The rain beat down relentlessly, and to my eyes, each drop that struck the earth seemed like an indictment, an accusation. My mind accepted the punishment, as if each punishing splash of water would erode my guilt of seventeen long years ago. One hand tracing the familiar pattern of the zari on my pallu, I stood by the window, waiting. Somehow, I felt I would be more prepared to tell her if I could see her walking back, watch her every step until she reached the rusted iron gate. Today of all days, she was slightly late, and my mind continued to register the furious patter of the rain as it pelted against the window, on the ground- everywhere, it would seem.
In a bid to relax, I moved away and came to stand in front of the mirror perchance, though my ears were still attuned to the front door, to when her foot steps would come into hearing range. As I looked up idly into the mirror, I noticed the fine lines around my eyes, the fifty or so strands of gray in my hair, the three mild ridges on my forehead, just above my eyes, testimony to years of frowning– in concentration, at my children, over the monthly accounts, while peeling onions for the day’s lunch… When was the last time I had really looked in the mirror? It did not hurt, not anymore as it initially had, to watch my once reed-thin body swell and settle into comfortable middle-aged ordinariness, characterized by rough hands from washing dishes every night after the children were sent to bed, the shapelessness of figure as a result of indifferent fattening meals of often cold dishes after the rest of them had eaten, the thinning, rapidly graying hair, ritually oiled and combed but beyond that, left unattended, the cracked feet. It didn’t matter. Things like these ceased to matter over time, especially when you had to bear the caring of a middle-class family of a husband and two children. There was enough to do without having to waste time in front of a mirror.
The clock chimed four, and died away into silence. The rain had now reduced to a drizzle. My thoughts raced over the past years, and the guilt tied a familiar, hated knot in the pit of my stomach. Everyone was entitled to one mistake, one error, one terrible indulgence- mine had been many, many summers ago. And the thought of it brought fear and guilt and apprehension today, meshed together into a heavy quilt that seemed to suffocate me. Memories do not dim with time- don’t believe what they tell you! At least, the ones that imprint themselves, like one of these new digital colour photographs, onto your memory– they last a lifetime, whether or not you want them to. Some memories sharpen with time… mine certainly had. And what memories they were… of right and wrong, mostly wrong, it seemed to me…
When I heard her footsteps, I sighed as relief quietly claimed me for its own, delivering me from unwanted memories. I straightened from where I had slouched against the almirah, and went forward to catch sight of her. She was turned, her back to the gate, fastening the door. My daughter. Pride usually came to the fore. She was tall, lissome, her hair long and jet black. She turned and I watched her move slowly, her measured tread bringing her closer to me, to the truth.Today, I was distracted. I prayed briefly for strength. I had decided a week back that I would tell her today, after three hesitant years of dilly-dallying and false promises to myself. She had a right to know..
I wondered how she would take it, beyond the initial shock and disgust. Oh, they had all been disgusted- my husband, who let me know just how much every day, in every spoken word, every unspoken syllable until he had died three years back; my mother-in-law- in the contemptuous jingle of her colourful bangles, even now.
And now my daughter. What would she say?
She walked into the house, graceful as always. I sat down against the almirah, unable to wait, to act, any more than I had in the last half of my life. It was as though the strain had finally began to snap me. I heard the water running, as she washed her feet in the bathroom, then silence. She walked out a few minutes later, changed now into a fresh salwar. I gazed at some spot in the distance, fidgeting with my toe-ring. She sat down so quietly next to me, it startled me when I tuned my head and looked straight into her perceptive gaze, the brown eyes silent, mildly questioning. She scared me sometimes, my daughter, with her beyond-her-years wisdom, her shrewd assessment of people and events.
How would she assess her mother?
I blurted it out. Six scattered sentences, a quick summary of that summer seventeen years ago, her father’s official trip, Rajan’s visit, that fateful night, the next morning, being discovered in bed with him by my husband and mother-in-law. It was over that fast. The story of my life, the shame, the guilt, all compressed into six sentences. In any other circumstance, it would have merited a laugh, the irony.
She had stilled.
I looked away, past tears. I had cried enough to last a lifetime. Oddly enough, I felt calm. No recrimination could sway me now. I had passed judgment on myself, on my character. She could say or do nothing that would move me now.
After what seemed like an eternity, she spoke.
Why? she asked me.
I told her. About the hundreds of official trips her father used to take. I wondered if, and if so, what she would understand. I talked about the loneliness night after night for nine long years. Loneliness is a dangerous thing. It can sap your judgment. It had sapped mine. I had waited and waited and waited. My husband had become a rare commodity. I had forgotten what it was like to watch him, even, as he moved or talked or dressed. The feel of his skin. What had he been like? And Rajan had come along. Silent, understanding. Smile, talk, take a walk, hold hands, go to bed. It had been that easy. And that insane.
I had asked myself why a million times.
Some questions have no answers. So I told myself.
Better no answer than a soul destroying answer.
She said nothing, my daughter, my offspring. And so I sat in the silence and waited. Waited for her anger, her sorrow, her disgust. To hear her denounce me. I got silence in return.
The seconds stretched into minutes. Twenty minutes, perhaps. I felt as if she was burning me with her silence. The spot I was gazing at was fast becoming a blur.
When she spoke, the sound startled me.
And father has made you repent it ever since, day after day, night after night, each minute of your life, amma? she asked.
My head swerved so fast I caught a crick in my neck. Stretching my neck, I stared with disbelief at her, at the tone of understanding in her young voice. Her eyes were filled with tears, flowing down her cheek. She reached out a hand, and I flinched, but the hand touched my cheek, gently caressing the skin.
And she simply said:
How much you must have gone through in the past seventeen years, amma! How much!
And she got up and put her arms around me.
I sat there, stunned. For several minutes, I sat as if carved out of stone, as she sobbed quietly, her arms circling me. In the seventeen years past, I had received- from the wise and old, neighbours and friends, relatives and strangers alike- words. Words of contempt for my lack of character, anger that I had deceived, disgust at the kind of upbringing I must have had, wonderment at my shamelessness, curses that I never live a life of normalcy or happiness for evermore to come, pity at my uncontrollable nature.
But in all of those moments and days and months and years, my twenty-year old daughter was first one to understand me. To weep for me, to hold me, to become one with me. Young, new to the world and its ways, her environment upset forever because of my one act, awareness that I had betrayed her father. And all she said was, How much you must have gone through in the past seventeen years, amma!
All those years had I sought understanding, yearned for it, and here was my child, and she understood. Unmarried she was, and only a child, though a wise one, and she knew.
It was too much to take. I cried, and the sound of it tore through the pain in my soul. I wept, as the pain and the guilt tore free in the face of that unqualified understanding- like a shower of sweet rain drenching the parched earth. The sobs rocked my body, and she tightened her arms around me, soothing, accepting, understanding.
And suddenly, the rain pelting the door transformed and poured its acceptance from the skies onto the washed earth.
And in that moment, my daughter became my mother.