The Third Woman
On the right-hand side of her Facebook timeline, the notification tab beckoned Malu, onto which she dragged the cursor and clicked. An extensive list of birthday friends unfurled before her, which she found boring, and scrolled down. Someone had tagged her onto a post. The snap of a gruesome road accident, with a telling caption: “somebody’s morning trip turned fatal.”
She never found accidents eye-catching, but something made her stick at it. It was a white Maruthi, well what remained of it after being devoured by a construction truck. The driver’s side sat huddled inside the front grill of the giant truck. One end of the mudguard detached from the body stood in the air waving at the world. Two dark holes held where the lights were. Their splintered glasses crystallised in the crimson pool on the ground. The inward bent number plate rendered its figures unreadable. Malu’s wondered, who could be that unlucky driver whose morning trip turned fatal? She added a sad emoticon and scrolled down.
She had big plans for the day, a lot of readings for the coming exam, but the letters in the books and papers were losing shapes and running away. With the stomach rolling, and the bile taste exploding in her mouth, she went to the bath to throw up. But nothing came out.
She went to the kitchen. On the table, she saw a heap of vegetables her mother had collected from the garden that morning. She should have been cutting and cooking them now.
She went to the garden, where her mother was standing behind the rickety fence, peeping at the vehicles rolling along the road. In the backed-up traffic, the vehicles snaked along like the drawing of a child. Their endless hoots signalled an impending calamity. Her mother’s body was shaking as though her eyes caught a bizarre vision.
Malu thought it was better to leave her there, let her mull over whatever were bothering her.
“Malu, I saw a dream in the night,” her mother said when she was turning away.
“Aha, I hope something nice,” Malu smiled.
“Stupid me. I don’t recollect it. The more I try, the more it evades.”
“Don’t worry Amma. Dreams are like that for everybody. You’re not stupid,” Malu said.
“Even the dreams are not coming normal to me,” her mother said.
She looked at her mother and gave a smile.
“You think, Malu did something wrong, but as her parents we….,” her mother was appealing to her father. Both were in the lounge. Malu couldn’t see her father from where she stood at the end of the corridor leading to the lounge. Suddenly her mother stood open-mouthed, her voice froze and jaws stiffened. She saw in her mind, her father gesturing with his finger slashing her mother’s throat, in case she uttered one more word.
Her father’s legs were visible to her, on the arms of the rocking chair on which he sat. The speed of his rocking increased, and the crunching of the cement under the chair. He drew heavily on the cigarette bidi and puffed out clouds of smoke which hazed the air. The room stank of his sweat and smoke.
The lounge was furnished with a three-seater sofa in addition to her father’s rocking chair. The upholstery of the three-seater in frayed moss green was torn and its snarled up yellow innards were puffing out. Visitors pulled their faces when invited to sit on it.
“Please get a new sofa set,” her mother pleaded with her father.
“To entertain men?” her father sneered at her.
One day, her mother sent her to town to find the cheapest upholstery repairs. The following weekend, a young boy came to their home. Her father accosted him when he showed in his book their home address written in her hand. “How did you get this address?”
“He came to look at the sofa,” she said to rescue the boy.
“Are you going to college or visit shops and boys?” Her father shouted at her. In the gap, the boy ran away.
The next piece in the lounge was a colour TV. It was new. Her father bought it the week after he chased the boy from the upholstery shop. The TV stood on a stand against a wall hanging a calendar beaming big breasted females.
He placed his rocking chair in front of the television and flipped the remote control to choose only his favourite channels. How could he be a teacher? Malu often wondered in her imagination and sympathised with the children who sat in his classroom for learning. Only when he went out to work or visit his friends, she and her mother watched the channels they liked.
When his male friends visited him, they jointly ridiculed their female colleagues that they had big buttocks and big breasts.
“Huh, are you sure, she’s my daughter?” Her father laughed like a villain in an old Malayalam film.
Her mother kept quiet.
“So, you’re not sure. Good God! Then who can help her?” He said.
“She is your daughter is her only problem,” her mother said.
“You’re ridiculing me?” He shouted.
Malu sensed her mother caving in like a caged bird, and her eyes widening.
Her father sprung to his feet, and as his lungi was peeling off, shot in her mother’s direction like an anaconda casting off its skin on strike. Malu braced up toward her mother and yanked her away, and the anaconda thudded onto the floor like a frog onto a rock-bed.
She pushed her mother through the corridor, looking back checking whether the Anaconda had sprung up to chase after them. His cries ricocheted through the corridor, but that could be a pretension, she never believed him.
Halfway through the corridor, her mother flopped onto the floor. Her tension and the blood pressure had weakened her mussels making it difficult to manure her body under fear. She lifted her in her arms and trudged on. The corridor opened to a tiny garden behind the house.
In the garden, she sat her mother on a rickety bench in the shadow of a lush mango tree.
She and her mother together had planted the mango tree. The garden was a heap of broken stones and glasses, once. She and her mother laboured day in and day out to make it a garden. They hoed and tilled, levelled the soil, and planted the seeds.
“Hey, what’s happening.” Her brother barreled along the corridor, reached its end and peeped out.
“What’s it, bro?” She asked.
“Father cannot get up.”
“He needs support.”
“He needs to be hospitalised.”
“What is this yeah, yeah.”
“We didn’t know he was pretending or not. In case he got up and strangled us, you know it has happened. So, we were waiting for you: he wouldn’t do that to you…”
“Huh… So what’re you going to do?”
“Nothing! You’re here. Come on. You take him to the hospital …”
“You’re cruel …”
“Aha… how did it happen anyway? Did you ask him?”
He walked away punching the air with his clenched fist.
Her lullaby as a child was her mother’s narratives, how had bad luck pushed her marriage into miseries. It wasn’t easy as a child to grasp the animal instincts of the adult world. The confusion smothered her childhood and stunted her growth into adulthood. As an adult, she was always angry, mad at her mother and the world. Her mother was selfish to victimise her childhood, she believed, to sort out her miseries. The thought ate into her being. It took a long time to resolve the differences but what difference did it make when even now she depended on her as a child.
“You, know he turned the way he is, because of you,” her brother accused her once
“You disobeyed him.”
“I don’t understand?”
“You knew, he doesn’t approve of girls falling in love, and you did exactly that.”
“Yeah, what does he know about love, anyway bro. He who knows only violence and thinks all women in this world are his sexual objects.”
“That’s different,” her brother said.
“Yeah, different because you too are like him.”
He thumped on the table in between them and stood up.
“Admit bro, your mother and sister are things to you.”
Anger sparked out of his eyes like a monster’s tongue. He ran around like a mad dog, picked up a pot plant from her collection, raised it above his head and dropped onto the ground. She smirked seeing his cheeks bulging out and the corner of his mouth curling up like the monkey god. And he ran away shouting curses.
She fell in love with Nithin, who was her childhood friend. He gave her sweet promises of a future life together, which created a halo of manhood around him, only proven to be fake. When his parents confronted him, he denied all knowledge of her. And they accused her father of stealing their son.
That was cheap talks, which certainly embarrassed her father. If he had retaliated by challenging them, that was acceptable. Instead, he used it as an opportunity to tarnish her mother that she was running after playboys at her young age and like mother, like daughter.
Her best friend called, “haven’t you heard?” Her voice was shaking.
“Where are you?”
“I’m coming,” she dropped the phone.
She felt a numbing shock crawling down her spine, a poignant reminder of a biological banging happened twenty years ago.
“Malu… Malu…, “she heard her mother yelling from the garden. She rushed to the garden, and her mother was waving her hands in the air. She looked pale, and her long hair had fallen loose on her face.
“Malu, I remember the dream now. It was an accident, a fatal one. It was his car.” She smiled the death of a smile. Her dry lips twisted a bit. She gripped a wooden stake on the fence and made stumbling strides towards Malu, who held her in her arms.
There was nothing in Malu’s mind other than a kind of calmness, which shrouded the embers of a burning fire. She remembered, how he drove the car onto the road that morning, like a mahout kicking an elephant. The poor car never purred only shrieked and grunted in his hands. Often, she told her mother, it was the third woman in his life preordained.
Malu could barely see his mashed body bundled up on a barricaded raised bed in the ICU through a glass door. Was there any life beating inside it? None of his organs performed even near normal was clear from the dangling curves on the white graphic screen hung above his head. His body was clipped on to too many humming machines using tubes, wires and bottles. The last mechanical rituals performed on a dead man by a hospital.
Uncles and aunties who stopped visiting them frequented them. They held meetings in the lounge, and amidst them sat her brother, chickened out. Malu and her mother sat in their garden, frightened. Having no idea how the whole thing was going to turn out and from where the money was going to come to settle the huge hospital bills.
On a ninth day, his body was taken to a crematorium. On the sixteenth day, he returned home in a red silk-topped pink ceramic pot. The male progeny of the diseased, immersed its content in the water to let his spirit rest in peace.
“You knew it, isn’t it?” Malu confronted her brother.
He sat quietly.
“Why didn’t you tell us?”
“What use. We needed money!”
“So you agreed to pawn away this house and we in it.”
“How can I pawn you away.”
“You treated us like things. Otherwise, you would have told us… I won’t agree. You put your signatures on their papers, what about ours?”
He kept quiet.
“It’s not going to be easy for you brother. How much did you get?”
“Your share for agreeing to our relatives’ terms?”
“I didn’t get anything.”
“Shame! I know everything.”
“What are you going to do?” He asked.
“We’re moving to the village. Grandma offered her home for us to stay. We’re going tomorrow.”
“Can I join you.”
“You won’t like it, bro. Our life is going to be tough. We have to do everything for ourselves. Start from scratches, till the land, make gardens, mend the old house. You’ll not like it.”
He sat quietly and then walked away.