And the Clock Struck Twelve

(One of my stories that was never published)

The train pulled out of Pune Central, gathering speed to slice through chill morning fog. A tea seller swayed through the compartments, his body picking up the rhythm and moving seamlessly with it.

Meghana hailed him with a soft sound. Moments later she found a cup of the steaming beverage pressed into her hands. She held on to it gratefully, sipping with closed eyes and feeling the warmth seep back into her body.

Behind her eyelids the image flashed.

His lips pressed softly into her stomach, moving, swimming up her body, invading her. And she soared upwards with a cry of yearning, and her horror of it.

The sound of the flush from the toilet beyond slashed through her consciousness. Her eyes flew open, and she looked blankly at the tea-seller. She hadn’t paid him. Embarrassed, she fumbled in her purse for the money. He accepted it and moved away.

Come to me. I can’t go through this alone.

It was only three hours from Bombay to Pune. Three hours and an eternity. Meghana sat there numbly. Sometimes it was the quality of the grey light outside, sometimes a tree fleeing past the train window, a smell, a sound that drew her mind inexorably into the past. And every memory was tinged with the inevitability of loss…

They had entered the Bombay suburbs now. She always thought of it as Bombay, never Mumbai. This was the place of her birth, her youth. Her womanhood. Within its womb lay the sum total of her existence, one more of the countless lives that incubated in this city. What did she matter in the scheme of things? In Bombay, where people ate from rotting dustbins and defecated on railway tracks, what is one more person, alive or dead? Her heart clenched with sadness and she clamped down on it.

Not now. Not yet.

Meghana stepped off the train and joined the sea of faceless bodies high tiding it out to the front entrance of Victoria Terminus station. She hailed a cab, and a half hour later turned into AG Bell Road. A rising panic threaten to overwhelm her again. She wanted to turn back and leave. She wanted to stay and stay. To go in and drown herself in the wretchedness that awaited her. To burn in the moment, burn as surely as Shome would burn today. Is that why she had really come here, against all good sense and reason?

Come to me. I can’t go through this alone.

Of course. That too.

The cab pulled into the driveway of the white, three-story building. Classy, elegant. Just like Shome, her heart whispered with a pang. Just like Shome. She couldn’t avoid it anymore, so she raised her eyes to the entrance of Shome’s block. Sixteen years it had been. She entered the ground floor apartment.

It was easy. The doors were wide open. They are always wide open on such occasions, because all are welcome. Friends, strangers, enemies, the curious. All are welcome.

There were people everywhere dressed in white, a sea of people speaking in respectfully quiet tones. Meghana made her way into the bedroom, averting her eyes from the motionless form laid out in the hall beyond.

Shamita di was there. She sat on the bed, surrounded by sympathetic pats, murmurs of regret. She was dry-eyed, unmoving, almost as still as the dead man in the next room. There remained a hint of the beauty she had once been in her youth. Her grief now added dignity.

Come to me. I can’t go through this alone.

As if by instinct, Shamita looked up and saw Meghana. She rose, crossed the room and walked into Meghana’s arms. There she wept away the pain of twenty-seven years.

How do funerals take place, Shome? Who remembers what is to be done and how? You lie there quietly, submitting this body that was yours for sixty years to people you only nodded to in the street. Strangers. Acquaintances. Bystanders. Do any of them really know you? You, who always frowned while reading a book, who muttered to yourself while you typed on your typewriter, who loved sunsets and hated wet bathroom floors? Yet they smooth the wreaths that pile up on your chest and adjust your shroud with an air of ownership. Let them take you. Let them have you. Let them pass you through flames. Then you will be free…

The funeral rites had begun. Shamita sat beside the body. Meghana stood next to her, staring at the dead man’s face. Those pale lips.

His lips pressed softly into her stomach, moving, swimming up her body, invading her…

Meghana gasped then, involuntarily, and her eyes flew up to stare glassily about her. A few people turned at the unexpected noise. They understood, or thought they understood, the sound of grief this moment had wrenched from her.

Meghana herself was shaken by her desire for a man who no longer existed. Horrified by the bizarreness of wanting to make love to a body that was dead… Now she was afraid. Was there something unnatural about her? She forced her thoughts to other things. She could not afford to dwell on grief or guilt.

Not here. Not now. Not yet.

The chanting continued, male voices rising and falling in unison, led by the head priest. There was beauty even in those chants for a dead man. Shamita was crying softly. Once she looked up at Meghana imploringly, but Meghana pretended not see, for she couldn’t, at this moment, bear Shamita’s grief. Couldn’t stand to touch her, be kind to her, feel the heat of the other woman’s tears drench the sleeve of her blouse. Right now she was consumed with desire and disgust, and she wanted to be left alone with them.

The priests reached the end of their chanting. Like the conductor of an orchestra, the head priest raised his hand and four men stepped forward. They lifted the corpse and took it away to the hearse waiting outside.

This is the last time I will see you Shome. We had our final meeting sixteen years ago. This is our final parting.

When the rose petals had been swept away and the house cleansed of death, the mourners left to rejoin the throbbing, breathing world outside. Now it was just the two of them. Shamita and Meghana. One struggling against bitterness and grief, the other against the terrible silence within.

***

‘Where are you going?’

‘Store, di,’ replied Meghana.

‘Don’t leave me. I’m afraid.’

Meghana sat down again, trembling slightly. The stillness in the flat was deafening. She felt like she would scream, just to shatter the silence.

Not now. Not here. Not yet.

Neither seemed to have noticed that it was growing dark. There were shadows everywhere.  Suddenly the clock in the hall struck seven, making them jump. They looked at each other and laughed uncomfortably. Then Meghana got up to turn on a light.

‘Let it be,’ said Shamita. ‘Darkness suits this place.’

She eyes were hollow though her lips smiled. Meghana watched her for a moment and decided that they did not need darkness. There was enough of that inside them. Between them. She switched on the light. As she walked back to her chair, she suddenly knew she couldn’t do it. Couldn’t sit here and make conversation. Couldn’t hold on to the tears that had tightened in her throat.

Abruptly she caught up her hand bag and walked away saying, ‘I have to go to the store.’

‘What for?’ cried Shamita, panicked.

‘Sanitary napkins. I’ll be right back.’

All the while Meghana walked swiftly down the hall towards the front door. Shamita jumped up and hurried after her.

‘I’ll give you …’

She broke off when she remembered that she had reached menopause years ago. Meghana shut the front door firmly behind her and ran, clutching her handbag to her chest. She slowed to a walk only when she reached the main gates. The security guard eyed her curiously as she passed.

Meghana walked quickly up the road, turned right and went on till she reached the top of the hill. She was panting a little now. She stopped, breathing deeply of the chilly air. Opposite her, on the other side of the road, was Ridgeway Apartments. Mr. Mehta had once lived there with his family. Years ago, when she was a little girl and he an old man, he had loved her dearly. He had called her his granddaughter and she had fussed over him, sung to him, nagged him to give up smoking. After his death Meghana had never gone back to that house again. As a rule, Meghana never went back to houses where people had died. Death was unbecoming to the living. Death terrified her.

How ironic that Shome had come to die in the same locality where she had been born …

Meghana walked on, passing buildings where her friends had once lived. She moved like a zombie without thought or destination, until she found herself standing outside Café Naaz. She raised her bleak eyes to the dilapidated building and suddenly knew that this is where she had intended to come all along. This is where her desperation had sent her when she left Shome’s apartment.

They walked inside together, and by tacit agreement, made their way up the narrow flight of steps to the terrace. He sat at one of the corner tables, but when he looked up she had moved past him to lean against the railings from where the whole of Marine Drive glittered like a string of diamonds against the velvety throat of the night. How warm it was, how muggy.

Suddenly she felt the heat of his body behind her and his hand slip beneath her sari to cover her breast. She gasped and held on to the railing, fighting the urge to turn around and hold him forever.

Not now. Not here.

Not ever again.

I’m leaving you. I can’t go on this way anymore, waiting for the day we get caught. She suspects already…

He had known this was coming. Still he begged and reasoned. And finally, when the inevitability of it sank in, he wept. Soundless sobs that wracked his body and her soul.

Meghana had entered this decrepit building of her memories. She had made her way up the narrow stairway to the spot near the railing at the edge of the terrace. The place was deserted. At last, here, now, she stood with her dead lover before her. This time, it was her turn to cry.

***

‘Tea?’

‘We’re not supposed to cook in this house for the next thirteen days. It’s the custom. Where are the sanitary napkins you went out to buy?’

‘In my bag somewhere,’ lied Meghana. ‘We can’t stay in this house and not cook. Nobody is going to bring us food tonight. Before I leave tomorrow, I’m taking you back to your apartment.’

‘But I’m not supposed to leave this house,’ said Shamita. ‘Not for thirteen days.’

Meghana turned around in surprise. ‘Why not?’

‘The widow is not supposed to. That’s what the priest said.’ Shamita’s voice broke a little.

Meghana clamped down on her irritation and let the remark pass. The clock in the hall struck nine. She searched the fridge and removed a few things.

‘Always the health freak,’ Shamita said softly.

Meghana turned and found her looking at the fresh vegetables on the counter top. There was an unaccustomed softness to Shamita’s usually sharp eyes, a hint of a smile.

Poor thing, thought Meghana, suddenly. How sad she must be today. The man she loves and hates more than anybody in the world is dead. Suddenly she remembered the early years of their friendship. Shamita had been sad then too, but the bitterness hadn’t set in as yet. That would come later.

‘Must you leave tomorrow?’

‘I have to, di. Aparna’s exams begin Monday. You know Vikram can’t get her to study. He’s putty in her hands!’

‘I know,’ said Shamita, laughing softly. She loved Aparna like she was her own. In the silence that ensued, Shamita slowly withdrew into herself. Meghana glanced at her a few times as she chopped the vegetables. The older woman’s face was pensive, discontented and angry by turns.

Suddenly Shamita said bitterly, ‘If I had children, na Meghana, it would have made a big difference.’

Meghana nodded as she stirred the onions in the frying pan.

‘He was impotent after all,’ said Shamita.

Meghana jerked as if she had been struck. The venom in those softly uttered words hung between them in the silence. Suddenly it was no longer just the two of them. Shome was there too, in mute witness, wanted in the way the dead are missed, unwanted in the way they are feared.

 ‘He could never have children,’ said Shamita triumphantly.

‘The two of your never had children, yes,’ said Meghana quietly.

Shamita’s eyes flashed. ‘Aah, I see what you’re implying. That I’m the one at fault, no? You always took his side on things!’

Meghana turned to add the vegetables to the pan. She almost didn’t hear the clock strike ten out in the hall. But now Shamita was riled and unwilling to let it go.

‘What? Just say it! Say what’s on your mind!’

Meghana was almost trembling from emotion and the effort it cost her to keep her tone neutral. ‘Nothing. There’s nothing on my mind.’

‘Oh don’t bullshit me! I know exactly what you want to say!’

Meghana looked at Shamita with tears in her eyes. ‘You know nothing of what I want to say.’

She switched off the gas and left the kitchen, and Shamita came after her.

‘He couldn’t have kids with that bimbo he married after me either. That proves that it was him that was at fault and not me, right?’

‘Maybe they didn’t want children. Maybe they never tried.’

‘Oh he tried alright! I know Shome! He was desperate for a child. He would have gotten a bitch in the street pregnant if he could___’

Meghana made a strangled sound and Shamita broke off abruptly to stare at her.

On this earth walks a creature of love. A creature born of two bodies writhing on a bed of sin. There is love encompassed in its being. The sin will die with us. My love…

‘He had a child,’ Meghana said. ‘He has a child.’

Shamita stared at her, the sickening old fear rising up to her throat like bitter bile. When at last she could speak, she said, ‘Aparna.’

It was not a question, so Meghana said nothing.

She slapped Meghana then, with a hand that bore the weight of sixteen years of doubt and fear, jealousy and betrayal. Meghana didn’t flinch. The pain exploded in her cheek and radiated to her heart. The pain was her baptism.

‘Dinner is ready,’ she said tonelessly. ‘Let’s eat. You’re allowed to eat in this house because you are not the widow. The woman he married and divorced after you is not the widow. And I, who slept with him and left him, am not the widow. If that woman were here she might have sat at this table and eaten with us. Shome’s death has left behind no widows. Come.’

They ate in silence. Shamita’s hand shook as she moved the food around on her plate, her breathing audible. Suddenly she shoved her plate aside, sprang up and went into the hall.

The clock struck eleven.

Shamita picked up the telephone and dialed a number. From the dining room, Meghana, who had put down her spoon, heard the words ‘Aparna’ and ‘Shome’ and ‘Meghana’ spoken over and over again in a voice that rose and fell with spite and anger. And hurt. So much hurt.

Meghana knew that Vikram was on the other line. She should be afraid. She should be terrified by what Shamita di was revealing to her husband in the next room. But here she sat quietly, calmly, letting the damning words flow unchecked from Shamita’s lips, doing nothing to stop her. It was as if someone else’s carefully constructed world would fall apart tonight, not her own.

I warn you that as you lie in your bed and feel the determination of your lover slipping its blade between your ribs, this is your real consummation. ‘Kill me, kill me,’ you murmur. But it always surprises you when you die.

Vaguely she recalled reading these words somewhere… But where? Not important now.

And Meghana realized that her outward calm was not a pretense. There truly was no fear. As unerringly as she had made her way to Café Naaz a few hours before, so also in the morning would she have made her way back to Pune and told Vikram the truth. Everything. No matter what the cost. There comes a time when lying to oneself becomes more difficult than lying to others. Somewhere it had to end. She would have ended it tomorrow. Fate had preempted her by an hour.

At last Shamita put the phone down. The seconds ticked by. One woman in this room, the other in that, the space between them lengthening into an eternity. There are some distances that can never be bridged. Sometimes you go so far that you can never come back.

Meghana got up and went into the hall. Shamita di sat huddled in the sofa, weeping. She looked tiny and defeated. Meghana went to her and put her arms around her.

‘What have I done?’ sobbed Shamita. Meghana said nothing. She just held Shamita, and this was goodbye.

After a long while, Shamita raised her eyes and looked at the younger woman. This woman who had made her laugh and kept her alive though the miserable years following the divorce. To whom she had confided every secret, every thought for sixteen long years. Mother of their child; the woman whose womb had nurtured the seed of the man they had both loved, in a way that hers never could.

‘I don’t know whether I’ve loved you or hated you more,’ she whispered brokenly.

Meghana turned the question in her mind for a moment.

Love,’ she said at last, ‘it must have been love. All along you knew I had slept with Shome soon after he left you. A thousand times I gave myself away. Yet you ignored it, because you loved me. And I left him because I loved you. But the love may not be enough anymore…’

In the hall, the clock had just struck twelve. It was tomorrow now.

*———–*

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