Short Story 2018 Longlist, Neelam Saxena Chandra

The Chosen Path

Manoj felt a tremor in his spine as he introduced Ishani to Surekha. “I just got married to Ishani a few hours ago in a temple. We had been living together since more than five years now and it was high time we solemnize the relationship,” he informed her in plain words, devoid of any sentiments.

Manoj could feel the intense gaze of Surekha all over his body. She stopped for a few moments on the red and white flower garland that covered his neck. She said with a gasp, “Congratulations!” Mukund was hiding behind her. He felt an acute urge to lift him in his lap and comfort him, but he desisted. Mukund’s eyes were terrified. While all of them wondered what they should be doing, Manoj could see that Mukund had wetted his pants. It wasn’t usual for a ten year old to pass urine like that. He understood the fear in his mind. However, it was too late for anything. Ishani was carrying his child and he needed to marry her.

Ishani nudged Manoj. He was finding it really difficult to tell Surekha that she should leave his home now. He added, “I will continue to support you financially and you needn’t worry on that account!”

She shocked him with her firm reply, “When the string of relationships is snapped, finances don’t help. No, I don’t wish anything from you. Mukund and I will leave the house in three months, though we will try to go away sooner. Give me a few minutes before I clear the bedroom for you. You can be comfortable on the sofa till then.”

He had expected Surekha to throw tantrums, scream or at least shed a few tears. However, her face was expressionless. He looked at his new wife and said, “Come!”

She said, “What’s this three months? I can’t stay with her for three months…”

He said, “We don’t have a choice. I had told you that it will be difficult to make her leave. However, she didn’t create a show and has silently accepted everything. And that should make us happy!”

Ishani kept arguing with him, but his mind was elsewhere. He was replying to her only in monosyllables. He saw that Surekha had removed her belongings from the bedroom quickly. Mukund had changed his pants. She finally informed them, “You can shift to the bedroom.”

When Ishani and Manoj entered the room, he noticed that the room had been nicely done by Surekha in the little time she had. Even the bedsheet had been replaced by a new one. There was neither any anger, nor any threat in her behaviour. She had accepted everything and it showed in her actions. While he changed from his suit into a pyjama and a t-shirt, Ishani was busy in arranging her stuff. Normally, he would have helped. However, at that moment he didn’t feel like. His thoughts were racing. He remembered the time when he had married Surekha.

She was only sixteen when they had got married in their village Rampur. Dusky in colour, she had a rustic charm. Surekha had been his mother’s choice. He had been so busy in his new job that he had had no time for even coming home and looking at the girl. He had left everything to his mother. However, quite a ruckus had been created during his marriage. Due to ill-health of Surekha’s mother, money was drained in her medical bills and her family hadn’t been able to give dowry as promised by them. This had irritated his mother, who had showered her wrath on Surekha. He still remembered how frightened she had looked on their first night!

Manoj had fallen in love with Surekha on their very first night. He had tried to convince her that things would be alright soon once they move to Delhi, where he was working as a Section Officer and had been allotted a government quarter. The night was spent in calming her nerves and wiping her tears.

On the second night, she looked better and they had made love. He had promised her that he will look after her till he lived.

The train of his thoughts was disturbed when Ishani lay down on his shoulders and said, “Is there no way you can ask Surekha to leave?”

He replied irritatingly, “No! I can’t! She is my legally wedded wife!”

She asked, “Who am I?”

He said, “Though we have got married, you are not yet my legal wife. I hope you remember what the lawyer told us a few months ago. We will be legally known as a couple only after I get a divorce from Surekha and we have a proper registered marriage.”

She said, “And you haven’t yet applied for a divorce! The lawyer had also said that since you stayed away from her since last five years, you could…”

The pitch of his voice was raised as he said, “He also wanted me to raise false charges against her – something I can’t do! I really have nothing against Surekha and you do know that!”

She got up furiously, “I still can’t understand why you married me!”

He replied, “Don’t shout! Even I can’t comprehend that. Now that we are married, we will find a way out. Didn’t you see how well Surekha has taken everything? She has herself promised that she will move away in three months…”

She looked at him crossly, “What will she gain in these three months is what I fail to understand?”

He replied coolly, “So do I! I couldn’t bring myself to tell her anything about our relationship earlier since I was afraid of her reactions. After all, she had dedicated her entire life to me. And then, there was Mukund. I am surprised to see her calmness now.”

Their arguments would have continued had there not been a knock on their door. He opened it and found Surekha standing there. She said, “Your food is kept on the dining table. I will do all household chores till I stay here.” Before he could reply, she disappeared.

Manoj and Ishani ate the food quietly. He was again lost in the reminiscences. After staying for a week in the village after his marriage, he had sought his mother’s permission to take Surekha with him. He had been taken aback to hear her reply, “It’s the duty of a newly wedded girl to take care of her in-laws. I would have let her go had she got enough dowry, but she came empty handed. She will have to stay in the village with me.”

He had wished to revolt at that moment, but his courage had failed him. He returned back without his wife. He had so much wanted to be with Surekha every time that he went to his village, but every time that he had requested his mother, she had discovered new reasons why Surekha couldn’t accompany him. A few times it was her own ill-health, at other times some festival at their house and finally, Surekha’s pregnancy. It was only when Mukund was born that he had learnt from one of the maid-servants that his mother had been actually torturing Surekha, and that included beating her. However, by that time, his father had died due to a heart attack and all his relatives said, “How can you take your wife to the city while your mother stays here all alone?” He had even tried to explain his mother not to ill-treat Surekha, but it had enraged her and she had retorted, “Do I look like someone who could raise a hand against anyone? I wonder who is filling your ears! You can ask Surekha if you wish…” Surekha was summoned at that very moment, but she didn’t utter a word.

He had finally pleaded with his mother to accompany him as a last resort so that Surekha could come too, but she had adamantly refused, “I can’t leave the village. It’s my home.”

Manoj would feel lonely and forlorn all alone. It was during one such moment that he met Ishani at a party. She was the sister-in-law of his friend, Kishor and they had clicked together. One thing followed the next and soon, they were making love. Despite knowing that Manoj’s marital status, Ishani kept getting drawn towards him and he was magnetically attracted towards her. Slowly, he decreased the frequency of his visits to his village and finally, since five years, he had stopped going there. He had begun to stay with Ishani. After his mother died seven months ago, he had gone to his village. After the last rites had been performed, Surekha had said, “I think, I wish to move to Delhi now. Mukund is growing up and he doesn’t have good company. The standard of education in the village schools is also not good and he could get better education in Delhi.”

That time, he had found it really difficult to refuse to Surekha. How could he tell her that he had begun to stay with Ishani? He tried to convince her to continue staying in the village and he had felt that he had been successful, for he returned home alone. However, Surekha had surprised him by sending a telegram that she would be reaching in a week. Quickly, he had asked Ishani to vacate the house. He had welcomed Surekha and Mukund and accepted the twist in fate. The six and a half months that they had stayed together were wonderful. He had come really close to Mukund and the transformation in him was evident. From a nervous wreck, Mukund had become a confident guy.

However, he had not really been able to stay away from Ishani. They kept meeting now and then and it was only a fortnight ago that she had informed him that she was pregnant. Forced by the circumstances, he had married her. The thoughts were disturbed by Ishani who said, “The food is so spicy…I dislike it…”

He replied, “Okay then…make it by yourself tomorrow…”

She said, “Do you think I am your ex-wife’s servant? Let her make. I am only telling you that I found the food horrible.”

He got up without a word. All efforts of Ishani to draw him to talk were rendered futile by his silence. He was at a loss to understand whether he was treading a correct path. He found Ishani really attractive. She provided him with spice in his otherwise dull life. The murkiness of his evenings had been washed away and she provided him some excitement. Yeah, he loved her. However, he was fond of Surekha too in a way.

After they had retired to their room, his glance fell upon the marriage album of his marriage with Surekha kept in the almirah. Though she had taken away everything that belonged to her from the room, she had let it remain. He found himself enticed towards it. He flipped the pages. The memories were once again flooding him. When Ishani saw what he was so keenly observing, she snatched the album from his hands and threw it away. “I can’t understand why you are so smitten by this woman from the village. Look at the way she talks and the manner in which she dresses up! She is a rustic lady!”

Anger boiled in his veins. He was about to lift his hand, but he controlled himself. After all, he had just married Ishani! Putting his arms around his shoulders, he kissed her. They made love. Afterwards he whispered in her ears, “It will be alright soon! Have patience!”

However, things were never fine between the four of them. Mukund was turning into an edgy guy once again. Every now and then, he would wet his pants. Ishani continued to bad-mouth Surekha. Finally, after exactly three months, while Manoj and Ishani were having dinner, Surekha announced, “I shall be leaving tomorrow. Thanks for letting me stay!”

He asked her, “Where will you stay?”

She replied with a smile, “Don’t worry about us! I am sure that I will be happy!”

Next morning, he got up early. Surekha and Mukund were already ready by then. Manoj and Surekha stared at each other for long. The ice was broken by Manoj who said, “I am sorry that things turned out this way…”

She cut him short, “Whatever happens, happens for the best. Please enjoy your married life. I have signed the divorce papers and the papers are kept on my bed.” Without looking back, she went away with Mukund and her two suitcases. He kept gaping at them for long while their size kept diminishing.

 

Manoj was recently promoted as Joint Secretary and posted in Ministry of Education. When the Principal of Kendriya Vidyalaya invited him to be the Chief Guest of the award distribution function, he couldn’t refuse.

After the award, all teachers in the school were being introduced to him. After all the introductions were done, the Principal said, “Where is Surekha? She was the one who had organized the entire program and now when the time to take the credit has come, she is missing!”

His heart skipped a beat! Was she his Surekha? He had searched her everywhere, but she had continued to evade him since the last four years.

The Principal went in search of her. He was getting late for office where he had to clear an important file, but how could he miss a chance to meet Surekha? After almost fifteen minutes, the Principal arrived with Surekha. What a transformation! Yes, it was his Surekha indeed, but her long hair was replaced with shoulder length hair. The spectacles were gone and the big round bindi was replaced by a smaller one. She looked as beautiful as ever. More confident too!

The Principal was saying, “Sir, Surekha is a wonderful organizer. We couldn’t have structured the program so well without her…”

He replied, “Yeah, I know her.”

Principal looked at both of them questioningly and he heard Surekha tell her, “Ma’am, Sir and I belong to the same village!”

He asked, “Surekha, can we have a cup of coffee together?” Hesitation was evident in her eyes. Nevertheless, she agreed to accompany him.

After they sat in the Coffee House, he said, “Surekha, I’ve searched you everywhere; had looked for you in every nook and corner of the country. I didn’t know that you were hiding here!”

She said after a little while, “Why? What happened to Ishani?”

He said, “I…I made a mistake. It was you whom I always loved. I wanted to apologize to you…did you get a job immediately after you left the house? But, you were hardly educated…”

She cut him short, “I had completed my twelfth and B.A. through correspondence in the village when you didn’t come home for five long years. While staying with you, I was studying B.Ed. News about your stay-in relationship had already reached my ears in the village and I had to arm myself with education to live alone. I had arrived in Delhi only after I had secured an admission in B.Ed. I had completed seven months before your second marriage and I shall remain grateful to you for letting me stay for those three months after marriage. I worked in another school for a year before I was selected in Kendriya Vidyalaya as a teacher.”

He looked at her amazingly. She hadn’t withered when he did no longer want her, though he had wilted. She had found her path and glowed like a star. Was it her moral courage which had made her bloom?

He asked, “How is Mukund?”

She replied, “He is doing pretty well. He is in standard eighth now. He was the topper of the class last year.” There was a gleam and pride in her eyes as she talked about him.

He asked, “Won’t you ask me how I am? Don’t you want to come back home?”

He could see that her eyes were moist. However, she remained quiet. He said, “I had to rush to the village just after you left the house. It was there that I came across a diary, which you had left in your room in the village, which spoke a million words. I’ve been so ashamed of myself. I always lacked courage. I should have forced my mother to send you with me long back. I should have warned her when I had realized what she had been harassing you. I thought I was doing my duty by being a good son and leaving my wife whom I adored to care for her. I should have…”

She cut him short, “What’s the use talking about it? It’s past. I live in present. All I can say is that I have forgiven you as well as your mother.”

He looked at her amazedly and then said, “That’s the issue. You are so nice. I didn’t deserve you.”

She said, “It’s time for me to go home. Mukund must be waiting.”

Catching hold of her wrist, he said, “You are not going anywhere. You are coming home with me. You, Mukund and I shall lead a lovely life. You did say that you have nothing against me. Pardon me and return home…”

She pulled her hand back. After his grip loosened, she said with a smile, “I’ve forgiven you for the past, but I can’t give you another chance. I am well-settled now after a long struggle, I can’t disturb the equilibrium. We are two poles who were never meant to meet…”

He saw her get up and go away with a fast pace. When she was at sufficient distance, she looked back for a moment. After that, she darted away.

 

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