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End of a love affair

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I was trimming my moustache in the morning when I heard my wife talking on the telephone in the living room. She then raised her voice and asked me, “Do you hear me? Hemavathi is dead.”

“Are you referring to Padmanabhan Nair’s wife, Hema?” I asked.

“Is there any other Hema in this place?” She retorted. “She is said to have died in her sleep. When she was not waking up even after 7’o clock, Padmanabhan Nair went near her and found her sleeping with her eyes closed. When he tried to wake her up, she was not responding. Then he felt her pulse and her hand was cold and there was no heartbeat. Their neighbour Gupta’s wife was on the line.” She concluded.

I could not believe the news. Hema was not known to have any illness. On the contrary, Padmnabhan Nair has a number of health problems.

I stopped trimming the moustache and came into the living room. Wife was still holding the receiver.

“Are you sure it is Hema herself?”

She did not like my question. “I haven’t become deaf yet. Mrs Gupta repeated the matter twice.”

“You get ready. I shall have my bath and come. Let’s go there.” I took the towel in hand.

“Why do you want to have a bath now? After returning from the house of dead, one anyway has to have a bath.”

“Bhama, going there without having a bath will amount to disgracing that soul. After returning home, to have a bath is not a big deal. Anyway you don’t have to. You get ready. I will come soon.” I moved towards the bathroom. I turned the knob and when water started coming out, switched on the geyser.

There are three buildings in our housing society and four Malayali families but scattered in these buildings. Padmanabhan Nair is elder to me by four to five years but Hemavathi is younger to me. Padmanabhan Nair was a college lecturer. When he joined the college, Hema was a final year degree student in his class. After three or four months of her final examination, Nair sent his elders to her house making a proposal of marriage.

Padmanabhan Nair was said to be very handsome and had a pleasing personality. Most of the girls adored him, Hema herself once told me. Theirs was an ideal married life and the neighbours envied them. Their only shortcoming was that they did not have a child. Since our families became acquainted a few years ago, we used to share our personal affairs among us. Once Nair told me that he once visited a fertility expert without the knowledge of his wife. After elaborate examinations, the doctor confirmed that he had no shortcomings and his wife might have some problems that could be corrected. Sometimes both the partners could be without any problem; yet they might not have a child, the doctor pointed out. It all depends on the grace of god. It would be a good move if Hema also see an expert. Though Nair persuaded her, she was not interested.

Till last year, Nair and Hema behaved as if they were newly married. Sometimes others used to whisper how strangely they, an elderly couple, behaved in public. “They were jealous of us,” Nair laughed.

There was a sudden change in Hema’s behaviour of late and Nair was quite remorse. A man who always injected happiness to others suddenly became sad. He avoided friends and other acquaintances and walked with a bowed head. Hema however did not display a similar behaviour. She was always cheerful outside but was seen rarely in public. Some months ago, we had a comparatively long chat inside the society garden. It went on for about two hours. It became clear to me that things were not in order between the couple. Hema who always spoke to him with a smile exuberating cheerfulness and abundant love started behaving in a strange manner, often on the border of harshness. Earlier she used to address him as ‘Sir’ or ‘Darling’ but suddenly changed to ‘Nair’ or ‘Hey, mister’ etc. Nair told me that he could not fathom what exactly brought the change in her and whenever he raised this topic, she used to shout at him, irrespective of wherever they were. If he happened to get up a little earlier than normal time and switched on the lights, she would shout why was he disturbing others. If he was late to get up, she would sarcastically ask him why did he get up so early and he should have got up in time for lunch. Yet he could not bring himself up to retort her, he said.

Whatever Padmanabhan Nair did or did not do, she always found fault with him. She also found fault with his conduct or his speaking. There were only accusations and nothing else. He could not find any reason for her change of attitude, he said. She was always restless and angry. She stopped going out and desisted from meeting other ladies. They in return stopped visiting her. One day she asked why did he not die, his eyes were moist when he said it. “Even if a woman disliked her husband, would she ask this kind of question? You tell me, Ramachandran”. He was sobbing when he narrated this incident.”All these years she adorned me. Then all of a sudden how could she ask these kind of questions? Why was she interested in my demise?”

“What are you doing there? You said you would come out fast. Why is the delay?” My wife was asking from outside. I came to my senses and soon finished drying my body and came out.

It was quite tough to climb the three flights of stairs of his building for elderly people. Most of the elderly people already reached there when we entered his house. Majority of them were women. There were a few Keralites from outside our society also.

“Why were you so late to come? You should have reached here early, being so close to him.” Someone asked me. I did not care to identify that person.

The body was brought down to the floor, draped in a white cloth with only the face uncovered. Grains of paddy and rice were drawn in a long elliptical curve around it. Four half broken coconuts were placed on four corners of the body. They were filled with oil and wicks were burning in them. A bronze lamp was lit at the head of the body.

Padmanabhan Nair was sitting on one side of the body, with his head bowed and supported by a hand. Tears were rolling down his chin. He did not pay any attention to the people thronging into the room. When I put my hand on his shoulder, he looked up. He looked up and soon got up. He attempted to smile, soaked in sadness and despair. He lowered his head on my shoulder. After a moment, he suddenly burst into a loud cry. I looked at him helplessly.

“Ramachandran, she went away leaving me behind. Now whom I will look upto?”

What shall I say to console him? In a way, her death would be a consolation to him, I thought. It would be a blessing in disguise. He is now liberated from her curses and anger, I thought.

“Now don’t tell anything. You only tell me what should I do now.”

He lifted his head from my shoulder. He wiped his face with the lower end of his shirt. He blew his nostrils a couple of times. “We have to make arrangements for her cremation.”

“Don’t we have to get a death certificate?” I asked in a whispering voice.

Without looking at anyone, he went inside his bed room. We could hear the sound of his opening the doors of the steel cupboard. After a few minutes, we also heard the sound of closing it, He came out and handed over to me a piece of paper folded twice. I unfolded it and read silently. I was a little puzzled when I noted its conten