Jyoti by Madhu Kamath A short story

I woke up that morning before the alarm clock could rudely interrupt my sleep, as it always does. Sandeep’s school had closed for the long winter vacation and I had a long drive ahead of me to reach him.

It was past noon when I left the fields behind after a quick bite, and started the uphill climb. Sandeep would be having lunch now. How eager he would be to see me again, and come home with me for 4 long months!

Home? Was it a home? A wave of depression passed over me, as I thought of my tiny 2-room flat and the only soul, that is me, inhabiting it. Who would call it a home?

My old and trusted servant, Ramu Kaka, who had brought me up since childhood had died last year making me feel like an orphan all over again.

I had moved heaven and earth to find another servant, but all in vain. And circumstances had forced me to admit my 8 year old motherless child in a residential school.

My eyes clouded, as I thought of Shipra. My lovely, young wife, who left me and this world right after Sandeep was born. She needn’t have died, had she listened to me and to reason.

Life had been one long honeymoon for us till she left me a widower,15 months after our marriage. I had noticed her tiring easily but had attributed it to her frailness.

She had hidden the problem of a weak heart till she was 6 months pregnant.

When I learnt this fact, I got worried. She would have been alive today if only...

My mind wandered off to the day she started having labour pains 3 weeks before her due date. I couldn’t afford to take a risk. I rushed her to a nursing home, though the pain was mild.

Her doctor had advised a Caesarean operation a long time back, but Shipra had not disclosed this to me. I took it for granted that she understood the need for it, but that day I saw a streak of stubbornness in her for the first time. And for her obstinacy and fear, she paid with her life.

Her pains had been getting frequent. I sat by her side, smoothing her forehead and holding her moist hand tight.

A nurse entered the room with the forms to be filled up before the operation. But before she could say, “Mr Bose...” Shipra snatched the forms from her hand and tore them up, screaming, “I don’t want the operation. Never!”

I was shocked. She became hysterical and I stared at her. I was discovering a new aspect of her nature.

Shipra was terrified of operations! The fact was written plainly on her face and the terror in her eyes was transparent The situation needed some handling!

I put all the gentleness I could in my voice to allay her fears and tried to talk it over with her but she was adamant, begging, crying, coaxing, protesting, all the time. She was exerting herself to an extent that worried me.

Suddenly, she became quiet for a minute and then clenched her fists around the bars on the head of the bed. What took me by surprise was her smiling face.

“ I can feel the baby pushing,” she whispered.

She was bathed in perspiration and panting for breath when the doctor came in. She looked annoyed. She reproved Shipra severely and shook her head at me.

“It is too late to operate on her now. Her exertion has hastened the birth.”

2 ward boys rushed in and shifted Shipra on a mobile stretcher to the labour room.

I was by her side but even before they could reach the labour room, Shipra let out a heart-rending scream and tried to thrust her baby out.

The infant was soon lying between her legs, and Shipra lay exhausted, clutching her left side with both hands.

The last time I saw her alive was when they wheeled the stretcher into the labour room and closed the door on my face.

Shipra’s mother lived with us till Sandeep was 2 years old when, suddenly, one night, she passed away in her sleep.

Sandeep grew up toddling between our tiny ground floor flat and the patch of grass in front. He cried himself to sleep in my arms, night after night.

All his friends had a mummy. Why didn’t he? What could I have told him? What if I married again and his new mother ill treated him? No, I could not take the chance...

It took me almost a year to convince myself that Shipra was not coming back. I had spent nights lying awake in bed, hoping to hear her whisper my name, imagining her running to the crib every time the baby cried.

My reverie broke, as I brought the car to a halt before the massive iron gates of Sandeep’s school. How nice it would be to see him again and to see Miss Nag, their warden, who had always intrigued me!

I had last met her 2 months ago when I visited Sandeep for a weekend and I had left, determined to thaw her out the next time!

Most of the boys had already left and the imposing building looked dreary and deserted, reminding me of my own loneliness and I was sure.

Miss Nag was no less lonesome than me.

I had seen the pain in her eyes during a few unguarded moments. She must have been 30 but looked nearly 40.

I was sure she had gone through a tragic experience. Why was she hiding from the world, losing herself in her work and hissing at every man who entered her office?

Fortunately, I had been spared being victimised by her, maybe because she knew the story of my life. I didn’t like to go through the painful reminiscences but her attitude had forced me to.

“Mr Bose, a growing child should be under the care of his mother and father as far as possible. I approve of children being sent to residential schools only if circumstances compel them.

“l suppose your social life doesn’t permit you to spend enough time with your son?” she asked me.

After a pause, she again inquired, “Or is your wife working too and can’t spare any time for him?”

I seethed with rage, but could not bring myself to give her a fitting reply. I could barely whisper, “ My son has never seen his mother. She died the day he was born. So, you can imagine the circumstances that made me bring him here!”

I looked at her in contempt for having provoked me. But what I saw left me stunned. The invulnerable Miss Nag looked dazed. Tears threatened to spill out of her eyes.

“I...I’m very sorry, Mr Bose. Very, very sorry. I don’t know what to say. Oh, please...please forgive me for being so nasty,” she began to plead.

I just sat dumb. She was even more upset than I had been. But just then, another parent turned up wishing to see her.

I watched in amazement. In a moment, she had become her usual self — a difficult person to talk to and even more difficult to work under! But she was very efficient, as I had seen for myself.

I was puzzled to see her eyes turning soft every time she glanced at me, but otherwise she conducted herself like a perfectly programmed computer.

I had seen the streak of gentleness in her, but why was she so vicious towards everyone else?

The question bugged me. I simply had to find the answer.

My last visit to the school had been a pleasant surprise. I was glad to see that Sandeep had grown so attached to her.

“He is my special ward, you know, Mr Bose,” she smiled and added, “The boy with the kindest, gentlest heart.”

My eyes had become moist at those words, thinking of Shipra. And Miss Nag had been quick to see this.

“I am sorry if I reminded you of something painful,” she spoke regretfully.

But her concern touched me. I smiled, shaking my head. What a woman!

Her dual personality made me restless with an urge to know more about her. I had not the least idea then that I would get a chance that very evening.

A peon took my message to her and she greeted me with a warm, pleasant smile. She actually seemed pleased to see me.

I lowered myself into a chair, looking straight at her.

A voice from behind me tore at my heart, “May I come in, Miss ?” It was so heavenly to hear my child’s voice again.

As Miss Nag nodded her head, I turned in my chair and Sandeep saw me.

His eyes glistened with tears of joy, as he ran up to me. I held him close, as close to me as I could, and felt his overwhelming warmth.

Suddenly, Sandeep realised that he was in the warden’s office. Disengaging himself from me, he murmured sheepishly, “Excuse me, Miss?“ He had turned red with embarrassment. “My bags are packed, Miss. Can I go now?”

It was time for the lady in front of me to get a surprise now. Looking straight into her eyes, I told him, “No son, I have some more work that must be attended to. Do you mind if we stay overnight at a hotel and leave tomorrow morning?”

Sandeep nodded happily and ran out.

Something inexplicable happened between us when I spoke those words. Maybe, my intentions had conveyed themselves to the enigma they called “Miss”! For a long time, neither of us could speak.

The situation made my heart beat wildly. I was seeing her as a woman now. I felt like a teenager dating a girl for the first time. But we were both far from being first-time daters. Me, a lonely widower and she a hermit in hiding...

No words passed between us when I looked up at her. I found her looking at me dreamily, and as our eyes met, she blushed. I gaped at her! She was a wonder!

In that moment I realised that, despite her efficiency and her overbearing ways, her place was not behind that desk. She should have been moulding a home and raising a family with loving care. She looked like an angel in the disguise of a demon.

My mind was made up. I would not go back without accomplishing what I had come for.

“Can I take you out to dinner tonight ?” I asked her hopefully with a look in my eyes that must have told her I wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.

She smiled, “Is that for giving Sandeep my motherly company or to help you counter your loneliness?”

“Don’t you ever need someone to talk to, Jyoti ?” It seemed ridiculous to call her Miss Nag any more.

She looked up startled and I wanted to reach out and hold her as she looked at me with pained eyes.

“Maybe, both of us can get an antidote to our loneliness by keeping each other company for a while?” I wanted to say “lifetime” but I didn’t want to rush her. I loved her without even knowing her properly.

She nodded her head mutely.

“Good! Then I’ll pick you up at 7. Bye, till then.”

I bought Sandeep a whole lot of games and toys, and checked into a hotel. He kept himself busy and left me with my thoughts, overcrowded with visions of my new love whom I hoped to make my wife.

But I couldn’t take a “yes” from her for granted. What if she got offended? My apprehensions made me nervous and the minutes seemed like hours.

At 6.45, we left the hotel and drove up to the school. Jyoti was at the gate and the sight of her made me bring the car to a screeching halt.

I couldn’t recognise her. Sandeep gaped at her. Gone was the tight bun and the drab white sari.

The woman who stood in front of me wore a pretty pink silk sari. Her gleaming plait touched her waist while the loose hair on her forehead was blowing all over her face in the cold evening breeze.

The way she looked now, no one could have guessed her to be more than 25.

She put a shawl around her shoulders and began walking towards us. I got out to open the car door as Sandeep shifted to make room for her.

As soon as I started the car, he slowly moved towards her and hesitatingly touched her face with his fingers. Smiling down at him, she rumpled his hair and placed a loving peck on his forehead.

That did it! The rest of the way, he sat clinging to her, grinning from ear to ear.

We had dinner at an open-air restaurant and then went back to the hotel.

“Would you like to come up for a while?” I asked Jyoti and as she nodded her assent, we gaily trooped in — a happy threesome.

Sandeep promptly busied himself with his games and the two of us fell into an easy conversation. Time passed by.

It was getting late and we still hadn’t got down to talking about ourselves. Jyoti got up to watch Sandeep for a while playing in the dressing room.

When she came back, the words left my mouth before I knew it, “What are you doing hiding in this god-forsaken place ? Without friends, without a family? Why didn’t you marry?”

She realised that she couldn’t evade the answer. She sat down with a sigh and lost herself in the past.

It was a long time before she spoke, “Ranjeet!” My heart gushed out to her as she spoke my name for the first time. “I chose this way of life. I do have a family of old parents and a younger sister. I did get engaged to someone once. He was my colleague.

“The proposal came from his parents on his insistence. He got engaged to me but married my sister whom he saw only a month after our engagement. She was away at first in a hostel. She is very glamorous and a stunning beauty.

“Our engagement was called off. No one thought of how I would feel.” Her voice choked as she continued.

“My parents’ only concern was to get either of us married off. That I would suffer in consequence did not affect them at all. For them, I was only a money-making machine, destined to look after them for the rest of their lives.

“My sister was a beauty who deserved the hand of my debonair fiance, not a plain jane like me. And so, I left my home town, my job, my friends and came away here.

“Can you imagine my agony at this total rejection? Everyone forgot I was human too. I myself started doubting the fact and turned myself into a demon I am reputed to be at school. I hated all men, till... I met you.” Her eyes softened as she smiled bitterly.

My heart cried for her and I reached out and covered her hand with mine. She clung to it, afraid of letting it go, and raised her face, her eyes looking those of wounded doe. She was shattered, mentally and emotionally. God! How I needed her!

Slowly, I drew her towards me and it only seemed natural for me to kiss her. As our lips met, her arms went around my neck and she kept her face raised up to mine — craving for more.

We were sitting like that, aware only of each other, when Sandeep came out of the toilet buttoning up his fly. He stopped on seeing Jyoti in my arms and whistled softly.

Jyoti sprang apart, her face flushed.

“Is Miss going to be my mummy, Dad ?”

My son had snatched the opportunity of my proposing to Jyoti and as I raised my eyebrows at her questioningly, she gave the answer by holding out her arms to my darling son, waiting for him to come into them.

***

Articles & stories by Madhu Kamath - Index of writings on Kalpana