She waited impatiently.
A thin woman – thin to the point of being gaunt. A wrinkled face, etched with deep lines. The face of a woman who has gone to Hell and returned to tell the story of her excruciating pains in the region of darkness. It was offset only by those black eyes - eyes that seemed to pierce deep down into one’s soul. Eyes that now let a tear or two seep though … as she waited.
Every ten minutes or so, she would go to the window and stare at the street outside. She would stand there, her senses straining to discern a sign of his imminent return. And when nothing happened, her visage would sag and her eyes would blink back the tears that threatened to overwhelm her. Returning to her rundown chair, she would sit heavily and dream.
The room was Spartan. Mud-baked walls, naked and stark except for the small mirror that hung in a corner. A bed alongside the far wall, with a thin patched mattress on it. Near it a wooden table, and another chair, similar to the one she was sitting on and, if possible, in a more dilapidated condition. A framed photograph stood on the table – a photograph yellowing with age. At the other end of the room, less than thirty paces away, stood a wooden cupboard that contained all her worldly possessions, yet was still almost empty. A threadbare, rat-chewed mat underneath the chair she sat on. The one window, near the door, faced the window and gave the woman her world. The room was her home.
Suddenly, there were sounds of footsteps on the street. She got up hurriedly, her old bones screaming with age. She patted down her hair as she moved towards the window. A man was walking down the street, towards her house. Her heart began beating faster and she could hardly breathe. Her thin fingers clenched into fists and pressed down into her palms, as the man came nearer and nearer. He passed by her hut.
With difficulty, she swallowed back the outpouring of emotions and fought to control the hot tears that threatened to cascade down her withered cheeks. Desperately, she turned away … as though to hide her sorrow from the rest of the world, and walked with unsteady steps to the table where the framed photograph lay.
Picking it up with both hands, she stared fondly at it and the recent pain was nearly erased from her mind. The picture was of a young man. He was smiling shyly at the camera, a lock of hair falling down unconsciously over his forehead. His features were clear-cut, the mouth strong and turned up in his usual warm smile, the eyes twinkling with the rare humor that he had inherited from his father. He reminded her strongly of her husband, the gentlest man she had ever known.
Memories rushed into her mind like a sudden flash flood. She was lost in the tangled webs of time, her mind and soul transported back to the ten years she had spent with him – the happiest years of her life. Every day of those ten years was like a sparkling gem to her, shining brightly in the labyrinth of life. She had given herself to him readily, taking care of his every need, giving him all he had wanted and asking for nothing in return. But he had given her what she had desired – a home, food, love and a beautiful son.
The night of the fire was etched deep in her mind … in-erasable, unforgettable. The thorn that had destroyed her flower of life and made further existence on earth almost impossible. She could still hear her husband’s cries as the burning rafter fell on him, pinning him to the floor, crushing the very life out of him, while she and her son helplessly watched the flames licking closer and closer to him, taunting them with faint stirrings of hope, and then enveloping his body in a sudden burst of unquenchable fire. She had turned away, her body screaming with pain, and fallen senseless to the ground.
The fire destroyed her life. It took away all that she had – her husband, her love, her home and her desire to live. It created a void that she had no will left to fill and left her in a perpetual state of silent agony. Friends and family failed to break the wall of pain that surrounded her. She was willing to join him in his long and hazardous journey, but something held her back … her six-year old son, Rajeev.
He became the light in the darkness of her heart. For one so young – a child still! – he realized and understood his mother’s suffering, the torment she had gone through, and the mental sorrow that filled every second of the minute, every minute of the hour, drowning her gradually in a pool of emptiness. He brought her back from the hell she had gone through, helping her, aiding her in any way he could, wiping away the tears gently from her haggard face when she remembered that night, trying to make her forget the past and to find again … hope and joy in life.
And he had succeeded.
She continued staring at the photograph of her son, who was in the army now. He’d been gone for nearly three years – and tonight he would be back! She wondered how she had managed to survive these three years – only his memory and the fact that he would be returning home to her, one day, had kept her alive. Oh! How he must have changed!
Her reverie was interrupted by a hard knock on the door. She was transfixed to the spot, unable to move! Silly woman! After waiting so long and so eagerly for him, now she couldn’t even find the strength to move! He had returned and here she was, rooted to the floor! The knock came again and that broke the spell. She rushed to the window and looked outside.
A tall man in the brown uniform of the army stood at the doorstep. His face was in shadows, but the sight of his uniform assured her that it was indeed her son.
She shouted, “Rajeev,” joyously and ran to get him the sweets that she had made – his favorite ones. Placing them on a plate, she ran to open the door. She was so excited that the simple bolt eluded her trembling fingers. Somehow she got the bolt pushed aside and swung open the door.
An absolute stranger stepped forward and addressed her. “Amma, are your Rajeev’s mother?” His voice was gruff but the underlying gentleness was unmistakable.
“Yes! Yes I am! But where is Rajeev? He was supposed to come tonight. He wrote to me and told me. I’ve been waiting so long just to see my son again. Look! I’ve even made him his favorite sweets. Tell that boy not to play tricks with his mother – I’ll get upset!” She lifted her voice,
“Rajeev? Are you hiding somewhere there? Come on out now, son. Let me see you. I’ve missed you so much!”
The uniformed figure stared sadly at her. Then, he said, “Amma, I’m sorry, but Rajeev won’t be coming home. He was killed last morning in a fight. He’s dead, amma.”
“What are you talking about? Who’s dead? Listen – you tell that Rajeev that I want to see him now. It’s been three years since I last saw him and my tired old heart aches for just one look. Call him out from wherever he is, won’t you son? He always did like to play hide and seek with his poor mother. Please?”
The stranger took hold of her hand and said in a low voice, “You’ve got to understand, amma. Rajeev is dead. He died fighting for his country and now his blood has mingled with the soil he died to protect. He won’t be coming back, amma. Never again.”
Somehow the words penetrated her befuddled mind. The plate of sweets slipped from her nerveless fingers and shattered on the floor. She fell to her knees, the broken plate shards cutting through her sari, into her legs, but not heeding the pain. When one’s whole world is filled with unendurable pain and suffering, one does not feel those tiny pinpricks of hurt. The world began to turn around at an incredible pace – everything became a merry-go-round of flashing lights and shooting stars. Her life played out in front of her eyes like the films one could see for five rupees every Saturday evening at the community hall in her village.
The lights glimmered and slowly faded away.
Only a void was left.