TWI Fiction: The Shirt


Anika looked out of the kitchen window, wondering what was happening to her.

Supreet Bains Sharma

Anika looked out of the kitchen window, wondering what was happening to her. She felt exhausted, and it was barely 11.00am. She still had to finish cooking lunch, then there was laundry, and the beds were not yet made. Mayur, her 15 year old son, would be home from school at 3.30. He usually had 10-15 minutes to eat lunch and change – at 3.45 they needed to be out of the door. Depending on the day of the week, she would drive him to tennis practice or math tutorials, or any of the weekly activities which were the torturous bane of every teen’s existence nowadays.

Slowly, Anika started chopping okra, keeping a watchful eye on the lentils simmering on the burner next to her. Last week, she had been so tired, the lentils had got burnt. She thought she would just rest for 10 minutes, but had fallen asleep on the couch, only to wake up 45 minutes later to the smell of burnt food. Thankfully the fire alarm had not gone off, else she would have faced a one hour lecture from Mayank, her husband. 

Mayank worked from home. A CPA by profession, he ran his own business and had a small office in Clifton, which he rented in a commercial building. He went there during tax season, or if he had to meet a new client. Mostly, he did his work via phone and email. It was a 45 minute drive one way to the office, and he liked to save on the gas money as much as possible. Plus, at home Anika had piping hot fresh food ready for him exactly at 1.00pm, rolling out fresh chapattis for him while he ate. She gave him coffee sharp at 11.30 and at 3.00. He had all the comforts he needed at home, so why spend $10 on a cold, stale salad from the café in the office building, $5 on daily coffee plus gas and depreciated mileage on the car?

Anika’s thoughts meandered as she absently set aside the chopped okra and started kneading dough for chapattis. She had been forgetful lately and that worried her. Last week, she forgot Mayur had a bake sale to contribute to. She usually kept all such reminders as notes on the fridge, but she had forgotten to write a post-it and place it on the fridge door. Two weeks before that, she forgot to pick up Mayak’s shirts from the local laundry. He had been furious. He had an important client meeting and couldn’t wear his favorite shirt. As it was, the laundry was a sore point. She still quailed internally when she thought of the showdown that brought about this expense, for till then, she had done his shirts at home. 

It happened in Feb, when the busy period was really picking up for Mayank. She knew he had been stressed – one of his regular clients was unhappy with not getting any tax refund and had screamed at him. Anika could hear the client through the phone mouthpiece when she went to give Mayank his 11.30am coffee. She also knew immediately that Mayank was fuming that she heard, for the look he gave her was pure murder. 

That evening, as she was cleaning up after dinner, Mayank called out for her to come to the bedroom on the second floor. They lived in a compact townhome, with two bedrooms on the second floor, and the kitchen and living area on the first level. Anika recalled how she’d once told Mayank she would like more children. He had immediately refused, saying the house had only one bedroom and he could only afford to send one child to college. She tried telling him she could work – after all, she had graduated with a M.A. in English Literature, but he was adamant that he could provide for his family. She backed off when she saw him getting so upset, but sometimes there was an ache in her heart for the little boy or girl who may have been. 

When she walked into the bedroom, Mayank was holding up one of his ironed shirts. It was her custom to iron his shirts, place them neatly on hangers, and then hang them on his side of the closet. Usually, she would do five shirts together (he owned ten, his rationale was he should always have two weeks supply). Pointing to the tail of the shirt in his hand, Mayank asked “What is this, Aniks?” he spoke softly, and Aniks was an endearment.

Anika looked, horrified. The bottom edge was burnt, a long, brown stain showing where the cloth had once been blue. She looked at Mayank, confused. “What happened, Mayank? The shirt was fine when I kept it in your closet.”

Mayank looked at her gently. “Aniks, babe, I think you’re tired. You did not even get to know when you burnt the shirt today.”

“No, no, Mayank, I would have noticed”, Anika protested. “I’m careful, and besides, I’ve been ironing your shirts for years now!”

“Anika, it’s ok. Just accept you made a mistake.”

“But, Mayank, I didn’t!”

“OK. Then tell me, who did? Maybe the decorative garden gnome you have outside came to life?” The gentleness gone, his voice dripped with sarcasm. But he was not loud, he never was. They had agreed many years ago to never argue within Mayur’s hearing, and his room was a door away. 

“Mayank, I don’t know what happened! But it wasn’t me!” Anika could hear the pleading in her voice. Why didn’t he believe her?

“Think. It’s you and me and Mayur. Mayur obviously hasn’t touched the iron. I’ve just come up after dinner. You did the ironing. Look at the iron, there’s the visible burn mark on its plate. See where I’m going?” He looked at her, eyes narrowing. “You think you did not do it, but that’s because you did not notice it. Doesn’t’ mean you didn’t do it. You get me?”

Anika was quiet. She felt convinced it wasn’t her, and yet – Mayank was right. No one else could have done this. 

Mayank put his arm around her. “Anika, you know I wanted to save more money these few months so we could go on vacation.” He sighed. “Since I usually have only 5-6 shirts that need laundry, you can go and give them to the dry cleaners. It will be around 17-18$ extra per month. But we will undertake the expense.”

“No, no, Mayank! Even if this happened, it is just once, and it doesn’t mean that…” before she could finish Mayank interrupted “Stop this, Anika. I’ve decided. And I want you to understand – you are forgetting things. You have to accept it. It must be the housework and the fact that you’re not really using your brain. You just sit at home and do nothing.”

“Nothing! Oh my God, Mayank, how can you say that! Have you even tried doing housework all day? It’s endless and there’s no respite! But it’s monotonous. And you know what, I have a brain – a good one! I’m the one who helps Mayur with all his assignments.”

“Anika, don’t kid yourself. Just because you do a little English with him doesn’t mean you’re doing homework. Remember, we have to send him to extra math classes. I pay $80 per class! ” Mayank shook his head. “My son, needing extra help in math. It’s your genes, not mine. I knew my math on my fingertips – I always topped in my math classes.” 

“Mayank, what are you saying? Do you even know how hard I work to stay abreast of what’s happening in his school, and also I try and read the latest in literature! I’m in the library every second day!” Anika’s voice rose in anger and frustration. 

“That’s another thing. Maybe you should read less and focus more on Mayur’s work. He told me yesterday he didn’t get a packed lunch.”

“That’s because he didn’t want one that day!” Anika was shaking.

“Anika, I don’t think you were listening. He said it’s your choice whether you give him a packed lunch or not.”

“Yes, and that day I chose not to…. Because later he told me he would prefer to have some money, since all his friends buy food from the cafeteria. I thought its ok.”

“Now you’re also spoiling him! You have to stop this. Please ask me next time, before you hand him his lunch money. And especially as I now have to pay to get my shirts laundered, I would really appreciate if you’re careful and understand how difficult it is to earn money. Don’t squander it away, else we will have to cancel our vacation.” With that, Mayank turned away and shut the bathroom door behind him, ending all argument. 

Mayur heard it all, of course, which had its own repercussions. He came to her later that night to tell her it was ok, he didn’t need lunch money, and the food she packed was enough. But Anika saw how he withdrew from his father, not speaking to him spontaneously. 

Since that day, she had been fretting and worrying. She wasn’t sleeping well, and perhaps that’s why she was forgetting things. It seemed to her that Mayank had changed subtly. He used to be happy all the time, but now he came across as stern – as if she was a child who needed reprimanding. She knew she was forgetting things, but the more she tried to remember, the worse it seemed in her head. Her thoughts went round and round in her head all night, the lack of sleep meaning she woke up tired – and the cycle repeated itself. It was now June, and Anika was waiting for school summer break, hoping things would get better and she would get some rest. But then, things changed. 

Anika’s daily habit was to wrap up the kitchen by 8.00 pm. Mayank would get Mayur home at 7.30pm, and they ate as soon as he came. She would then clean up, put away the leftovers and load the dishwasher while Mayank watched TV and Mayur got some rest. Once she had wiped down the counter and burners, Mayur would bring his homework to the dining table, and she would sit with him and help him. The kitchen was at the corner of an L-shape, with one wall common to the dining room, and the other to the hallway entrance. Across from the hallway entrance was Mayank’s home office. Often Mayur would get started while waiting for her to finish, and Anika would keep an ear out, in case Mayur had a question. 

Sometimes, Anika would make herself some herbal tea, and carry over her cup to unwind with, as she helped her son. He was pretty good, and usually she would just be there for any questions, or if he got stuck with something. She felt quiet pride that she could help him with his sciences, for those were subjects she left behind many years ago. Mayank would come in around 9.00 to say goodnight to Mayur, then head upstairs to bed while mother and son worked speedily so Mayur could get to bed as quickly as possible, before the cycle started again the next day. 

One night, as she sat with Mayur, Mayank came to say goodnight and look over what Mayur was doing. It was his habit to check his office one last time at night before bed, switch off the lights, and then come to the dining room via the kitchen. As Mayank walked into the kitchen, he called to Anika “What is this?”

Anika, cozily ensconced in a chair, legs crossed on top Indian style, tea in hand, couldn’t see him, and asked “Whats’ what?” absently. 

“You left the burner on!” Mayank walked into the dining room and looked at her. 

Anika was shocked. She had never done that before. Her fatigue was catching up with her. “I’m so sorry! I’ll go shut it.”

“I already did, but please be careful. You’re getting too forgetful. Mayur – tomorrow onwards, go check the kitchen before you go to bed, so this doesn’t happen again.” Without saying goodnight, Mayank left. 

Anika was horrified. To have become this forgetful was highly dangerous. She was the only one who used the kitchen burners. She resolved to herself to to fix this. 

Next morning, she sat and made a checklist on her phone “Things to do before leaving the kitchen at night.” She was too embarrassed to tell Mayank what she was doing, that she needed a checklist reminder in her life. 

It helped her more than she thought it would. Summer is always disruptive – schedules change, there’s no school and camp needs to be organized, Mayur suddenly has a social life, and so much more. Through it all, that one simple list helped center her. She found she would add or delete items, and did not forget. Most days, she did not even need to look at it. In fact, she could visualize the words on the electronic Notes page of her old iPhone 7. It was like a snapshot in her head. Knowing that she could recall it that clearly gave her confidence. She slept better, felt less tired, and thought “Finally, I’m getting a grip on whatever it was. My brain isn’t slowing down.”

The world changed for her on July 27. Mayur was at camp. She finished her kitchen work as usual, and then, instead of watching TV with Mayank, took her herbal tea to the dining room. She missed Mayur, and somehow there was distance she felt with Mayank. She knew he was observing her more carefully since she started forgetting stuff, but she felt uneasily that he was always judging her, rather than accepting her.

She sat quietly, finishing her tea while reading the book she had borrowed from the library. Finally, she rose, and quietly switched off the light, not wanting to call attention to herself. She rounded the wall of the kitchen to place her cup in the sink, and stopped. Standing there, with his back to her, was Mayank. When Mayur wasn’t home he sometimes smoked a cigarette and he had one now, held loosely in his left hand, while his right was hidden by his body. Anika did not know why she was quiet, but she saw him lower his left hand in front of him, the glow of the cigarette disappearing and reappearing in the darkness of the kitchen. Anika stood motionless, as Mayank, turned away from the gas burner he had been facing and walked back to the living room. His back was to her, and he did not see her.

As Mayank stepped away, a cold hand snaked its way up Anika’s spine. There, glowing, in a soft round blue flame with dancing yellow edges, was the right burner, lit and aflame, mesmerizing. It flickered, danced and seemed to beckon to Anika to come, burn, burn and die. The steady glow mocked her, the blue icy as the chill in her spine travelled to the rest of her body. 

Anika felt her mind was frozen yet her thinking clearer than ever. She had just witnessed her husband deliberately set the gas burner alight when no one was looking. Why? He mind couldn’t answer that, but her mind knew he had done it earlier. Just as her mind knew she had not burnt his shirt. She knew she had to act quickly, before Mayank pretended to come back to say goodnight to her, or worse, expect physical intimacy. She quickly turned the knob setting to ‘off’, and walked out of the kitchen. Mayank was watching TV in the living room, and she called out Goodnight, escaping upstairs. By the time he came up – she knew he would have doubled checked the burner, and planned the next move now that he could not call her out tonight – she pretended to be asleep. 

All night, random thoughts and dreams had flashed in her head, from the first time Mayank and she met, to the first time he said “I love you”. Mayank laughing with joy when Mayur as a baby pooped in his lap in his diaper. His face filled with pride as Mayur collected a prize in class. His joy at Mayur’s cricketing ability.…..and then, his stern new way of looking at her. This last one jarred her into wakefulness. Rather than tossing and turning – she didn’t want to risk waking Mayank, she crept downstairs and made herself fresh coffee. 

The memories continued, unabated. This time, she recollected the decision for her not to work. Looking back, she realized it was Mayank’s decision and she had gone along with it, to make him happy. He had said how he had felt alone till she came from India, and how he looked forward to knowing his wife was home when he finished work, and she had felt mush with love. She thought of how trustingly she had given up a career to make chapattis, to cook and keep house and be his woman. 

She thought of her academic prowess. She had always been top of her class at university. English literature is replete with instances of injustice, examples where some oppress and others become the oppressed. There are multiple stories, large volumes and more on the subject. And yet, I almost missed when it was happening to me, she thought. She recollected the confidence she felt when she graduated – like she could won the world. She had felt sure that in crossing the ocean in an arranged marriage, she would not only make it work, but run a beautiful house, have a career and visit her parents in India every year. Her heart constricted at that thought. She had not seen her family for four years now. How had she let this happen to her? 

She thought of Mayur and her heart broke. Before she broke down completely, however, something wondrous happened. Anika the mother took over her thinking and reactions. She had purpose and clarity. Putting aside her coffee, she got to work. She had the world on her fingertips, thanks to the world wide web. She had an arsenal of research and tips to fall back on. All she had to do was create a plan.

In the next two hours, Anika had a loose, full-of-holes plan. She had mentally calculated how much disposable cash she had, and how she could get her hands on more. She wasn’t walking out – yet. She couldn’t, she didn’t have money. And there was Mayur. The choice was simple. She had to stay, and do battle. Try and salvage her life. Try and salvage her marriage – until Mayur was older. Try and earn some money and be independent. And, meantime, be prepared, build s list of women’s resources. If things went south, she could leave Mayank, but not without Mayur. It was time to give Mayank a chance – and collect evidence as she did. 

Mayank woke the next day at 6.00am, as was his habit. Anika handed him his coffee and both gravitated to the living room, as they usually did in the morning. She waited patiently till he finished his coffee, and when she knew he was fully awake, she said “Mayank, you know I love literature and I love reading.”

“Yes I know, Anika, but not now please. I don’t want to talk boring books. I get a few mornings of peace without Mayur, let me be.” Mayank did not even look up from the TV, engrossed in CNN. 

“Oh no,” Anika said softly. She took the remote and switched off the TV. Now that she was aware, she saw the quickly masked rage on Mayank’s face, before he composed himself and said in a resigned tone “ok, what? Tell me.” 

“I know you will protest, say I’m imagining, hallucinating, and what not. I know you burnt the shirt. I know you destroyed many post-it notes I’ve had on the fridge – my reminders for Mayur’s school things. And I also know you lit the gas burners at night after I finished my kitchen work.”

“How DARE you accuse of these things!” Mayank was up in a flash, ready to pounce on her. For the first time in her life, she thought he would hit her. She stood her ground. She half hoped he would hit her, then she could call the cops right away. It would end soon that way. But he stood still, staring at her as if she had gone mad. 

“I dare, Mayank, because I do not like liars. Be warned – you try ever again, to create a false image in my mind of who I am, I will call the cops and file a case of domestic abuse. Just so you know. So this – today – is a fresh start. I’m willing to let it go, so long as it doesn’t happen again. Now, you wants eggs for breakfast?” 

Anika turned away, but not before she saw Mayank swiftly move towards her in anger…..and then slowly subside. He was quiet, which was not a good sign. She knew he would think, ingest, strategize, and possibly come back worse than before. She had just declared war and there would be hell to pay. If he had responded, she had planned how to deal with the bluster. That would have been easier. Since he had not, he was even more dangerous. But she would deal with it. She had a renewed purpose, and it was not marriage. The law of the jungle was clear – survival of the fittest. She was fit, and she meant to survive. 

She busied herself with breakfast, ignoring Mayank. She was hungry. 

A public speaker and trainer, Supreet Bains-Sharma expresses her creativity through words – both written and spoken. Her mantra is ‘you won’t know till you try’, and this has made her an accidental poet. Her poetry, public speaking, writing and blogging are all driven by her purpose to help and honor people, especially women. 


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