Jagruti was gone and yet not for Alok.
A short story by Priya Iyer
The monsoons were almost over and it was getting warm again. This monsoon was one that Alok would never forget. Not that he had noticed the rains much. Only that they were a nuisance. The traffic was terrible during the commute from home to the hospital and then to work, and back to the hospital. Then the funeral and the guests at home. He was thankful for some alone time now that everyone had left. His mother insisted on staying but he convinced her to leave, promising to visit her during the next long break.
It was only now that it dawned on him that Jagruti was actually gone. It dawned on him very early in the morning when he woke up after a short fitful sleep. It dawned on him when he locked the door as he left for work. It dawned on him at lunch and during the day when he did not receive any message from her. It was as if every moment he was realizing it anew that she was gone. Yet he almost expected to see her at home when he returned. He even texted her phone during the day – and waited for a reply.
She was gone too soon and too quick. Between her falling sick, the diagnosis, the hospitalization and then the final hour, it was only two months. They had been married for more than six years. Now, it did not feel that long. If only he had known their time was limited! If only he could see her smiling face once again. If only he could speak to her just once. The way her hair fell on the curve of her neck, the way her smile lit her eyes before they even appeared on her lips. The way she shrugged with just one shoulder. If only he could see her just one more time.
They were a well-matched pair. It seemed to be the most natural thing for them to drift towards each other at work. A short courtship period, both families happy to see them engaged, and within a year they were married. They understood each other completely and were a perfect team. They discussed professional challenges and change of jobs, planned their future, socialized, watched movies, agreed not to have children for as long as possible, had their own hobbies and supported each other in every way. It was the stuff great marriages are made of. Alok and Jagruti, his Jagu.
Alok did not plan it this way. He was not even looking for anything. It just happened. Unexpectedly but naturally, as if it was destined to. Shefali was a business acquaintance at the client site. They met for lunch once and just slid into each other’s lives. It was not love. It was just convenience or maybe a habit. They mostly discussed work when they met, sometimes they discussed personal aspirations and at times they even talked about their spouses. The first time he was with Shefali, he felt a slight pang of guilt. Thankfully, his wife, Jagu was travelling for work and he did not have to face her that night. Then it just became one more thing. A fling. A small gift here and there, a late afternoon tryst, a convenient work travel. It was as if it was part of his work schedule. He did not feel any remorse or guilt. Jagu did not realize anything.
Jagu’s illness made him pay more attention to his marriage. However, he did meet Shefali a couple of times before the hospitalization. He spent the last few days at the hospital by Jagu’s bedside. He attended to her with patience and love. She looked so emaciated. Her eyes seemed to be the only feature on her face. Towards the end, she could not even talk. She was sedated, fatigued, and found it hard to speak. Five days before she passed away, they had a moment. One of the rare moments when she was not in pain and was present for him, like old times. She smiled at him. Held his hands in hers. Her eyes said a thousand stories.
He could see that face when he closed his eyes. He felt that connection even now. He wanted to speak to her and listen to her. To hold her face and caress that brow. More importantly, he wanted to tell her. Tell her that he loved only her and that everything else was a big mistake. He was sorry about what happened with Shefali. He wanted to confess and he wanted her to get mad and yell at him and threaten to leave. He wanted to repent and take it off his chest.
The need to tell Jagruti overtook every thinking, living moment of his life. It was like an obsession, a madness. He could not shrug this need away. It was hard for him to concentrate at work or even hold a simple conversation. Nothing on the television or on social media could hold his attention. He could hardly eat, became forgetful and could not get any sleep. He had to tell Jagruti, only that she was gone. He considered confessing to her parents, but that would have been too unkind. Telling Malti, Jagu’s close friend would not have helped either. Every woman always has the other best friend.
Finally, he took out a picture of Jagu down from the wall, propped it on the bedside table and started confessing. Initially, it was halted and hard and then it came pouring out in torrents. He cried, he confessed, he told her how sorry he was. He told her that Shefali was out of his life now. How he had ignored all the messages from Shefali and even deleted her number from his contacts. He wanted to be forgiven. He wanted just one sign, one message that Jagruti had forgiven him. “Just one sign Jagu!” he wept and fell asleep crying.
He woke up to the doorbell ringing multiple times. It was 10 am on Saturday morning. He had not slept this soundly since Jagu’s hospitalization. The dhoban, the presswala1’s wife, was at the door. When Jagu’s health was deteriorating, she had told Alok about a saree bag in her closet. She wanted him to give the bag of sarees to the dhoban for her daughter’s wedding. She had reminded Alok of the saree bag even when she was in the hospital. Alok had told the dhoban about it just after the funeral and forgotten about it since then. He opened Jagu’s closet, found the saree bag right in the front and took it out. A bundle of papers fell off the closet from under the saree bag. He put the bundle on the bed and went to hand the sarees to the dhoban*.
He returned to the bedroom and took the rubber band off the bundle. There were multiple pieces of folded papers. Letters? About fifteen or twenty. He opened one. A letter written in a neat and bold handwriting spilled out. It began with “Dear Janu” and was signed off “With love, yours.” He opened the rest – each one addressed and signed off similarly.
His mouth suddenly felt dry and knees weak. He sat down on the bed and slowly started reading the letters. He could not recognize the handwriting. Not that he recognized anyone’s handwriting anymore. Each letter described how much “yours” missed “Janu”, how wonderful their last meeting was and how “yours” could not wait to meet “Janu”. No dates. No specific context. No clue about the writer.
Was Jagu having an affair? Was this after their marriage? Who was “yours”? Why letters? Who writes letters these days? Did Jagu mean for Alok to find this? She did remind him more than once to give the saree bag away. Did Jagu stage this? Or is there someone else out there missing her too? What did she know? What did he not know? His heart was racing and his head felt light.
In a span of a few minutes, every small and insignificant exchange between him and his wife passed in front of his eyes. He remembered the radiant smile of his newly wed wife, the ardor with which they set up their home, the excitement and anticipation about their future together. He could clearly see them meticulously arrange their lives, their synchronized planning and organizing. Every piece of their life fit so well that it worked like clockwork. Mechanically, clinically, and dispassionately. Somehow and somewhere in all that perfection, they moved from being a perfect couple to a perfect team. It was the ideal marriage of his parent’s generation. Perhaps it wasn’t enough for Jagu and him.
While trying to cope with this revelation about Jagu, Alok understood his own needs and behavior. The excitement and adventure that he was subconsciously seeking. Perhaps Jagu, and Shefali were doing the same. He read the letters again. This time a little slower, halting at each word and phrase. He could feel the strong expression of love in the letters and almost sense Jagu’s happiness in those lines. He smiled at the reference to some of her silliness. At length, he gently folded the letters, tied them with the rubber band and put them away carefully in the closet. He then put the picture of Jagu that he had taken down the previous night back on the wall. Jagu seemed to smile radiantly at him.
The buzzing of his phone broke his reverie. Alok picked up the phone to answer the call from an unknown number – a number that he had deleted a few days back, while he mentally checked his work schedule for some free time the next week.
*Presswala or dhobi is the man who launders/irons clothes. A dhobi typically lives in the premise or neighborhood with his family and provides pickup and delivery service. Dhoban is a dhobi’s wife.
Priya is an economics professor who dabbles in English and Hindi poetry, and short fiction and essays. Writing is her means of finding her inner self and reconciling that with the world outside. Her stories and poems reflect her observations of the world around her. Priya is also the founding member of Baithak (@baithakwaale), New Jersey.