The Burnt Shackles
A short story by Meera Venkatesan*
Sumi felt the unpleasantly familiar heave of bile from inside. She quickly got up for the fifth time in so many hours and rushed to the restroom. It was as if, something in her interiors was waiting to gush out of her being and expel itself from her. She wished it would happen and provide her relief. But just like the other characters in her life, who controlled her from outside, this inner enemy held her captive from within and refused her freedom.
Sumi quickly locked the toilet door. As she leaned over, she closed her eyes to suppress the images that always rose up with her upheaving. But she could not. As a student of psychology, she should have been quite curious at this inseparable bond between her physiological distress and the images that rose in her mind. They both seemed to draw from one another, exist because of the other. Maybe even this curiosity would have helped to lessen the impact of the torturous frames. But nothing came to her aid. She helplessly watched the rerun for the millionth time, as she retched into the antiseptic office toilet.
“Then why this,” her anguished voice was asking pointing to the growth inside her. “Why this, when you don’t care about me?” She could not bear his silence. But that was because, she had not realised that the response would be beyond her endurance. Now, she knew. Now, she longed for the bliss of ignorance.
A couple of knocks on the door and her friend, Radha’s voice from the other side brought her back. Radha was asking her if she was ok. Sumi nodded her head, as tears choked her throat. As the knock came again, she managed a choked, “Yes”. The interruption helped to stem the torrent in her mind momentarily.
“I think you should go home. You seem worse off today Sumi, “the concerned voice called. Sumi flushed the toilet and stepped out. Radha held her and propelled her to the wash basin in the women’s room.
“You look so pathetic. You should talk to the doctor about this. The nausea should not continue like this into the eighth month. I don’t know why you are being so stubborn,” Radha said bringing her some water.
“Will you Sumi?” her friend was asking. Sumi shut her eyes. She nodded her head in the negative automatically, only half realising that she was responding to something. She was imploding within herself, oblivious to the world beyond her.
“I should talk to your mother. You cannot ignore this you know,” Radha admonished, as if implying that she knew her mother closely. Actually she didn’t and had just met her on one occasion. Radha was just a habitual helper, always willing to share another’s distress and help. But Sumi had always been incapable of sharing her pain.
Sumi managed a wry smile,” You think she doesn’t know?” she whispered. Radha was jolted. She caught Sumi’s hand again and asked in a concerned whisper,” Sumi, Is everything else ok?”
Radha’s mobile intervened to block any explanation that could have managed to slip out. Radha looked at Sumi’s face and then at the number calling on her mobile.” Sorry yaar, I need to take this call. Stay here. I will be back,” she half ordered apologetically moving out of the restroom.
Sumi’s mother, wife of a decorated army officer, was a kind of person that the world thirsted to celebrate as the epitome of patience, dedication and loyalty. She had stood by her husband steadfastly, through the last two years of his comatose existence, on complete life support. She refused to give up even after the doctors did. She believed with an inhuman intensity, that the miracle would happen and her husband would rise again to be with them. She had spent all their savings on his treatment and sold their house for him. Sumi often wondered if her mother had crossed the thin border of sanity. Sumi’s mind wandered to the evening, in her father’s hospital room, a couple of months back.
“Amma, I have decided to leave Bhasker, “Sumi had said abruptly after some small talk. The hum and hiss of the ventilator and the other equipment which were retaining her father in this world soundlessly filled the air. Her father breathed through machines and was fed through them.
“Hush, Sumi, What are you saying? Are you my daughter? Look at me; I have struck through with your dad at his best and worst. Now, you also need to think of the baby,” her mother had admonished her, confident that her daughter was not serious.
Sumi moved over to her mother’s side and put her head on her lap. She pleaded. “That’s different. Father was always loyal to you and he cared for you. My husband is neither. No ma. I cannot stand it any longer. I have made up my mind. I have found a job in Mysore. We can all move there. I will take care of everything, myself, you, appa and the baby. Trust me. “
Sumi had expected sympathy, advice, resistance but not rage from her mother.
Her mother’s face had tightened into a mix of fear and anger. “Sumi, you are so irresponsible. You know your father’s treatment will cost at least 5 times the salary you can get. It is only thanks to Bhaskar that we are pulling along. Which son in law would support the treatment of his in laws like this? He is God to me. If you need to put up with some infidelity for that, can’t you do it? What kind of a daughter are you?” Her mother had shouted, her chest was heaving, her eyes glassy.
A kind of a daughter, who had let her life and hope to be killed to provide the hopeless care for her father, Sumi thought. She said, “Do you want me to die everyday so that you can keep my dead father alive?” The words had slipped inadvertently from her lips. Never before had she faced head on the helplessness that was forcing her to stay in hell for the sake of her father who was medically dead and already there.
“Sumi, How dare you? Your father can hear you. It is my misfortune that I have no sons. I need to depend on this irresponsible daughter. I wish we would both die together one day,” she had shouted shaking with helpless fury. The nurse poked her head in and looked at them both. Sumi’s mother calmed down and turned to adjust her father’s pillow. “Visitor’s time is up, Amma. You need to leave,” she informed them with a smile. Sumi’s mother practically knew everyone in the hospital. She talked to everyone, remembered their birthdays and brought home cooked food for them when she came to visit her husband.
“We will. I just feel like staying with him a moment longer please, beti,” she said smiling at the nurse, addressing her as the daughter. The nurse smiled, nodded at her and turned to look curiously at Sumi and left. No doubt, the bit about the irresponsible daughter had fallen on her ears.
Her mother had turned towards her with trembling lips. The rage was now replaced by utter misery. “Sumi, Please darling. Please wait till your father is better? Whom else can I turn to?” she had wept and dramatically touched Sumi’s feet. Sumi had moved away in shock. Repulsed by her reaction, she had not spoken to her mother since. But she found herself unable to break off either.
The thought of the past episode brought a fresh upheaval in Sumi and she rushed to throw up again. Back in the present, she could hear Radha’s conversation through the slightly open door. Radha seemed to arguing with Shyam, her fiancée on where they would go out for dinner. How lucky some people were, she wondered that they had such trivial matters to argue about! After she was done, she sat down on the restroom floor, too tired to get up and closed her eyes for a minute, willing all her thoughts to go away, to leave her a minute of peace.
Suddenly, she was jolted by loud screams. Had she fallen asleep? What had happened? She tried to get up, but a wave of intense pain in her abdomen racked her forcing her down. “It could not be,” she panicked. It was too soon!
“Fire, fire…. “, came the screams. Footsteps ran randomly everywhere and within minutes, the first hint of smoke reached her nostrils. Was there a fire on their floor? She again tried to push herself up mustering all her strength. Her legs refused to rise. As she tried to coax them up, she froze as screams of anguish reached her ears. “Don’t jump” someone screamed. This was followed by a higher pitched tone of someone in a free fall, from somewhere very near her. Someone had jumped from the window, probably to their death. It sounded like Radha!
Sumi sat there transfixed in shock, as a fresh wave of pain racked her, the pain brought on by the feverish activity of someone trying to break free of the shackles of the mother’s womb. Her child wanted to be free of her, a mother who had never known the true freedom, the kind of freedom the poets sang about, the kind of freedom that the birds in free flight seemed to enjoy.
Sumi had always been bound by invisible shackles. The kind that pulled you and bound you, but were unseen or unfelt. Everyone believed that she was one of those lucky ducks, for whom life had come together in the perfect way. No one had a glimpse of her bondage and her thirst to break free.
A loving but disciplinarian father had run her life like the army, to which he belonged. He had directed her life at every step. He had pushed her to excel in studies, when her interest had been in music. He always made it clear that it was her responsibility not to let him down. She had never dared to. His was a chain of authority and responsibility.
After his serious injury in an army action against the naxalites and subsequent descent into coma, she had seen her mother’s metamorphosis into a woman she hardly knew, with a single point agenda. From then on, her mother ensured that every moment in her life and any money she earned were geared towards her father’s care. Any action to the contrary meant disloyalty for mother. It was her mother who had found the prime catch, her husband. A young, good looking industrialist well placed in life who had promised to support all her father’s expenses with an improbable pretext of supporting an army hero. It was too good to be true. But her mother had not wanted to think twice. Her mother’s were the irons of love and guilt.
Sumi had accepted the marriage as a trade off for her mother’s happiness, and also because she had never known to protest. Even after her husband had told her, that the marriage was mostly an obligation he had accepted for the sake of his rich and controlling mother. His only expectation from her, he had said was complete compliance to his mother’s wishes. He would never step back on his word to support her father if she kept her bargain. She was free, he had said, to live her life otherwise. She had willingly submitted to his indifference. By doing that, she gave in his hands the shackles of deceit and black mail.
The siren of the fire engines was everywhere. It was getting hotter. There was smoke in the bathroom now. Wails and cries were everywhere
“Let us be calm,” someone was saying. That was Raghu, the section manager. “We should gather near the window on the other side, facing the road so that the fire fighters can easily reach us when they come. One of you, please check if someone is in the bathroom or pantry.” People seemed to calm down a bit to this authority.
Sumi tried to shout. Someone made a perfunctory attempt to knock on the door with a feeble, ” Anyone there?” Sumi raised her hand to hit the door from inside. Her child retaliated and brought another wave of pain.
What did it want to do, this devil inside her? Did the baby want to kill her? She had hated her child from the day that she had come to know of the reason for his conception. Now she felt murderous. How could he! This child was becoming the next shackle for her, a handcuff that would chain her to the coffin.
There was a huge crash and gut wrenching screams. A huge ball of light burst bringing light and incredible heat near her. Sumi felt her will and courage melt with the heat. It was hopeless. In the middle of complete despair, her mind started on another path. This was for the best she decided. Her baby was doing the right thing. Why had she wanted to escape? Why had she wanted to return to the world? Her baby was breaking her free. Calmness pushed down the bile, and she in spite of the smoke outside she felt herself fill with free air, with anticipation for her release. Slowly she felt herself slipping into subconsciousness. And for the last time, her half conscious senses began a rerun of that horrendous evening.
“Why this,” she had prodded her husband again and again pointing to the growth inside her. She had just come to know he was continuing his affair, after the marriage. She had accepted that he did not care about her, but it was very painful to tolerate that he cared about someone else. In spite of herself, she found her demanding an explanation from him for the first time after their marriage. Their marriage may have been a sham, but they had lived as man and wife. “If you loved someone else, you could have married her. This child could have been one of love. Why did you fill your indifference in me?”
Finally he had given in.
“Damn it. Listen, if you really want to know. Let me tell you. You will not like it.” He turned and walked away from her breathing heavily. He hissed, ”Because it is not a she. He cannot have my child, a child that my mother insists I should have. ” As she listened stunned, He added as if by way of a logical explanation,” The major share of our family property is still with her”
Even she was not prepared for the revulsion that hit her, the revulsion for every touch, every moment of passion between them, real or otherwise. She screamed a scream of anguish.
“Listen, you won’t do anything crazy like killing yourself, will you? “He had asked quickly, looking truly worried at the prospect.
Those were the last words that echoed in her mind before she slipped off.
She was being carried down. Someone rested her against the walls and splashed water on her face. Her eyes opened slightly to focus on an old wizened face peering at her anxiously. He was wearing the uniform of a fire-fighter. As she opened her eyes slightly, he raised his hands and muttered a prayer.
“Amma, it is God in your tummy. Otherwise, how could you have escaped? Everyone else on your floor is dead. God came to save you.”
She whispered, “Everyone?”
He nodded his head. “You were in the bathroom on the backside of the building. All the others were in the front. A burning beam fell from above.”
Sumi closed her eyes. “Stay here. The doctor will be here. I need to go back. After seeing you, I feel there may be more miracles,” he smiled at her and left.
She turned to look at the building still burning. Tears rolled down for the people she had left behind, the parents, lovers, wives, husbands who had come to work one eventful day, fully expecting to return to their lives. Like her friend, Radha, preparing to out for dinner with her lover. She wished she had taken the place of one of them, wished she was dead instead. As she mechanically groped for her cell phone in her kurtha, to call her family, it struck her. No one knew she was alive. She could simply walk away to find her life, however wretched, but her own.
Was it possible or really was it so impossible? When she left her past, she would also have to leave behind her wealth, her relatives, friends, car, house, her education. What would she do without any of these? All she would have was her child and her courage. It was scary, but at the same time strangely exhilarating.
She pushed herself, and this time her child had cooperated. When she rose, it was with surprising strength. Why had she lived a life of bondage and self sympathy so far? It had taken a catastrophe for her to understand the preciousness of life. She would get her freedom, but not in the way she thought. She would break free not by burning herself but by burning her past. Perhaps, she would come back sometime to revisit these ashes of her past life, but she would return as an unbound soul.
She turned to have one more look before she walked into the free universe leaving behind her a burnt building worth crores, burnt dreams of thousand and the burnt shackles of one woman.
*Meera Venkatesan is my daughter. She would like to know your comments. I think the story is great