonous life. Money was flowing, and he was enticed by many distractions. He stopped being faithful to his wife and began his philandering ways. She tried to reason with him, and forgave him many times, but to no avail. Finally, she was ready to divorce him.
However, fate was cruel to her. She was diagnosed with brain cancer, and that too, at an advanced stage. She was dying. She was angry more than sad. Angry that the fruits of her hard work would end up going to an undeserving man, someone who didn’t flinch from cheating. And she didn’t want her children to flit from one governess or maid to another. She wanted them to have a mother.
So, she called a trusted friend, now a lawyer. He and she grew up in the same orphanage. In fact, he had proposed to her earlier. But she didn’t see him as anything more than her best friend. I think he never stopped loving her. He drew up a legal document for her in which my husband would have to marry a woman that her lawyer friend found, someone he believed would be a good mother to her children. All her assets would be transferred to that lady’s name, and her husband could only be a PoA holder, never the owner. If his second wife left him, all the assets should be given to charity.
It was the lawyer who saw and liked me at the village function. The documents he got signed by me gave me the ownership of the company and all its assets including the palatial house in which I was treated as nothing more than a nanny, maid, and nurse, all rolled into one, and the PoA for my husband.
The lawyer kept track of my progress through the various cooks and servants who were employed in the house. He was happy with the way I conducted myself. He never realised I was unhappy. I was great at hiding my sadness.
“So, the company is mine?”
“Yes!” he said. “The children don’t know this. With my PoA, I could only give them salaried positions. They assume they will become owners after me.”
I walked out of the cottage, confused. I took a long walk and returned home with a clear mind and a definite plan. If I could give my heart and soul to a sham marriage, how much more I would do for my own company. I was duty-bound to Kusum, my sister-in-arms.
To hell with people who didn’t like it! I am the new queen!
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