Post Mortem

Kusum, A. (18 November 19–) Letters to the editor, Dainik Bharat, Manoranjan Ravivar, p. 5-6.

Editor’s note: Printed here unedited, this curious letter and its companion photograph were posted to us recently and the contents have affected us deeply. The concerned authorities have been duly notified and we are looking into the matter ourselves.

Please do contact the newspaper if you have any relevant information.

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(Pictured above: Shrikant Atre with wife outside Sadashiv Temple, B–)

I miss my husband.

When I married Kanta, I was not entirely sure why I was getting married. For years, my idea of a husband had been a tall masculine entity looming vaguely in my future. But Kanta wasn’t even attractive – I was ashamed to notice on the morning of our wedding. He had a slight figure, wiry hair and the bare beginnings of a moustache. He wore flimsy kurta-pajamas and had a significant mole on his left cheek. Looking at him that morning, lying next to me, mouth slightly open and a soft snore on my cheek, I felt a pang of regret.

My father had cut an imposing figure, dressed always in crisp black-and-white. A barrister. People in the village were in awe of him, as was I. My mother taught mathematics at the local school. We made a progressive family. People greeted us on the street. They knew our name. My idyllic life was lost to tuberculosis. My father became a wheezing bundle of sorrow. He quit his work and moved home and my mother left her job to take care of him. When he died, a part of her went with him.

I was allowed an education and married late. But when Kanta’s father approached my family for my hand in marriage, my mother was swift to promise me away. He was the head of the panchayat, a big man, and his learned elder son would whisk me off to an urban life that sounded a league away from our small tragedies. Build your own family, my mother told me, this one is long broken.

It was late summer and the dawn of a new decade. Urban life suited me better than Kanta. He was a quiet man. Even traffic made him nervous.

Our city house was on the banks of a dying river. Kanta would leave me during the days and I would spend my time walking along the bank. Kanta did not expect me to cook and would fetch home food from a canteen. I never realised how difficult, how costly it must have been, nor how lucky I was.

Sunita Tai, our gossipy darling of a neighbour, teased me and egged me on to do something for him. So when I finally offered to buy vegetables during the day or cook for him, Kanta was more than relieved to hand over the job. I was not what you would call a ‘good dutiful wife.’ Perhaps I was not meant to be. The first months of our marriage were calm as a summer breeze.

But during those initial lazy afternoons, walking along the spare shrubbery on the river bank, barefoot on the smooth hot stones, I often wondered why we had bothered moving to the city at all – our riverbank settlement was a small village, existing on the peripheries of the city. We were what you see at the corner of your eye, present but unnoticed. People who had nowhere to go, nowhere to belong. Who would even notice if we vanished?

Kanta loved the newspaper. Every morning, he would settle himself down on his precious leather chair with yesterday’s Dainik Bharat, for it was only at dusk that we found time to buy today’s. He would chuckle, and smirk and laugh, and read aloud the best bits for me. I would bring him tea, and he would shake his head and urge me to read instead.

It was on one such lazy Sunday morning that we heard the gong. It was a loud noise and at first it sounded like another burst of thunder. It had been raining incessantly for days. We went on with our work till we heard the shouts. “Kusum! Kusum!” I heard Sunita Tai call out my name. It took us a minute to collect our thoughts. The cries became frantic. “Kanta! Aye Kanta!” I was caught off guard. She would never shout out for Kanta. I hurried to the door.

In the living room, I slipped and twisted my foot. I cursed aloud and that brought Kanta running out. I still wonder how we had not noticed the sheet of water seeping through cracks in our door. If only we had noticed it sooner…

Another gong sounded and it had me back on my feet. Outside, people were running, running – awareness dropped an anchor in the pit of my stomach – for their lives. Sunita Tai shouted again, and we ran out. I did not lock the door after me. I heard the crash, but I kept on running.

Flood, was what she had shouted, take everything you can and run! Flood. The word reverberated in the air. Panic gripped our joints but we simply kept running. We did not turn around. We ran till we reached the bridge, and only then did I dare to look around.

Flood. A white wall. My house was no longer there. There was nothing but water. Beside me there was a guttural moan and a clammy hand clasped my shoulder. I looked at Kanta, still in daze, and then back at the rolling water.  I could see a large wave riding into the sunset and atop it, a lone leather sofa. The river had the roar of a sea. I was mesmerised, against my will. So little it took to destroy, so much to build. When the municipal corporation sent rescue buses for us, us – victims of the flood, I was relieved. The worst seemed behind us. Little did I know that fate was only getting started.

The following hours are a blur. By the time night settled in, we were huddled in a group in a recreational hall in another corner of the city. Kanta had held on to me throughout. Now he placed a reassuring arm around me. In his other hand, Kanta clutched picture in a frame. The temple back home where we had married. How had he managed to save that from our floating household?

I hugged him as close as decency would allow of a husband and wife, shuddering from the cold and the wet. I felt oddly grateful. The flood had come like a black knight and rescued us from the relentless humdrum of our lives. After seven months of patient marriage, I felt a hungry bloom of love.

A thin man walked into the hall with an announcement. His khaki uniform commanded attention, even as he wobbled unsurely on his feet. We had been assigned sleeping quarters for the night. The crowd groaned in protest. But he only repeated the order. Women to the left, men to the right. I looked at Kanta. With pleading eyes, I refused to leave his side. But even my feminine obstinacy could never outshine his streak of obedience. That was when everything began to go wrong. I blame you, wobbly corporation-man. I should never have let you separate us.

The next morning, I walked out of the lady’s quarters, my eyes scanning the room for Kanta. But my husband was nowhere to be seen. I called out his name, once, twice, my voice ringing across the room. Finally, I ventured into the men’s quarters with a timidity that has long left me. Two buses had already departed, the corporation-man informed me. Left for where, I wondered aloud and was told that they had made arrangements to return everyone to their hometowns.

Kanta had left without me? Impossible. Perhaps he had no choice. Only that made sense. We were a burden now, we homeless many. The blurred peripheries of the city had been highlighted by the flood. You don’t want to know what’s lurking in the corner of your eye. The authorities were herding us off like cattle. How little it takes to tear away a person’s dignity. I must have shown the most patience of those left behind. The thought of my husband waiting for me kept my blood warm. I prayed with a rare sincerity. Four surreal sleepless nights later, I was finally on a bus.

The journey was bumpy but peaceful. I braced my heart as I got down at my station. I expected Kanta to have stayed there, for me, waiting, but the tiny block was empty. My husband was not there. I walked in a daze, to my mother’s house instead of my husband’s. Perhaps the news was already seeping into me, even before I found out.

My mother screamed when she saw me step in through the creaking gate. I will never forget that noise, like an old dying cow. She whispered, you are alive. It was a question. Four nights had changed everything. No one knew what had become of Kanta.

Kanta’s father had died simply of shock, his eldest son gone in the flood. Sadness hit me like the rushing wall that had broken our lives. For days after, I sat in my room and waited for my husband to come and bring me out of misery. I never ventured out and though they left me food outside, no one dared come in.

One morning, two weeks after the flood, just like that, I found my old strength. I went to my mother’s room. When she saw me, she rushed to hug me and I emptied my pent up tears in the crook of her neck. Later, cupping my face in her rough hands, she smiled a kind smile that chilled me. She knew how I felt, it said.

Days turned into weeks, which slipped into months. A part of me still resolutely waited. But Kanta never came. Then came the reward. I could remarry. Kanta’s brother was only thirty six. Ranga was once widowed himself. He had generously offered to take me. He was the new head of panchayat. He would do his work and I could lead a respectable life in our village. I had a week to decide. I saw no choice in front of me. Still, I prayed, I prayed and waited for a sign.

One night, around the break of dawn, I was woken up by a rap-rap. There was a shadow in my window. I sat up in bed. Fear gripped me. Then I heard a whisper, a woman’s voice. Come out, Kusum, it said. I tiptoed out with a blanket, perhaps it was a homeless woman seeking shelter from the cold.  The door creaked open and I stepped outside. I found myself staring into familiar eyes. It was Kanta’s mother.

Her eyes were watery and she was shivering. What happened? I cried and she put a shaky finger to her lips, eyes pleading me to stop. She clutched my arm in her bony fingers and dragged me away from the house. She walked swiftly on her spindly legs and I ran to keep up. We reached the foot of the temple. Our temple. She turned to me, said there wasn’t enough time. Then she whispered something that made my heart stop… He’s alive.

I looked at her in disbelief. He’s alive, she whispered again. Kanta. My Kanta is alive. Your husband is still… The words came out garbled after that. The story made no sense, and yet, it was like pieces of a puzzle falling neatly together.

Two days before my return, Kanta had come back to the village. His bus had taken him elsewhere. But by then, the old man was gone and Ranga was to be the head of panchayat. He was not prepared to give it up for his older brother, the rightful head.

Kanta’s mother told me how they had come into the house that night and locked the doors, Ranga’s goons, while the village slept. They had beaten my husband up. Kanta was not ready to leave. They were heavier and stronger but Kanta fought on. And then Ranga came, and he told Kanta his wife had returned, and that he had her tied up. Ranga had threatened my husband that he would end my life. And Kanta had left without a word.

But the papers said he was dead, I saw the papers which proved him dead, I cried to her. Papers can be forged. She replied and shrugged. Then she started shivering again. Don’t tell Ranga, she begged, oh Kusum, he won’t leave me if you tell him. He will make me disappear too. He will make me disappear, like Kanta. Her voice cracked.

But how could it be? Was it possible? How could life play such a cruel prank? How could a dead man be alive? My husband was declared dead. But I was not a widow. Is life really nothing more than a few pieces of paper? I stood there, trembling, unconvinced. My face a question mark. And then, Kanta’s mother reached into a fold of her blouse and plucked out a wrinkled sheet of paper. She held out her hand. My guts clenched.

It was a photograph. The temple. My Kanta was alive. A moan escaped me and the blood left my body. His mother began to shudder and cry soundlessly. As if on cue, a low whining sound broke the chill, a thirsty dog on the cold night. I couldn’t bear to stand there any longer. I ran to their house. His brother, my new husband, opened the door. Ranga reeked of tobacco and dried sweat. When he saw me, his eyes widened. In the dim moonlight, I adjusted my saree.

He smiled and pulled me into the house. So you have agreed, he chuckled. I couldn’t contain my disgust, couldn’t stop my anger. I spat the words in his face, my own twisted in contempt. I know what you did. I will take you to court. He barely lost composure. His mouth twisted into a smirk when he replied, no could rules in favour of the dead. The ground shook below me. So it was true. There it was – the truth glinted in his gaze.

Leaving the village was an easy decision after that. I needed help. I told my mother I needed legal counsel and she told me of a friend of my father’s. The flood had washed any apprehension out of me. Two nights later, I packed a bag and sneaked out into the night. I got on the first bus headed for the big city. I had never been to the capital and was awed by every sight, every smell around me. The city throbbed with life, thronged with people. It was not easy to find our friend.

The first time I looked at Barrister Kadam, I thought I saw my father. The very same boulder of a man, the same hawk eyes. He did not believe my story but he agreed to help. For his old friend’s sake. Lose hope, he told me on that first day, let effort guide you, not hope. I was convinced if Kanta wanted to be safe, wanted to get help, he would return to our city. But I wasn’t ready to go back just then. I told Barrister Kadam I would work for him. I would earn my way to my city.

I cleaned the house and cooked for him. Then I began to help out in his work – I would file away his paperwork, and soon, every morning, I shuffled along to the court, standing outside uselessly till he came strutting back out in the afternoons. Then I began to talk to people, lawyers and nameless convicts, whoever I could find who would talk.

I read a lot in those days. At first it was hard, words became meaningless squiggles in mere minutes. But I struggled on. When I came to our city a year later, it looked so much smaller than I remembered. For days I stayed fixed to the outer rings of the city, far too afraid to happen upon a bridge, unwilling to take even a glimpse of the river. It took me two weeks to make my way into the city and find my way to a bridge. I walked onto it, expecting to see the wall of white that had struck us. What I saw instead was a dried up waterway, still water with a mass of debris afloat it. A dam broke inside me.

I have been in the city for eight months now. I sell fruits and candies and whatever else comes my way. I cycle to police stations and argue with policemen. I talk to vendors on the streets, beggars near traffic signals, maids and milkmen, I swallow my pride and talk to the street women. But most often of all, I talk to newspaper men, I always talk to newspaper men. I cycle across bridges every day, my saree hitched up to my knees, my hair in a messy bun. Not once in eight months have I seen the water rise. The river lies pent up.

I confess, I am tired. Of this lifeless existence, of hiding, of laughing at my predicament. Tired of the unfazed authorities, all sorry but none ready to help. Tired of convincing busy newsmen that I am worth their time. Above all, I am tired of missing my husband. We have been dead for a long time, now can we rest in peace? As my grip on hope loosens, I make this final effort to be heard.

If you, reader, live in this city, this big mess which lies on two cursed rivers, look for a ghost of a man. He has a thinning crop of wiry hair and a mole on his sallow cheek. If you live in this big city and you spot a small man dressed in shabby kurta-pajamas, a short man shying away from the traffic, be gentle and ask him his name. And if he says Shrikant Atre, please, tell him his wife is waiting. Tell him to find me.