Crawling in my skin,
These words they will not hear....
The anguished lyrics bombarded her ears as Sudha halted tentatively outside her son’s closed door. This had become his habit for the past few weeks- hurl his bag and tie on the sofa, get a packet of French fries from the fridge, put on rock music at full blast in his room and shut the door with a bang. He would remain locked up in his room until dinnertime and on some days, he would not turn up even then. At first, Sudha had attributed this behaviour to adolescent blues but as it became a norm, she began to grow worried.
“Vishnu!” she called out in the most neutral tone she could manage. No response. The music just blared as loud as ever. She called him once more, raising her voice a bit more this. The volume was turned down for a moment and an irritated voice answered her, “What’s it now, mom?”
Now? Sudha couldn’t help thinking to herself. This was the first time ever that she was interrupting his after-school routine.
“Open the door, son...”she said gently yet firmly.
“Why?” the grouchy question came in an instant.
“Why?” The word echoed in her head before piercing her heart. Because I want to talk to you, my son...ask you what is wrong...tell you I’m there for you. Because I can’t bear you shutting me out of your life anymore. Because I love you. But the words never travelled to her lips and all that ensued was a brief, heavy silence that was shattered as Vishnu turned up the volume again.
Sudha slowly started walking away. This was not new to her-this inability to speak up when it was needed. The same had happened on that rainy night two years ago when she tearfully confronted her husband on learning of his infidelity.
“Yea, that’s right,” Deepak had said, as coldly suave as ever in the face of his wife’s broken-hearted wrath, “I sleep with the staff nurse on my night shifts. You got a problem with that? Then just leave. I don’t give a damn, do you understand?”
Stunned, she had stood rooted to the ground, unable to speak, unable to even cry any more. And she had remained thus as he impatiently took off his coat and tossed it at her face before marching into the bathroom. Yes, she had stood there just like that- Pain, with a hospital smell....
Despite her husband’s explicit exhortation, she had stayed. She was an engineer by profession but had quit her job after marriage to become a full-time mother as Deepak preferred it that way. She would have had no problem standing on her own feet had she got a divorce...but still she chose to stay. Maybe because she felt there was nothing to look forward to in life, and hence nothing to be achieved by a divorce, her pride having already been ruthlessly demolished with surgical precision by Deepak’s inhumanly calm words on that rainy night. And then again, the thought of her son’s future had also been a deterring factor.
Leaning against the railing of the balcony, Sudha realised with a tightening sensation in her throat that her son too was moving away from her. He had been acting strangely for quite some time now. His grades were falling too. She had tried talking to him but found that her son, who had been so close to her as a child, now just would not open up with her. She had even temporarily terminated her indeterminate Cold War with Deepak to ask him to talk to their son- foolish of her, she understood almost immediately, as Deepak stared indifferently at her; he cared neither for her nor her son.
The honk of a car at her neighbours’ gate released her for the time being from her mental turmoil. A wistful look crept into her eyes as she watched Rema bustle forth to open the gate for her husband. The Thomases had been their neighbours for over five years now. Mr.Thomas was a high school teacher and the couple had a daughter who was about Vishnu’s age.
From a discreet nook of the balcony, Sudha looked on as Mr. Thomas unbuttoned his shirt and sank into a chair in the verandah. Rema appeared shortly with a steaming cup of tea, followed by their daughter. As Mr. Thomas took the cup from his wife with a tired but affectionate smile and tousled the hair of his daughter who had seated herself on the arm of his chair, Sudha remembered with an aching numbness the countless nights she had stayed up without having dinner, waiting for Deepak to return from the hospital. Only to be snarled at when he finally got home for not opening the door quickly enough, and watch with deepening hurt as he silently ate the food she served (which she had taken care to keep piping hot, the way he liked it) and then retired to bed without even asking if she had had her food.
“Is your headache better, Rema?” Mr. Thomas asked as he sipped his tea.
“Oh yes, it disappeared as soon as I put the balm. Got it probably because I stayed up too late last night.”
“Papa, we are having our study tour next week,” Tina chimed in.
“I see... and where are you going, honey?”
A smile flickered across her face as Sudha listened to the family chatter. She felt no bitterness...she had long since resigned herself to her lot.
True, the Thomases’ modest two-storeyed house looked quite plain beside their huge, elegant bungalow...but oh, thought Sudha, what would she not give to exchange her place with Rema? The family life of the Thomases was everything that Sudha had dreamt of as a starry-eyed young girl...dreams that had gone up in smoke soon after her marriage to Dr.Deepak Kumar, the “oh-so-wonderful” match that her parents found for her. Mr. Thomas was the quintessential urban middle class head of the family- caring husband, doting father and absolutely dedicated to his family. And above all, he was a gentleman to the core and a teacher of sincerity worth emulating.
Suddenly Rema’s raised voice caught the attention of Sudha who had gradually tuned out as she went off on her own mental ramblings.
“For Christ’s sake, be practical for once!” Rema was saying, sounding considerably annoyed,“Your salary alone is really not sufficient any more!”
“If it has sufficed so long, I can’t see why it can’t any more!”retorted Mr. Thomas.
“For the simple reason, my dear,” riposted Rema, “that the times have changed. The cost of living is shooting up by the day, and our daughter is growing up too....” When this elicited no response from her husband, Rema went on: “Now just look at Dr. Kumar next door. He works in a government hospital, but does that mean he’s content with his monthly salary alone? No, he is into real estate business as well...and that’s why they are so rich! Now he is what I would call a prudent, discerning family man with far sight...”
“Be content with what you have, Rema!” Mr. Thomas was starting to sound irritated.
“Yea, right! Content, did you say? With this shabby old house and rickety Maruti 800, huh? Now the Kumars...they bought a new Ford Ikon last week and they are refurbishing their house yet again. When was the last time we....”
Sudha hastily moved away in a daze, not having the strength to hear any more....