His departure was so abrupt that he began to curse himself for doing so, for it might have given an impression that he was displeased with what she told him. In fact, his wrath was altogether for a different reason. However, he never reacted to any word or deed instantly and kept brooding about it in his own mind, till he was finally prepared to react. When he did react, it was too late, and to a different circumstance or person. He had always been like this, but he could exercise a lot more control over such eruptions in his younger days. Not that he was old now; he was still shy of forty. A slender man of average heights and looks, he looked taller and younger than he actually was.
He’d had a troubled childhood and he hated it. Abandoned by his father, his mother lived with her father who worked as a driver in a small business enterprise and every evening he would come drunk stiff well over an hour after his grandson slept. But he would drag him out of bed, and force him to eat buns, biscuits, and sweetmeats. Although the old man did this out of his love towards the grandson, Madan hated it. His mother Parvati would then have to light the stove to heat the food for old man. She worked in a Papad factory for eight to nine hours a day and needed to turn in early, but she was almost always deprived of her rest by the old man. She kept muttering and sometimes, when she felt it was too much for her, hurling obscenities at him, but he didn’t mind; in fact he didn’t hear her at all. She kept complaining more often than not that apart from giving her shelter in his home, the old man didn’t give anything. Most of his salary went for matka, the Indian variety of gambling, and booze. His attention was all riveted on his only grandson, Madan.
Madan was not an intelligent boy, nor did he have the curiosity natural for the children of his age. His presence in the school would go unnoticed but for the occasional punishments he received from the teachers for his lapses like not doing his homework, or not answering the questions that the teachers asked during the course of teaching, and not being attentive. Being frail, he was also a target for the school bullies, and a butt of jokes for his classmates. Frequent insults and his dislike for reading and writing made him hate the school. But there was no escape for him. Parvati wanted his son to study hard to obtain some clerical job in the government, and support her in the twilight of her life.
His grandfather didn’t care about his education. When sober, he didn’t even talk much, leave alone displaying any affection to Madan. It was only when he was drunk and shorn of all his inhibitions, he would show all the love in the world for the boy. But the boy hated to leave the warmth of his bed, and the pleasure of sweet slumber; he hated the smell of cheap liquor or toddy in the old man’s breath, and of sweat oozing down along the sideburns of the old man. He was filled with animosity for his grandfather.
He grew up but could only complete his high school, that too after a couple of attempts in the Board Examinations, and not beyond. He did go to pre-university college for a couple of months, but then he gave up, realizing that it was beyond his ability. His mother was utterly disappointed with him. Bordering on sixties, she still worked in the same factory. He sat at home for months doing nothing and she included his name along with that of his grandfather in her murmurs of disapproval, and curses.
When he could no longer put up with her grumbles, he set out looking for a job. He wasn’t very hopeful given his qualification and grades. However, he was very young and a proprietor of a private firm took pity on him. He was given the job of an attender and errand boy to begin with. His handwriting was discovered to be beautiful soon, and he got a table and a chair of his own where he would copy documents. He was getting a couple of thousand rupees, which he gave to his mother dutifully; it made her very happy.
On one morning, his grandfather didn’t wake up. By evening he was cremated with all the Hindu rituals. Madan was sorry, but he didn’t cry, or wail like his mother did. Much later, when asked what had happened to the old man, Madan would reply humourously that his grandfather had been forgetful in his last days, and on that day he forgot to wake up. Outwardly though the impact of the demise of his grandfather didn’t show up and he thought he had lost something that he had long been accustomed to, it deeply affected his subconscious. The effect on his mother was that she suddenly began to look at least ten years older than she was.
Parvati began to press Madan to get married. She began to ask all her acquaintances, and a few relatives that remained in touch to be on the look out for a suitable bride for him. Madan never thought of marriage, never had any crush, never even had any sexual urge that could drive a young man mad, nor did he feel that he needed a companion. He was contented with his routine job, was loyal to his employer and had no hobbies or habits. Again his mother started muttering complaints, more so after she was mildly told by her employer that her faculties had weakened and she no longer could perform her job as expeditiously as was required and she had to retire without any pension.
Madan had never got angry with his mother, nor had he ever replied back to whatever she said, however angrily. He was like a cow tied to the pole that was his mother and behaved like a nincompoop with her. He never even so much as retorted to any of her wrathful remarks for neglecting to carry out her only wish, which was to marry and raise a family. A couple of proposals that came from acquaintances either fell or were staved off by Madan, by just not responding to his mother’s queries. She could have selected a bride herself, or she should have, for in any case he wouldn’t have dared go against her wishes. Somehow, it didn’t happen. Now he’d well past the age of marriage.
Even at the workplace, his co-workers used to wonder why he was not getting married. They used to make fun of his bachelor status, which is very unusual in their considered opinion. Some used to say behind his back that he was interested in men. Some simply gossiped that he was impotent. It would fall on his ears, but he ignored all such gossip and baseless accusations.
A week earlier, he’d met a woman by chance. Pushpa was the wife of a former employee, who had died in an accident nearly a year ago. Although she was not a looker, men would certainly have a second glance at her. She had a child, a beautiful girl. She’d come to the office to collect the salary arrears of her husband. She’d walked to his table and had asked, “If I am not mistaken, you are Madan”
“How do you know?” he’d asked her with amazement.
“I was your classmate in the school. My name is Pushpa. Of course you don’t remember me,” she’d replied with a smile.
He had nodded and said, “It seems long ago now. But it is astonishing how you remember me.”
“You haven’t changed a bit. You still look like a schoolboy I saw years ago, and moreover I had heard that you were working here,” She’d replied gleefully.
After she’d left, Sudarshan, one of his colleagues made fun of him during the tea break when all the colleagues were present. He’d said, “You know friends why Madan looks so happy today? He’s met his childhood sweetheart.” Obviously he’d overheard their conversation.
Everyone started staring at him with surprise and someone asked, “Is it true Madan. How wonderful, after all these years!”
“And, along with a wife he is getting a child free,” Sudarshan said.
“That’s nice man. Now that Madan is too old to have a child of his own!” Patil, another colleague said with a wink.
“Even if he can have children, it will certainly save his efforts,” Sudarshan had said and all had laughed.
Madan should have berated Sudarshan for talking nonsense. But being what he was, he’d calmly heard what was said about him and it slipped into his subconsciousness. He had asked a female colleague about Pushpa and learnt that she was in distress, with husband no more and a child to look after, abandoned by her brothers and parents –in-law alike. She was working at one of the beauty parlours that had mushroomed of late, as help.
A thought had crossed his mind this morning that marrying her would not be a bad idea at all. It would help her and fulfil his mother’s wishes too. He’d gently outlined this to his mother, who was angered at hearing it and had said, “You didn’t marry when you had to. Now you want to bring a widow to this house? Have you gone mad? Don’t you realise that widows are inauspicious?” and he’d suddenly left. In fact, he was thinking about what his colleagues had said and that had raised his tempers. What his mother had said was at the back of his mind now.
He went straight to the beauty parlour where Pushpa worked. Seeing him, Pushpa asked her employer to be excused for a while and she came out.
“What a surprise! How come you are here?” she asked.
“I have come to meet you. I need to talk to you,” he replied.
“About what?” she questioned further with curiosity.
“About you and me,” he said. She was perplexed.
“Ok,” she said and walked under the shade of the trees lined by the side of the road. “Tell me,” she asked him with raised brows.
He didn’t know what to say, how to begin. He was now repenting to have come to meet her. I am a nitwit. My colleagues talk nonsense and I take it seriously. Like a fool I come running over here. Why, I do not even know her. He thought and looked bewildered.
“Is something bothering you?” she asked showing concern.
“Nah, I…I just came to know if I can help you in anyway,” he blurted out.
She smiled and said, “Thanks a lot but I’ll let you know if I need it. But you said it is about you and me?”
“I err… nothing. It just slipped out. If you need anything, you know how to contact me,”
“Of course I know. Thanks. I can’t stay away from my job longer. Bye,” said she and started towards the entrance of the parlour.
“Bye,” he said under his breath staring at her back till she disappeared and then strode towards his office.
At his office he went to Sudarshan’s table and sat silently opposite him. Sudarshan was studying a file. After a while, he raised his head and looked at Madan with questioning eyes.
“The other day what you talked about Pushpa was wrong,” Madan said in a calm tone.
“Why,” Sudarshan said with surprise, “I was just joking pal.”
“It involves the reputation of a woman. Doesn’t it?” Madan persisted.
Sudarshan closed the file and looking into his eyes, said, “Look Madan. You are right and I am really sorry. But we really didn’t mean it. After all she is the wife of a former colleague. Moreover, if you marry her, you’ll rise in our estimation, for none of us dare do such a thing, you know.”
Madan felt that Sudarshan was really sincere after looking at him for long. Then he rose to reach his own table. Before he reached his table, the receptionist called out, “Madan, call for you.”
He took the call. The voice was that of Pushpa. She said, “I’ve been wondering what made you to come and meet me. Now I understand. But look Madan, I am sorry. I do not want anybody’s sympathy. I am strong enough to take care of myself. But thanks anyway” the line went dead. He replaced the phone and walked back to his table.
He reached home late in the evening. His mother came to living room where he had just slouched on the chair and said, “Madan, I have given serious thought to what you said this morning. I was wrong. Times have changed and I have already a foot in the grave. God Almighty may send for me anytime. Who will take care of you then? So you better marry Pushpa. You’ll have all my blessings.”
Madan rose from the chair with the expression of exasperation on his face, placed his hands on his mother’s shoulders and said, “Look mother, it is not possible. Perhaps you alone were right. I am tired.”
“I know why you say so. Pushpa refused. Didn’t she?”
“How do you know mother?”
“She told me herself. After much thinking, I’d been to the parlour to meet her. She thought you were offering to marry her out of sympathy. I told her to have sympathy on you and me, on the contrary.”
From the kitchen, the cute kid walked out and behind her Pushpa was coming out with a wide smile on her face.
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