Bones Beneath

by Jyotsna Jha

Devyani and Shubra are the last ones to get off the cab. Shubra finds the house in darkness, except for her bedroom lights. Alisha is sleeping and Nikhil takes a while to open the door for her. It is late, almost eleven in the night. They had started back well in time but the cab broke down, leaving them stranded on a deserted highway.  Though a little nervous because they were an all woman-group, Shubra drew strength from their number. She gave frequent calls back home while the driver took some time to fix the problem.  More than her safety she was worried about Nikhil’s panic which was building up steadily.   

 “So how was your trip?” Nikhil’s tone is weary and the question unmistakably perfunctory.

“It was wonderful! You must plan a visit there with Shubra some time.” Devyani answers him before Shubra can.  

He stares at the cigarette in Devyani’s fingers, gives her a brief smile, and turns back towards his bedroom.

Shubra joins him in a while after helping to Devyani to settle down in the guest room. Nikhil is already in bed. A glass of whisky lies unfinished on the bedside table and he seems engrossed in the book he is reading, but she can sense his eyes on her as she changes into her night clothes. His lips are drawn in and his eyebrows have come together to complete the look she knows well and has learnt to be wary of. Bits of incipient conversation build up inside her but do not find its way to her mouth.

“I told Devyani to stay over for the night. It’s too late for her to drive back all the way home,” she informs him, trying to maintain a chatty tone. Devyani’s house is at the other end of the city. Despite the thin traffic at night, it would take her an hour to reach home. Besides, there is no one waiting for her at her house.  

He raises an eyebrow, “Too late”? … Is it?” and is back into his book again.  There is something sullen in the air. Something unspoken. She had anticipated his annoyance but was not prepared for this impenetrable obtuseness from him.  Nikhil was not too happy about her making this trip. He had warned her repeatedly about delays in flights due to the winter fog, the perils of unexpected mishaps, and the invitation a group of four women might send out to the wrong kind of people. But this time she had been unexpectedly stubborn.

It’s not long before he turns out the lights, and then his back on her. Within minutes she can hear his breathing deepen. She lies on the bed for long thinking about the time spent with her colleagues, away from the humdrum of her every day. The four-day excursion to Rajasthan had been wonderful.  The only thing that sullied her enjoyment was the occasional reminder in her mind that she was not missing Nikhil much. She had almost decided not to go, but was now thankful for Devyani’s insistence.  

Devyani joined the college as economics faculty a year back.  It was a time when Shubra had almost begun to believe that fun and friendships were things of the past and that there was nothing more to life outside the circle of home, family and work.  With Devyani a lot of things made a comeback into Shubra’s life—first-day, first-show movies, food festivals, and visits to music and concert shows. She absorbed Shubra’s Monday to Friday angst like a sponge, easily making the portentous turn ludicrous. But despite the deepening friendship, Shubra knew little about what lay beyond Devyani’s rush of curly hair, red lips and loud laughter. Their conversations never ventured around Deyvani’s private life and the divorce which happened just two years after her marriage.   

 Nikhil watched the new turn in Shubra’s life with amusement and felt a sense of relief to find her make the sudden transformation. From carping to content. From clinginess to certitude. He was happy to find that his wife no longer complained about his long working hours and his unavailability for necessary social commitments and irksome husbandly duties like accompanying Shubra to visits to doctors, schools and shopping malls. She did these mostly with Devyani now. But he was not prepared for what followed later.  He seldom found her at home. Now there were times when ‘he’ had to wait for her for dinner.  It wouldn’t be so bad if they had been living alone, but his old father who had started staying with them after his retirement seemed quite upset by Shubra’s late-evening- entries into the house. Nikhil’s resentment took on new forms of expression. He had lately turned into a conscientious father who did not want their daughter to be without their parents’ company for long. He coined interesting epithets for her friends, particularly Devyani. His descriptions and soubriquets ranged from the trite and flippant ‘therapists on the move,’ to the more severe ‘a divorcee social-worker, attempting reincarnation by trying to free herself of her past life.’ These were snide references to Devyani’s early divorce and her intense involvement with an NGO working for women in distress.

Sleeps evades Shubra despite the tiredness.  It’s a winter’s night and it is surprisingly silent without the whirr of a fan, or the faint drone of the air conditioner.  It’s a silence she has never experienced, or probably never noticed before. The stillness is only broken by the tut-tut of the gecko on the wall and the sound of Nikhil drifting in and out of sleep and stirring occasionally.  

She switches on the light to see the clock on the wall. It reads 3: 04.  Her head feels heavy and she decides to make herself a cup of coffee. She slips out without switching on the lights, mindful not to awaken anyone, as she moves towards the kitchen. She is almost at the kitchen door when she hears a slow click of a door in the darkness.  The sound comes from the guest-room, along the main entrance of the house. It is her father-in-law’s bedroom.

Nikhil had insisted that he move in with them after his mother’s death, not wanting him to live alone in his skulking double-storey house. It had been difficult in the beginning. Retirement had shrunken him. Though rewarded with a handsome pension now, he suddenly lost his cook, the gardener, his driver, and all the trimmings that made him swell with consequence. And then there was something else. He had been far too dependent on his wife without acknowledging or perhaps even knowing it. Her looming presence in his life could not be replaced by the diligence of servants. It took him time to adjust within a family where people had little time for others, or even themselves. Shubra’s feelings for him swung rapidly between exasperation and pity, but she was relieved to see Alisha accomplish with her effrontery and guilelessness what she could not with concern and deliberation.

A figure moves and there is the soft sound of bare feet walking on the floor of the corridor which leads to the entrance of the house. It is a woman. Shubra can make out by the folds of her clothes around her. She makes rushed efforts at unlocking the entrance door, even as Shubra’s hands search for the switch board beside the kitchen door.  In a flash the room is illuminated and the figure freezes. She is beside her in a few seconds. It is Noor, the maidservant’s daughter. She stands there stunned, like a rabbit caught in the headlights of a moving car, too bewildered to make a run for its life. Her clothes and hair are disheveled and her flaming, orange dupatta around her bony shoulders accentuates the brownness of her skin, giving it the look of burnished wood. Her high, hungry cheekbones look gaunter in the dim lights of the room.   

The first thought is to ask her if the old man has taken ill. She has been looking after him for a few months now. But her face tells its own story. The humiliation, the burden of another’s blame. Shubra is forced to think about the unthinkable. She watches the dance of emotions on Noor’s face — shock, fear, guilt, shame. She catches each of it, frame by frame. At the same time, she is also struck by the youngness of her face, the rawness of a person who has not yet learnt the adult art of concealing her emotions.  How old is this girl? Fifteen? Definitely not a day over sixteen.

She opens her mouth to speak and then closes it again. And then she takes a few steps forward to open the door, leaving it wide open for Noor. Noor gives her a surprised stare for a few seconds and then rushes out of the house.  Shubra follows her out into the lawn, shivering at the shock of the cold air on her skin. She sees her almost running towards the servant quarters behind the house, which must be her escape, her sanctuary right now, and getting lost in the darkness.  Dark clouds swirl above, and though it is a full-moon-night, the moon is only a faint spot in the sky. The silvery darkness only magnifies the pathetic proportions of Noor’s house crouching in the corner, away from the lights of the lawn.   

Shubra gets back into the kitchen telling her mind to do things. ‘Take out the kettle. Put the water to boil. The milk is in the fridge. You could do with a spoon of sugar in your coffee today.’  For long she sits at the dining table watching the steam rise from her cup. The door of her father-in-law’s room is visible from there. She waits for sounds of a movement, a light switched on, his shuffling around in the early morning hours. But there is only darkness and a guilty silence. Does he know that she knows?

She remembers the day she had left for the trip with Devyani.  He had been unwell in the morning, down with a bad cold and a wheeze. His breathing was disturbingly audible, a muted orchestra of whistles, pops and cackles.  She had instructed Noor to look after him well.  She nodded her head, looking down all the while.  In the beginning of his stay her father-in-law had been unhappy about them employing Noor’s mother as she was muslim. He particularly had reservations about them cooking for them. In the past, Shubra had seen her mother-in-law keep aside separate utensils for the servants in the house whenever she visited. So there in the corner of the utensil rack, lay the ‘untouchable cups and plates’. They were usually the ones with slight chips, or the ones with coffee stains beyond the rescue of dishwashing soaps. Back then, her father-in-law would only laugh tolerantly at what he called ‘her whims’. But after her death, he seemed to be holding on to everything related to his wife. Even her most inexcusable caprices.   But with time, Shubra got around him. There was no way she would throw out a hardworking, widowed, woman employed with her for many years. 

She thinks about the two of them together; the wiry child-woman and the wheezy old man. Fresh earth and tired, wasted seed. Self-preservation and the itch of the male flesh. Revulsion runs through her veins in a hot angry course, like an electric current shooting up her feet, reaching her eyes, stinging them, blinding her for a few moments.  By the time she gets up from her chair daylight has broken. Her hands are shaking as she awakens Nikhil with violent jerks.  Words tumble out of her mouth without restraint.  His face tightens till his eyes are reduced to slits.  What follows after that will stay with her forever: Nikhil’s adamant disbelief at first, and the shocking views he carelessly flings at her later, in a language she thought only belonged to shady corners of obscure streets.

The things he said did not come from him. They came from a sense of the past which had been absorbed over the years, and carried within him. Sources whose very existence Nikhil would have denied—the master’s subjugation of the subordinate, pride of caste, his concessions to sexual morality, one religion’s antagonism to another, and above all, belief in the patriarchy which seeps into us through religion, mythology, and popular beliefs that surround us through our childhood. He would not for a second believe that he has not cleansed himself of these dregs of the past. Nor does he realize how words have the power to undress, to reveal in a few seconds what years of contrived dissimulation has masked.    

“I don’t think Alisha is safe around him.” she says at some point. 

That is the time he does it. He reaches her in what seems almost like a jump, his hand raised, but something stops him from planting his hand on her face.

There is suddenly nothing left to say. He sits panting on the study table chair, trying to collect his thoughts for the next course of action. Shubra sits spent on her side of the bed, staring at the man she had rushed into loving. His lips are drawn in, almost disappeared into a snarl, the eyebrows have rushed in together to form a single line, think and unforgiving.  She feels like she has come out of her body and is watching herself and Nikhil pulling and tugging away in a mad orgy of endless unravelling. A thread pulled and torn, then another, and then another. It’s an undoing of the entire weave, knot and merge of their years spent together.  She tries to put another face on him—the face of the young man she had met in the college auditorium nine years back. She wants to bring back memories of a nervous laugh. She wants to remember a gap-toothed eager smile and a mop of unruly hair, but his face is as hard and strongly set as the reality staring at her.

 “Whores! They are whores. Both of them. She must have thrown her daughter at him. They planned this out together” He is beginning to rant again.   

“How do you know that?  She is just a child, and it cannot be her fault alone.” She is pleading with Nikhil again.

“Look, I’ve had enough of your activist ideas and your…your prancing around the whole country with that wild woman.”  He pants.  

By now she is too numb to react to this new line of tirade.    

“You stay out of this. Let me handle this before everyone is up.” His voice is a low hiss.

She watches from the window as the day breaks into a sequence of ugly events. 

Nikhil stands outside the servants’ quarters at the backyard screaming at the girl and her mother. The old woman cries, protests, and then pleads. The girl does not raise her head.  They are thrown out, without the month’s pay. Their meager belongings are out on the streets. Shubra has a last glimpse of the girl. She reminds her of a blown-out candle. Once again she is struck by the tenderness of her face. How can she look like this when her childhood lies tattered and mutilated around her? 

Devyani can sense the noxious air in the house. She collects her things in silence, without questioning Shubra’s red eyes. She is grateful for Devyani’s restraint in getting into other people’s matters without an invitation. Nikhil has left for a meeting without bothering to say goodbye to Devyani and her father-in-law does not leave his room till late in the evening.

The matter is settled. An ancient order has been restored. There is nothing to fear or feel ashamed of anymore. 

Months later Shubra sits alone in her living room again, staring at the closed doors of her father-in-law’s bedroom. No words have been exchanged about the incident again in the house.  No questions have been asked. Such things are not done in good Indian families.   Her father-in-law goes about the house like nothing has happened.  The only thing which is new is the strained silence between Nikhil and Shubra.  It sleeps with them, making the few inches that lie between them seem like an intractable distance. It stays with them while they go about doing their chores avoiding eye-contact, avoiding each other presence, even denying each other’s existence.  She knows that that something needs to be done about the growing animus between Nikhil and her; that she has to get away from Nikhil and from this house for some time to understand her feelings for him. To love and to hate.  To forget and to remember. 

It’s midnight but there’s no sign of sleep in her weary eyes. She has missed dinner to avoid sitting with Nikhil and her father-in-law. Now in the silence and the darkness she finds these uncharted moments, and because they are earmarked for nothing, she lets them linger and distend and slow things down, giving definition and shape to what is still nebulous.  She does what she has wanted to do for months. She calls Devyani to tell her about the incident, hoping to hear a word of clarity to clear the muddy pool inside her head. She also wants to ask her if she can spend a few days with her along with Alisha.

“I had guessed most of it. That morning I could hear bits of your fight with Nikhil.”  Devyani tells her in a flat voice. 

 “Don’t throw away what you have. Believe me, it’s not worth it Shubra.”

She had expected anger and indignation, a call to bring things out in the open. To pare it down to its dry bones. Shubra is too shocked to reply.  

“Let it go Shubra. Some waters are better left undisturbed.  Lots of things resolve themselves by just lying in the corner for a while. Be grateful for … be grateful that it was your father-in-law and not your husband who did this,” Devyani’s voice is serrated and heavy.  She hopes it’s only because of the disturbed phone-line.  

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