A man returning home at night from a simple cremation, having thanked everyone: we could simply call him Achhan. Because, only three children in the city know his value. They call him Achha.
Sitting in the bus among strangers, he went over every second of that day.
Woke up in the morning to her voice. “Unniye, don’t go on sleeping covered up like that. It’s Monday.’ She was calling the eldest son. She then moved to the kitchen, her white sari crumpled. Brought me a big glass of coffee. Then? What happened then? Did she say anything that should not be forgotten? However much he tried, he could not remember.? “Don’t go on sleeping covered up like that. It’s Monday.” Only that line lingered. He chanted it to himself, as if it was a prayer. If he forgot it, the loss would be unbearable.
The children had been with him when he left for work in the morning. She brought them their tiffin in small aluminum boxes. A smear of turmeric on her right hand.
At work, he did not think of her at all. They had married, against the wishes of their parents, after a courtship of a year or two. But they never did regret it. Lack of money, the children’s spells of illness – they were often dejected. She became careless of her appearance. To an extent, he lost the ability to laugh.
Still, they loved each other. Their three children also loved them. They were boys. Unni, ten, Balan, seven, and Rajan, five. Three boys whose faces were always smeared with dirt, who had neither outstanding beauty nor brilliance. But the mother and the father said to each other –
“Unni is always making things. He has a taste for engineering.”
“We should make Balan a doctor. See his forehead: such a wide forehead denotes intelligence.”
“Rajan is not afraid of the dark. He is smart. He is smart. He should join the army.”
They lived in a narrow street in the city, in a middle-class neighbourhood. A three-room flat on the first floor, with a veranda just wide enough for two people to stand in. mother grows a ‘panineer’ plant in a pot. It has not flowered yet.
In the kitchen, brass spatulas and ladles hang from the hooks on the wall. A wooden plank lies near the stove. Mother usually sits there, making chapattis when Father returns from work. He got off when the bus stopped. He felt a twinge of pain in the knee. The beginning of arthritis? Who will look after the children if I am bedridden? Suddenly, his tears welled up. He rubbed his face with a dirty kerchief and quickened his step.
Have the children gone to sleep? Had they eaten anything, or had they just cried themselves to sleep? But they are too young to understand. Unni just stood there watching me when I put her in the taxi. Only the youngest one cried. But that was because he wanted to get into the taxi too. Certainly, they did not know the meaning of death.
Did I know? No. did I ever imagine that she would suddenly fall down one evening and die, without saying farewell to anyone?
He had looked in through the kitchen window when he came back from work. She was not there. He could hear the sound of children playing in the front yard. “First-class shot.” It was Unni calling out.
He opened the front door with his key. It was then that he saw her. She was lying on the floor. Her lips were parted. She must have slipped, he thought. But at the hospital the doctor told him: “She died an hour and a half ago. It was heart failure.”
He was swept by a welter of emotions. He was angry with her for no reason. How could she go, without any warning, burdening me with all the responsibilities!
Now who would bathe the children? Who would cook for them? Who would look after them when they fell ill?
“My wife died,” he whispered to himself, “my wife died suddenly today of a heart attack. I need two days’ leave.’
A great leave application. Leave, not because the wife is ill. Leave, because the wife is dead. The boss might call him to his room. He might express his sorrow. His sorrow! Who wants it? He didn’t know her. He didn’t know her hair that curled at the ends, her tried smile, her slow step. All these are his losses.
When he opened the door his youngest son came running up. “Mother isn’t back yet,” he said. How quickly he has forgotten! Did he really think that the body that was taken away in the taxi would come back alone?
He took him to the kitchen.
“Unni,” he called.
“What is it, Achha?”
Unni came into the kitchen.
“Balan is sleeping.”
“All right. Have you all eaten anything?”
He removed the plates covering the vessels kept on the sill. Chapattis, rice, potato curry, chips, curd – the food she had made. In a glass bowl, the neipayasam that she sometimes made for the children.
No, they should not eat this food. It is touched by death.
“These have gone cold. I’ll make some uppumavu,” he said.
“Achha…” it was Unni.
“When will Mother come back? Isn’t she better?”
Let the truth wait for another day, he thought. There was no point in giving grief to the child tonight.
“Mother will come,” he said.
He placed the washed bowls on the floor. Two bowls.
“Let Balan sleep,” he said.
“Achha, neipayasam,” Rajan exclaimed happily. He dipped a finger in it.
He sat down on the wooden plank where his wife usually sat.
“Unni, will you serve? Achhan does not feel too good. Headache.”
Let them eat. They would never again be able to eat their mother’s cooking.
They started eating the payasam. He sat motionless, watching them.
“Don’t you want rice, Unni?”
“No we want only payasam. It’s very tasty.”
“Yes, Mother has made splendid neipayasam,” Rajan said happily. He got up and walked quickly towards the bathroom.