Roots And Remains
February 05, 2020
What happens when life deals you an unexpected hand? How do you cope with it? What happens when you’ve loved and faced a partial loss? Do you move on or remain in the same place? Let’s say you move on. Are you wracked with guilt or do you make peace with your decisions? Everyone deals with these choices differently. In this story, Shalaka explores the complicated themes of love and partial loss, and how the protagonist deals with his guilt.
Amita and I met when we were both 24 years old. It was the first year of grad school in the U.S. We were both studying in the Masters of Public Policy (MPP) programme at the Kennedy School of Government. The first time I saw her, she was walking across my dorm room in linen pants and a sweatshirt, her hair tied in a knot, a mess of curls on her forehead and a frown on her face. It was August 2005. She was so pretty. She was with another friend and they were both talking animatedly about something out of earshot.
The next time I saw her was in my U.S. Congress and Law-Making class, two days after school began. My friend Raghav caught me staring at her and winked. He knew Amita from high school in Delhi. After class, all the Indian students got together and went to lunch at a nearby burger place. I got myself a cheeseburger and was pleased to see Amita tearing into a lamb burger when I got back to our communal table. Raghav had saved me a seat beside her. She and I instantly got along. She wanted to go to Kenya in the summer with the water conservation programme and she had decided that her thesis would also revolve around Riparian disputes between states. I told her how I had been studying treaty-based conflict resolution case studies and their failures back in Chennai’s Policy Research Institute (PRI) before coming for this programme. She told me about her job as a programme officer with the UNICEF office in Mumbai. She asked me how I was called Rishab since it was an unlikely name for a Kannadiga (she was one too). I told her my mother was from Himachal Pradesh.
‘That explains the smouldering looks!’ she had laughed and winked at me.
I liked how openly flirtatious she was. Her confident and breezy manner made her even more attractive to me. And she was obviously very sharp. I became oblivious of everyone else in the room. That semester, all I needed was Amita.
Soon after, we started going out. We did everything together. Other than the breaks when we were away from the country on our respective projects, we were inseparable. We even moved in together in the following semester. After graduation, Amita and I moved to London where I had secured a job with the World Bank and Amita had been offered a consultancy position at Amnesty International.
Amita knew my pulse. I would be looking into the distance, thinking of something specific and Amita would talk about it like she read my mind. I secretly still think she could read my mind.
We got married soon after moving to London, in my hometown in Bangalore. It was a traditional Kannadiga wedding. There is a ceremony in Kannadiga weddings that is quite peculiar. The groom is given an umbrella and in the middle of the wedding ceremony does a ‘mock’ walk out of the mandapam. The groom wants to remain a brahmachari for life. The bride’s father has to run after the groom and convince him to not abandon the next stage of life, grihasthashrama. The father has to beg and plead and cajole the groom into marrying the bride. The groom relents and walks back and then the marriage ceremony takes place.
‘Everything about Indian marriages, nay any marriages, reeks of patriarchy,’ Amita would say. ‘This ceremony, in particular. Can you imagine a ceremony where the husband’s father will have to beg the bride? For anything!’
‘At least I did not walk out of the mandapam and demand a fully dowry worth your weight in gold,’ I had laughed and said. ‘All this feminism is a ruse to get us Indian men to give up on our male privilege. Now go make me tea,’ I had told her while laughing harder as she kicked me.
In my marriage with Amita though, I think of this part of the ceremony often as a poignant metaphor for the way things unfolded. I have run away from it now, but I have never really been able to leave.
We went to Costa Rica for our honeymoon. The sun, sand and Amita’s caramel skin is what I most remember of those wonderful ten days. We returned to London, back to our flat and our old lives. Amita was rising as the star negotiator of her team. She was often invited for Riparian rights studies by various international panels and would open dialogue for building the easement allocation framework. I, on the other hand, was yet another cog in the gigantic wheel that was the Bank. I had always assumed I would do better than Amita when we graduated from the MPP. I had better grades, better offers. And yet, it was Amita’s career that moved leaps and bounds ahead of mine, in a very short duration of time. I never resented her for it though. I had let her take on the driver’s seat in our lives, maybe because I thought of Amita’s success as my own.
We would regularly host parties and board game nights at our home. She said it was important for us to maintain a certain social status in the community. Yet, she truly cared about the people too. Amita travelled all around the world for her work and always brought back bottles of local wine and cheese. So, we started hosting wine and cheese Fridays every fortnight and our house became a sort of hub for the cultural crowd of east London. We’d serve up wine, cheese and a new artist. Sometimes I’d read my own work and was pleasantly surprised with the encouraging responses. (I was now starting to spend more and more time writing fiction.)
Amita was a much better host than me. She had friends from everywhere and she made everyone (even newcomers) feel at home. She had a bright smile that everyone warmed up to and she told the best stories, often with her at the centre of something embarrassing or self-deprecating. Everyone appreciated how she did not take herself very seriously, especially because her job was very serious.
I switched jobs and moved to a research position in a think tank in a couple of years. I didn’t take on field work after all. I wanted to focus more on writing and it was sort of coming together for me (or so I thought back then). I would also do policy and international relations pieces for The Economist, Foreign Policy and the Middle East Monitor now and then.
2011 was the year we had Kavya. Amita was at home through maternity leave and for nearly six months thereafter. Having Kavya changed my life forever. It changed our relationship. Now we thought about three people, instead of two, all the time. To me, Amita looked more beautiful than ever. We would often talk about our plans for Kavya’s future. How she would become a scientist and learn several languages. How she would grow up to be a kind, empathetic young woman. Amita often felt like her childhood had been robbed of normalcy and happiness because her father was often ill, and they had little money growing up. She did not want that for Kavya and so, the year she was born, we opened a trust fund in her name. Kavya’s eyes were just like Amita’s, coffee-coloured and sparkling with a translucent hue in the sunlight. Even her smile was like Amita’s.
Amita immersed herself in motherhood with Kavya. She would read to her in different languages and sing to her. Other than English and Kannada, we had hired a tutor to speak to her in Arabic and French. Amita wanted her to hear all these languages in her formative years so that she could pick them up at an early age. Kavya became Amita’s high-level project and nothing was allowed to go wrong. I often felt like a spectator parent, but I didn’t mind it.
We had Indraneel two years after Kavya. By now Amita was back at work again, so we both took on part-time parenting. I was often at home because I had left my full-time position to work as a consultant while pursuing writing. My first book had come out by then and it had won some critical acclaim but was not a commercial success. I was undeterred and already halfway through the second one. The waking hours in my life had increased exponentially. The only time I felt I had to myself was when I went for a run in the morning. As the breeze ran through my hair and I moved forward, I felt a false sense of freedom. But it was still a life I had few complaints from.
Amita and I made a great team. She was captain (of course) and I was vice-captain. Amita did these silly routines that I adored. She would point to herself and say, ‘I am your rock.’ Then she would point to her wedding solitaire and say, ‘You are my rock.’
I always found this funny especially the way she moved her head when she mimed those sentences. The kids would titter every time she did that. She had several other pantomimes and would always light up the house with her chatter. The kids were usually squealing and there was always so much noise in the house. Even now we slept with our hands held together. There was such comfort and warmth and safety in her arms. No other woman (other than perhaps my mother when I was younger) had made me feel like that. We had now been married for eight years. I never doubted that we wouldn’t be married for life. Amita was always coming up with jokes. I loved that about her. In the middle of telling me about her controlling, white, male boss she would say, ‘What is the fear of going out with a white guy called?’ Then reply with a deadpan expression, ‘A-gora-phobia.’
The kids were now older. Kavya was six and Indraneel was four. They were both in school, so we had the house to ourselves at least during some parts of the day. Amita had moved to an organisation whose office was very close to our home, so she would come by for tea in the afternoon. I went into work only twice a week and wrote from home on all other days.
Our evening tea was quite a ritual by now. We would solve the crossword together and drink tea with crumpets or cookies or sometimes just sweet appam. Very English. Very Kannada. She would ask me in those perfect, summer evenings, ‘Rishab, did you imagine we’d go this far? I mean, I grew up in Mysore, you in Karwar. We have made it this far. Doing non-mainstream work in the first world. We are the first of the first world too, if you think of it. I didn’t even know how to use the ticket vending machine for the T when we first moved to Cambridge.’
‘Aye, aye captain! I didn’t know how to call the air hostess if you needed something on a flight!’ I responded.
And then she had said something prophetic. ‘I’m convinced that someday it will all go away for me.’
I had said nothing, squeezing her palm in mine instead.
I still remember that fateful November day. Both the kids were in school and I was at home. I got a call from the hospital. Amita had had an accident. The rest of it is a blur. I remember rushing to the hospital. She was in the ICU and they made me sign some form for her emergency surgeries. My friends had picked up Kavya and Indraneel from school and taken them to their place. My parents and Amita’s mother were on their way to London. I was a bag of nerves that whole night, sitting on that uncomfortable, hospital chair. My friends, Shanti and Ashutosh, had come with coffee and had sat by my side, but I could not stop my tears.
Doctors have this odd way of telling you chilling news in a vague manner so that you are always left with a sliver of hope that what you hear and what your future really holds are different. I was told the next morning that while they could save Amita, she was not in a ‘wakeful state’ and that she would not really respond to any sensory receptors. I had asked if this was a temporary state. The doctor had looked uncomfortable and merely said, ‘Oh we can never say with these things. Miracles happen.’
But no miracle had happened with Amita. In the first few months of living in London, I had had the support of her mother and my parents. It was very difficult explaining what had happened to the kids. Kavya, who had always been a very intelligent child, had known from the beginning that this would be an irreparable situation. It was more difficult with Indraneel, who had begun to build all his future plans with the words ‘when Amma wakes up’. How we would go to Disneyland, how we would go swimming, how she would read him his favourite story about the lonely duck again in the mock, squeaky voice that he loved. After six months of watching Amita sit motionless on her bed, silently staring into space, I had known that it was time to move back to Bangalore.
My parents had a small flat in Indiranagar. I had got one right next to theirs and the kids had been enrolled in a school nearby. I had taken up a consultancy position with an international development advisory firm with its head office in Bangalore. Although my parents took care of most things at home, I had to teach the children and sit by Amita’s side at least for a couple of minutes every day. We had hired a full-time nurse who lived with us.
The murmurs had begun within the year. That I was young, still in the prime of my youth. That it was evident Amita would never recover. That I was a man and I had needs. That the children needed a real mother. Yet Amita was more real to me and the kids than anyone else. Her eyes were still open. We always had our family celebrations like birthdays and festivals in her room. It was the default venue. I would talk to Amita about my office frustrations and how my third book about the Bangladesh war was going nowhere. My publishers were threatening to pull out if I didn’t submit a manuscript by that winter.
In the beginning, visiting that pain was tremendously difficult. My life was moving ahead, the kids were growing up, and yet, there she was, in bed, staring outside at nothing in particular. One of the most intelligent women I knew could not even control her bowels today. And, to think she thought not knowing how to use a ticket machine was her lowest low when it came to knowledge.
The kids had also slowly begun to drift away from her. There would be murmurs of complaints when I made them tell her about their day every day. ‘She never even responds. Even with my funniest stories, she does not respond!’ Indraneel had told me once, hurt and angry.
But to me, the guilt of stopping these rituals was more than anything I could bear, because it would mean the end of the pretence of Amita being alive. And her eyes were still open!
The following year, my parents had begun to hint that I should consider remarrying. Yet, I was convinced that she would wake up one day as if nothing had happened. In a life that changes and evolves every day with your spouse, I only had the past to hold on to with Amita, running old memories again and again in my mind. I glossed over all the pain and every memory from the past became a shiny happy movie, where Amita saved the day. When friends occasionally visited, I found myself reminiscing, talking about things Amita had done, the events she had hosted, the work she had done, as if by feverishly talking about her past achievements, I could make her present disappear. As if her legitimacy to exist as a mute spectator today was derived from her achievements in the past. But her eyes were still open, and I knew she was watching me.
I would send the kids to Amita’s parents during their summer vacation. They loved going to Mysore and playing there in the lush fields and the mud outside her traditional house in the evenings. Their grandfather took them on excursions to the coffee estates nearby. They bruised their knees and grazed their elbows. Yet, despite their fairly Western upbringing, they loved traditional India with their grandparents. Much like Amita, her parents had had endless enthusiasm towards life which, after what had happened with her, had waned over the years. But they still took special effort with their grandchildren. Her mother would make wheat laddoos for them that Indraneel would polish off in one sitting. Both the kids were growing into tall, lanky teenagers and Kavya had begun to look more and more like Amita.
One summer when the children were away at their grandparents’, I met Disha at work. She had joined the projects division. We were assigned a case and had to travel together to Delhi for meetings with the state government there. Disha was in her late thirties and had a bossy air about her. She was pretty enough, and she talked a lot. She was intelligent. I liked how her voice drowned my inner thoughts. I asked her out to coffee one evening and was surprised when she accepted. Our professional relationship quickly shifted to a personal one, and I let Disha take the lead there. The first time I slept with her, I remember feeling so guilty that I went back home immediately after. I confessed to Amita and cried in front of her. Amita didn’t get angry. She did not say a word, in fact. She continued to stare out of the window. I felt like she had tacitly given me permission. After that, I would tell Amita all the details of my relationship with Disha. Once I got together with Disha, I began work on the Bangladesh book again. I was seized with new energy, a sense of hope that I thought I had lost completely to the years of my youth and to my time with that Amita, not this Amita.
Six months later, I began to bring Disha home. The kids hated her. Kavya would bang the door of her room and not emerge until she had left. Indraneel would go downstairs on some pretext or the other, not wanting to interact with her. The days I brought Disha home, the kids would religiously go to Amita’s room and narrate the minutest details of their day to her. Kavya would sit on her lap and Indraneel would plant little kisses on her hands. It was as though they were trying to remind me that what I was doing was wrong. Yet for me, Disha was exactly the sort of distraction I needed. If my parents disapproved, they did not say it. My mother would always make vade and our best filter coffee when Disha came over. After a few months she began to stay over. The kids had stopped actively protesting by then, but they did not welcome her either. I knew that perhaps I was being a bit selfish and yet, I was doing nothing wrong. My wife had turned into a vegetable. But even saying this made me feel so cruel that I would never address those feelings. I was fiercely defensive of Amita, and for the first few months of our relationship I never let Disha go into her room.
After Disha and I had been together for a year, she came home and took out a purple-coloured maxi dress. ‘I have brought this for Amita di,’ she said. ‘Can I give it to her, please?’
I had refused. A few days later, I decided to bathe Amita. I bathed her, shaved the visible parts of her body hair, blow-dried her hair, put some kajal on her eyes and dressed her. I had sat her up in bed. That evening I had let Disha meet Amita. I did not want any pity on Disha’s face. This was my Amita. She was glowing. She was the most intelligent woman I knew. Disha had to see the best representation of that woman. Other than the fact that Amita did not speak or walk or understand (I thought) what was going on, everything else was just like before. Her eyes were still open. And Disha would have to see that. Amita was a part of my life. She was one of my greatest achievements. If Disha thought something was amiss, she did not say it. She chatted with Amita like the rest of us and gave her the dress. She told her about her work at the development organisation. Complained about me laughingly, in an intimate sort of way that I did not appreciate in front of my wife. I interrupted with an anecdote about my life with Amita that Disha would know nothing about so that Amita would not feel bad. Amita was a wise one though. Through all this, she said nothing. She knew me better than anyone else. Even in this meeting, Amita played the perfect host while taking the pressure of hosting off of me. My present wife greeted my future wife with respect and compassion.
After Disha left, I wept all evening in Amita’s lap. Kavya came by with my dinner plate but I refused to eat. Around midnight, my mother came by and gently asked if I would retire to my room, but I refused. The next morning, I asked Disha to marry me. We got married a couple of months later. No ceremony, just a simple registration. I had met Amita’s parents and told them that even though I was doing this, I would not leave Amita. She would continue to live with us. She was the mother of our children. She would watch them grow up. Had her parents had any physical strength left in them, they would have refused. Her father just looked at me wordlessly and her mother cried silent tears into the pallu of her sari.
I was now married to Disha, but to me I was still leading a dual life. I found everything I did duplicitous and had made a habit of ‘confessing’ to Amita. If I bought something expensive for Disha, I bought the same thing for Amita even though it was of no use to her. If we ever took holidays together, I would insist on calling home and have my mother or father hold the phone to Amita’s ear while I narrated the events of the day. I sometimes wondered if she could actually hear and understand all that I was saying. Yet, I could not bear the idea of keeping her away from my life, our life. I knew that a lot of this really hurt Disha and made her feel inadequate. But the truth was, no one could replace Amita for me – or at least the idea that was Amita. Her eyes were still open.
That summer, the kids were away with my parents on a holiday to Kashmir. Disha and I had been married for a year now. My book had been accepted by a new publisher. I was excited that evening and wanted to celebrate. We decided to watch a movie and, out of habit, I bought three tickets. One for Amita, although I knew she would not show up. The movie was one full of hope and light and love. About celebrating life and overcoming adversity. One of those movies that make you feel surefooted and wonderful. After a long time, Disha and I had a really nice evening. We got drinks and dinner after the movie and then went home. I was immediately ridden with guilt. I made my way to Amita’s room while Disha changed, thinking I would apologise. I had no right to be this happy. In fact, I was not really happy. It was just momentary. I looked at Amita, but she did not look at me. She was not even looking out of the window. That night, after all these years, her eyes had shut.
Shalaka is a lawyer based in Bombay. She's frequently written on law and policy matters in various publications such as The Wire.
Read her articles, here.
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