Why the Pyramids Still Stand
by Aalooran Rahman Bora
“I’m sorry, Lata. I…we really like your daughter. We would love to have her as our daughter-in-law. But you know kids these days, right? They don’t agree to marriage that easily. And do they ever give a straight answer …?”
As she spoke, a car’s wheels squealed to a halt barely inches away from her. Ears still glued to the phone, she realised she had walked right on to the road. For few minutes, she stood stunned, gazing at the car. The jute shopping bag slipped from her fingers, the items inside scattering on the tarmac. She slowly kneeled down and began picking them up.
People came running in and surrounded the car. She could hear them shouting at the driver. She didn’t dare raise her head. She had nothing to say. What could she say when she knew too well that it was all her fault?
“It was her fault, for God’s sake!” She could hear the driver defending himself. “I was on the right side. The lights were green.”
That voice! It sounds so familiar. She suddenly raised her eyes from the tarmac. Her heart missed a beat.
He was trying his best to convince those around him, but not one man was listening to him. He took a deep breath, and let his gaze stray to her, his victim who was still genuflecting on the road.
“Shalini!” He blurted out.
She looked up, nodded with a small smile.
“God!” He rushed forth, breaking free off the human fence surrounding him and quickly raised her up from her knees.
“What a surprise! How come you are here? I mean, what are you doing here?” He didn’t seem able to believe his eyes. “You’ve changed a lot. Gained a little weight.”
For all that he said and asked, she could just murmur back a feeble ‘Yeah,’ as she still stood dazed before him.
He had changed too, he too, had gained a little weight, his previously skinny body was now a little fleshy; his hairline had receded; and his hair had grown a little grey. But the sparkle in his eyes, even behind his thick spectacles, was still intact.
All those who were still standing around, now seeing the victim and the victimizer talking amiably, immediately lost all interest in winning any justice for her. They started walking away. Their disappointed chatter woke Shalini from her daze and she kneeled down again to pick up her things.
He too kneeled beside her and helped her put them back into her bag. She smiled at him warmly. Once they finished, he rose up and raised her up too.
“Thanks,” she said with a feeble smile.
“Keep your thanks to yourself. We are having tea now.”
“No Anmol. I can’t. I need to get home. I’m late already. The kids would soon be home.”
“No way. If they can wait for you till now, they can easily wait for another hour. Now come on.”
He almost dragged her to his car. The cars behind his had already started honking their horns.
Fifteen minutes later, they were settled comfortably on their chairs in the Café Indica. The waiter brought them the menu. She skimmed through it as she always did, checking for cheaper dishes.
“You needn’t worry about draining my pocket anymore,” Anmol quipped with an amused smile. “I’m no longer that poverty stricken struggler.”
She laughed at that memory. Yes, there was a time when she always made sure to have nothing but a black tea and a simple toast, because he couldn’t afford even that but still insisted on her going with him for tea. Twenty nine years has passed. Nor she neither he needed to worry about menu prices any longer.
“Two teas and two sets of cutlets, please.” She gave their order to the waiter standing by.
The man ambled away to get it.
“So,” Anmol asked finally, “how is life going? How is Ganesh? How are the kids? Aarti and Ashok, right?”
“Yes. Life’s OK. Kids are good. All is going well.”
“I saw the publicity about your book release. This would be your sixth, right?”
“So . . . you would be here, till the book release, I guess?”
“Then tell me, how is everything going with you? Are you still the chronic bachelor?”
“What do you think?”
The waiter brought in the cutlets and tea and she turned her gaze towards them.
He is, she knew.
She had read many of his interviews. The one question he always evaded was: Why was he still a bachelor, even after so much success and fame, even though there was so much gossip about the many beautiful ladies wishing to marry this literary superstar winner of almost all the major prizes barring the Nobel? Especially one who wrote so lyrically about love, loss and loneliness.
The answer lay in a rainy night some twenty nine years ago. She, a twenty three year old, had gone to the paltry room of an unknown and struggling writer Anmol Dutta. She had cried before him; she couldn’t marry the man her parents had chosen for her. He had nothing then to assure this girl that he would or could marry her. He didn’t know how he will get the fifty rupees he needed to survive another day. He no longer hold in him any hope of becoming a great writer. He had been trying too hard for that one dream for the past five years; there was no hope on the horizon, to assure him that he would end up as someone better than the many that perish in the dustbins of merciless editors.
He knew if he took her hand, he would be drawing into utter penury the only soul who believed in him still, even then. Better one than two weltering in this mud. He decided then. So, gently he had told her to go back to her parents and marry the one chosen for her by them: one Ganesh Roy. The guy was good, from some moderately rich middle class family, working in the Income Tax Department. Everything spelling secure future.
“Go,” he whispered. “Just go and never turn back. He will keep you happy. I’m sure. Just forget me as a passing infatuation. Was there actually anything between us? Let’s not do anything foolhardy. After all, you know what I have to offer you.”
She had raised her tear-filled eyes then and looked at him. He was right. After all, what was there between them? They may have passed a few innuendoes tagged with maybes on their love; maybe you are the one I seek, maybe you are the one in my life, maybe we will get married, maybe I will be a great writer and will be able to afford a big house for us and our kids, maybe we will have a son and a daughter, maybe . . . maybe didn’t mean they were in love. The fool that she was, came running in the rain holding onto the tail of a Maybe. She smiled in spite of her tears, when she thought of that.
She would never forget the pain her smile elicited from his eyes. She knew too well he would break down, the moment she left his apartment. His eyes were just begging her to leave him; then he would cry out his impotency in the soothing darkness of that room.
Not waiting any longer, she turned around to walk away.
“And Shalini,” he almost cried as he said it, “please, please don’t abandon your poems. You’re a far better writer than me. So, please…”
She didn’t give any sign whether she understood what he said or not. Her mind kept repeating just this to her: he never loved her, it was all a fantasy of her hyper imaginative mind.
She had kept his word ever since. She never looked back in her life. She married the man, who was now her husband and the father of her two children, and flew with him to New Delhi. Somewhere in between all this, she learned that his first book had been bought by a big publishing house, read about the rave reviews and then the awards. Four more of his books came out, each more successful than the previous one. He had become what he had dreamt and she had believed he would be: a great writer, an award winning, bestselling author. But she didn’t care. Why should she? For someone who never loved her, though she felt a little of that love for him.
She silently gulped down her tears along with her tea.
“You still write?” He asked calmly.
“No,” she said trying to laugh. “I don’t exactly find time for anything now. As you know, I’m a fulltime homemaker.”
“Well, I should be going now, Anmol. Already, I’m late. Kids will be waiting.” She said, knowing otherwise.
She rose from her chair.
“Number, your number. I need that,” he said urgently.
She looked at him awhile before giving her number. She didn’t ask for his though.
She could feel his gaze on her back as she walked away.
She forgot all about the little respite in the coffee shop, once she relaunched herself into the battlefield back home. The maid had not come the last few days. The dishes hadn’t been washed yet, the floor wasn’t mopped in a week and she had to make some snacks for the evening tea.
Ashok was home from his job for two weeks. Having him at home was like having a mobile dish-greasing-machine at home. He would walk into the kitchen, pick a plate from the shelf, put something on it and throw it into the sink and then wade away. Like son like father. She had to do and redo the dishes at least three times a day.
The cutlets had energized her a bit. She got hold of the mop and began mopping. Then she washed the dishes and tidied the kitchen. She was so exhausted after all these; she slumped into the kitchen chair.
Aarti never helped her in any of the house chores, neither did she pester her for that. Let the kid enjoy herself when she can. Though Ganesh always scolded her for this.
She heaved a sigh. She hadn’t had her bath yet. But there was no time for it now. It was past five already. Time for snacks.
She took some vegetables out of the refrigerator. Aarti was going too lean and anemic these days. She hardly ate anything; her friends always scaring her about getting fat. So, Shalini decided to make cutlets, Aarti’s favorite. At least, something nourishing would go down her throat under the pretext of cutlets.
She began chopping the vegetables. Her mind wandered back to the innocent query that Anmol hurled at her that afternoon. “You still write?”
Ah! What did he know! She laughed.
Writing. That was the first thing she abandoned, when she came to this house as its new daughter-in-law. New brooms sweep well, so they say. It had to, for it’s a matter of its survival. Ganesh’s home, in addition to his parents, consisted of his younger brother too. So, she had to make breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner for five mouths, she had to wash the dishes and clothes, she had to sweep and mop the house, she had to serve relatives and guests.
Of course, her mother in law was nothing like those villainous Cruella-in-laws, made famous by daily soaps few years later: one whose life’s mission is to make the life of her daughter-in-law miserable. She would offer to help her. But like any good daughter–in–law, she refused any help from her. Mother also had her day as the woman of the house. She now deserved some rest and a little peace since she had handed over the baton of household chores to yet another daughter–in–law.
In addition to all those chores, she worked as a teacher in a private school. They paid her five thousand per month. She was totally determined to hold on to her job and the little money it brought her, no matter how hard it got for her.
“What kind of a fool a woman would be to earn a Master’s degree and then sit at home, begging for two paisa from her husband even for her monthly napkins?” The girls in her P.G. class joked with a show of exaggerated surprise. She used to nod in affirmative wonder to that.
She somehow managed to juggle both her work at school and at home even after her second pregnancy. That too a cesarean, like her first one, barely three years ago. How she got those kids, she never knew for sure. She didn’t remember ever making love to Ganesh. She hardly used to get time even to see his face properly in daylight after his and her work. Perhaps in the nights, in the middle of all those intense discussions on housing and vehicle loans, she have had them.
Her health just deteriorated, almost immediately after they had moved back to her home city. Her in–laws had gone to stay with their other son, who by then had got married. Her mother had become bedridden following a sudden stroke. So in addition to child care, she started taking care of her ailing mother. Every evening after school she used to rush to her mother, travelling an hour on the bus, to clean her up and give her a bath.
Noticing how emaciated she had become, one of her friends scolded her.
“Your husband earns just too handsomely, right? Both in salary and under the table? Then why? Why do you waste your time and energy on this silly job that doesn’t even fetch you a decent salary? It’s pointless.”
So, after hopelessly, trying her best to juggle her many roles as a career woman, nurse, caretaker, homemaker for another couple months, she quit her job, gulping down the little pride she still had.
It would simply have looked all too absurd, if in the middle of all this, she took some time alone for herself, closeted in a room with her poems and pens and papers for company. Instead of such an audacity, she used to bear patiently at first with her mother in law’s craze for saas-bahu soaps, then her husband’s for news and finally her kids’ for nonsense.
She was a full time homemaker. She was expected to keep her home neat and tidy, because that’s what a homemaker was supposed to do. All work and no pay. Amidst this was forgotten all: the nagging pain of her back and joints, the numbness in her legs, all. Yet, who cared! Everyone is busy in their own world.
She took a deep sigh. The vegetables were done now. She put them in a pan to sauté.
By six, Aarti was back from university. She plunged straight into the cutlets without even changing her clothes. Shalini made sure she had at least three before sauntering off to her room. Ashok came in a little later. He too had nothing to say to her. He used to be a talkative boy. Since that proposal came in, he was like this: hardly mouthing a word to her. Like his sister, he too had his fill and went to sit behind closed doors in his room.
Chatting perhaps. God alone knows with whom.
Ganesh was home by nine. As had been his habit for many years now, he sat silently at the dining table gazing through the day’s paper while having his dinner. Shalini came from the kitchen and started talking about the marriage proposal that had come for Ashok couple weeks ago.
“The family from Mumbai? They called again. What should I tell them?”
“Well, what can I say? Ask him.” He replied, raising his head for a moment from his paper, before plunging right back in.
“You can also talk with him. He is your son too.”
“I know. But he is closer to you, right?”
“Is that my fault too?”
“No. God! Why is that you always have to fight?”
“I wasn’t fighting. Just talking. Can’t I even have a simple talk with my husband?”
“Whatever. I’m just too tired. Had a busy day at office. Need some rest.”
She watched him walk to their bedroom.
Lately, their conversations were like this, brief snippets. If before housing and educational loans provided a fertile topic, now the focus was the kids’ marriages. Day by day, she found it increasingly hard to fill the silences that ensued between them. When the kids were young, they used to have dinner together. But now the three were busy with their own worlds. Kids had unseen strangers in unseen lands to share their lives with, and he…she didn’t know what he did.
She cannot remember ever having an intimate talk with this man, her husband of almost three decades. Not that he was a bad husband; he simply failed to understand her, her thoughts. But then, she did not understand him either. They were just two strangers tied together by a wedding knot.
Somewhere in the beginning, she tried loving him. He always proved distant, drowning their relationship under the waters of other relations. He always spent his time with his parents and brother rather than with his wife; maybe he found it too unmanly to stick around his gloomy wife. She then began hating him, hating him so much that some nights when he snored beside her she shed silent tears in the dark. She contemplated taking revenge on him by hanging herself on the fan that whirled above them. Then slowly, with passing years, a cloak of benumbed indifference settled on her. She simply didn’t care about him being around. Yet, she was ever grateful to him, this stranger who kept his distance from her and provided a house for her and earned money for her and her kids. What he did beyond that in her world, she never knew.
By the time she was done with all her work, it was past eleven. The lights in the kids’ rooms were still on. Heaving a sigh, she walked to their bedroom. Her phone started vibrating with a call from an unknown number.
Who can be? That too this late?
“Hello” she said into the phone.
“What are you doing this late?”
“Shalu, I couldn’t sleep. I was seeking the answer for that question.”
“The question you asked me. Why I’m still a bachelor?”
“You know why, Shalu? Because my nights are still haunted by the image of a lady who stood by me all through my hard times, but whom I lost in my good days; she still holds my heart as her hostage.”
“I love you, dear. I always have. My heart can’t think of another soulmate but you. I…”
“Please Anmol. Life is nothing romantic for me anymore. I’m no longer the dumb poet you knew. I’m past my middle age. I have two grown up kids and a husband. So, please don’t pester me over this nonsense anymore. If you haven’t married, that’s good for you. Marriage wins you nothing but an enemy for a lifetime, and you can never raise a finger against him.”
Without waiting for his response, she disconnected the call. Her rage at this man, whom she had once loved so much, indeed surprised her.
Ganesh’s snores brought her back to her reality. She was just too tired to torment her heart anymore with thoughts of a long lost love. She got into the bed beside Ganesh.
Her day began at seven next day. At eleven, when she was busy with the laundry, again she got a call from an unknown number.
It would be him.
She took the call and asked a bit sternly, “Hello?”
“Hello, Mrs. Ganesh Roy?”
“Yes? Who is this?”
“Well, ma’am, that’s not important. What’s important is what I’m going to tell you. Your husband is having an affair with one of his subordinates, named Ritu. This has been going on for too long now. They are quite inseparable. I’m just a well-wisher who hates to see good people like you getting betrayed. So, take care.”
The call was disconnected.
It came as a surprise to her that she was neither shocked nor surprised, neither angered nor saddened with what she heard; rather she was amused at the ‘inseparable’ part he mentioned. Perhaps she was tired, just too tired of the charade she played, of holding things together for so long.
That evening when Ganesh came home and was having his tea, she asked him straight. “Do you know a Ritu?”
He sat silent. His stunned silence was enough to convince her of what she already knew. She didn’t exactly care for that. She just wanted him to clean up the mess before someone knew of it. A few good proposals were coming their way for the kids. That’s all she spoke to him about.
She could think of nothing but the kids’ future and their marriage throughout her work. She didn’t know, though felt so sure he must have, how much Ganesh must have doled out from their savings for his Ritu. It scared her.
Aarti still was a kid, just twenty four. Yet many were asking for her hand.
“What heavens await us following marriage, Mom?” She mocked every time Shalini brought up the issue of marriage before her.
She was right. Shalini knew. After all, the heavens that awaits her daughter wouldn’t be much different from those that awaited her mother. Let her have her peace as long as she can. She sighed. But maybe Ashok can have his wife now.
Once her chores were done, she went to Ashok’s room. He was on his bed talking to someone on phone. When he saw her, he put it down.
“I was thinking of saying ‘yes’ to that girl from Mumbai, kiddo.” She said.
“Is it ok?”
“I need some more time, mom. I told you.”
“What time, Ashok? You’ve to marry someday, right? They are the best we could ever get. Such proposals won’t come every day.”
“But, Mom, I don’t like her. It’s the most important decision in my life, right?”
“Yes, dear. But I’m your mother. Mothers won’t do anything harmful to their kids. What’s wrong with that girl! She is perfect and she works in Bangalore too. You two can live happily there.”
“Mom! Will you just stop it, please? It’s my life. Just stay out of it.”
Shalini was too shocked to say anything. He went on
“And I’ve already found the one for me. I’ve known her since college…”
“Maybe, you could have mentioned that a bit sooner. . .”
Hearing how pathetic she sounds, she cut herself short and walked out from his room, overwhelmed by emotion.
She couldn’t sleep that night. Something in her had changed. A strange weight seemed to have settled on her chest, pushing her down. Ganesh slept unusually silent. She sat all benumbed in the darkness of the living room.
She had been silent to herself for too long. What had she done with her life? Nothing. A feeble voice that she had quelled for long whispered from somewhere deep within her. Was she disappointed with her life? That voice didn’t even dare answer that.
She didn’t know what she was doing in that house where everyone had their own lives. Her husband had one; her son had one; and even her daughter. She was nothing but an unpaid housekeeper they needed to keep their rooms and clothes tidy and to get their food ready. She had always strived to be a dutiful wife, a good mother, but simply forgot and failed to discern the meaning of her own life.
It was raining outside. Tears overwhelmed her as it brought back into her mind that night, long long ago that changed the course of her and Anmol’s life forever. She was a dreamer and he alone knew the dream she lived. It was time she broke free off the strings that tied her still to this silly puppet show and walked free to her lands.
She opened the door and pulled it shut behind her. It closed easily. She walked out into the street, where the rain found her.
His staying arrangements had been made on the fourth floor of the Plaza Apartments. He had mentioned to her. It was two blocks away.
The guard there called him and asked whether he should let in an all-drenched lady, and late in the night, at that. He said ‘yes’ urgently. She dragged herself those few steps from the lift to his door.
He stood waiting, bewildered, at the wide opened door. The moment he closed the door, she fell into his arms, hiding her face in his chest, and broke down into tears. He tried to soothe her.
“I have nothing, Anmol. Nothing. All I have worked for this long were nothing but ashes. Ashes, Anmol. My kids don’t need me. My husband doesn’t need me. And it took this fool this long to realize that I was nothing but an unpaid domestic worker they needed at their house. I have nothing, I have none, I’m nothing.”
“Shalu, you have everything, dear. You are everything. You have me. You will always have me, love. They don’t know how to value someone as precious as you. Blinds, all of them. Just calm down, dear. Calm down.”
Gently, he carried her to the bedroom and let her remove her wet clothes. Without saying a word, he passed on a towel to her, then his gown, which she quietly put on. Gently, she laid her head on his chest that night.
“Twenty nine years! I burned up twenty nine years, Anmol. With that man, that stranger. What was I doing in that house? I haven’t touched a pen for the past twenty nine years. I am not a part of even my children’s life. What am I? I don’t know. God!”
“You know Shalu, in many cultures, there exists this tradition of burying human alive at the foundation of a monument to make sure it stays in place. Some say they have locked up live humans beneath the pyramids and the like to make sure that person’s soul stays down there and keeps the structure from falling apart. That’s what mothers are, that’s what mothers do. Mothers are the human sacrifices made by culture and customs to keep the monument of home, that pyramid of family in place. They are the centres that hold things together. And you were living this sacrificial existence.”
“I don’t know. But I’m nothing, NOTHING. I scare myself. I have become exactly that, that which I mocked in college: the woman who forgot to live. I have turned exactly into that.”
“Shh…Forget all that. Those are all things of the past. It was my fault too. Had I been a bit brave, you would never have become another’s wife. And I should have come and taken you away, much much earlier. I tried to, you know, many times. But every time I thought you were leading a happy life with your family. So, I…anyway, I won’t let you go anywhere anymore. You are mine, only mine, forever mine.”
Anmol was still saying something when she fell into a deep sleep, one that she hadn’t had for years.
Burning, eggs burning. God! The kid has forgotten to turn off the stove.
As the smell of burning eggs pierced her nostrils, she suddenly jumped up from the bed. She saw she was still clad in a man’s gown. She remembered where she was.
Anmol was in the kitchen. Along with the breakfast smells, his singing too floated in into the bedroom. She had a quick shower and put on her clothes. He had already had them washed and ironed and laid by the bed side.
She walked to the kitchen. He was busy making toasts and sunny side up.
“Good morning, love. Had a good sleep?” He enquired, as he placed the plate of toast and eggs before her.
She smiled feebly and began munching on a toast. She had no memory of anyone making breakfast for her, not since her mother’s death.
“I’ve booked our travel. I have a home up in the mountains. It’s just the way you used to describe to me. You’ll love it. It just needs you now to make it complete.”
Anmol went on gushing about their home, hardly noticing how her face fell. It took him few minutes to notice how dejected she looked.
“What, dear?” He asked gently.
“I’ve to go now, Anmol.”
Silence. She could feel his pain piercing into her heart.
“Going to them, love?” He asked, in the same tone in which he had once begged her never to turn back in her life and seek him.
“I’ve to, Anmol. I’ve to.”
“Once lost, lost forever, right love? Sorry, I forgot that.”
She was walking fast. She needed to get home before it got too late. Before neighbors could start wondering where it was she was coming from so early in the morning. That would affect Aarti’s future. She heaved a sigh and quickened her pace.
About the Author:
Aalooran Rahman Bora is from the Indian state of Assam. He is employed as a freelance Instructional Designer while he works on his first novel and a string of short stories. He was a finalist for the 2015 Berfrois Poetry Prize.