Stark despair, tears and loss were nothing new for their family. But she didn’t think she’d have the chance to feel ever again.
A lonely table lay arranged with a steel thali and bowls with the food, lovingly cooked, now, cold.
Attrika married Tarang when she was seventeen and he, twenty-two. A story set in the 1960s, both families were liberal enough to let their kids chase the careers of their dreams but with the only condition that they marry first. Even though it was an arranged marriage- Tarang with his parents had gone to Attrika’s place to choose the bride- it was a match made in heaven. Impossible as it is to believe, the Indian boy and Indian girl who harbored no romantic ideology or even the prospect of marrying for love and not of coming of age, they fell in love almost from the moment they laid their eyes on each other.
But Tarang lacked Attrika’s strength of character, and that was what decided their fates in the end.
Tarang had the tendency of vacillating between the extremes. Euphoria and Depression. It was only his sweet wife of seventeen who would put a comforting hand on his stooped shoulder and lead him out of his depression; and if necessary, the hand on his shoulder would turn restraining before Tarang could go out of bounds.
Tarang’s family was an old one with highly educated members but no one was a doctor. From the day Tarang enlisted in med school his family was proud of their son, that their son was going to be the one to bring unparalleled glory to the family name.
Tarang was proud too, but was only too aware of the expectations and hence, the responsibility that came with the adulations. Barely anyone but Attrika was aware of the pressure it created on Tarang at times. The burden of expectations used to raise its ugly head time and again in Tarang’s mind, incapacitating him sometimes, or pushing him to get over with it as soon as possible. And Tarang had come to dread the examinations. But Attrika had changed it to some extent. She could help soothe his nerves, his trepidation and let him focus on what he wanted to be, barring everything else. This time Tarang knew, he would get through, without the mental strain and brilliantly too.
But he had reckoned without the unforeseen. Tarang’s father died shockingly and suddenly a month before his exams. Gloom descended on the family like heavy clouds that would neither rain nor move away. And there was no escape.
Besides the fact that Tarang’s father had died young and unexpectedly, it was the older extended members of the family who blew the tragedy out of proportions. Be it a wedding or a mourning, they relished the chance of being in the limelight, sharing their experiences, advising their younger counterparts. Tarang’s already bereft mother was their target. Instead of sharing or even sympathizing in her grief, they escalated her anguish, describing in most graphic details, her present state of bereavement and widowhood, and the losses that came with the passing of her husband.
Tarang was helpless, not having ever been the one to take the horse by its reins. He could barely be of any comfort to his mother and would only keep his head down and nod as his elders lectured on. Attrika, on the other hand, built out of something much more stronger would have no compunction in saying into their faces that their “sympathy” was not required. Which eventually turned the sweet bride into a conniving shrew for the family.
But Attrika was least bothered about what her extended in-laws thought about her. Tarang, after his mother, had started being her main concern. Amongst her busy duties as the daughter-in-law, she could barely give time to Tarang but she noticed as Tarang started withdrawing into himself. And Attrika knew the symptoms very well.
One week left to Tarang’s final examinations, and with the house still full of sympathizing relatives, Attrika started making excuses for Tarang, while pushing Tarang into his room, urging him to lock doors when studying.
And the relatives would have none of it.
“Who is she, Maharani? Doesn’t she understand?!”, exclaimed an uncle.
“Haven’t I said before, don’t ever marry your son to a girl who wants to go to college. Rotten apples all of them. Who has ever heard of a girl wanting to read and learn?” chimed an aunt in her eighties. “Arre, does she have any respect for her father-in-law?! His pyre hasn’t yet cooled and she is turning our son against his duties. These girls, I tell you, will be the end of our heritage!”, added another aunt, conspiratorially and very audibly.
But in the next moment, they would go to “their son” and smile their practiced sad yet proud smile and say. “Your father is looking from above, beta. You make us all proud by becoming a doctor. And then only, your father’s soul will be blessed and he will find peace.”
The times were such that Tarang believed in the after-life, in superstitions and had never considered any alternative. He believed them completely. Attrika knew to prioritize but didn’t dare telling her mother-in-law and husband to stop listening to them.
Two days before his examinations, Tarang called Attrika to their room. In the last few weeks, they had barely made time to talk to each other. Attrika obediently came into their room, wiping her hands with the pallu of her saree.
“I may not come back”, Tarang said the moment she entered.
Attrika frowned in confusion, “What? Why? What are you talking about?I don’t…”
Tarang put up a hand, and said “You are my wife and you deserve respect. I don’t want you to blame yourself and I want you to know. It is your right to know.” He nodded, as if speaking to himself. Attrika started feeling the first tremors of fear. Tarang continued, “I love you very much, but there are some decisions that are singularly mine. I may be doing you a great injustice but I have no choice.”
Tarang went up to Attrika, put his hands lightly on her shoulder and said, “If I fail the exams, I won’t come back… I won’t be able to live with failure.”
Attrika stared transfixed, as he bent down to lightly touch his lips to hers.
The whole day and the next, Attrika moved around the house like a zombie, and only steal moments with Tarang to shout, plead and rage at him.
“Think of your mother. Will she be able to survive the death of her son?!”
“How can you do this to me? Why did you marry me, only to ruin my life?! You wretch!”
“Everything will be fine, why are you thinking like this? If you don’t pass, you’ll appear again, naa? It’s just an examination for heaven’s sake!!”
But Tarang remained impassive. His mind was made up.
On the day of the examination, in the early morning, when the house was empty and quiet, Tarangs’ mother fed him dahi and prasadam from the mandir and whispered, “Do us proud, my son.” Tarang smiled, touched her feet and hugged his mother tightly, and looked up. His wife was standing a few feet away, expressionless, leaning on the door-jamb with unkempt, wet hair, no jewellery and a red-white saree blowing in the wind, looking sad and breathtakingly beautiful. He smiled lightly. She smiled back, her eyes dry. That was his last memory of her.
Two years later, clad again in a dhoti-kurta, Tarang was getting married, this time to a girl he’d never seen or had cared to. There was a lot of celebrations going on in the house, the baraat was about to leave. Alone in his room, he saw the certificate he had received yesterday, after finally becoming a doctor on his second try, lying on his desk. He opened the drawer and took out the photograph of his first bride and stared at her mischievous, smiling face.
“Why couldn’t you have waited longer? I would have come back! How could I not when I had you, and your spirit with me? Why didn’t you wait? WHY??”
He half-screamed as he often had for the last two years, as his tears dripped onto the black-and-white photograph of the woman he had driven to death.
N.B. Based on a true story. The time-line has been changed. The story should be treated as a work of fiction.