Winding Road

© Huma M. Hussain (Zaarah)

Featured on Project Fiction One-Shot List

17th December, 2006:

To Maya

From the beginning it was assumed that we would eventually marry each other. The slow pace at which I had courted you, bringing you novels and audio cassettes; reciting poetry; stealing glances, engaging in passionate conversations about everything and anything, the ease with which we fit into each others lives and had made a comfortable place for ourselves did not miss your friend's observant eye and therefore she had decided to play matchmaker, throwing caution to all winds and causing a stir in our otherwise quiet town.

The air was thick with joy, anticipation and curiosity. Rumors flew. The older people sat back in their easy-chairs smoking their cigars, estimating how our property would be divided and how much if any dowry would be given. Women were found leaning against cracked compound walls, their crying babies balanced on their hips, whispering about the possibility of a marriage in the vicinity; secret smiles and told-you-so's were exchanged and some cynical comments about which one of us could do better were passed around. The children were delighted at the prospect of dressing up, eating a grand meal and staying up late on the wedding day. It seemed like the town was suddenly abuzz with news of our union.

Soon, meetings with both families were arranged. You were asked your educational qualifications, interests and ambitions. You answered demurely but when you were asked to sing, you had livened up the room with your beautiful voice which echoed with pride and immense happiness. My mother was delighted and nodded in consent to my father. Gifts were swapped and dates were fixed. The next few days were a mad rush of jewelry and sari purchasing for you, and wedding advice for me. On the day of our marriage, after a series of wearisome 'life-binding' and 'love-strengthening' rituals, we were officially companions; I was to protect you in sickness and in health and you were to stand by my side through thick and thin, through good times and bad.

At the outset of our marriage I was your whole world, Maya; you wrapped yourself with me, took my hand and walked beside me and were consumed in me and my life. I was protective of you, instinctively or out of love — I wasn't sure just then. You would intently jot down recipes for me while watching cookery shows so you could treat me later and plant daffodils in our garden while reciting your favorite poem about them. I would call sometimes in the middle of the day to ask after you and take you for walks after dinner where I'd indulge you in a story from my childhood, journeying back momentarily to the dusty streets and old-fashioned charm of my hometown and you would do the same. We were different narrators I had observed, you would tell me about sneaking out of school or the time when you had startled everyone with your protest for woman's rights; I would tell you about my relationships, my views and what I wanted to be, often falling into a silent reverie.

There would be days when you would place your hand on mine talking animatedly, while we had dinner at our favorite restaurant, and days when you would silently weep on my shoulder expressing your desire to spend more time with your parents and when you would listen to me absorbedly, relishing every word that I said about what I wanted for us. But most importantly, Maya, every time you laughed and your face lit up, I was reassured that my love for you was irrevocable and my commitment, unwavering.

I was never wordy about the way I felt and it didn't seem to matter to you. I had a different way of expressing my love. I had never quite grasped the concept of movie-love. I would, instead, let you know how I felt by turning up the volume when a romantic song played on the radio, by leaving fistfuls of flowers on the table on your birthday or by taking you for modest trips around the world. But, my love, that part of our life was short-lived and was soon dissipating, like to a candle's fickle flame that was threatening to die out.

On some days, you would bring up your worries: the bills, your loneliness, my workload, the children's education and finance. These would escalate into critical arguments. We would shut the door of our children's room and turn up the stereo so they wouldn't hear our raised voices but that did little to mask your whimpers and my pleas for you to calm down. You would be defiant and inflexible while I would wait in my reticence watching cutlery we had once picked out flying across the room. I would remain seated impatiently, my brows furrowed together, for the issue to resolve itself.

Sometimes, I'd lightly touch your arm or try and sit you down half opening my mouth to say something but deciding otherwise, but you would be too frantic and I, egotistical. You would tire out eventually and fall into a heap or lay curled in fetal position on our bed while I mostly lay awake playing and replaying the scene over in my mind again like a film: erasing some parts and adding a few where I would console you and try and make up for my inadequacies which I would be too hesitant or proud to do otherwise. I seemed to be unruffled by your actions but they were what troubled me most and had occupied most of my thoughts.

This difference in character, emotions, thoughts and perception had quickly translated into physical distance: you would free your hand of mine whenever we walked, our youngest son would occupy the passenger seat in the car toying with the radio while you stayed at home and missed family outings; you went to bed early and woke up after I was gone; cookery shows were replaced by soap operas and daffodils were replaced by unsympathetic, desolate soil. We seldom crossed paths while living under the same roof and sharing the same room. I would catch glimpses of you helping the children with their homework or watch you, leaning against the door, silently cooking in the kitchen and something seemed amiss: your eyes lacked the twinkle they had when we first met.

There was a crevice between us that had turned into a cavern. We were drifting apart from each other or you from me. At that moment I had wanted nothing more than our fragile relationship to bear the test of time. I would often spend weekends at home moving listlessly from one room to another, mechanically arranging and rearranging utensils, toys and clothes while you stayed over at your relatives' with our children. Once a month, twice a month, and then every weekend passed the same way. Our weekend trips to restaurants and the theater had come to a gradual halt. I began to forget your face; you were just a silhouette, in my thoughts and in reality. You walked too farther away or too further behind but never close to me.

As the years began to go by I felt like I couldn't breathe in your presence; I felt suffocated and averted my gaze from your questioning eyes, not wanting you to leave me nor wanting to apologize for being emotionally unavailable in your life. There were times when you looked at me and I saw your face soften and your lips quiver. I would hold you close, hearing your whimpers and then you would push away and go back to being just an unrecognizable shadow in my life. I hoped that you would find it in you to forgive me, to start over or to refresh your memory but that was impractical. Someone had to change, but we were too obstinate to.

The truth is that all the loneliness, the distance and the unanswered questions in the world had not prepared me for being left lost and helpless in a strange city without your support, your presence and the children's laughter. But, you had your bags packed and your hair neatly pulled into a bun with a shawl wrapped around your shoulders, the same shawl I had gifted to you on our wedding day. Your eyes were vacant and your expression deadpan. The children were flanking you, holding their bags close to their chests, confused and oblivious to what was to become of us, as was I. You wanted to live separately and did not want anything to do with me; you had made it clear and your decision was final and binding.

In the early days of our marriage, I had promised you that we would walk through life together being equals, but if you were to ever step out of line and disregard the sanctity of our relationship, I would take a step forward and help you get back on track. But that day I felt like a hypocrite since I saw myself taking several steps away from our family: driving you to the railway station and slowly letting go of what I had taken years to build and nurture. Was that your way of taking a step forward and telling me to get back on track, Maya?

After you had left your previous life behind you had found your own world, one that did not revolve solely around our children or me. You would walk alone, bearing the responsibility of two children and yourself. You had surrounded yourself instead with your job, your responsibilities and a sense of pride and achievement. Our children were your shield; with them you were armed to fight any consequence, any trial. You began to find yourself, your strengths, and began to become a self-sufficient, independent woman, the kind you always admired and wanted to be.

While you found that our children were your strength, I found that my they were my weakness. I spent day after day unconsciously going to work and cooking my meals. Thoughts of you, us, and our children prodded, burnt and dissolved me. I never imagined life to be this complex without you. I had grown accustomed to your twinkling brown eyes, the way your long brown hair framed your face, your laugh, the way you jostled through the crowd at shopping marts and haggled with the shopkeepers, the way you scrunched up your nose when you didn't like something and the way you loved me. I was created by God, but it felt like you had breathed life into me, turned me human by giving me the joy of holding my children's hand and helping them walk, by supporting me and encouraging me to go after what I wanted to achieve, by being who you are and not being diffident of who I was.

I thought of you often, and I frequently apologized for my coldness to you in the confines of my mind, though I never had the nerve to say it to you in person. I knew that you could not hear or see me but I hoped that you found me next to you, just the way you were always close to me in my imagination: while picking up groceries, driving back home from work, cooking in the kitchen, lying in bed or while watching the television. The house was just as you left it except for the pillowcases you had been asking me to change since you had spilled ink on them and the entire broken cutlery I had to replace.

I began to live life and pass each day with thoughts of you and thoughts of our children. Each day they were growing into individuals, people with their own minds, their own interests and dislikes, their own friends and enemies and their own set of problems. I felt saddened by the thought of not being able to witness it: witness my sons' first cricket match or hear about their first crushes or brawls with bullies. I would not be able to attend the parent-teacher conferences or sign their report cards, give them my blessings before an examination or watch them ride their first motorbike. I would not be able to see them evolve from shy young boys into gentlemen. I would not. I could not.

I closed my eyes in leisure sometimes trying to recollect their faces and how they would look like as teenagers but my mind would often go back to the memory of them playing in the park near our house, their arms outstretched, sunlight blended in their dark hair, kicking the football with their naked feet which were speckled with mud and wet grass; their peals of laughter would float through the air while we sat on the bench. I would read a book while you would sit on the edge of the bench, cautious and wary whenever they tackled each other, wondering if they would fall and hurt themselves.

I wondered if you were as wary of them falling or failing in their life and worried if they would be able to pick themselves up later on, brushing off the mud and grass as they did in the park.

As for me, I immersed myself completely in work as I got older, dreading to go back home to an empty armchair and barren walls. When I would be alone, I would often feel a hot pain searing through my chest, splitting my heart. I would feel a deep sense of loss which would make me both angry and sad. I knew that we were all facing the consequences of your brazenness to step out of line and my reticence during that time. You had asked me before you took off in that train how a person can be completely devoid of emotion even though he may be withdrawn, to which I had impassively replied that I gave you what I could. You sighed as if you never heard my reply and turned your back forever. Maybe that was your last attempt to make me try and ask you stay. We were too far gone, Maya.

The end of our marriage came with the news of your passing away. Cardiac Arrest, our oldest son had told me on the phone. He had gone through numerous phone books and when he had finally found my number scribbled on a fraying piece of paper he had called me, he said. He called me Baba, like he did when he was young. His voice lacked the innocence of a young child which had now been replaced by maturity and wisdom. He was a doctor now and he had been your doctor, checking your pulse and trying to revive you after he found you sprawled across the kitchen floor.

I attended your funeral, hanging at the back of the room, not being able to look at your motionless body. I did not want to carry that image of you back home; I knew it would haunt me when I would be alone again. I remembered when I last saw you, lost but determined, getting on a train towards your new life. But seeing you from afar covered with a white cloth, without a trace of life I fought back tears and the urge to try and breathe life into you, the way you did to me when I was unfeeling and empty.

It felt like 35 years ago when the news of our marriage had broken out in town, but this time the atmosphere was filled with careless banter, anguish, despair and gossip. Not joy. Not curiosity or excitement. Older women shook their heads at how you had led a widow's life, while others gave me scornful glances. I walked out of the room and the house and onto the sidewalk towards neighbors who gossiped huddled together looking in my direction.

We had come a full circle, traveling through life separately, but somehow connected by our thoughts and worries; our grief and desires. I carried you in my heart, and you saw me in our children; in the way they spoke and behaved. But with your absence in the world, it had all come to an end: our relationship, my regrets and desires. I feel like I have lost the will to live, Maya. When I had gazed into your kohl-rimmed eyes for the first time, we were blissfully unaware of the winding road that lay ahead of us. It was easier to live when I knew you were alive: laughing, smiling, and breathing.

My world seems to have burned down with you; ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Now I simply wait for the end.