Sheela Jaywant resides in Mumbai, has a weekly column for Gomantak Times` Weekender, which is published and distributed in Goa. In 2003 published a compilation of twenty-one short stories - `Quilted, Stories of Middle Class India`, reviewed on SAWNET (see www.sawnet.org) Sheela also has a collection of articles and short stories on the www.chowk.com website. In particular I loved this story and with Sheela's permission would like to share it with you.
Ravi Thumkar’s Widow
Ravi Thumkar’s widow arrived two days after he died. Until then, his body was kept in the Municipal Hospital morgue. He’d died of cirrhosis of the liver, a man pickled by alcohol. Once a healthy, muscular man, he’d been reduced to skin and bone in recent times. The glow of his youth had been overtaken by the sallow colour of neglected health. He had gone several times to the hospital, retching, semi-conscious, taken there by servants. Although he had a family, there was no one he could call his own. He’d lived in our colony for nearly fourteen years. Whenever Anita, now his widow, came, usually during her daughter’s summer vacation, she was mostly indoors, and she rarely mixed with anyone. How would she? No neighbour was particularly inclined to talk to a woman who’d left her husband alone to fend for himself. Or so most members of our ladies’ club said.
“She couldn’t have dealt with his drinking,” I told them.
“His drinking problem was because of the loneliness,” said Mrs. Kanwar. “I mean it’s a wife’s duty to make sure he doesn’t drink.”
“He didn’t listen to her.”
“Wives have to be firm.”
“That’s not possible.”
“Why not? If there was no liquor in the house, how would he have been able to drink? If he had something interesting to come to, why would he have taken to drink in the first place?”
Said another: “She shouldn’t have let him get near the bottles. She should have taken him to a doctor before the problem got bad.”
I didn’t argue. I knew better. It was easy to say this, difficult to live with an alcoholic.
I’d been her first and possibly only friend in this town when she came here as a bride. And until she left, and later withdrew into her shell, I was an ‘insider’ of sorts in the Thumkar family. Our drawing room windows faced each other, and we could see into each others’ homes and chat through occasionally. Quite often, actually.
Anita was a fresh-faced bride, bubbly, vivacious, always bursting with laughter. Rather ‘homely’ (in the Indian context), she had to be coaxed to talk to strangers. He was an executive in a private firm and he matched her in every way, he was bright, kind, active. He, too, was what an adarsh bharatiya pati was expected to be. She’d taken up a teaching job in a nearby college, and was out for about four hours a day. His family, comprising his mother, father, a sister and her husband, used to visit quite regularly in the beginning, and they really did present a pleasant picture, all of them together, laughing and sharing a meal over a weekend. Anita would tell me about their trips to relatives’ homes, movies, dinners out with his or her colleagues, a happy existence. Then Baby arrived. Anita quit her job to take care of her.
There was nothing about the Thumkars that would indicate anything abnormal. They didn’t over-party, Ravi wasn’t very ambitious, yet was doing reasonably well at work. It was a caring, sharing atmosphere. If one was searching for a ‘reason’ for things to go wrong, there was none. Things just slipped into a horrible situation, imperceptibly. An occasional drink became a glass or two and then four, sometimes alone, at other times with friends. It is difficult to say just when Anita told me that she couldn’t stand the smell of liquor anymore. Perhaps when the child was a toddler.
“Tai,” she’d said tearfully, softly, “The clothes, the sheets, the curtains, all seem to reek of rum or beer or whatever.”
Before that, she had mentioned to me about his regular drinking becoming a stretch on the budget, but that was a passing remark, and I hadn’t paid much attention to it. Young couples do have to make do with meager salaries, and everyone has his or her quirks that dig deeper than intended into wallets. I had also noticed that his face didn’t seem as it used to be, it looked sort of puffed and flushed. He’d been avoiding looking into my eyes whenever we crossed each other. Besides, his eyes looked red and bulging. I hadn’t paid much notice to that, either, thinking that it might have been my imagination.
It was months later that I discovered by chance, on a Monday morning, I remember, because that’s the day my sweepress cleans out the terrace, that Ravi Thumkar was at home.
“What’s up?” I asked him through the open door. He was sprawled on the sofa, watching television. “Not going to work?”
“Feeling a bit under the weather,” he replied.
Concerned, I enquired whether I could send something across. “ Just a bit of coffee, Tai,” he replied.
“Where’s Anita?” I asked.
“Inside,” he answered nonchalantly.
“Aa-nii-taa,” I called out.
She promptly came out from the inner room and stood beside the curtain. She tried to hide her face, but I saw that it was moist and swollen. She’d been crying.
“Ravi wants coffee, he isn’t well, hanh?” I altered the course of the conversation because she looked embarrassed, and said, “Meet you later.”
You know, one senses in the air that all’s not well between two persons. But couples do have quarrels, so I didn’t ask any questions, though I was a bit curious. I hadn’t seen any family or friends coming to their flat as often as I’d seen before.
The next day, she came over with the baby and poured out her heart. “He drinks all the time, Tai, I don’t know what to do. This was the third time this month he hasn’t gone to work. His friends have been trying to stop him from drinking at lunchtime. It’s becoming a problem. His mother says these are phases, that I shouldn’t worry too much about it, that it’s probably tension at work, but I can’t afford it. He spends most of what he’s earning on liquor.
Believe it or not, I’ve begun to hide all the extra cash I get at festivals and I feel guilty about doing this on the sly….I feel so scared, ashamed, confused….I don’t know what’s happening.”
She continued, “His sister has been trying to put sense into his head, Tai, but he promises, says he’ll never do it again, and goes right ahead and drinks himself silly the moment she’s gone. When I hide the bottle, he gets so angry that it’s scary. His voice gets so loud, and his hands seem heavy and out of control. I’m scared he’ll hit me or baby.” She hiccupped, shoulders shaking with silent sobs.
Further: “He used to hand over the month’s salary to me, and the first thing to be bought was the baby’s milk-powder, and later the groceries and things. Now, I dig out the cash from his pockets, or draw out money from the bank. There’s never enough.”
I recalled my husband mentioning that the Thumkars’ scooter was dusty and looked unused when Anita told me there was no money to pay the servant nor for petrol.
How could things go downhill so fast for anyone, I wondered. It was but a few months ago that I’d voiced to someone that this was a charmed couple.
Here, now, after Ravi Thumkar’s funeral, when the neighbours were gossiping about her unworthiness, I remembered all that. This woman didn’t deserve these comments. God knows, she’d tried hard to change his ways.
Back to the early days. After her outpouring, for a couple of days, there was no sign of Anita at all. Then I saw her going with her mother-in-law one evening, towards the temple. I met her on the way back. We spoke normally, with no mention at all of what she’d mentioned to me about her husband’s drinking. Nor did she show any signs of stress on her face. Good, I thought, things must have sorted themselves out.
I noticed that his parents were now coming more often. Another good sign, for a family must play a positive role in the lives of young couples.
But I was wrong.
I’d been noticing that most days, Ravi Thumkar was returning home rather late at night. “Must be the load of work,” my husband had remarked, “These youngsters really work unnecessarily hard.” That wasn’t the case. One night, there was a ruckus because he hadn’t the money to pay the taxi-driver, the family was awoken by his yelling out their names from below. Another night, there was a commotion when he flung out a plate from the window to the compound below. Soon, these incidents were no longer isolated. There was a daily scene over something or the other. And often, more than once a day. A few months later, his mother came over to my house one afternoon.
“I don’t know what to do,” she confided. A confident, warm woman, it was a drastic change to see her so sad, so low. She seemed shriveled and shrunk. “Ravi can’t do without liquor and it’s causing a lot of damage to all of us. We haven’t told his sister because we don’t want her family to think ill of him. Poor Anita. He isn’t going to work regularly, she is scared of him and so’s the little child now.”
Gradually, we neighbours, too, began to distance ourselves from the Thumkars, not intentionally, but because there was very little to talk about and lots of awkwardness in the conversations.
The parents couldn’t stay on because the father had to get back to his work as well. They came as often as was possible for a while, but slowly, even their visits became irregular. Finally, Anita alone had to tackle Ravi Thumkar. I was the only witness to her woe. Many times I sent her dinner when I knew she had no gas in the house, or when I heard Ravi’s loud voice get uncouth.
Once upon a time, the curtains were always kept apart, and Anita and would chat across as I said. After this problem began to manifest itself, they were kept drawn close, and I couldn’t fathom what was happening beyond. On the rare occasions when I could see through, I saw Ravi sometimes sprawled on the floor, barely clothed, sometimes lying on the sofa in deep slumber, sometimes facing the television surrounded by a mess of crumpled clothes and newspapers. It was obvious he wasn’t going to work regularly. I came to know later, he changed many jobs.
Anita gave me her news whenever she passed me on the staircase. She’d left Baby with her mother and visited her daily. She couldn’t handle her husband’s condition as well as a growing child. She was concentrating on her husband. She’d managed to convert her part time job into a full time one and thus had a better salary. She continued to support Ravi through his ‘heavy drinking’. She didn’t buy him the liquor, but somehow he found his way to shops that would give him some cheap stuff on credit. Poor Anita had to pay the bills to avoid a scene. Later, he began borrowing from us. “Tai, could you give me a hundred bucks?” he’d ask charmingly. “I’ll return it to you in the evening. It’s not easy to refuse a neighbour with whom one has been friendly. And he was never rude when sober. I couldn’t even ask Anita to return the amount. In fact, I didn’t even let her know that he borrowed.
Slowly, though, we began to make excuses: “Sorry, I have to go to the bank; I don’t have change; my husband’s not at home.” Or I’d just not open the door pretending to be in the bath or something. It was silly, but I didn’t know what to do either. By then, most of the others in the building were avoiding the Thumkars because of Ravi’s unpredictable outbursts, his abusive language at times, the smell that emanated from him, and his obvious ‘drunken’ appearance.
Gradually, Ravi became friends with the watchman, the peon, anyone who was willing to lend him some money. It was Anita who had to bear the brunt of repayment.
At that time, too, there were enough people around who said she should be strict with him, that it was her fault (I couldn’t see how, she’d really been a good wife in every way, and alcohol is known to be addictive, even in bachelors, so a wife wasn’t the cause necessarily), that she should lock him and the bottles up….she’d tried both with disastrous results, ending in violence that was controlled only when my husband and I broke in and firmly insisted that Ravi behave. On the rare occasion when Baby was brought home, there was no tenderness or cheer for the child, so it was better she was kept away. It had reached a stage where Baby babbled and toddled, and entertained Ravi for awhile, and then, when he was again inebriated, she scampered away. Even that young a child hid behind a curtain or was stunned into silence with fright.
Not that every living moment was hell. In his sober moments, he apologized profusely, and was the gentleman we knew once more. He sincerely regretted his bad behaviour and vowed never to touch a drop again. He was helpful and romantic, good mannered, mild. The beast arose only when he drank. How much Anita pleaded with him to change. He promised her…from his heart each time… only to break his word in a couple of days’ time. Once, he gave up for almost a month, and we all rejoiced with Anita that her bad days were over. But no, the demon returned, with a vengeance, again.
(Now, as I hear the women gossip about her, I weep for lives wasted, Ravi’s because of liquor, and Anita’s due to misfortune.)
Two or maybe three times, I accompanied Anita to meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. There she met others who had similar problems. They didn’t solve hers, but gave her the feeling that she wasn’t alone. She could cope better just knowing that. Years of medicines of allopathy, homeopathy, unani and ayurved followed. Swamis, prayers, fasts, nothing worked. By then, Anita was living separately, Baby had become a teenager, Ravi had reduced them to a miserable existence. The flat was shabby, barely kept clean. Ravi had become emaciated, rowdy, and when neighbours who’d seen him for so long passed him by, they covered their noses with their hankies like he’d pollute them or something.
How, when no one could stand him for a couple of seconds, could his wife be expected to show devotion? How, when she’d suffered so much, so much, at his hands, could she love him any longer? He still always held a job of some sort, for he was good with computers, and earned enough to get by. On his good days, which did happen sometimes, let me be fair, he’d buy gifts for his estranged family and beg them to return. By then, Anita was at her wits’ end and fought bitterly to keep him away.
That was how she earned herself the label of being a witch of sorts. She’d turned into a bitter, hateful soul. From the meek, mild woman that she was, she’d turned into a quarrelsome, irritable, cold creature who spoke to no one from this colony, cut herself almost completely from all those who’d known her in the early days of marriage.
For years, until Ravi died, no one had seen her. Except maybe once or twice when she made a trip with Baby at Diwali, or when Ravi was in hospital for cirrhosis.
“At least when a man dies, his wife should be at his side,” the comments didn’t stop even after the funeral.
“She’s not planning to have a shraddh, no religious ceremony, what kind of a person is she?”
“No wonder he took to drink.”
“He was a good man, she was the culprit.”
It broke my heart to hear these words. But Anita didn’t care. She cleared the house the day after the funeral and sold each and every thing. The television, the furniture, the cutlery, the cupboards. Gave an advertisement in the paper, and made a profit. Without sentiment, without wasting time. She changed neither her attire nor her routine, for she’d taken but a day’s leave on the day of the funeral. No one from his family was there. His parents must’ve gone, his sister wasn’t to be seen. Who knew whether she’d been informed. Anita, I was told, had severed all ties with his folks.
“Money-minded, that’s what she is.” I wondered whether there was some truth in that statement.
Heavens, even the plastic buckets were sold to the raddiwala. And the dented pots and pans.
Over the weekend, she came to meet me. I was astonished. We hadn’t spoken in years. I held her hand. After a moment, she took it back.
“Tai, I’m selling this flat, I’m getting a good price for it.”
It wasn’t even two weeks since Ravi’d gone, and she, a fresh widow, was busy making her bucks. Even I, who’d always had a soft corner for her, recoiled. Someone from his office told me he’d made a lot of money from shares and things. All of it was to be hers. By selling them, I learnt later, Anita made a tidy fortune.
I was disgusted at the haste with which she’d got rid of the things and lined her bank balance. Anita, as Ravi’s widow, I now disliked. She scarcely spoke without a frown, there was no grief, nothing to make her ‘human’.
She was no longer in my memory until something else happened, not too long ago, which is how I decided to pen down her tale.
A few months later, Anita remarried, once more causing a stir in the neighbourhood.
“So that’s why she wanted the money in such a hurry.”
She came to meet me with her new husband. I was aghast, but liked the fact that she respected me enough to do so. Both were middle-aged, yet seemed coy and in love. Like her, he was a teacher, and lived in the same chawl where she’d spent most of her life with Baby.
“We’d like you to come home for a meal, Tai,” she pleaded.
I melted, and went. The home was just a room, sparsely furnished, and the food was simple.
“We don’t earn much,” Anita seemed to smile like she used to. A bit saddened by all that she’d been through, but happier now than in many years.
What, I wondered, happened to all Ravi’s money, then? She could easily have bought herself a better place.
As if she read my mind, she said, “Tai, I didn’t divorce Ravi because he didn’t want me to. Each time I brought up the topic, he’d cry and I’d couldn’t go against him. I knew he was dying and didn’t want him to go broken hearted, for I had shared some lovely times with him. But, I didn’t have any affection at all for him. I don’t know whether you’ll understand.”
I butted in, “I don’t blame you.”
“Thank you,” she sighed in relief, “For saying so.”
After a moment’s silence, she continued, “You know, he left a lot of money for me. I’ve kept some for Baby’s education, and the rest I’ve donated to the orphanage at Sant Sadhunager.”
How we had misjudged this lady….this Anita, who had once publicly slapped Ravi so hard that the entire colony was stunned into silence. How much she’d suffered, and now, when she’d inherited a good bank balance, she’d opted to gift it to the needy. She didn’t want anything from Ravi, she wanted the break to be clean and definite.
I went home solemnly. That night, as I watched the new neighbours settling in, I went over the Thumkar story, its happy beginning and sad end. And sat to pen it down.