Jenny Bhatt

Spotlight: The Waiting

My last living memory is of my husband carrying my half-conscious body away from the thick heat and clinging wetness of the rice field. Something has bitten my right heel, leaving a crescent of bloody marks. He places me on our cart, jumps on, and prods Sakhi, our cow, into a jingling trot. Sweat and tears mingle with dust, drawing near-black streaks down his cheeks.

For one whole day after I die, he sits by my body. At night, he lays down beside it. When some street dogs wander in because of the smell, and start howling as though in sorrow, the neighbors come. By now, rats have bitten chunks off my toes and fingers, and flies are feasting on what is left.

They clear the animals out with kicks and shouts. The tallest man, our village Sarpanch, bends over to my husband, gives him a few short slaps, and says, “Your wife is dead. You hear me? You understand? Kunwarba is no more.”

My husband opens his mouth in soundless response.

Nobody asks about what happened. A few of them had seen him bring me home, blood foaming from my gaping lips. News of the dying and death gets around quicker than anything in our village.

They take my stiff, soiled body for the final rites. Him, they take to the city hospital. Two men grab him by his armpits and drag him between them like a drunk man. The Sarpanch waves everyone away as the lines on his face grow sharper and deeper. Like the nearby village leaders, no doubt, he has bigger concerns: the fear of another drought season, even as water continues to be scarce and the dam repair work goes far too slow.

My husband wanders back a day later. Sakhi had been left tied inside our shed—a small, cool shelter. He brings her out and ties her to the lone limdo tree, putting a bucket of stale water and a pile of chaff within her reach.

He squats under the tree in a watchful silence: thin shoulders curved over his knees, eyes wide and wild like a rabid dog’s, and an old fragment of yellowed cloth covering his white hair. Though it is time for the monsoons, the sun is as bright as in mid-summer. Spears of scorching light escape through the tree’s almost-bare branches and fall relentlessly on him.

The Sarpanch’s wife comes by to leave bits of food and a can of water from the daily tanker. She, who had only ever given me dagger looks, begins this daily, silent charity towards my husband. He eats without knowing—even trying to chew a piece of tire rubber before spitting it aside. As for the water, he pours half the can into Sakhi’s bucket and barely remembers to drink the rest himself.

At dusk, he hangs a flickering kerosene lamp from a tree branch and continues sitting till the shadows get long enough to go inside. Lying on the thin, worn mattress, he does not sleep, as if waiting for morning to start his vigil again.

A few days pass like this. From a distance, my husband may seem a wise yogi meditating under that limdo. On closer view, his dimmed eyes and the constantly mumbling and dribbling mouth tell a different story. The heat gets worse, though a wind rises weakly once or twice a day, tossing dry leaves, old newspaper, and empty plastic bags around him.

All this waiting—for what, I do not know. To entertain myself, I fly with the birds, beating them to their favorite tree branches. I play with the ants and insects, crawling into their little crevices and homes. I sit on Sakhi, whose tail swishes rapidly as if a thousand flies have descended on her.

The villagers begin calling him “Gaman Ghelo,” then just “Ghelo.” Schoolboys twirl their fingers near their temples as they spit out the word. He simply looks away. Sometimes, he throws stones, clumps of soil, twigs, whatever is in reach, if anyone comes closer. Not that many do, for he is still wearing those rat-bitten clothes, and he reeks like something dug up from a dry river bed.

One boy is more vicious than the rest. He lopes over like some big movie villain and lands a kick on my husband’s face, sending him sprawling sideways. When the old man stays motionless after falling, the boy runs. His friends, following him, yell a count in English they must have been learning in school: “One, two, three… eight, nine, ten…”

Some numbers I want them to know: fifty—the age of the man they knocked over; fifteen—my age when I met him as a child bride; twenty-five—how many years I had been his wife; fifty thousand—the amount we had got for our farmland to pay for my sick parents’ hospital bills; two—bottles of rat poison we had bought to end our constant worries about work and money; one—the number of times I had been pregnant, and he had gone from the happiest to the saddest I had ever known.

But his grieving existence now has to be worse than my bodiless one. I am no longer of his world and I have not reached the other one. No matter what happens to me next, though, I will never miss the screaming aches from long hours of back-breaking work, or the times when we had less to eat than the wandering, begging gypsies, or the churning agonies about who would take care of us in our old age.

I soon give up trying to understand why I am still here. The other spirits I meet in this in-between world offer no explanation. Some of them have been here longer than they can recall.

They do educate me on the basic rules: never leave the village limits; only communicate with people through dreams—and only those with whom you shared life memories; be prepared to be called away to the next world without warning. The rest, they say, I will have to figure out as I was as much a sinner as them and deserve no help.

In my new form, I am buoyant with an unending energy. I float well above the tallest trees to look into many of our village’s houses and streets. Other lives are interesting enough, though I now see we were not too worse off.

The crippled mother, three doors down, is often beaten by her son’s wife for not moving quick enough. The newly married couple who has their own home, separate from both their families, never sleeps together. The gypsies at the edge of the village, in their makeshift shelters of tarpaulin and bamboo, do not practice black magic with their strange music—it is to help their starving children sleep. And the Sarpanch’s wife cries on the nights he does not come home, knowing, as I do now, he is with his whore.

As my husband rarely sleeps, it takes me some time to figure out how to make dreams. Eventually, I find, in the moments when he hovers on the edge of sleep, if I focus my attention long enough, I can.

Not that it is easy. Mostly, it is like trying to swim, unseeing, through murky ocean depths. I have to overpower his every breath and thought till his defenses cannot hold up and there is a break in that dense wall. Only then, I can slip in quickly before his mind snags onto something else or closes back up. I never have full control either. But, the dreams bring him sleep and, hence, rest. Maybe this is why I am here.

I pick happy memories and simple wishes, weaving them together so that, at least while asleep, he can smile again. Once, I take him up to a hilltop and we fly kites so high that, holding onto the strings with both hands, we also soar. Another time, we are at the cinema, and the hero and heroine on the screen turn into the two of us, singing and dancing on a beach filled with golden-silver sand, while a full moon glows white over us.

After a few such dreams, my husband lingers more and more in a part-awake, part-asleep fog. The line between the real and the dream world disappears. The house dream does it. As we had never had anything better than a one-room brick hut, I dream us a mansion on a riverbank. Coming to him as his shy, new bride, I take his hand and lead him in.

We enter the first room lit up with rainbow colors and furnished like a king’s palace with gold and silver fixtures encrusted with precious gems. Each such beautiful room leads to many other rooms in an intricate maze going up, down, and across.

In one room, there are long banquet tables loaded with large, bottomless pots and dishes of food. The aromas are richer than any we have known. Each time he finishes one plate, I hand him another freshly filled one.

In another room, celestial Apsaras cast pleasing spells with their graceful undulations, lush birdsongs, and perfumed melodies.

In yet another room, many rocking cradles are filled with smiling babies of all sizes and shapes. And, when he turns to me with a watery smile, I have the ripe, swollen belly he has always wished to see.

I present one room after another, filled with everything he has ever desired since childhood—from motorbikes that run like the wind; to clothes and shoes softer than the finest mulmul; to mobile phones in glittering, bejeweled cases; to an entire amusement park filled with magical rides. When we look down from the balcony of a room high up, or up from the stairwell of a room way below, the different views of all its wonders make them all seem new to us again.

And so, with each room, my husband discovers new capacities for joy within himself

*     *     *

When daybreak forces his eyes open, my husband shuffles out to the tree. This time, however, his low muttering draws my attention. He is talking to me. Not who I have become, but the me in his head: the wife he thinks is still alive. What he says is as useless as udders on a bull, of course: how he will build us a bigger house before our child is born. I try to reason with him, but, my poor Ghelo cannot hear me.

So, he brings out his toolbag. Though the few tools are old and somewhat rusted, he keeps them clean and wrapped in old rags. Each year, after the few months of field work are done, he takes them to go work at nearby construction sites—even at the old dam once, though the pay was not worth the effort.

The land our hut and shed stand on is about fifteen square feet. If the old hut is removed, there is space enough for a larger one. This is what my husband sets about to do. Moving our one-room contents into the shed, he begins with his hammer.

Throughout the day, people stop to ask what he is doing. To each, he gives the same reply. “I’m building a bigger house for when the child comes. She doesn’t have long to go now.” They shake their heads and go on. When the Sarpanch’s wife brings her bundle of food and can of water, she keeps a greater distance than usual. The end of her sari, which covers her head and veils half her face, slides off entirely as she rushes away. Before dark, my husband has torn down most of our married home.

He sleeps fitfully in the shed and is up at twilight. A bigger house needs a deeper foundation, he explains, as he starts digging into the ground. Now, passersby say, “Are you building a Taj Mahal for your dead wife, brother?” or “Carry on like this and they’ll make a news story about you, Ghelo.” Though his chin and hands shake, he turns away as though not hearing their mock.

He works with a strength I have never seen. Each stroke of the shovel comes down quick, striking the dry, stony soil to loosen big, heavy chunks. With a flick of the wrists, he tosses the dirt into a corner. Sweat streams from every pore and he throws off his soaking shirt to continue barebacked.

His pace gets slower after lunch. Till, he hits something unyielding and stops altogether. Kneeling to clear the soil away with his fingers, he pries loose a mud-encrusted skeletal hand. As he pushes aside more soil, more skeletal remains become visible. He lets out a cry at the horror, unable to move.

Hearing the choking sound, a squat, gray-haired man walking by comes over. Seeing what my husband is bent over, he drops his stick and hobbles back the way he has come. I can hear his shouts of “Hare Ram! Hare Ram! Shiva! Shiva! Shiva!” long after he is gone.

As night falls, I rise above the rooftops and treetops and see how all the familiar fears and superstitions are spiraling around like dense, black smoke.

Two things happen the following day. First, the Sarpanch and two of his men come over to check for the skeleton. My husband, who has not been able to stop shivering since seeing it, has somehow managed to move it to the pile of dirt and cover it up. So, they find nothing but a big hole in the ground and a chattering, shaking old man, who jumps in his skin any time they so much as look at him. Second, the Sarpanch’s wife does not show up with her food and water charity.

Sakhi lows a few times, and that is when my husband’s mist clears. He pats her, puts his arm around her, and rests his head on her side—like I used to after feeding her. Then, as if he cannot trust his legs to bear his weight, he walks unsteadily towards the village crossroads.

He does not stop to greet anyone and nor does anyone offer him a quick bidi smoke or chat. The blazing sky makes him blink rapidly, so he stares at his sluggish feet instead. By the time he reaches the market, the attitude of the village seems harder than the old skeleton bones he has unearthed.

At the kiraana shop, the young owner we have watched growing up turns his back coolly to attend to other customers. At the vegetable stall, the woman will not take the potatoes my husband holds out for weighing. And, at the tea stand, when he picks up one of the many glasses of tea, the boy takes his money with a sighing reluctance. Is it a dreadful ignorance or willful cruelty? What makes humans inflict such suffering on each other? And they say we spirits are evil.

Later, my husband lies in the shed unable to sleep, and I know all too well how hunger must be clawing his insides apart, how tiredness must be making it painful to move even a finger. I push away the thought that creeps in like a cold worm: how might it have been if he had dropped like a ripe fruit instead, leaving me alone? I beg the other spirits to tell me what is in my power to help him rest. No answer. My husband and I are on our own, in our separate worlds of mute despair.

Two weeks after my death, Sakhi falls down and gives up. She has been with us a long time. During those long months of construction work, I used to complain of loneliness. He brought her home one evening and said, “Here’s your Sakhi, your new best friend,” pleased with himself. Barren like me, she had been sold off cheap by her previous owner—what good was a cow who could not give milk?

The neighbors come to remove her too. Our head priest, fat legs draped in the many folds of a crisp white dhoti and bald head covered with an ornately styled red phento, stands by watching with the Sarpanch. They talk in low tones of how to get my husband off the land so it can be consecrated. The priest advises the Sarpanch to build a Shiv temple there to stop the malignancy from spreading further. The Sarpanch nods readily. He has not managed to bring running water or proper electricity to our village, or get the dam repaired so the fields can have good harvests. But he will take on this temple to help his political ambitions.

I knew this powerful man when he was a plump boy called Babulal with pillow-like cheeks I used to pinch. The day I got married was the last time we looked at each other. Afterwards, I drew the end of my sari over my head and face whenever I passed him or any other man.

As I see him now, his broad chest held high and his long legs striding wide, I have to wonder at a world that allows men to go about as if they own it and women to live as if they must endure it.

Even so, we have shared memories from those few childhood years before we had separated into the different tribes of men and women. We had stolen marbles from each other, traded food from our thaalis at annual melas, danced garba and dandiya together at festivals, and, with the innocence that knows no selfish motive or desire, we had enjoyed bathing together in the river.

I go to the Sarpanch at night as he sleeps deep next to his wife. She is turned away from him, cradling their son, the spit of him, in her arms. What do I hope for? Only that he will not send his men to harm my husband or force him out; that he will help him to leave in peace. I want the Sarpanch to remember the kind, patient side of himself I once knew.

I take him into a big car and out onto a wide, open road. As the car picks up speed, going so fast the outside is a blur, he talks with some of the most powerful politicians and businessmen. One after another, they appear in the seat next to him, praising his Panchayat’s achievements, asking his counsel on agriculture and law policies, and giving him large donations to continue his good work.

At the end of the road, a plane awaits. He flies to a mountaintop, where none other than the Prime Minister shares a cup of tea with him and asks for his guidance on thorny party matters. An eagle lands on his arm and advises him of the right responses for the country’s best possible future. The Prime Minister, unaware of the eagle’s magical powers, is greatly impressed with his answers, of course.

Soon, they both get on a boat and ride to an island filled with people celebrating his new promotion to the National Party Leader role. All the finer things of life are here in great abundance for his personal pleasures: food, drink, women, music. A couple of well-known singers have written poetic verses in honor of the occasion and to congratulate his benevolent wisdom and good nature.

When he returns home, riding a bucking horse through the mountains, the broken dam has been fixed so the fields of his village have plenty of water and the best harvest in decades. And, it is none other than old Gaman, who has taken care of this impossible work while he, the Sarpanch turned National Party Leader, dealt with other important matters.

*     *     *

In the violet flush of dawn, my husband sees the figure of the Sarpanch walking up the lane with a tiffin full of hot, spicy breakfast and a steel flask of tea. The men who usually accompany him are nowhere to be seen.

The two men eat and drink in silence under the limdo tree. My husband’s appetite is so fierce he swallows many morsels whole. The Sarpanch does not eat much, though he drinks most of the tea, watching my husband over the rim of the little cup.

Having had their fill, they sit back and regard each other. The Sarpanch’s voice is like wind sighing in the grass, “Gaman Bhai, what are you going to do?”

Tears stand in my husband’s eyes on hearing his real name spoken with such care. He hesitates before replying, struggling with the visible lump in his throat, “I must build a bigger house for my wife and the coming child.”

The intense blue of the morning sky is bursting through. The air is soft and warm as milk. The Sarpanch tilts his head back, looking up at the tree as a couple of brown leaves flutter to the ground. “Gamania, you may as well try to put these leaves back in the tree as expect the dead to return. My men took Kunwari to the ghat. I watched her body burn to ash. Don’t you remember?”

My husband squats lower under the tree and rocks back and forth, his hands clutching the earth near his feet. For the first time, I see him as another might: a tired, frightened, old man with so little left of his mind it slips as easily from him as water from a smooth stone.

The Sarpanch’s face clouds over darkly. He casts out another thought in a more measured tone, “Gaman, why don’t you work on the dam for me? I need a man of your expertise. Take a couple of the strong Jhala boys. Do it in less than a month and I’ll make sure you get paid well. The whole village will be in your debt forever.” Rubbing a hand across his forehead, he wavers at the last bit. “Get away from all this death too, haan?”

My husband squeezes his eyes shut and begins humming—a tuneless drone. The Sarpanch peers at the face in front of him, brown and gnarled like a tree’s bark. My husband pauses to hawk up some phlegm and spit it out a few inches from the Sarpanch’s feet, then resumes the grating noise.

The Sarpanch stands and says, “Gaman, you leave me no choice. If you are not gone by the end of day, my men will help you leave. Understand?” His mouth twisting hard from holding back other words he wants to say, the Sarpanch walks away.

These men the Sarpanch speaks of have one job and they are not only good at it, they enjoy it. The most well-known story about them is how they once drowned a teenager simply because the boy had giggled at one of them for tripping over a step. To them, my poor Ghelo will first be fodder for their own entertainment,  then an excuse to put on a spectacle for others.

My husband remains slumped by the tree, though he does, in time, stop the vibrating sound. I wish he had been a drinker. Although in a dry state, our village has a couple of illicit stills, which many law-abiding men frequent. Drink might put him to sleep better than my dreams. Yet, when he does nod off, I unroll a happy memory from our early married life.

An owl hoots, insistently, into the evening air. A chorus of gentler hoots answers her call. The young ones had hatched a short while ago, safe in the worm-ridden wooden beams of our shed.

My husband of one week runs into the shed so quick its rotting walls shudder from the impact. The outside light spills around and over him through the doorway and casts long sideways shadows at his feet. His gaze travels up to the loft, catching the owl’s nest on the way. The chicks make him grin.

I dangle a painted, jeweled foot from my perch in the loft, pulling it back before he can grab it.

His mouth opens wider and a gurgle of pleasure escapes. He hoists himself up and draws me close, crushing me into his chest. With one turn of a wrist, he loosens my hair, letting it fall thickly into his fists. His nimble fingers untie the three buttons holding my blouse together and it billows open sweetly, like clouds parting.

Lying back on the straw, I stare at him as a fire dances all through me. With the brilliance of a solitary star, his love shines down on me. There are no other sounds now, save for our jagged breathing.

His tongue finds the deep hollow in my throat and leaves hot streaks all the way down my ribcage. The day has left its salt on me, and he takes it in hungrily. Studding my skin, his hands leave their earthy smell on me, as an animal marking his territory.

My knees curl as my thighs turn to liquid. With hands still colored with wedding mehndi, I clutch the jet hair near his temples, and arch myself into the air to sink my teeth gently into his lips. As I let go, I roll us over so that I am sitting atop. My shoulders ripple in silent laughter at his surprise.

All that is left of the day is a thin, fading golden line. One instant, the sky is all red and purple colors, like a raw bruise; and the next, a solid darkness has swelled over it. The season’s first rain shower begins.

As water pounds the shed’s roof, we become urgent too. The world turns into a hot, swirling ocean from which we emerge eventually, drenched in our own moisture and holding onto each other.

I wind my arms around him tighter as we hear more frequent storm noises: a sharp cracking; a long rumbling—monsoon is finally having her play, too. The sounds seem to get nearer and louder. I am gripped by a sensation of being borne away on a great express train, roaring, flashing, dashing headlong.

My husband lets out a breathless, raspy cry, which turns into a harsh, tearing scream…

*     *     *

I cannot sense her presence anymore. My wife is gone. So has my grief for her.

I stand on top of the shed and watch as people crowd around the foundation pit I had dug to build our new house. That is where my naked, rain-soaked, mud-streaked body now lies, arms clasping the half-skeleton I had found. The men had laughed while making the arrangement. After wiping the blood off me with my shirt, they had taken a phone photo for the Sarpanch.

Spirits stay on in the living world because of unfulfilled material desire or unfinished business—this is what I had often heard. An old widowed relative had died when I was a child, and the cautionary tale of how she had continued to inhabit a corner of the house was repeated by family members. She had been thrown out of her home by her son in a most merciless manner. So, her spirit had stayed on for resolution or retribution—this part changed depending on who told the story—and only made the final crossing after.

I do not know why I have stayed on. Time drips steadily like melted wax from a burning candle. The drought is getting worse though the authorities have not officially declared it so. Water from the daily tanker does not cover all drinking and cooking needs. The dam repair work has stopped due to a legal inquiry into its missing funds, so the fields are dry. Cattle herders are walking many kilometers for fodder. People are leaving the village to find other jobs.

They blame me and my wife for all this trouble. I am now haunted by the living. Nearly every week, led by the priest, they come with godly prayers and sacrifices to make me leave. Yet, here I remain, waiting expectantly—for resolution or retribution.

Jenny BhattJenny Bhatt’s writing has appeared or is upcoming in, among others, Femina India, Wallpaper, Storyacious, The Ladies Finger, LitBreak, York Literary Review, The Indian Quarterly, Eleven Eleven Journal, NonBinary Review, Alphanumeric, and an anthology, ‘Sulekha Select: The Indian Experience in a Connected World.’ Having lived and worked her way around India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the U.S., she now splits her time between Atlanta, Georgia in the U.S. and Ahmedabad, Gujarat in India. Find her at: http://indiatopia.com.