The Afternoon Lesson – Fiction

by Anita Menon

“Dulaariben!! Kem cho?”(Dulaariben, How are you?), said a small voice at the door.

Dulaariben pushed her round glasses that were dangerously close to sliding down, up her nose to see closely who was at the door. She knew who it could be who dared disturb her afternoon siesta. Her pet cat ( a grey and black stripped house cat) jumped from the bed and hurried up the door that was slightly ajar. She mewed and tried to push the door further to open. A tiny hand clutched the door and pushed it scaring the house cat. A dark-skinned girl of about 6 peeked inside with her brown inquisitive eyes. She was wearing her school uniform which suggested that she had just finished school and crept away silently without her mum knowing where she was off to. Dulaariben’s raised eyebrows changed to a creased brow because the last thing she wanted was the brat to come and disturb her peace. She called her the brat not because she was naughty. She called her thus, because she was inquisitive and harassed the feathers out of her with her tongue in cheek questions.

“Dulaariben, what are you doing? I finished school early today so amma told me to go out and play in the yard. I got bored so I came over.” To this Dulaariben got up from her comfortable couch where she was just about to go into a divine slumber. She ushered her in without a word. She feared that if she opened her mouth to talk to her, she would have to face the volley of nonsensical questions from this six-year-old. Just that moment, Mithoo screeched. Her beautiful green wings rattled the cage. Dulaariben went up to the cage and opened the tiny cage door. The brat came over to the cage and tried to put her hand in. On an impulse, Dulaariben pushed the tiny hand away just in time to save it from the nick from the ferocious parrot. The tiny form shrunk away from the cage.

“Dulaariben, you should set Mithoo free. She is a mad bird.” she suggested with some fear and anger. Dulaariben walked away and plonked herself heavily on the couch. She took her woollen balls from coffee table on the side and started to knit her half done garment. The brat, promptly, as if taking a cue, sat next to Dulaariben. Dulaariben moved a bit to accommodate the tiny tot. “Can I also help you? I help my amma all the time, but she says, I am more trouble than help.” At this Dulaariben managed to smile. Encouraged, the brat continued her monologue, ” I like coming here a lot. I also like the little swing that you have in your yard.” Dulaariben did not say anything and continued to knit. At this, the brat moved a little closer as if to whisper a secret and in hushed tones spoke, ” You know Dulaariben, my amma doesn’t like that I come to see you.” Dulaariben looked up surprised at the innocent candour. She smiled meekly and got up to go to the kitchen. The house cat and the brat followed. She took a glass jar from the top shelf and picked out some biscuits. She handed one over to the brat who grabbed it immediately and started chewing noisily. Dulaariben hated people who made a lot of noise while eating and it irritated her to the point that she found herself getting up from amidst even the most engaging conversation at the dinner table. But when the brat crunched her way to the biscuit, she felt a deep sense of joy spread through her heart. She took her hand and got back to the couch to continue her knitting project.

“Where is your husband, Dulaariben?”

Dulaariben looked up at the angelic countenance with a start and then turned mellow instantly. Finally she answered, ” I don’t have a husband, beta”. ” But why don’t you have a husband? Everybody has a husband!” Dulaariben laughed a hearty laugh and responded making the most earnest face,” Beta, even you don’t have a husband”. That answer seemed to stump the child and she shook her head in agreement as if she bought the point. She immediately got up and bade a good afternoon to Dulaariben and walked out.

As soon as the child left, Dulaariben sensed a sudden vacuum and felt as if something heavy had dropped on chest. She smothered the sob that threatened to gather and spill out into copious tears. She quickly stuffed all her knitting into a bag on the coffee table  and got up and smoothed her dress. She then quickly had her customary cup of tea and hopped on to her moped and sped away to the Vikas Kendra ( Development Center). She was the whole and soul of this budding community project in the town. She helped the rural women to make a living by helping them set up small cottage industries in their homes itself. She found this work deeply involving and satisfying. At the end of the day, she had a good nights sleep with her house cat in the tow.

It was particularly a very warm afternoon, one summer day. She was outside in her yard tending to her rose shrubs and picking out the weeds. She hated the menacing weeds and plucked them out with vengeance whilst spraying the insecticides on the rose stem and leaves.  The roses were her pride since they always won the “Best Roses” title in the flower show each year. Mithoo screeched flapping her wings violently which inadvertently meant that somebody or something that Mithoo did not like was making its way there.

“Dulaariben, kem cho?”

The brat skipped and hopped about some flower patches and strode towards Dulaariben. Dulaariben stiffened her shoulders and did not react to the tiny figure charging towards her. ” Can I help you Dulaariben?” the child offered. Dulaariben only shook her head and continued tending the roses. The brat sat down besides the hunched Dulaariben and grinned. She then offered to move the plucked weeds and shoved them in a bin close by. She came running back to her and started the one-sided conversation. ” You know, Dulaariben, amma was talking to the Hansa aunty next door.” She then looked up at Dulaariben as if asking approval to go on. Dulaariben’s mouth twitched a bit and that presented as a signal to continue the conversation. “Hansa aunty told amma that you had a boyfriend but he left you. That is why you did not marry! That is why you don’t have a husband!” Dulaariben got up with a knee jerk reaction and put her garden tools down. She raised her dupatta to wipe the beads of sweat formed on her forehead and then walked away from the scene, into the house. The brat followed sensing that she might have just have stirred the hornet’s nest unsuspectedly. She quickly caught up with Dulaariben and silently moved in with her, into the house. Dulaariben quickly wiped what looked like tears in her eyes and turned to look at the dark brown eyes staring at her. She spoke with a quivering voice,” You are right beta. I had a boyfriend and he left me. He left me and went  away never to return?” At this the concerned face nodded vigorously.

” But, Dulaariben, did you not get a husband to marry after he left?” Dulaariben got down on her knees to come to the same level as the brat and held  her shoulders to exclaim. ” I rather live alone than marry a loser who will hurt me again.”

“Monu, Monu , where are you?” a voice yelled from somewhere close by. The brat slid from Dulaariben’s grasp and rushed out without saying goodbye. Dulaariben gathered herself up and made some tea to quell the tide of emotions about to sweep her dormant world.

Twenty years passed since the encounter in at Dulaariben’s house that summer afternoon. Monu had long turned into a demure young lady married to a man her parents chose for her. The wedding was a grand affair where a lot of money and gold was exchanged for Monu. She was no longer a child but she still skipped and hopped in her heart. She felt the tingle in her body that a gushing bride feels when she goes to her new home. Her husband was highly educated and he even wrote letters to her during their engagement period. Now she was going to be by his side and life was only going to get better.

She carefully removed the bandage covering the wound in her leg. It was deep red, garish wound that appalled her. Her skin was marked with many such wounds. Two years into the marriage and she felt like a fly trapped against the window. Any moment someone would come and swat her away. There was always a choice of opening the window and letting her out but it existed only in her imagination. Her dream of a husband was actually a tyrant in disguise. He was a drunkard who once in a drunken stupor almost strangulated her. She ran back home to her parents, only to be sent back to compromise with the tyrant. She  felt trapped like a fly against the window with no escape in sight. She knew she would die if she didn’t escape as the tyrant was getting powerful by the day.

She was yanked back to reality by the phone ringing. She quickly rushed to pick it up fearing that it might her husband’s. Any delay in picking up the phone resulted in a disparaging attacks on her character and her family. She picked up and was immediately relieved to find that it was her amma at the other end. When the conversation ended, Monu felt faint. The phone dropped to the floor. She quickly bent to pick it up and rushed to her bedroom. There is buried her head and cried till her eyes were red. Her amma had phoned to tell her that her beloved Dulaariben had passed away. Monu felt weak and pulled the bed cover over her as if to protect herself from all the pain.

She lay there until dark and suddenly pushed the bed cover away from her body and got up. She lit all the lights in the house and quickly pulled out her suitcases. In matter of minutes she packed her stuff and called for a taxi to go to the railway station. She had some money saved for emergencies in a knotted handkerchief. She quickly stepped outside when the taxi pulled into the driveway of her home. She sat at the back seat in silence as tears kept flowing down. She wiped them with a purpose and remembered the afternoon with Dulaariben.

She knew what she had to do.