The other day I saw Kumar in the market. He was running after a woman. Dont laugh please! This is not what you think. I know both of them and they are in their sixties. Kumar retired from LIC some years ago. And the woman in question was Purabi. Both their families had known each other for some time. Purabi and her husband Jayant, a struggling builder, lived next door to Kumar. The two families became very friendly. And then, Jayant shifted to Premnagar, the other side of the town. Dehradun is a big city. The shift effectively meant relocating to Antarctica. Visits became rare.
So to recap, as I came out of the shop, I saw Kumar on the pavement, walking in a hurry. Unusual-, because he had been complaining of arthritis in knees for some time. I hailed out but he did not even turn around. Then, I saw the reason for his preoccupation and hurry, on the opposite side of the road: A woman briskly carrying a pile of packets to her car. I recognised her. She had greying hair with a white forelock, carelessly pushed back behind her right ear. It was Purabi.
She had the kind of spring to her walk, which comes naturally when you buy a lot of things you dont really need! Jayant, her husband, must be doing good now, I thought. She ducked into her car, as soon as her driver grabbed all her packets and shoved them on to the front seat. As the car pulled away, I noticed the look of, first disappointment and then sadness on Kumar’s face. Since his wife died sometime ago, Kumar has been acting strangely.
I knew Kumar for the last ten years or so. How, you may ask. Well, he had sold me an Insurance policy, which I hated earlier but began to love when it matured and delivered five lacs unexpectedly, without me dying or getting hurt. I remember our first meeting. Like any other LIC agent he was trying his best to dazzle me by giving me a lot of information. At the end, I quipped: Kumar ji, I am quite impressed. you have told me so many benefits of dying or meeting with an accident! Now please take me to the nearest busy road crossing. I just can’t wait!
He never got the sarcasm and instead answered with a bland smile: It is my pleasure to serve you in every possible way, you see. I dont sell policies. I make lifelong friendships!
As I met him more often, I realised that Kumar was a simple soul. He often saw things in black and white and missed out the grey nuances- like my joke about dying with his help. I, on the other hand, thought too much about trivial things, like: should I have upma for breakfast or wheat porridge? Which is easy to cook? To digest? Which has more nutritive value? Which is easier to clean up afterwards?
It often resulted in what my boss loved to point out frequently: Paralysis by analysis! Listening to Kumar’s simple but decisive conclusions and quick remedies on almost everything, was a pleasant change, as we sat in the tea house and gossiped on most Saturdays.
I met Shubhra, Kumar’s wife soon after buying the LIC policy. I was late for depositing my second premium by a few days. Being a new client, I panicked and decided to hand over the cash to Kumar at his home. Mrs Kumar was a quiet and kind soul. She offered me a cup of tea, took the envelope and assured me that she would make Mr Kumar phone me and confirm as soon as he returns home.
I believe they had a married daughter but I never got to see her or her family. In the last couple of years, our meeting in the tea shop had become rare. Kumar was spending more time at home because of his wife’s illness. I too was caught up in the challenges, Life inevitably brings. Then, one day I got the message that Mrs Kumar had died in the hospital.
Kumar, I must say, coped pretty well with his loss. And what a loss, it was! He was left all by himself now. After a month, he had rejoined his work. He had joined a private company, after retiring from LIC. It kept him busy and that was what he valued most.
I met him a year after Shubhra’s death. He was dressed OK. He talked fine as we sipped our tea. I was fidgeting, not knowing whether I should talk about his loss or just skip it totally. We kept talking about work, pollution, upcoming elections etc. Suddenly he sprung a strange question on me: Can you tell me something about Shubhra? Anything?
I was surprised and at a loss of words. How much did I know his late wife? Yes, we met many times socially. She was a nice person: hospitable, kind, thoughtful… But what can you say to the husband?
I said tentatively: Of course, she was a very nice person and I am sure she is in a better place now, free of suffering..
I thought this would satisfy Kumar. He lowered his eyes in a thoughtful silence and mumbled: Of course, Of course…very kind.. But do you remember any funny incident or special thing about her?
He waited for a few seconds, before continuing — See, I am forgetting her, the little details of our thirty six years together — and that makes me so sad and restless..
Oh Kumar, dont say that… I tried to commiserate as best as I could.
I began to see where these questions were coming from. I scratched my head and came up with couple of true incidents:
You know, Kumar, who can forget such a kind soul! I remember once, she gave me regular tea and when she recalled that I am a Diabetic, she grabbed my cup, raced back to the kitchen and made me a fresh cup of tea, even though I told that I did not need it at all! That whole evening she kept apologising..
Another time, another visit, when my little son soiled your beautiful sofa, she would not let me clean the mess. She wasn’t upset at all. She cleaned it herself without a word.. Then, she gave a chocolate to my son – imagine – as if to reward his artistic efforts!
Kumar was listening to me with deep absorption, as if I was reading out of wikileaks. He kept asking questions about his wife. I tried to answer as best as my memory served. Diabetics are prone to have memory problems among a host of other issues. But Kumar was suffering from a different kind of memory loss. He was trying to piece together a persona based on hearsay because when she was alive, he was too busy, it seemed.
Later to my surprise, I discovered that Kumar was doing it with almost every second person he met: Please tell me about Shubhra?
Purabi and Shubhra were great friends. When both their husbands would leave for work, these two housewives took out their knitting, and sat on the roof gossiping for hours. If anyone knew Shubhra deeply, it would have to be Purabi. But she had moved away to Premnagar sometime before Shubhra’s last sickness. Maybe this is why, when Kumar saw Purabi in the market, he ran after her like a mad man.
We had some mutual friends and I heard that Kumar was going to unusual lengths to construct memories of his late wife. He would ask neighbors about Shubhra: Did she buy vegetables in the street? Did she bargain? What gift did she give to your daughter on her birthday? What did she tell you when you came over for tea? What was she wearing that day? Etc.
People are kind and rarely objected to such requests. Women did not mind at all. In fact, they loved to sit down and reminisce for hours. Some women would almost start crying when they recalled Shubhra’s last days. Kumar would listen quietly. Sometimes he would ask further questions. Mostly he would continue sitting quietly, head a little bent, lost in his own thoughts. He was trying to get to know his wife after her death.
He had started another strange thing: he would request friends for her old group photos: When you visited us last, you took a photo, didn’t you? Can you please send me a copy?
Some complied with the request, some just ignored it.
Then, one day I heard that he had started talking about it, to quite unlikely people like plumbers and electricians; the encounter would go something like this:
Son, was it not you who fixed that leaking pipe in our kitchen?
Yes, uncle ji.
Was it not when my wife was alive?
Yes, uncle ji. Aunty ji was there.
Do you remember what Aunty ji said to you that day?
No. I fixed the leak and left.
Did Aunty ji say anything to you? Try and remember..
Ah, well, she was very mad at me that day.. Now I remember.
Why? What had happened?
No, nothing special. Nothing big. I fixed it… You see, trying to open the pipe, the wash basin came off and fell down..
At this point, I was told, Kumar would look up with irritation and conclude the interview. The world will remember Shubhra in its own way. Kumar was on his own trip.
I was wondering if Kumar was losing his sanity. One day I asked him this, point blank, in the tea shop. He first looked around the vacant shop and then muttered:
What do you think? … No, I am fine. I am eating and sleeping well. I am going to the office everyday. No, I am not losing my head.. But yes, I feel as if I have lived in a daze for the last thirty six years and never really got to know her, who means so much to me…
He had a troubled look, as if he was figuring out a puzzle; he could recall only the day of his marriage and the day of her death. What happened to intervening years? Who has stolen those 36 years? Sometimes living with someone becomes just a habit. People become mere concepts; Transactions of life become automatic, like “Out of office” exchange between two unattended computers.
He began his muttering again. I was having to strain to understand his words. But I would do it happily anyday, since he was my friend after all. When I did not have money to pay my LIC premium on two occasions, he paid it from his own pocket. Which insurance agent does it? I wonder.
Only thing, as much as I wanted, I did not know how to help him. I could only listen sincerely with the hope that the more he talked, the better he would understand the inner workings of his grief.
I feel as if I do not know this woman at all who so kindly gave me thirty six years of her life. I still have so much to say to her… Will I ever get the chance? Even when she was dying, I was more concerned about the practical details of taking her out of the hospital, informing everyone and deciding on last rites. When did I engage with her? I am trying to think of one time when I totally engaged with her… I was so caught up with buying and selling, working and holidaying..
He started again after a thoughtful gap:
But don’t worry. I am not going mad. I am becoming sane again. Shubhra’s death has forced me to rearrange all my priorities and beliefs…I am living free for the first time, free of my grievances, grudges and hurts…
You will be surprised— I phoned Lakshmi last night… (he confided in a low mumble) — and I have invited her to return, whenever she wants to… So, to answer your question, I am OK, really..
But talking to plumbers?? I interjected with some concern.
Just put up with me for a few days. This is a phase. It will pass off. I feel as if I need to know more about her. What can I do but talk to people like Purabi, you, neighbors..? This is how I honor her memory. At least, I have not gone to Dr Kriparam yet…
Our little town boasts of Dr Kriparam who is a man of many talents: he is a channel, a medium, a hypnotist, an expert on past life regression etc. For a suitable fee he can arrange a meeting with your dead mother, spouse or your late great great grandfather! A sitting with Dr Kriparam could start an addiction, a downward spiral of living in the past, at the cost of the present. It was certainly a good sign that Kumar had not gone to him yet.
But Laxmi, his daughter, returned to live with him. Apparently he was able to forgive her, and she, him, for whatever had happened in the past.
Then one day I heard that Kumar was no longer pestering people with “Tell me about Shubhra!”. Instead, he was teaching maths to kids in his neighborhood for free. As a LIC agent, he was always good with maths and actuarial tables. Laxmi was teaching the kids other subjects. Father and daughter had started a kind of coaching center. That is how I met them again, at the stationary shop. They had come to pick up a whole lot of copies, books and other supplies.
Kumar looked fit and walked briskly. His face showed lesser lines. He seemed more at peace with himself. We didn’t talk of his late wife, his loss. There was no need since he was full of his “amazing kids”, his students and their ability to master formulae. As we parted, he said something profound, as if to explain the big change in himself:
See, I thought I loved her with eyes and that is why there was a separation. The “form” was gone, no matter how much I chased it. It took me two years to realise that I actually loved her with my heart. And the heart has no boundaries. There is no separation, since she is everywhere… I have not moved on. There is no need to. Wherever I am, there she is…
As I stepped into the noisy evening traffic, I kept thinking about his “loving with eyes versus loving with heart” comment. At the end of the day, don’t we really fall in love with our own formless essence as reflected in the other?
(4th Dec 2021, Vikasnagar)