Short story selected for the 2014 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology
Arunima opened her eyes forcibly and looked at the grandpa clock on the wall. It showed quarter past ten on a bright Sunday morning in the month of April. It is the time when nature is at its best in Guwahati. A green blanket of leaves covers the treetops, and the orchids are in full bloom in the hills. A gentle breeze descending from the mountains keeps the weather mild.
Lying on the bed, Arunima kept staring at the clock for some time and her mind slowly drifted away to the thoughts of her father. She recollected how he had treasured the clock all his life, carrying it carefully to their new home and spending hours in deciding a place for it. With a white dial and navy blue roman numerals, a beautiful door carved out of a single piece of wood and a brass pendulum, the clock was indeed a prized beauty.
On her father’s fifty-something birthday, Arunima had got the wooden case polished from a shop that dealt in vintage clocks. After four long hours, which had left her father worrying, Arunima had returned with the clock. The look on her father’s face when his eyes had fallen on the clock had filled Arunima’s eyes with tears of joy. He was so pleased that he had offered to make her a cup of ginger tea. As Arunima had sat sipping the tea, her father had sat in front of her, as if in anticipation of a compliment. Arunima, having read his mind, had said, “you are the best father in this world. Love you Deuta.” Her father had smiled like an innocent school boy.
Since it was a Sunday, Arunima wanted to curl up on the bed for a couple of hours more but because she had promised to catch up with her girl friends over lunch in the afternoon, she forced herself out of the warm comfort of the sheets. She dragged herself to the wardrobe and pulled out a towel and her bathrobe and indolently walked towards the bathroom. She threw them on the steel hanger, stood in front of the mirror and squeezed a blob of toothpaste on her toothbrush. While brushing her teeth, she observed herself in the mirror. There were lines that had started to appear on her neck and under her eyes. The fact that she was growing older clearly showed on her face. It was time she considered getting married or she would have to die without anyone by her side, she thought.
The sun was moving overhead, slowly. The piercing rays of the sun trickled in through the window and filled the bathroom with bright yellow light. The bathroom was one of the most beautifully decorated parts of the house. Being an interior designer, Arunima had done it up herself. It was with utmost precision that she had chosen the accessories to bedeck her bathroom. When she had brought her father to take a final look at the house before moving in, he had regarded the extravagance as a complete non necessity. “You should save money for your marriage Aru,” her father had said.
Arunima’s head throbbed as she had had a disturbed sleep the night before – reason being the conversation that she had had with her mother over the phone before going to bed. She did not realize when she had fallen asleep after crying like a little girl for hours.
Recollecting bits and pieces of the conversation with her mother the previous night, Arunima turned the tap to fill the bath tub. She was so engrossed in her thoughts that she did not notice the tub overflowing. When water spilled on the floor and touched her feet, jolting her out of her reverie, she quickly turned off the tap. For some time, she ran her fingers to form ripples on the water and then unrobed herself and slowly slid into the tub, surrendering herself to the cold water. She then poured a generous amount of a lavender-scented shower gel on a loofah and scrubbed her body gently. In no time, the sweet scent of lavender filled the surrounding air and caressed her senses. She closed her eyes and tried to empty her mind of the thoughts constantly troubling her.
After the refreshing shower, Arunima slipped into her bathrobe and walked out of the bathroom. She changed into a pair of shorts and a tee and headed towards the kitchen envisioning a steaming cup of tea. Lazily, she collected the paraphernalia for making tea, and when she was satisfied with the smell emanating from the bubbling tea, poured herself a mug. With the warm mug of tea in her hand, she walked into the living room and squatted on the white-tiled floor. Taking a sip of the tea now and then, she pondered over the past events in her life. The conversation with her mother had freshened up many old wounds.
Knowing that she would remain sullen for the entire day, Arunima decided to excuse herself from going out for lunch. She picked up her phone and texted her friend Malini and cited a headache, which was not completely false. It was not the first time that she had cancelled a lunch. So, she expected a call from Malini and a shelling thereafter. The thought of it planted an unconscious smile on her face.
The cold floor touching against Arunima’s bare legs sent a shiver through her body. Her feet were numbed by the cold. She pulled herself up from the floor and slumped on the couch. When she was quite warm again, she picked up the day’s newspaper and glanced through it. But it couldn’t hold her attention for long. She threw the paper away and closed her eyes. Somehow, her mind kept deviating towards the disquieting thoughts again and again.
Arunima had a strayed relationship with her mother. All her life, she had felt that her mother was responsible for her father’s untimely death. “He died of pain you inflicted on him,” she had screamed at her mother over the phone the day her father had passed away. Her father had been her only true companion until death had taken him away, leaving her all alone to battle the adversities in the cruel world. She had suffered every moment seeing her father’s aggrieved visage and his doleful eyes. There was an unspoken grief buried in his heart, she had known, but he uttered not a single word of complaint. As a dutiful daughter, Arunima had tried hard to alleviate her father’s sorrows, which had seeped into every drop of his blood, finally taking his life.
Arunima’s mother had come to the hospital to take a last look at her dying husband. She had tearful eyes. “I have come to ask for forgiveness,” she had said. Arunima was unable to control her anger and had blurted out, “You can’t meet him. How can you expect him to forgive you when you went away without any qualms with another man in front of his eyes?” But to Arunima’s surprise, her father had agreed to see her mother.
Arunima had stood staring out of the window at the buzzing streets below. “I am sorry Bimol, for what I did to you and Aru,” her mother said. After a moment of silence, her father had spoken in a hushed voice, “I have always loved you Joya. I know I was clumsy. I wasn’t a good match for you. I also feel sorry for you were tricked into marrying me. But believe me, I wasn’t aware of anything. It’s not you who should be sorry Joya. In fact, I should ask for your forgiveness. I ruined your life; my family ruined your life. Please forgive me and look after my daughter.” Her mother had stood like a cold stone statue, without uttering a word. Before leaving, she had said to Arunima, “Forgive me if you can. I am always there for you.” Arunima had snapped back, “You were never there for us. Please go away.” Her mother had walked away silently.
The ringing of the phone jolted Arunima out of her thoughts. Her friend Malini’s smiling face appeared on the phone screen. She reluctantly answered the call.
“Arunima, aren’t you joining us for lunch?”
“No Malini, I have an intolerable headache.”
“This isn’t fair.”
“I am sorry.”
“Is it again one of your depression bouts?”
“No, it’s not. I just wanted some time alone.”
“Okay. I hope not. Give me a call in case you change your mind.”
Arunima flung her phone on the couch and went out to the verandah and sat on the floor, leaning against the wall. Dark puffy clouds hovering in the sky indicated an impending shower. The day reminded Arunima of the day her mother had left home, years back. They lived in Nagaon then. It was a bright sunny morning and then later, it had rained all afternoon till the streets were filled with pools of water. People were stranded for hours. Even the Gods are crying, little Arunima had thought. “Why did Maleave us Deuta?” Arunima had questioned her father. Her father, though, could never answer her question.
On the morning of the fateful day that left an indelible scar in her innocent mind, twelve-year old Arunima was studying in her room. Suddenly, her mother entered the room and announced, “Aru, get ready, we are leaving.” Arunima was baffled and asked her mother, “Leaving? Where are we going Ma?” “Don’t ask questions Aru. Get ready I said?” her mother commanded angrily. Arunima’s father entered the room, pleading, “Please don’t take my daughter away. I beg you.” Even a drop of tear in her father’s eyes was enough to melt Arunima’s heart. She sprang up from the chair and said, “I am not going anywhere without Deuta.” Arunima’s mother stared at Arunima for a few seconds and then stormed out of the room.
“Please Ma don’t go please,” Arunima ran behind her mother crying. “Please don’t make it more difficult for me Aru. I will not force you to come with me. But please don’t stop me. I will always love you. I know I am being selfish, but … Look after your father Aru,” Arunima’s mother kissed Arunima goodbye and went out of the house dragging the heavy suitcases.
Arunima stopped at the threshold when she saw her mother’s friend, Onir, greeting her. He often visited the house with sweets and toys for Arunima. He was kind to her but Arunima seemed to dislike him for she noticed that in his presence, her father always appeared restless and terrified. “Don’t talk to him too much. Stay in the room,” Arunima’s father would often advise her.
As a child, Arunima could never understand the importance of Onir in her mother’s life. She was often disheartened to see her mother ushering all her attention to Onir whenever he visited the house. She could never see the same feelings in her mother’s eyes for her father, and this made her sad.
Whenever Onir visited the house, Arunima would peep into the living room through the gaps in the curtains, and her mind would be filled with anger and repugnance against him. She despised Onir’s grim eyes behind the thick-rimmed glassed that he wore. On a day when Arunima had seen Onir holding her mother’s hand, she was baffled. Though very young, she could decipher what the gesture meant. The realization that her mother and father were not in good terms with each other left Arunima heartbroken. Unable to keep the details to her, she had shared them with her father but was shocked at what she had heard, “I know everything but your mother is not at fault. You will understand everything one day.” But Arunima began despising her mother from there on, and the respect in her eyes for her father increased manifold.
Arunima stood motionless watching her mother leave with Onir. That entire day, her father had locked himself up in his room. When he had emerged out of the room later with swollen eyes, Arunima had put forth questions and had demanded answers for them. But her father had kept mum. During the night, their old maid had narrated the entire story to Arunima. “I will to tell you everything for your father will never utter a word. And I will not live forever. You have the right to know everything,” the old woman had said.
“Your mother was tricked into marrying your father. Neither of them had an inkling about the trap that was being laid by your selfish uncles. Joya, then eighteen years’ old, belonged to a very poor family but was a brilliant student whereas your father was born into a family of riches but was a school dropout and an epileptic patient. After your grandparents’ demise, your clumsy and inept father had become a burden on his brothers. They wanted to wash their hands off him and decided that the solution to the problem existed in getting him married,” the maid began.
“But your uncles were aware of the fact that no girl would ever want to marry a man like Bimol. He was a dark and lean man and was extremely unattractive. Your wicked uncles found out about Joya and her family’s condition. They enticed your maternal grandfather with some money and lured a friend of theirs’ to pose as the prospective groom in front of Joya. Ignorant Joya agreed to marry the man that she had met. But on the night of the wedding, imagine her surprise when she found your father in the room, who claimed to be her husband. She ran out of the room screaming, which left your father baffled. When the other family members gathered in the courtyard, Joya demanded an explanation and it did not take her too long to figure out that she had been deceived. In the middle of the night, she left the house and reached her parents’ house, but only to face rejection. With nowhere to go, Joya returned back to your father, who was so intimidated that he did not raise a voice against his brothers.”
Arunima was shocked at this turn of events. Could it be true that her mother was the victim here and not the other way round?
The maid continued licking her lips out of excitement. “Your father’s share of property that spread across many acres was confiscated by your uncles, and all your father was left with was this ancestral house, which was equivalent to not even half of your uncles’ fortunes; a grocery shop, which had nothing to sell; and me, an old useless maid. When your uncles left the house and went to live separately, breaking all ties with your father, we were smitten by abject poverty.”
“Joya urged Bimol to take control over things, but to her bewilderment, Bimol was extremely dull and had not a single idea about anything. Joya was devastated on finding that Bimol was an epileptic patient. She was left with no option except for sympathizing with the condition of your father. She gathered herself and with great courage handled the crisis. To make ends meet, she started delivering tuitions and rented out the grocery shop and a few rooms of the house. With this little money, she ran the house, paid for your father’s treatment and also enrolled herself in an evening college to complete her graduation.”
“Hmmm,” was all Arunima could manage.
“After completing her graduation, Joya took up a job in a bank and things started to improve. But even after all those years, Joya couldn’t forgive Bimol. She loathed him, and she had every reason to do so, but in Bimol’s eyes, Joya was nothing less than a goddess, and he selflessly loved her for bearing the pain in taking care of him and the house despite being deceived. A few years’ later, you were born. Bimol was overjoyed. His world began to revolve around you. As you were growing up, you became immensely fond of your father, for you got to see very less of your mother, who was busy earning money to run the family. She had additional responsibilities to take care of as she had risen up to a higher rank in the bank. She had social gatherings to attend, friends to meet and colleagues to pick her up before office and drop her back home in the night, whereas your father stayed in the house all day long, had nowhere to go, and had no other company except for you and me.”
“And how did Onir come into the picture,” asked Arunima.
The maid put a finger on her lips asking her to keep silent. “Joya had a relationship with Onir ever since she had joined the bank, and she was honest enough to share this piece of bitter truth with Bimol. Bimol wasn’t angry but was devastated. Joya wanted to move out of the house with you to live with Onir, but the fear of the society kept holding her back from moving out with the man she was in love with. She also feared that a wrong step taken by her would spoil your future. I thought she would never take such a step, but ….”
“She did,” Arunima muttered. “It’s all fate,” the maid sighed. But you never leave your father. He is very lonely. He has been lonely since your grandparents died. Your father has a heart of gold. Take good care of him after I am gone. And please forgive your mother. She is still young and has a life ahead of her. Don’t hate her; after all, she has given birth to you,” the old maid said and burst into tears. Arunima hugged her and sobbed relentlessly.
The divorce proceedings had taken peacefully. Arunima had expressed her wish to stay with her father in front of the magistrate. Her mother had cried inconsolably holding Onir’s hand when Arunima had left with her father after the proceedings were over. She had felt a tinge of sadness seeing the tears in her mother’s eyes, but she was happy to be with her father.
Arunima walked back into the living room and threw a glance at the clock. It was one o’clock in the afternoon. She hadn’t felt like preparing an elaborate lunch, so she made herself a sandwich and nibbled it while watching TV. Though it had been years since she had moved into the house with her father, at times, she felt very lonely and longed for a companion.
It was when Arunima had reached college that her father had sold the ancestral property in Nagaon and with the money had bought a two-bedroom flat in the city of Guwahati. Though Arunima wanted to live in an independent house in the peaceful and pollution-free North Guwahati, closer to the Brahmaputra River, her father hadn’t approved of it. “You can’t stay in a single house in North Guwahati all alone after I am gone. In an apartment in the heart of the city, you will have people around you. You will be closer to your mother. You will be safe,” he had said. Arunima had chosen not to argue, and they had settled for a flat in an apartment in Sundorpur in the city.
While browsing through the channels, Arunima had come across one of her favourite flicks “Taaree Zameen Par.” Perhaps it was the movie that made Arunima somehow long for her mother. It seemed stupid getting inspired by a movie, but Arunima couldn’t stop herself from calling her mother. “May be I can give her a chance,” she muttered under her breath. In the years after she had left, Arunima’s mother had tried umpteen times to take Arunima with her, but Arunima never conceded.
Running on an impulse, she picked up the phone and dialled the number. Her heart thumped as the phone rang. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. On the other side of the phone, she heard her mother’s voice.
“Ma, I am sorry for being rude last night.” The words flowed easily from Arunima’s mouth andshe waited for a reply with bated breath.
“You need not be sorry. Actually, I owe you an apology.” Her mother’s words sounded soothing.
“Ma, can we meet up? I want to talk to you.”
“Yes darling. I have been longing to see you.”
“Okay, I will be there in an hour.”
“I will wait for you. Onir will be home too. I hope you don’t mind.”
Arunima did not reply.
She put on a white salwar kameez and slung a red bandhni dupatta on her right arm. She quickly grabbed her mobile phone, wallet and car keys and ran out of the house. Somehow, she felt ecstatic. There was a childlike excitement on her face that she couldn’t conceal. She was going to meet her mother finally, after all those years.
Once on the road, Arunima kept honking continuously to keep the notorious drivers from coming on her way. She did not want any hindrances that day. She slowly proceeded through the busy roads of Ganeshguri and heaved a sigh of relief after crossing the most crowded part. Though it was a Sunday, she noticed that the roads were full of people. “They must me busy shopping since Rongali Bihu is round the corner,” she thought. Every Rongali Bihu, her mother and Onir never failed to visit her with an expensive dress and sweets. Did her mother really love her? She wondered.
As she slowly entered the narrow alley in Joynagar where her mother’s house was located, it had started to drizzle. Arunima saw her mother waiting outside the gate with an anxious look in her eyes. As Arunima halted the car in front of the gate, she saw her mother rush towards the car. “Park it closer to the footpath. Some rowdy driver would otherwise bang onto it,” she instructed. She waited patiently while Arunima parked her car and then held Arunima’s hand and led her into the house.
“Onir, Onir, Arunima is here,” Joya entered the house almost shouting with excitement. She guided Arunima to a couch in one corner of the drawing room. Arunima sat on an edge of the couch and looked around the room.
It was a beautifully done room. The furniture had a rustic touch to them. The walls were adorned with beautiful paintings. There was an enormous jaapi on one of the walls and on another there were small imitations of traditional Assamese fishing equipment. Arunima’s eyes hovered over to the pictures in a cabinet. To her surprise, they were all her’s. She walked up to have a closer look at them. There was one picture taken on the first day of her school, another one taken during her first stage performance and yet another one taken with her father on her fifth birthday. A pang of sadness pierced through Arunima’s heart when she saw her father’s smiling face in the picture.
On hearing footsteps approaching the room, Arunima quickly walked back and sat on the couch. Her mother walked in holding Onir’s hand and sat on the sofa opposite Arunima after helping Onir sit. Arunima was shocked to see Onir. He had grown frail and sick and looked miserable.
“So you are finally here,” Onir said. Arunima smiled, and then there was silence for a moment. “Your paintings are wonderful,” Arunima exclaimed.
“Thank you,” replied Onir. “How’s your painting going?” Onir asked in a feeble voice. “I haven’t painted anything since a long time,” Arunima replied.
“You should paint more often. You shouldn’t let your talent go waste,” Onir advised. They sat talking arbitrary things for some time and then her mother served tea and pithas. Arunima helped Onir to the dining table, and they sat sipping tea and taking a bite or two of the pithas that Joya served.
“Have you given a thought about marriage?” Joya asked Arunima bluntly. Arunima was slightly startled. She was thirty-two and was still single. Not a very good sign, she thought. “No. I haven’t.”
“Well, you should think then. Everyone needs a companion in life,” Joya said looking at Onir. “And what if the companion turns out to be like you and leaves me half-way through in life?” The words came out of Arunima’s mouth like an arrow from a bow. She instantly regretted having spoken those words. Joya immediately rose up and rushed out of the room. Onir sat silently staring at nothingness.
“I think I should leave,” Arunima said and rose to leave. “Say goodbye to your mother. She had been eagerly waiting for you to come all these years,” Onir said. Arunima felt ashamed at her outburst. She reluctantly walked into her mother’s room. Joya was sitting on the edge of the bed. Her eyes were filled with tears. She suddenly appeared very old to Arunima. Arunima sat behind her mother and placed a hand on her shoulder,
“I am sorry again Ma. I tried a lot but I think I won’t be able to forgive you.”
“I always knew that you wouldn’t be able to understand me at all Aru.”
“I know everything. I know you never loved Deuta. But he wasn’t at fault, was he?
“It’s not about who was at fault and who wasn’t. It was the time that wasn’t right.”
Arunima sat silently, though she knew her mother expected an answer from her. After a brief silence, Joya continued to speak, “As a small girl, I had many dreams in my eyes and I wanted to turn those into reality. But, what happened to me in the name of marriage was completely unacceptable. I was just eighteen years’ old then. I tried but I never felt anything for Bimol.”
“But Deuta loved you Ma.”
“I know Aru, and I feel guilty about it. I shouldn’t have stayed for so many years with him. I should have gone away much earlier. But I was afraid that society wouldn’t accept me, accept you. I was too young to take such a tough decision.”
“Deuta was lonely. He was in a lot of pain. I cannot forget the look in his eyes the day you had left us.” Arunima almost chocked when she spoke the words.
For sometime, neither of them said anything, and then Arunima rose to leave.
“Aru, there’s something else you need to know.”
“Is it important?”
“Yes, very important. I don’t know how to say it and I also know that you would never want to see my face again in life after I have told you this.”
“Please don’t test my patience Ma. Speak up.”
“Aru … Bimol wasn’t your real father.”
Did she hear it right, thought Arunima.
“Please say it was a bad joke,” Arunima said almost on the verge of tears.
“It’s true. Bimol wasn’t your real father,” Joya repeated in a hushed voice.
Arunima’s head began to stir. She felt an excruciating pain in her heart. She wanted to speak, but her speech slurred. At length, she asked, “Do you think I should know who my real father is then?”
“Who is he Ma?”
“Onir. Onir is your real father.”
Arunima reached for the bed. She could no longer stand on her own. Her mother had revealed facts that questioned her very existence. The world around her seemed to come to a standstill. She sat looking out of the window. The rustling sound of the leaves outside in the breeze, the mild sound of the rain tapping against the windows, the chirping of the homebound birds, the squeals of a baby from the nearby house slowly began to dissipate. A gush of wind entering the window on the west teased a few strands of her hair and tickled her face. She did not bother to tuck them behind her ears. She gathered strength and stood up. With slow steps, she began to walk towards the door.
“Onir is unwell Aru. He will only live for a few more months or may be days,” Joya said and burst into loud sobs.
Arunima did not respond. She walked out of the room in slow steps. She saw Onir seated at the dining table, staring at the rain outside. She looked at him for a moment and proceeded towards the front door and walked into the lashing rain. Her mind was preoccupied with a thousand thoughts.
Many a times, she had wondered about the dissimilarity in her looks with her father. Whenever she had looked into the mirror, she had felt as though those pair of eyes in the mirror resembled somebody’s, but she did not know whose. And finally, she found her answer. Her eyes resembled the pair of eyes she detested. She understood why a few moments back the paintings on the wall in her mother’s house seemed to be an expression of the thoughts she had in her mind. She finally seemed to have answers to all the questions that had troubled her for years. Why was Onir present in all her school functions, seated in a corner trying to escape her eyes? Why had she often seen him outside her school? Why had the rowdy boy who had teased her come to her the next day with a broken nose and sought an apology? Why had she received the copies of an art magazine that she had never subscribed to?
Every piece of the puzzle seemed to fall into place.
Arunima’s heart began to pound so hard that she thought she could hear every beat. She felt as though she would collapse any moment. There seemed to be an uncomfortable serenity in the air and a mysterious sadness. She wanted to go away from the moment, far away.
Without wasting a moment, she hurried towards her car and sat behind the steering wheel. She started the engine and slowly began to drive away. In the rear window of the car, she saw her parents standing in the rain.
She had only one question for them, “Why?”
Deuta (Assamese): Father
Pitha: An Assamese sweet prepared of rice flour, jiggery, sesame seeds
Rongali Bihu (Assamese): A festival of Assam
Taaree Zameen Par: A Bollywood Movie
Author’s Bio: Amrita Saikia is an Indian national currently pursuing her second Masters from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She has a Master’s degree in Biotechnology from Bangalore University and has also worked as an editor for three years in an MNC. Amrita’s first short story was published in an anthology titled, She Writes, published by Random House India. It was her first attempt at fiction. Her second story was accepted by Word Weavers Magazine.
Illustration by Alan Van Every (Featured image on the front page)