February 1, 2011 Off By Sankhya Samhita

“Ah, the shame… the shame!” Menaka muttered to herself as she walked, almost in a trot while fumbling her steps, wiping her sweaty palms in her sador . The gaggling group of kids following her continued to giggle even as some of them bypassed her and ran ahead of her. “Third time this week… the shame! What is a woman to do, dear God?” she kept on blabbering inside her breath, while her eyes scanned the dusty street. She then took a look behind her. Just as she feared. All the kids in their neighborhood, some with the younger ones in their arms, were there to witness the sight. For them it was entertainment, a scarce commodity in their sleepy little village where nothing exciting ever happened. Panting a little as she wiped more sweat off her temple, Menaka asked one of the closer kids, “How much farther?”

“Just a little bit. We saw him just near the rich new house” the scrawny kid with a running nose replied.

The rich new house. That’s what they called the swanky house them rich people from town had finished building in their village just a month back. No one knew why anybody would want to build a house that beautiful in that dingy little place which used to be a garbage dump at some time, but everyone knew they wanted the rich people to think good of them. Impressing people with lots of money in their hands never hurt. Had it been some other time Menaka would have chuckled at the irony of him choosing that very place to be found, but not today. Third time in the week, and she had lost all her sense of humor.

“There he is!!” one of the kids yelled, pointing his grubby finger in front of him. Like Menaka needed to be directed anyway. She sighed and tucked the edge of her sador in her waist, bracing herself for what was coming. He was lying there alright, fast asleep, snoring his way to glory. Mud caked the kneecaps of his already torn pants, and his hair was matted too. A small blood-crusted cut in his left toe told her he must have stumbled off and fallen, his broken sandals proof of that. Drool dribbled from one side of his mouth, and flies hovered around his face while he slept on oblivious to all of this.

Menaka bent down to take a look at her drunk husband. Cringing from the stench of stale alcohol, she poked him in the waist with her finger.

“Get up” she said, the normal “apuni” forgotten long back to be replaced with the crude “toi“. He didn’t even bulge; the kids around her giggled even louder. “Get up now!!” she said again, louder this time. Her passed out husband merely snorted. Tears of anger and shame stung her eyes, and her throat started choking, but Menaka was getting used to this by now. She then shook him by his shoulder violently, hoping to wake him up, but all he did was open one eye, and finding it difficult to keep it open for long shut it close again.

“Douse him in water like last time, Khuri” one of the older girls suggested, “Should I bring a pail?”

Menaka shook her head.  She knew she had to do this alone. She sneaked a peek to the new house, and saw the front door safely shut. “Don’t you have anything else to do?” she yelled at the kids this time, as she spied one of them aiming a kick at her husband’s behind. “Go away, shoo!!” Menaka stood up to chase the kids away. They laughed and ran away, and Menaka said to no one in particular “Yes, yes, go back and tell your mother and father that postman Khura is going funny again. Go tell them not to disturb me anymore!”

The shame, the shame, Menaka kept muttering and shaking her head, even as she bent down to try and pick him up all by herself. “Get up” she said again, this time desperately, as she cradled his head in her arms and lifted him by his back. Putting his limp hand across her own neck, she tried making him steady even as his legs threatened to give away beneath him. Bent almost double by his weight, and yet saddened by how much lighter he felt than before, Menaka heaved a deep sigh and prepared for the long walk back home.

Taking one slow step after another Menaka thought about how calmly she had accepted this whole routine. For the last couple of months, while sitting in that tiny shop that used to be her son’s, all she did was spend each moment in fear. She flinched each time she saw a kid running to the shop, scared that he would be just another bearer of bad tidings. Wasn’t that how it always happened? One of those devils would run to her, gasping and panting, to tell her that her husband was yet again found sleeping on the street. And she would immediately have to leave with some kid in charge of the shop. Find her drunken husband passed out on the street, and bring him back home. That a few things always went missing from the shop each time this happened didn’t fail her notice, but well, what was a woman to do?

Her neighbors had shunned her from their company. The Menaka without whom no social function was complete was now an outcast. She even stopped going to the Naamghor after being deliberately ignored for a couple of times by all the women. The same women who had earlier made it a point to sit next to Menaka and ask her to lead the naam. She wasn’t invited to the village weddings anymore; neither did anyone miss her melodious biyanaams and nor did they persuade her to dance a few steps of Bihu for them, till she would relent and finally make everyone dance with her.

But things weren’t always like this. There was a time when Menaka’s small family was exemplary around the village. The postman, and his beautiful wife, and their handsome young son. Menaka almost smiled as she thought of Konman’s chiseled face. All the women used to tease her, “Keep him guarded Menaka… some girl might just want to steal your son away from you.” But it was not some girl who had stolen the apple of her eyes from her. Fate… jealous, jealous fate had eyed her happy family with evil eyes, and Menaka would never forget that cursed evening when that kid had run to her to tell her that the police were asking for directions to her place. Her husband still away at work, Menaka had panicked when she had seen the jeep halting at her doorstep minutes after, blowing a thick cloud of dust as it did.

“Ratan postman’s house?” the policeman had asked. She had only nodded, covering her head with her sador, not knowing what the matter could possibly be. And then she had seen it, although what happened after that she had no idea of, as she had passed out immediately, only to wake up much later to the bitter truth that her Konman was no more. Her only son, her heart and soul, was killed in a hit-and-run accident and those sons of unwed mothers hadn’t even slowed their car down to see who they had hit. Luckily someone in the crowd had recognized Konman, but spot-dead that he was, the police could only bring his dead body to his parents.

Jolted back to the present with a stabbing pain in her neck, Menaka realized that she had cramped her neck, and the nerve pull was getting unbearable. Taking a look at her still unconscious husband, Menaka tried to shift his weight to her other side, wincing in pain even as she tried moving him. “Just a few more steps, just a few more” she consoled herself, and was relieved to see her house in the distance in the faint dusk light. Sometimes when her mind would be occupied with gloomy thoughts she would wonder what would happen if some day her husband wouldn’t be found at all. Maybe it would be a good thing, her mind would reply back, and she would immediately regret thinking like that. Who knew what could happen to a man lying in a dark street in the evening? What if he becomes a victim to another speeding vehicle? Menaka tightened her hold on her husband instinctively. Reaching for the door as she finally arrived at her doorstep, she somehow managed to put him on the sole bed where he arranged himself without even waking up, and she herself slumped down on the floor, holding on to her neck to abate the pain.

One month and many of such drunken stupors later, Menaka found herself sitting on that very bed one evening, thinking very hard. Of that tall girl from that rich new house. Of how she had one day turned up at Menaka’s shop, wanting to talk to her. Asha, she had said her name was. “It’s been a long time I have seen you around here” Menaka had joked, laughing at her own hopeless life, and strangely enough, Asha had understood and replied, “I know, and that is why I am here”. Asha had explained that she was a social worker, and worked for an organization that intended to help out people as Menaka, who had no choice in life. Clueless as to how this girl would know anything about her life, Menaka had been hesitant at first, denying anything about the shame she lived with, day in and day out. Asha had pointed out that she had seen Menaka struggle with her husband from the window of her house, and had asked around enough to know what she was going through. And had held her hand and said that she could help Menaka.

Menaka found herself opening up to Asha in no time at all. Bringing her back to her house, Menaka had sat down beside Asha, and had told her about how it had all started with Konman’s death. And how her husband had been shocked beyond healing. That’s when he had stopped talking to her, Menaka admitted. Try as she might, Menaka hadn’t been able to make her husband react to anything. She cried in front of him, mocked him, yelled at him about the smallest things, and yet he would remain unperturbed. Then one day, he had come back home smelling of alcohol, and inspite of her asking him a hundred times why he had suddenly taken to drinking, he hadn’t replied. He had promptly gone off to sleep without a word. And those days started becoming more frequent. Through misty eyes, Menaka described how it became worse, with him forced to take retirement and losing his postman job with an almost non-existent and irregular pension because of his problem. And Menaka having to re-open Konman’s shop to run the house.

“Were there any beatings?” Asha had asked.

Menaka had shaken her head vehemently. “He is a good man. When he is not drunk. He wouldn’t even think of raising his hand on me. Just that time….” she had started, and then bitten her tongue, regretting the words the moment they passed her lips.

“Which time?” Asha had asked immediately. “What had happened?”

Menaka had been weeping by that time, torn between loyalty to her husband and wanting to be helped by this God-sent angel. “He was too drunk and yet not unconscious. He had kept muttering about wanting to kill someone. Maybe those evil ones who had killed our Konman. I was next to him, trying to put him to bed… And the moment I touched him by his shoulder he snapped at me. Slapped me so hard I fell on the floor. He too fell on the bed and immediately went off to sleep.”

Asha had listened to her patiently, not interrupting Menaka once. “Any more times like that?”

Menaka had shaken her head again, wiping her eyes with her sador. “He’s not a violent man, you know. Only these days he is hardly sober. ”

“Where does he get money for the liquor?” Asha had enquired.

Menaka had shrugged. “Some money he takes from our shop profits without me knowing. Or at least he thinks I don’t know. With so less you can hardly not notice some missing. Rest I don’t know. Maybe he is in debt too. The man doesn’t even talk. What is a woman to do?” Menaka had said.

“A woman can do a lot.” Asha had replied, and had explained to Menaka about the dangers of drinking, and how a man, non-violent when sober, might end up hurting someone when drunk out of his senses. But there was hope, she had said. If only Menaka was brave enough to take a bold step and leave her husband. There were many women like Menaka who had taken shelter in their organization, and were now happy. Those women, in turn, worked for other people, and served the society.

Menaka had been shocked at the very suggestion. Leave her husband? That’s not what an honorable woman does. She had promptly refused, insisting on how she could not, would not leave her husband.

“Even if it means living the rest of your life like this, Khuri?” Asha had asked. “I will leave you to think about it. You know where I live. Just let me know when you have decided” she had finally sighed and said, after Menaka had kept refusing persistently.

Menaka heaved a heavy sigh and took a look around her. It was getting dark. Getting up from the bed, she went into the kitchen to light the lamp. No kerosene. She looked for a candle to light, but couldn’t find even a stub. Frustrated, she looked around the near-barren house once again. This very house had looked so beautiful the first time she had stepped into it as a newly-wed bride. She had turned it into a home. And Konman had completed it. These very walls had resonated with laughter through the years as Konman grew older and wiser. Wiser beyond his own parents. The shop had been Konman’s idea, after uselessly trying for a job for a long time. And he had run it well. People had loved his smiling face, and how he had always been eager for a good laugh.  But that was the past, and if yesterday was anything to go by, it was no use to dwell in the past. Just yesterday, after Menaka had literally fished her husband out of the smelly gutter he had fallen into, she had sworn she wouldn’t take it any longer. Let the old man fend for himself. He has brought this upon his own self. She had pleaded, hadn’t she? Begged of him to stop drinking, and told him he had brought her shame she couldn’t handle? But he wouldn’t listen would he? Asha had been right. The man was no longer in his own senses, and maybe he never will be. A sudden fury gushed through Menaka’s petite body, and she found herself fuming. Taking a look at her already packed bag, she decided this was it. Her situation was hopeless, and to turn down Asha’s offer would be foolish. With the taunting laughter of the kids echoing inside her head, Menaka grabbed her bag, and walked to the door with determined steps, only to find it opening on its own. Taken aback, she stood still in her tracks, as she watched her husband come inside the house.

He looked at her, locked his eyes with hers after heaven knew how many months, Menaka marveled. He looked so old, and frail. His once bold jaw-line was now but a trace, and his unkempt beard looked more silver than black, she noticed for the first time. So lost was she looking at him that his outstretched hand almost slipped her notice. Looking down she saw the bag he was holding in his hands, and offering to her. She saw the green head of a radish peeking out of the bag, and a bottle of mustard oil tucked between what looked like potatoes and bottle gourds. Her favorites! Brought with the money he would have spent drinking that night. Menaka didn’t move for a while, looking back and forth from the bag in his hands to the one in hers. With a single tear streaming down her eyes, she moved a step closer to the door, ignoring his outstretched hand.

Closing the door, she dropped her bag at his feet, and stretched her hand for the bag in his hands.

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