(An Indian adaptation of O Henry’s short story ‘Pendulum’)
“Shahdara. Doors will open on the right. Please mind the gap.”
Jitendra pushed, shoved and elbowed his way out of the train compartment, mouthing curses the entire time. It was getting increasingly difficult to travel by the Delhi metro at this hour of the evening, without losing at least an iota of one’s sanity. Never mind that one is a senior professor at the city university—when those around you choose to discard all etiquette in the struggle to commute, you have no choice but to follow suit. If only the buggers would sanction his car loan.
‘Aparna Housing Society’ was a short walk from the station. Jitendra lit a Classic and walked slowly towards his destination. He had, in the recent past, developed the habit of mulling over the remaining fraction of his day, during the walk home. Not that there was much to analyse. True, his marriage, a year ago, had altered his lifestyle to a great extent. He had had to shift out of his family home, and into a flat. In addition, he had been forced to grow accustomed to having this woman around- a woman he knew very little about. And yet it could hardly be denied that this arranged marriage had provided his life with what the elders loved calling ‘stability’. No more impulsive holidays, no more erratic sleep schedules, no more splurging on luxuries. Ever since Ketaki had abruptly appeared on the scene- along with the steel trunks filled with her clothes, and the utensils she had brought as dowry- his days had been forced into a rigid pattern. Her presence had soon become so engrained into his world that Jitendra’s memory of his days as a bachelor seemed fabricated at times.
Every morning, he would wake up to find the left half of their queen-sized bed deserted. It annoyed him that his wife was an early riser despite not being under the obligation to report to any job. He would, however, feel marginally less annoyed when, after hurriedly bathing, he’d walk to the dining area to find his breakfast laid out on the table. They seldom, if ever, engaged in a dialogue before he left for work. In fact, Ketaki did not even eat with him. She would be seated in front of the little altar in the corner, while he ate and browsed through the newspapers. This was another thing about her that irked him- she was exasperatingly pious. Even when she was under the weather, she would insist upon performing her early-morning pooja. It was only after she had muttered her prayers and anointed each of her miniature brass idols that she would even dream of breaking fast. Jitendra would fold up his newspaper, rise from the dining table, take hold of his satchel and walk out of the flat, leaving Ketaki to go about her daily routine. He cared very little about how she occupied herself till he reappeared at 6 o’ clock every evening. Maybe she watched television or gossiped with the neighbours. She had never exhibited any interest in reading, except for her customary glance through the tiny yellowing prayer book. Sometimes she would mumble ‘Achchha ji’ in response to his declaration that he needed to leave immediately. “Alright.”
At other times, she would merely nod. He would tell her what time she should expect him back. It was a needless ritual, like many others that had crept into his once-exuberant routine. However, he was forced to admit that the unchanging nature of his life, which had seemed claustrophobic initially, now provided him with a sense of comfort. No surprises. No need to frantically rummage through your arsenal of reactions for an appropriate one.
The evenings were even more predictable. Jitendra would ring the doorbell, and mere seconds later, Ketaki would open the door for him, usher him in and disappear into the kitchen, reappearing with a tumbler of water. Once he’d drained the tumbler, she would urge him to go change his clothes while she made tea. She would word this suggestion in the same way, using the same tone, every single evening. Almost as if she were following a script. It would not be incorrect to say that she too had become habituated to the static routine of their shared lives.
At seven, the woman in the adjacent flat would invariably tune in to a Hindi soap opera on the television. The screechy background music and cacophonous dialogues were loud enough to unnerve Jitendra. At a quarter past seven, he would turn on his own television, mainly to drown out the noise from the neighbour’s set. He would always select a news channel first, craving his daily dose of sensational news reports. For a while he would be content, staring at the screen and occasionally tut-tutting. Then at eight o’ clock, when the commotion created by the megalomaniacal news anchor would face competition from the cacophonous young couple upstairs, Jitendra would switch to one of those ‘comedy’ shows that were all the rage these days. He could always hear the same programme being tuned into in several other flats, simultaneously. Ketaki would take this as a cue to serve dinner, ladling vegetable curries onto a plate and positioning herself behind the stove to conjure up roti after roti till he’d ask her to stop. She would bring her own plate and sit down at the table only after she had served him. The only imposing presence in the room would be that of the jar of mango pickle on the table, with its label that said ‘Lovely Pickles- Like mother’s love’.
A few exchanges about the milkman and the peeling paint would serve as dinner table conversation. Their silence would be compensated for by the clinking of cutlery and the blaring television till about nine o’ clock, when it would be pierced by the ruckus ensuing from events in the soap opera woman’s flat. They would hastily finish their dinner, ignoring the woman’s howls, pretending as if her inebriated husband wasn’t beating her. Precisely at nine-fifteen, Jitendra would slip his feet into his rubber sandals and make for the door, humming a snatch of some 90’s Bollywood song. “Jaa rahein hain?” she would always ask him: Are you leaving?” He would grunt in reply—affirmative. Khosla and the others would be out in the compound already. They’d stroll around the building complex, smoking, discussing politics, chuckling at jokes, late into the night. Sometimes, they would troop into Kumar’s flat to catch the repeat telecast of a cricket match. Jitendra would return at around midnight. Ketaki would always be in bed, but would stir when she heard him come in. She never mentioned being perturbed by his nightly flight from their flat. But sometimes he would sense a strain of anxiety in her voice when she’d ask him: “Jaa rahein hain?”… as if hoping for him to stay.
But the routine had to be followed. The familiarity was too soothing to be risked. Besides, what would he do at home? What did Ketaki know about the fiscal deficit?
Jitendra’s throat felt parched as he climbed the last few steps to his flat. He rang the doorbell, in anticipation of chugging down a glass full of cool water. To his astonishment, Ketaki didn’t come to the door even after the fourth bell. Jitendra let himself in using a spare key. The moment he stepped into the flat, unfamiliarity struck him like a blow across the face. The living-room was a mess, the door to their bedroom was ajar, and Ketaki was nowhere to be found. A jolt of dread ran down his spine. There had been a burglary. Ketaki had been kidnapped. What would he do now? He must inform the police. Jitendra dashed across the room, towards the side table bearing the telephone. It was only when he had lifted the handset and held it to his ear that he spotted a piece of paper, half of it slipped under the phone cradle. He recognised it as a sheet torn out from one of his college registers. His heart fluttered as he realised that it bore words in Ketaki’s handwriting.
“Maa bahut beemar hain. Sameer bhaiyaa lene aaye the. Aapka phone mil nahin raha. Pahunchke telephone karungi:
(Mother is very unwell. Brother Sameer came to pick me up. I couldn’t reach you on your phone. Will call you once I get there.” )
Yes, his phone had rung a half hour before he’d left for home. But Jitendra had been caught up with some work and had dismissed the call, believing it to be unimportant. Now that it dawned upon him that Ketaki had been trying to reach him, his heart sank. She had mentioned that she would call once she reached her mother’s place. Surely she must have reached by now. Why hadn’t she called yet?
Jitendra dragged one of the chairs and sat down, trying to process all the information that had just been thrust upon him. So Ketaki’s mother was unwell and she had just… left. Never, in the last one year, had she been absent from this flat. In fact, the notion of a flat bereft of Ketaki’s presence seemed completely absurd to him. Jitendra looked around, nervously hoping to find her coming out of the bathroom or the kitchen, and putting an end to his inexplicable alarm.
His throat was parched with thirst and he was forced to make his way into their kitchen, still feeling quite dazed. It was only once he was inside the tiny room that he realised he had hardly been in here since they had moved in. His meals and his tea would always be served to hm. Every time he felt hungry or thirsty, he would simply call out to his wife, and she would rush to him, fetching for him whatever he demanded. Heck, he didn’t even know where the china was kept anymore! After fumbling around for a while, Jitendra found a glass tumbler and filled it with water. Even performing this simple task felt so out of the ordinary that he couldn’t help but wonder if he was dreaming. He felt even more bewildered when he saw a large inverted plate upon the kitchen sill. Upon lifting it, he found a smaller plate, filled with food, under it. Jitendra felt a lump in his throat. Despite having to leave at such short notice, Ketaki had prepared dinner for him.
Too shaken to bother heating the food, he seated himself at the dining table. The chaos around him only accentuated the feeling of loss. Ketaki would never leave household items in disarray. Being away for a major part of the day, he had never actually seen her working around the house, but now it occurred to him that the girl must have been working very hard to ensure he returned to an immaculate flat every evening.
He glanced at her prayer corner. The brass pot, lota, was not in its usual place, but had rolled about a meter away. Perhaps Ketaki had performed a hurried pooja before leaving. Jitendra remembered being infuriated with such vessels, as a child. They didn’t have a flat base and would roll about indecisively on the floor. Bin painde ka lota. You just couldn’t expect such a pot to be stable. But now that Ketaki had vanished without a warning, he couldn’t help but gaze longingly at even the lota. Everything in the house reminded him of her. In his mind, there was no home without Ketaki. This epiphany all but knocked the wind out of him. He had been such a fool to not have prized her efforts, valued her skills. And now he was being rightfully punished.
Jitendra sat very still. It was a quarter to seven. Aparna Housing Society went on with its evening routine. He soon heard the woman next door switch on the television. He was much too stupefied himself to turn on his own set. The news could wait. Events in his own home had been more sensational. Like clockwork, the couple upstairs began arguing loudly, at eight. Jitendra looked at the pickle jar. Its pretentious, poorly-worded label provided little comfort to his troubled mind. If only, it distressed him further. ‘Lovely Pickles’. He had been anything but loving towards her. It wouldn’t be unfair to say he had treated her with utmost indifference! If only he had spent more time with her, been more sensitive to her feelings and desires. He should have bought her a mobile phone too. That way he could have called her up right now, if only to apologise profusely for being an ingrate. He didn’t even know when he would see her again.
He looked down at his plate, realising he had only eaten a few morsels of the food she had cooked for him with unquestioning devotion. But he had no appetite. When was the last time he had offered to clean the dishes after eating? "Tu kitna badaa gadha hai!" ("You are such an ass!") he chided himself. His ponderings were interrupted by the sound of the neighbour beating his wife again. Nine pm. Had he been any better a husband to her? True, he would never stoop as low as his neighbour, being the educated man he was. But his conduct wasn’t deserving of any praise either.
A tiny voice in his head pointed out the fact that he was now a free man. For all purposes, he was a bachelor again, till she returned. He could walk out this very moment and stroll around with his friends till dawn if he liked. He could even take off on one of those week-long aimless excursions, just like old times, and not have to hear that horrible guilt-inducing strain in Ketaki’s voice as she asked him the obvious question. Jitendra thumped his fist upon the table. No. He would change. He would make up to her for his pathetic behaviour. If she could devote so much energy and effort towards his comfort, the least he could do was spend more time with her. He would stop abandoning her every evening. Instead he would talk to her, take her out, do his best to make her smile. Just let her come home, he thought. Home is where Ketaki is.
Someone was ascending the steps. Jitendra could hear soft but distinctive footsteps approaching the apartment. The very next moment, Ketaki hurried in through the door, quite out of breath. “Maa ab kaafi behtar hain. Main jaldi vapis aana chahti thi, toh Sameer bhaiyaa gadi se le aaye." ("Mother is much better now. I wanted to return as quickly as possible, so Sameer bhaiyaa drove me back.”)
Even as she was uttering the last few words, Ketaki started setting the house in order. He gawked as she moved swiftly towards the table, and cleared the dishes. The familiarity was disarmingly reassuring. Jitendra took a deep breath and looked at his wrist watch. Nine-fifteen. He slipped his feet into his rubber sandals and made for the door, humming a 90’s Bollywood song. Jaa rahein hain? She asked him. He grunted in reply. Affirmative.
No one saw Ketaki smile bitterly as she tidied up her prayer altar, returning the lota to its usual place.
St. Stephens College, Delhi University