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Fragile Victories (An Extract)

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It Happened One Day

The alarm for 6 O’clock was yet to go off but Suparna was already awake, staring at the windows. It was a cloudy winter morning. How different was this December for her in Delhi. She no longer awoke happily to the sounds of morning tea, the bottles of milk at the door, the newspaper. Nothing had changed since last December, and yet everything had. She dragged herself listlessly out of bed, feeling sick at the thought of returning to the world, from the dull stupor of sleep.

The first thing she became conscious of every morning since the last four months was her daughter’s absence. And it was no different today. The now familiar, dull churning at the pit of her stomach was a sensation that would be her companion all day long and subside only when she would escape into sleep – at night…

Ruchi, little Ruchi had gone forever… she was really dead. Gone… at five year of age in a gory school-bus accident. A load of chattering children – unaware of their fate, in a few seconds nothing more than a bundle of twisted, mangled bodies… life had never been the same again.

Ruchi, Suparna’s little sad baby – where must she be now? Ruchi, born partially deaf – had found it difficult to live the life of a normal child. But with the help from family members and the hearing aid, she had learnt to cope. With Ruchi and eight-year-old Akshay – the budding cricketer, life was filled with a quiet, everyday happiness… until that fateful afternoon that had snatched Ruchi away from them all…. Her friend Aditi’s words rang in Suparna’s ears. “God recalls his loved ones early….”

Ruchi, loving innocent Ruchi, was sleeping in the arms of the heavenly father? Suparna sytared at the piercing eyes of Ruchi’s favourite doll. They seemed to shine beseechingly at her in the pale light of dawn that filtered into the room.

The alarm rang, shattering the morning quiet. Before Suparna could stretch out her hand and shut it, Ashish had already done so…. The same Ashish about whom she would often joke that even the blowing of a trumpet could not awaken him. He was such a light sleeper now… or maybe he had been echoing her thoughts all this while…

Routine took over as she went about her morning chores. Tea, breakfast, helping Akshay pack his bag, packing lunch for Ashish and Akshay – so much to do. After they both left, she sank weakly into a chair. She had no spirit to go about the rest of the housework. There had been a time when she would enthusiastically pour over a cook-book, go shopping in the mornings, or just potter around her plants on the terrace…but these days she barely went beyond the bare essentials. It all seemed so pointless.

Looking listlessly out of the window, she wondered if she might be better off with a job… and not be haunted by memories of Ruchi from every corner of the house. Maybe that was the reason why Ashish still looked so much at peace – at the end of the day, while she felt no better than crumpled rag. Not once had he suggested dinner out or a play. In fact, the first thing that he would do after getting home would be to go and lie in bed, and stay there till dinner, idly staring at a newspaper or some point on the wall. He made no demands on her, and, his concern for her showed through very often. Even Akshay tried not to be demanding and boisterous…. But despite all this it seemed as though Ruchis’s death had broken her the most…

Suparna’s thoughts were abruptly disturbed by the sound of the doorbell. It was a saleswoman, selling one of those unknown varieties of washing powder no one in their senses would buy. She politely refused to buy any and saw the woman look crestfallen as she bent down to pick up her bags. But before Suparna could shut the door, she noticed a strange sight behind the saleswoman.

A spastic and deformed child, a little girl, her face, a combination of the grotesque and innocent, her eyes reflecting the sadness of her mother’s humiliation. She seemed five or six years old and the woman was finding it difficult to carry her along with so many bags. Suparna didn’t know what to make of this sight, but before she could react, the woman hesitatingly enquired….

“Madam, could you give us a glass of water to drink?”

“Will you have a cup of tea?” asked Suparna.

The woman followed her inside and sat down on carpet cradling her daughter over her crossed legs. As Suparna poured the tea in the kitchen, she heard the mother and daughter in communication. The mother was talking to her as though she were a mere baby and the daughter was gurgling, back in reply. Suparna felt a warmth envelop her. She was hearing happy sounds in her home. She was not alone.

As they both sat sipping the tea, Suparna could no longer contain her curiosity and asked, “Why do you carry her around like this? After all she must be making it difficult for you to move around.”

“Madam my husband deserted me when this child was born deformed. He said I was a witch. Now I have to work in order to support her and myself, but I can’t leave her in anybody’s care. She’s too much of a burden. Nobody likes her and nobody is ready to look after her. And you know madam, because of her I’m not as mobile as the other salesgirls. See, today I haven’t sold anything….” She trained off mechanically, her face devoid of any emotion.

Suparna looked at the child who was now smiling at her, drooling from the corner of her mouth with the effort of doing so.

Suparna felt a lump in her throat as she murmured, “You could leave her here sometime, when you’re doing the rounds of this locality….” She was surprised at her own offer. She had spoken instinctively and without forethought…. Perhaps she had been moved to sympathy or perhaps it was the loss of Ruchi.

The woman gave her a warm smile. “No madam, thank you so much. It’s enough for me to know that there are still people like you in this world who understand our sorrows,” she said, as she put down the cup with a clatter. “Thank you for the tea, and by the way, why don’t you consider buying a packet of my washing powder” she smiled.

“All right,” said Suparna, returning her smile. “By the way, what is your name?”

“Mrs. Kirti Gupta” said the saleswoman, handling her a packet.

As Suparna saw the figure of Mrs Gupta, and her burdens, recede further and further along the lane, she wondered. This woman had lost so much and retained so little…. What must be keeping her going? Thank god, she herself had a lot to live by, despite Ruchi, she thought selfishly. But was she really living it… living for the other people whom she still had with her?

When Suparna went about her work in the kitchen that evening, she felt as though that dull ache in her stomach was disappearing. The doorbell rang and she proceeded with a light step towards the door.

It was Ashish. She gave him a tired smile and saw him look little bewildered. They sat down to tea and he proceeded to pour it. She took the tea-pot from his hand and said “let me do it.”

Her words had a strange effect on him for she saw tears well up in his eyes. Soon he was crying like a baby… tears of sorrow – that he could now afford to reveal… and shed – tears of relief at her new strength…. They came gushing, and she did nothing to stop them. For he deserved his turn now…. As he buried his face in his hands, embarrassed at this outburst, she saw that his hair was graying in many patches. She hadn’t even noticed was graying in so many patches. She hadn’t even noticed it all these days.

Tears welled up in her eyes now at what had been a preoccupation with her own sorrow. It was a sorrow she had not been sharing with him… nor taking his sorrow into hers. Suparna got up and hugged him tight.

She felt small and selfish, intensely aware of her guilt.

Late in the evening, Suparna sat with Ashish in the bedroom. It was quiet and peaceful. She was tired of having cried so much. And as Akshay sauntered into the bedroom and snuggled between his parents, Suparna smiled lovingly at the loves by her side. Sorrow shared was happiness at last. And as she smiled, Ruchi smiled back at her, through the eyes of Akshay, and through the eyes of Ashish.

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