It had all started about six months back when Meenakshi had decided to rent out the upstairs portion of her house. After her husband’s death a couple of years ago, she had found the house becoming too big to manage. Her daughter Anita was married and living in another town while son Ajay was working abroad. With the problems of getting domestic help and her own knees making it difficult for her to make that journey upstairs everyday, she had realized that the most practical thing to do would be to rent it out. The money would certainly come in handy. Besides, the downstairs had two bedrooms and a study, making it easy to accommodate any unexpected guests who might decide to stay over.
Dr. Debashish Ghosh was recommended as a prospective tenant by Usha, Meenakshi’s friend from her music class. . He was a visiting surgeon in a local hospital and was usually in their town for about ten days in a month at a stretch. Usha’s family had consulted the doctor for many ailments and had a very good opinion of him.
Meenakshi met the doctor and found him to be very polite and soft spoken. He agreed readily to the rent proposed by her. He had moved in a week later with a few pieces of furniture and ten carton loads of books!
It was a bit awkward in the initial days. Never having had to play the role of a land lady, Meenakshi did not really know how to interact with him. Should she maintain a distance or be friendly? But Dr. Ghosh’s lifestyle made it easy for her to adjust. Most of the days when he was in town, he used to leave for work early in the morning coming back often very late in the night. He usually parked his car in the small lane outside and came in quietly without making a noise opening or closing the gate.
They led separate lives in the same house until the day she sprained her ankle. Meenakshi was trying to trim a low hanging branch in the garden when her foot had slipped and she had fallen down spraining her ankle!. She was just wondering how she was going to lift herself up when she suddenly found a pair of strong hands helping her up. It was Dr. Ghosh. He had seen her fall from the balcony upstairs and had come down to help her up. Slowly, he walked her to her house making her sit on a chair in her verandah before examining her foot.
“Not badly sprained. I will give you some pain killers and wrap a crepe bandage” he said moving around upstairs to get them. Meenakshi thanked him profusely!
Thus began the friendship between the two of them. He would look in every day whenever he was around and spend a few minutes chatting with her. Though it was initially about her health, the weather and other inane things, slowly they began speaking more about themselves. “Call me Deb” was the probably the first thing he said that marked the turning point in their relationship. Well.. if he was okay about her calling him Deb she was okay with him calling her Meena. It was preferable to “Madam”
Strange -but she did not realize how quickly they had become friends. Both of them were almost of the same age. He was a bachelor- “! There was a time when my mother used to keep pushing pictures of girls in front of me. I was not interested then because I was building my career. Now she is gone, there is no one to do that. Anyway,, I am nearly fifty five and well past that stage now”! he told her one day with a laugh. She in turn told him about how she was married at twenty and how busy life had kept her as a wife and mother until a couple of years back when Cheenu had left her for the other world.
She began to slowly arrange her daily routine around his coming and going. There were other changes too. Four extra idlis at breakfast or three more rotis at dinner. Initially it used to be a hot case that would be waiting for him to take up, later they dispensed with that and began having their meals together at her dining table downstairs.
Meals together lead to discussions. They found that their tastes were almost similar –whether it was in books, music or movies. Both of them loved Hindustani classical music. So it was but a matter of time when he invited her one day for a music recital by Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia. She was a bit hesitant to accept the request – she had never gone out anywhere with anyone other than her immediate family. But he persisted and she agreed. Somehow, she did not know why but it made her feel young! The loneliness of middle age that had set in after Cheenu’s death slowly began to lift. She did not have to rely on that yoga class or the music class to fill her time.
She found herself taking more interest around the house and in her self. Probably, for the first time in two years she bought herself a new sari and spent money on a facial in the beauty parlour nearby.
It was not long before her friends began noticing these changes in Meenakshi. First it was Radhika, who lived down the road. Then it was Usha who felt that Meenakshi’s singing had improved dramatically all of a sudden. “What is this change all about ?” they asked her.
“I cannot understand why this should bother them. Why, do they want me to remain melancholic and sad all the time thinking about what was …” she told Deb one day. He did not answer. But then that was something nice about him. He spoke only when he felt that speaking would make a difference. “He is not like Cheenu talking all the time giving me little opportunity to be heard!” she thought feeling guilty almost immediately for making that comparison.
Fragrance like happiness they say, cannot stay hidden..! But happiness unlike fragrance attracts envy. So it was only a matter of time before tongues began to wag and one fine day, she found her daughter Anita at her door step.
“Hi Anu, what is the reason for this sudden visit?” she asked welcoming her inside. Anita was very curt and short taking in her mother’s appearance and glancing towards the entrance to the upstairs portion once in a while. It was when Ajay joined Anita a couple of days later that Meena began to wonder if it was not something planned.
“Mom what is this that we are hearing about you” said her son almost hours after his arrival. “What have you heard? “ she asked defiantly.
“That you are having an affair with the tenant upstairs” said Anita bitterly “Don’t you care about what people may think?” she continued. “ Mom, there is something called decent behaviour. I of all people do not have to tell you about it” said Ajay!
Meenakshi was shocked! She could not believe that these were her own children who were talking! They went on and on … this time casting aspersions on Deb’s character. Finally when she could bear it no longer Meenakshi screamed ”Stop”!
“Both of you listen to me! I have given more than thirty years of my life to you and your father. In fact I had immersed myself so deep in your lives that I had forgotten my own identity. I lived as your mother and your father’s wife and derived my pleasure from that. But can you imagine what it does to a person when the person from whom you derive your identity suddenly leaves you? Anu, you got married and moved to Bombay, Ajay moved on to New Jersey. I lived those days for that one telephone call or letter from both of you. Did you have any time for your mother then? No obviously not. You were busy with your lives. I tried to make myself busy with mine. Between your father and me we had a routine that kept us occupied. But two years ago when your father died, what was left behind? Nothing but a void! I suddenly found myself devoid of a life. There was no Anu, Ajay or Cheenu to occupy my life or my time. Believe me when I say this, I did not know what to do with my life. I had been married at twenty to your father and become a mother at twenty one. I don’t know what it is that I want. I spent two years all alone in this house moving from one class to another to keep loneliness at bay. Did it ever strike you then that your mother may need some of your time to help cope with her loneliness? Now that I have found a friend you grudge me that happiness ?”
The rest of the day passed by in a succession of moody silences. Meenakshi was glad that Deb was not here today. She did not want him to see this selfish side to her children. Finally, it was time for them to leave- first Anu and then Ajay…!
Meenakshi was looking forward to some solitude.. She made tea for herself and waited in the verandah for Deb to arrive. His flight was would have landed an hour ago. He had asked her again this time before leaving for Kolkata…”Will you marry me”
While she had been unsure about what she should say when he was leaving, she had no such doubts now.
There was no way she was going to tie her life again with another person . She had done that and got nothing out of it except the loss of her identity. She was beginning to discover herself and she did not want to cut it short by becoming Mrs Ghosh.
At fifty four it was okay to be just Meenakshi!