TWI Fiction: When the Dawn Comes

A short story on a mother’s pensiveness

Madhurima Vidyarthi

It was a chink of the first light squinting in through the curtains that woke her. At first she didn’t know where she was. Was this the big bed she shared with her sisters? No, that was softer – this bed was small, hard. And who was this? Not Moni – the maid who slept just outside on the landing. Moni would never dare to come in. Or sprawl on the floor in her sleep, half-in half-out of Meera’s bed. And she wasn’t wearing a sari. Or any sort of cast-offs, for that matter. Pants of some sort – silk pyjamas? And what a lovely pearl grey. Just the right shade in the fuzzy light. 

Meera put a hand tentatively on the sleeping figure. On the head because it was nearest. The form shifted, mumbled, then with a deep sigh nestled her cheek comfortably in Meera’s palm. Like a child, without waking, only to nuzzle the withered hand in her sleep, leaving driblets of spit as she did so.

Meera sighed. Of course, it was Naina. As a child she would leave wet trails on her pillow. And on her mother’s hands. Obstinately, she would sleep with her face on Meera’s warm palm, both hands clasping her mother’s wrist. Nearly twenty years later, neither habit had been broken. Meera felt a stab of pain that had nothing to do with her illness. Anger at the silent savage malevolence that had emptied her from within and made her into a hollow shell. 

Twenty years without her little girl. Twenty years and thousands of miles apart – who had Naina turned to? And now? What would she do now?

Because this was Delhi. And the bungalow in Defence Colony where Shyam had brought her home. Because Naina was now a grown woman, not a precocious brat. 

Because Meera was dying.

Creeping slyly around the curtains, the pale fingers of dawn just caught her tears as they trickled down her cheeks. Hot, salty, now worthless. Gently, so as not to wake Naina, she reached for her handkerchief with her free hand. Meera had no use for the tissue box. Among her very few indulgences were these fine organdie and muslin handkerchiefs collected over the years. Some monogrammed, some plain. Finely edged, French-knotted or otherwise daintily embroidered. Either by herself or at the unobtrusive little place where she bought them. She dabbed at her cheeks, remembering. Shyam had teased her one day when he had come upon her embroidering his handkerchiefs. “Have you run out of patients then?” In mock indignation she had held out the exquisitely finished square, “Do you think I can only stitch up patients?”

But Shyam had gone. Left her. You cheated, she said silently, as she had said to him so many times before; you cheated and left me alone. She drew out another white square from under the pillow. This was one of Shyam’s. Plain, sturdy, neat. Much like the man himself. Meera smiled. Every day Shailja would put two freshly laundered handkerchiefs under her pillow. One of hers and one of Shyam’s. She had unearthed a big box of them while turning out Meera’s cupboard and thought them ideal for her bedbound charge. 

At first Meera had protested. Two years had passed and Meera had not yet had the courage to disturb any of his things.

“But why not?” replied Shailja, unhampered by memories, “No one else is using them.”

“No,” said Meera briefly. His cologne; she could smell it still, even from a distance. She forced a smile, “It’s a pity none of you girls is married to an ‘S’”.

“Here look,” Shailja hadn’t been paying attention, “I’ll put two together – one of yours and one of Mamaji’s. Like this – see. And you can put them under your pillow.”

Meera looked up – Shailja had arranged the handkerchiefs one on top of the other. Her fine wisp of organdie with its bullion stitch roses and fancy edging, and underneath, his larger solid square, the initials touching, almost intertwined.

“Alright,” she acquiesced. It wouldn’t be long now. If she met him, like everyone said she would, she could explain. They could laugh about it. Together. Like always. 

But now she was in now, as Naina used to say in her childhood. I am in now, she would stamp her feet, not in what will happen later. Headstrong, wilful, living in the perpetual present. Like the tense, thought Meera smiling, present continuous. She raised Shyam’s handkerchief to her cheeks. Tears were annoying, a weakness, a form of self-pity, self-indulgence. “Don’t cry about every little thing,” her mother used to say when she was little, “You spill water like a tap. Learn to control yourself – you’re the eldest daughter of the house.” 

And she had learnt. Slowly, over the years, she had trained her emotions to stay where they were. Never to show themselves. Never to spill over. Tears that had contained themselves, then withered away through lack of use. Still reluctant to return. Self-restraint. Meera was famous in the family for her self-restraint. “You should have seen her,” they had whispered at Shyam’s death, “standing like stone – not one tear.”

And yet, here were her tears again as she looked at her sleeping daughter. This was Naina grown. Yet her hands had come up to clasp her mother’s wrist in that old childhood gesture. Naina had no use for self-restraint, bless her. She was an abundance of emotion – of tears, of laughter, of impulse – that Meera had never seen fit to curb. Even the impetuosity that was so alien to her own nature and so inherent to Naina’s. Even now, even at thirty-six.

Please, she breathed upon the cold morning air, please look after her. The end was now in sight. She knew – both by training and by the instinct that overrides all else – that it was not too far away.

Death.

The word. Shyam’s death. The memory. The memory that had stayed with her every day for the last two years. How she had known it was coming and how she had fought within herself to be only the wife, not the doctor. How he had smiled through his pain and stroked her cheek, comforting her, “Soon, I’ll see you soon.”

Was she still afraid? She was dying of a growth in her stomach. Mortality – thought and reality. She had lived with their twin selves all her life. Her life as a surgeon. She smiled a weak smile. The irony was almost humorous in its seeming paradox. But then, so was life. Her thoughts moved randomly back to Sarita – vibrant, lively, exquisite. One needless violent death and the reckless squandering of four lives. 

They were all crowding in now – all the dead – jostling her thoughts into disarray. Her mother, crippled and deformed with the arthritis that had turned her into a gnarled, knotted superfluity. Bedbound, waited on hand and foot. And her final grievous illness, so terrible in its affliction that those nearest to her prayed hourly for her release. Prayed for her death.

Please, she whispered, please make it quick

An urgency in her prayer that had more to do with the limits of her daughter’s endurance than the cessation of her own suffering. For Naina smiled and joked and scolded very much in the old manner, but the teapot trembled in her grasp when she lifted it and the fingers that smoothed her mother’s forehead weren’t quite steady anymore. 

Darling Naina! So much better that she should be free to fly as she had always done. It had started young. Very young. Thirteen when she had run away from boarding school. Travelling down from Shimla in a second-class carriage and arriving at their doorstep in a triumphant tonga. The one and only occasion in her life when she had smacked her daughter.

Meera put a hand on the smooth head. Already showing grey, she thought with some surprise. But then Naina had always been precocious. After the Shimla escapade, mother and daughter had struck a deal. Meera had pointed out – clearly – that Naina needed to finish school and earn a living. Naina had promptly gone through school with flying colours and had agreed to college with one proviso – she wanted a holiday first. A holiday in London with some family friends before she buckled down to more hard labour. Shyam and Meera had agreed and Naina had set off on her adventures. She had not bothered to return.

Till now.

Did she blame her daughter, thought Meera? Had she herself not done much the same in her turn? Marrying Shyam against her parents’ wishes after that one tumultuous YMCA party? At the Camden registry office with only a handful of friends because it was 1946 and a sea voyage from London to Calcutta would be too dangerous? Did she blame herself that she – the eldest daughter – had not visited her father on his deathbed as distances lengthened because she chose to make Delhi her home? That his last letter to her had arrived a full month after his last rites? That her sisters’ jealousy of her and their undisguised animosity towards Shyam kept her away from her crippled mother in Calcutta and her childhood home? Could she have done more? Should she have tried harder?

Meera sighed. Everyone was dead. And with them had died anger, jealousy, resentment. She would remember only the love. The love of her parents as they fulfilled her girlhood whims, Shyam and his quiet unconditional love, Naina’s fierce devotion to the mother she idolised.

A tear slid down her cheek and sparkled as it dropped on her daughter’s head.

Soon she would be dead, Meera smiled; but her love would prevail.

In her day job, Madhurima Vidyarthi is an endocrinologist; trained in Kolkata and London and a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians (UK) and have always been a passionately committed writer, writing for The Statesman, Calcutta regularly from 1995 to 2000. Her first book will be published by Duckbill (Penguin Random House India) in early 2022 – it is a chapter book for younger readers. She has also been selected to be part of the Italian Consulate initiative ‘Bridge of Stories’ – an anthology of short fiction by Indian and Italian writers.

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