When the Bough Breaks

Disappointment is a bankruptcy of the soul…

“No, it’s not possible this weekend, Vanhi. My work commitments don’t permit me to take the time off. I hope you understand.”, he said, not raising his head from the laptop.  

“Okay. I’ll let Sana know about our change of plans.”, she said, keeping her voice and expression neutral, with some effort. 

“I’ve got to finish this work before 5.00 pm, so if you don’t mind…”.

“Yes. Of course. I’ll see you at dinner.”. She turned and shut the door softly on her way out.  

It was just in time, as the game he was playing on the laptop let out a triumphant beep, signalling his prowess in video games he enjoyed playing.

She leaned against the closed door, squeezed her eyes tight. Tears eked out of the corners, drawing slow, lazy, meandering streaks down her cheeks. “I promised I won’t cry. I promised! Why do I have to cry? Why am I always so weak?”, she berated herself, taking deep breaths. Once she was under control, she wiped her eyes, and smiled sadly. 

The day buzzed past in a blur with the usual household chores women perform, even while holding down a job. The pandemic, now lessening its stronghold, had been tough on her. She loved to travel, especially to the mountains, where she felt immense peace and kinship. Where, while Shekhar went about his sporty activities, she, armed with a pen and teapot full of piping hot tea, weaved stories. “There’s no better muse than the mountains. The seductive breeze hinting at the imminent chill, the clear blue skies, and the mountains. Always the mountains. Sigh, the mountains are the best, they, as if, because of their immobility, inspire – or even fill one’s minds with words, where they spring to life on the paper. It was the mountain’s way of achieving immortality –their way of living their life.”, she thought dreamily.  But the lull driven by the virus and the chores, kept her tied at home with no outlet for her creative feelings. While she enjoyed the time spent with her husband, but the continuous togetherness felt, at times, stifling to her. The always-present mentality was grating, and she was reminded of Khalil Gibran’s quote, ‘Let there be spaces in your togetherness.’. Vanhi had always been mystified by it –  till the pandemic struck – then, its meaning was crystal clear. Couples need some time apart from each other to appreciate the other. It’s a fine balance to maintain – between self-independence and a relationship, and the pandemic had shattered the equilibrium. Any time spent alone, the ‘me-time’, so precious, was snatched and replaced by mind-numbing, creativity-sucking errands. 

Sighing, she took the neatly, folded clothes to their bedroom, and arranged them in the wardrobe. Doing the household chores gave her too much time to dwell on her life, and how it had gone on a tangent so different from what she’d imagined. The errands, while tedious, didn’t offer any mental stimulation, only an endless rehashing of her wrong decisions. Prior to Covid-19, work had kept her busy, she barely had the time for long introspective spells. And she preferred that – scrutiny of her life didn’t make it any easier for her. At times, not ignorance but oblivion is truly blissful.  

 “My life’s always been paved with disappointments, nothing new. I thought by now, I would be immune to them. Occasional stray ones, like the cancelled weekend plans manage to get to me, and burst the bubble I’ve built. Anyway, I’ll do better next time. I still have high hopes for myself, I can be resigned to life and its expectations. And it’s not that Shekhar’s violent or disposed towards it, but his tongue never stops critiquing! I didn’t realise he was so caustic. I can’t recall if he’d always been like this or he, too, has evolved into someone, who’s become bitter, driven by the lockdown blues. He’s constantly nit-picking about how I don’t do the chores correctly, or about how my food is substandard. Nothing ever satisfies him! His sarcastic attitude has really taken me by surprise. Earlier, the only time we spent together, evenings or weekends were devoted to the house and its upkeep. I don’t know why I’m expected to cook and clean all the time, why’s it only my responsibility. It’s his house too! I must speak to him about it.”.

Driven by her intent, fuelled by her outrage, she knocked on Shekhar’s door – her office space, earlier. 

“Yeah?”.

“Shekhar, I was wondering about dinner. What do you think you’ll be making today?”.

“What do you mean?”.

“What’ll you cook for us today?”.

“Why can’t you do it? I’ve got to finish this presentation, Vanhi. Some of us work for money, you know.”.

“I’ve been cooking for the past 6 months and I’m sick of it. I need a break.”

“So should I quit my job and take up cooking?”.

“No. I don’t mean that. But it’s unfair my work should suffer – I’m saddled with all the chores.”.

“Oh the same work that barely even pays for the electricity bills. The ‘writing’, you’re so proud of, doesn’t run this house, Vanhi. My money’s what this household guzzles – not the pittance you drag in.”

“Shekhar! Don’t demean my work. Just because I don’t make the same amount of money like you, doesn’t imply I’ve to bear the entire brunt.”.

“Oh but I think it does, Vanhi. Work’s decided by the moolah you bring in, it’s a management thumb-rule – the lower the pay, the more menial the task. You, my dear are – and will remain – a blue-collar worker. Are you done wasting my time? My presentation won’t finish if I keep talking, and I won’t get paid. What’ll happen then, huh? Please close the door and get me some tea.”.

She left the room in a huff, entered the kitchen to prepare the tea, muttering, “Shekhar’s right. Ever since the lockdown, I’m so swamped with the housework, my professional work’s suffering with the money petering out. Shekhar works so hard, he’s always on his laptop. Maybe if I can rise earlier, finish the chores faster, I’ll get some more time for my freelance writing. I can target more magazines, and maybe make extra cash. Then Shekhar’ll start helping at home. So, if I can start at…”.  

***

After a few weeks of early morning meetings with the still yawning sun, finishing her chores faster, Vanhi concluded this arrangement wasn’t having the desired effect on her productivity. If anything, it had reduced it. Even though breakfast was cooked, Shekhar would interrupt her constantly, asking for endless cups of tea, derailing her train of thoughts. He said the tea helped him to concentrate on his work. She smiled at the irony. By the end of the day, she was tired, sleepy and the feelings of inadequacy weren’t diminishing. Something had to change. 

One day, while surfing social media, she came across an advertisement, showcasing a snowclad mountain, where fragmented sunlight was filtering through the clouds, lighting up parts of it – turning them golden. She paused, looked at the serene picture, and was struck at the intensity of the pangs she was experiencing, the pangs of homesickness. Even though she was home! Intrigued, she read, further.

“Now stay at a one-room, cosy cottage right at the foothills of the Dhauladhar range. Enjoy your stay at the Kanha Cottage, while working, a work-ction! All this for one month, with all meals and Wi-Fi at just 10,000! Did we mention endless cups of tea and a view to die for? Call now!”, she read aloud.

Wow. That’s such a fabulous plan, I’ll talk to Shekhar about it, with my birthday coming up, and no vacation this year, it can work out beautifully for us.”. 

***

“Shekhar, I wanted to discuss something with you…”.

“Not now Vanhi, time’s money. I’m getting into a meeting with my client now.”, he interrupted as his cell phone trilled.

Vanhi didn’t get a chance to speak to Shekhar about the work-ction – what a fabulous word – that week. The washing machine broke down, she was busy coordinating with the technician, and then there was a massive pile-up of the laundry, taking forever to sort. When she’d remember it, some higher priority task would usurp the thought, and before she knew it, it was night. But in her heart, she knew Shekhar wouldn’t agree and she’d never go alone, or could she? An idea began to germinate.

Build your wings on the way down… 

Shekhar called her to his office, “Sudhir and Nanda are coming over for dinner. Make something interesting. Don’t repeat the travesty you’d cooked while the Joshis were here last week. Try to make the meal half decent, at least.”.

“Okay. Err, Shekhar, I…”.

“Later, Vanhi. I’m busy. Make sure you get the dessert from the corner bakery shop, don’t try and bake it yourself.”, he waved her off.

I’ll talk to him after the guests leave. Shekhar’s always in a good mood when we have company at home.”. She laboured over the menu, painstakingly planning it, her writing suffering for it. She spent the entire afternoon cleaning and getting things done. When it was time for Shekhar’s friends to arrive, their house was spic and span. A scented candle was spreading a citrus-y aroma from a hidden corner. Shekhar was pleased. “You’re not as sloppy as you look, Vanhi. The house looks nice. I hope your good luck’s extended into our dinner, too. You’re looking very ordinary tonight.”. His statement took away the shred of pleasure, she’d experienced, earlier. 

Their meal passed amicably, with conversation flowing easily between the two couples. During dessert, the topic moved towards the lockdown, how it has channelled the inner chef in people.

“Nanda’s been playing the chef at home, trying so many different yet amazing recipes! I’ve put on oodles of weight. But you, Shekhar, you’re looking extremely fit. Are you exercising?”, asked Sudhir.

“No, buddy, nothing. Vanhi’s busy cribbing about the lack of free time, she barely lifts a finger in the kitchen. I’ve been surviving on bread and Maggi, alone!”. 

Vanhi flushed deeply, lowered her head, unable to meet Nanda’s eyes to see the pity – and judgement there. 

“And when, she does decide to cook, it’s so tasteless, I’d rather go back to the bread and Maggi.”, Shekhar continued. The men laughed uproariously at the cheap-shot. 

Nanda looked on sympathetically, “I don’t think that’s true. This dessert’s tasty.”, she valiantly tried.

“Oho! It’s from a restaurant, folks. Vanhi’s very good at cooking – cooking up stories that fall flat as her dishes. It’s a mystery how people pay her for her writing! In-house chef, ha-ha! Far from it, she’s more of an in-house parasite.”, Shekhar slapped Sudhir on his back, both cracking up again. Nanda glared at her husband who sobered down immediately.

“You’re exaggerating, man…”, he tried damage control. 

Throughout their exchange, Vanhi plastered a smile on her, otherwise, expressionless face, burning up with embarrassment on the inside. Her mind was oscillating between mortification and rage. The oft used ‘parasite’ taunt dug its tentacles, deep within. Several times, she opened her mouth to protest, but their raucous laughter killed the instinct, shutting it down. Her self-loathing reached new heights, she was disgusted with inability to defend herself.

As the evening trudged towards its eventual end, when they left, Shekhar put his arms around a stiff Vani, and kissed her softly, “Baby, what was that you wanted to ask me earlier?”, his voice thick with desire. His hands raised her braid, and placed butterfly kisses on her nape. “You seem very quiet. Is something bothering you?” leading her to their bedroom.

Next morning, a huge pile of dirty dishes was waiting for her. Shekhar was neither in favour of the household help returning nor of helping. While cleaning, her mind, to glaze over last night’s insults, hovered over the Kanha cottage’s intriguing offer for a month-stay. It had been so long since she visited the mountains, their absence a physical pain in her life. She smiled at the thought of making it there, and writing peacefully, gazing at the mountains, a cool breeze ruffling her hair as she sipped tea, the sun warm on her neck. She shook her head to break her reverie, but stopped herself. The idea sprouted wings. 

Next few weeks found her busy, cooking up a virtual storm. Her refrigerator was stocked with neatly-labelled Tupperware boxes, all lined-up. When the new month peeked through, it found her smiling as she knocked on Shekhar’s door.

“Tea’s ready, Shekhar. I’ve some news. I’m flying down to Uttranchal today, for a month. My flight departs at 13.00 but I’ve got to report to the airport earlier, due to the new restrictions. I’ve cooked some of your meals, they’re in the fridge. Do you think you can drop me to the airport?”.

Shekhar’s mouth was agape, closing and opening, swallowing several times. “What nonsense are you talking about, Vanhi? Have you lost your mind? Who travels in a pandemic? And, where? Nothing’s operational.”, anger lacing his words.

“I’m still quite sane, Shekhar. I’ve already spoken to the manager and he’s confirmed my booking, it’s paid for by my savings. Lots of people are working while staying in the mountains. It’s the new in-thing. So, are you dropping me?”. 

*** 

That girl, she can move mountains…

Vanhi felt alive in Kanha cottage. She’d never experienced the thrill of travelling alone, fearful as it were, either her parents or Shekhar always accompanied her. It had set her free, restored her sorely-missing confidence. For once, she wasn’t being judged, taunted, she felt at peace. The quietness around her was soothing. Her emotions flowed on paper magically, her writing, the true beneficiary of her healthy mental state. The lockdown had trapped her, she wasn’t coping well with the additional mental stress and the increased workload. This spur-of-the-moment trip had rejuvenated her.  Here, she bumped into Priya, and they quickly became firm friends. Sharing more than their cups of tea, and the warm sunlight on their patios.

Priya, a practicing psychotherapist had correctly diagnosed Vanhi’s issues. “Vanhi, you’re not going to like or even accept it, but you’re in an abusive relationship.”

“No, Shekhar’s never ever raised his hand on me.”.

“It’s not always physical abuse, in your case, it’s mental abuse. His constant taunts and insults, mockery of your work, they’re classic signs of a toxic relationship. He hammers at your self-respect, and you rationalize it, maybe even defend it. That’s bound to have short-term and long-term effects on you. Chronic anxiety and depression can lead to early dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, Vanhi.”. She paused to take a sip, “The real question is Vanhi, what’ll you do about it?”. 

***

“Covid-19 has not only affected us physically, but has played – and is playing havoc with our mental health. It’s instrumental in the rise of depression cases, isolation making a bad situation worse. Issue being, while we’re taking measures to control its spread and treating it with a cocktail of medicines, no one’s willing to talk or even acknowledge its impact on our minds. Mental health doesn’t enjoy the same privileges as its physical counterpart. And maybe not now, but history will prove that Covid-19 and our very own lack of pro-activeness, lead to the decline in mental health across a very large spectrum. And that’s why I’m here, we’re here, to let you know, you’re not alone. What you’re feeling isn’t make-believe, it’s okay to feel it – and to talk about it. And that’s why our helpline is reaching out to people. Giving voices to those you can’t – or won’t express their agony. Thank you all for joining us today on World Mental Health day, I’ll hand over the charge to my colleague, Dr. Priya Sharma. She’s…”, Vanhi spoke into her microphone. She sighed with content as Priya expertly took over, the butterflies in her stomach, thanking her.

While she was in Uttranchal, under Priya’s expert care, she took a few life-changing decisions. Her absence – and decision of moving out had tempered Shekhar down, and his behaviour was ever so-slowly changing. She’d moved out of the apartment but not their marriage. Her professional life was doing good; her latest book was topping the charts!  She was meeting Shekhar for coffee dates, taking their relationship, one step at a time. She still loved him and was willing to give him a chance – not at the cost of her self-respect, though. Shekhar’s misogynist comments decreased gradually but surely. He, grudgingly, began to respect Vanhi as she, with Priya, kick-started their helpline – Not a molehill – that was getting rave reviews from the medical community. It not only helped people to deal with the loss of their jobs or livelihood but also with the trauma of losing loved ones. It highlighted all of us – the strongest amongst us too, needed help. Emotionally well-balanced people can turn their life around, for themselves and the ones around them.

Vanhi, on a whim, had turned to the mountains, and they didn’t fail her. They pushed her to reach greater heights – higher than theirs. It was the mountains who showed her how to weather any storm yet retain her intrinsic, nurturing self, to love and to spread it. Her determination to stay true to her difficult journey stemmed from their stoicism. They taught her to remain optimistic, remain grateful for what was given to her, and to never, ever, succumb to life’s disappointments, but to rise above them, to either conquer them or take them in her stride. Mountains had given her a chance to fly, like she always wanted. They were her true saviours.

“So folks, we have just one life to live, and one attempt at living it. What’ll you do about it?”, Vanhi asked.
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7 Comments

  1. Dimple datta

    Reply

    Amazing story about the dilemmas of a woman who struggling to search for her own identity.
    The plot is gripping ,such convincing characters’ description , Natasha always takes her reader to another world.

  2. Bindu Pillai

    Reply

    I felt my life story being narrated many times. A woman has to decide for herself and not let anyone trample her self respect. The pandemic has indeed been an eye opener for so many couples. Kudos to your story.

  3. Mohita Kapoor

    Reply

    Natasha..you have intricately woven a common woman’s life so well, stark reality!!! Well Done and you are the best!!!!!

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