The 60th Wedding Day: Radhika Nair
The trickle of red added more than just a contrast to her
white balding scalp. Not lifting her eyes off the wrinkled
face staring back at her, Sudha carelessly brushed a shaky
palm against her cotton sari, erasing the powdery remnants
of the kumkum still sticking to her forefinger.
Fifteen long years had passed since she had put away her
little round silver box. Like the intricate ornamental design
outside, inside its contents held a symbol of security,
of love, of memories; and a colour that bore the stamp of
an Indian married woman. Sindoor.
Sudha had met Pradeep at college. That they were class representatives
only gave them the almost-snobbish freedom to debate ruthlessly
over any issue, unquestioned. Open-mouthed, their classmates
watched with knitted brows as they strained to catch every
word of the duel...until a higher authority intervened,
or another class screamed for attention, and attendance.
Sudha was not surprised when a year after graduation and
not a week at his first job, Pradeep was at her doorstep.
"I want to spend my life with you Sudha. Will you marry
me?" Just like that.
So much like Pradeep, she thought, even as she struggled
to not let her face reveal her smiling heart. Amused by
the new rhythm it beat to and the thousand butterflies that
had taken flight suddenly inside her stomach, she burst
into giggles. Pradeep too was grinning broadly. Secretly,
the two had suspected it right from the beginning: they
were made for each other.
The faint and familiar pop-pop of sesame seeds from the
kitchen brought Sudha back to the silver box she was still
caressing. She adjusted her bifocal glasses slowly as she
observed how the case was wearing out into a blackish, almost
unidentifiable little box. Sighing, she reminded herself
that it required re-polishing, and made her way to the rosewood
cabinet that housed more memories of her content marriage
with Pradeep. Photographs, wedding sarees, little gift items
that remained mere showpieces for lack of utility, and,
the oval-shaped mirror. Imported, that's all she remembered
of it when she once again ran her shrunken fingers over
the delicate carving on its behind. Turning it around slowly,
she saw in it a shadow of her youth, smiling back at her.
"Do you want to join me for lunch, Amma?"
Madhu was everything Sudha had wanted her daughter to be
-- independent, mature, truthful - and almost blunt when
it came to that. Heading a managerial team at a multinational
company, at the age of twenty-seven was no child's play;
she nodded with pride as she let her daughter help her to
the kitchen table, where her senses tingled to fresh life
with the aroma of ghee over steamy rice and hot sambhar.
Sixty years and a gradually failing eyesight had failed
to wrinkle Sudha's zest for life. Five years before their
silver wedding anniversary, Pradeep was injured in a major
road accident. At the hospital, they spoke of their happy
years of marriage, the holidays, the many years after Madhu
was born, and how she was growing into an intelligent girl.
One morning when Sudha came in with coffee for Pradeep,
she found him asleep, along with the other machines and
monitors in his room that had gone silent too. She was told
he would never wake up again. For a moment, she suddenly
felt all alone, but when she looked at her husband's peaceful
face, silent tears of gratitude rolled over her cheeks.
She let him go. They had enjoyed a happy life together,
and his time on earth was over, she consoled her daughter.
During the first few years of their marriage, Sudha had
undertaken several part-time and freelance jobs -- one after
another -- to keep herself occupied. Besides, Pradeep's
job required them to change residence many times. He had
suggested she invest all her earnings in a separate bank
account, and now she was glad she had taken his advice.
Using all that she had saved, along with some amount she
got from selling off her gold chain, Sudha packed her daughter
off to a friend in the United States, where Madhu would
earn a business management degree, and learn to respect
her new-found independence. Meanwhile she found a job at
the local superstore that helped her meet her house-rent
and everyday needs.
But the solitary journey was deteriorating her body rapidly,
if not her mind. The changing seasons were thinning Sudha's
hair, turning it into a silken grey and white, and shrinking
her bones so she stooped a little while she walked. Her
breath was beginning to have a distinct odour you associate
with the old, and her fingers trembled; thick lenses rested
on her nose, and a little clip behind her ear helped her
hear her daughter better. Even years after Madhu began her
career and in spite of her repeated requests to her mother
to move in with her in a company accommodation, Sudha insisted
that there was nothing she was afraid of, and so did not
mind living alone. Madhu knew how much her mother would
hate to be dependent on anyone. Besides, every weekend,
or whenever her job permitted, she could be home -- like
this afternoon. The two best friends could talk, laugh,
and debate for hours about anything, except when a concerned
mother took over and asked her daughter when she intended
to get married.
"Do two individuals have to marry just because they trust
each other amma?" Madhu had asked her mother two years ago.
She was young, financially independent, emotionally strong,
and in love. Madhu knew what she was doing, and what she
had to do. Which is why Sudha found it difficult to find
fault with her decision to 'live in' with someone of her
choice. She was concerned, not about a long-nosed society,
but of the uncertain future that came with not-marrying
the person she was going to spend her life with. However,
Madhu promised her that they would start thinking about
marriage as soon as he was done with his advanced computer
studies. It would land him a job, and a salary slip that
his convention-bound parents would need to see before he
announced he had found the girl he wanted to marry. Sudha
agreed to wait. She trusted her daughter, and her upbringing.
For the first time since many years today, Sudha felt the
weekends were getting shorter, and found it difficult to
bid farewell to her daughter. Meanwhile, Shridhar's visits
had also decreased over the past few months. The neighbour's
grand-daughter had come home two evenings ago, to inform
Sudha that he was unwell. Today, with Madhu holding her
hand, she waited outside their home for an auto that would
take them to his house.
Madhu's favourite "Shree uncle" had deeper ties with the
family than their own blood-relatives, and lived just two
streets away. Shridhar had always been part of their discussions.
He had cheered Pradeep when he was voted as the college
representative, he was at his side at the time of his marriage;
it was he who first held a tiny Madhu in his hands, and
years later his slow shoulders helped carry a dead Pradeep
to his last rites.
After his twelve-year career abroad, Shridhar had come back
to India just a year before Pradeep died. He had not chosen
to remain a bachelor all his life. There was a girl he loved,
and his parents approved of their marriage. There was but
one condition they had said, and Shridhar relented, though
unwillingly. The horoscopes were matched, and his destiny
was written just then, or re-written. The charts showed
no grandchildren who would play with his ageing parents,
and that both worried and upset them. An only son, Shridhar
had no choice but to watch silently as all further marriage
preparations were called off. Two months later, Shridhar
learnt that the girl's parents soon got her married elsewhere.
Unable to vent out his anger on his old parents, or face
the empty reality that lay ahead, he simply left home. Several
sleepless nights later, he sought new horizons in another
Time did soothe his wounds; but it does not stop for anybody.
He laughed with bitter tears when he held a letter addressed
to him one fine morning. It talked about a landslide at
Amarnath that killed his parents, along with many others
who had come to worship the idol there. As with the scattered
ashes that stood for a moment over the river Ganga before
being swallowed in, Shridhar numbly watched his parents'
dreams for him, drown forever.
It was Pradeep who had convinced him to stay back in India,
and start life afresh. His job as a travel writer also helped;
it took him to various places and the new adventures and
experiences erased depressing memories. He had nothing or
no one to live or die for. He learned to appreciate every
day of his life, and turned into a selfless, cheerful and
Everytime he returned from a tour, he bought something back
for Madhu; laughs, stories, souvenirs...and in turn he left
with happy moments, a full stomach, and rarely empty handed.
Sudha would hand him a bagful now and then of irresistible
home-made snacks, payasam or even ready-to-make dosa or
idli batter that he could take home. Having covered almost
all of India and a few places abroad, Shridhar decided it
was about time he put his travel bags away. To make up for
the pangs of guilt he still felt about not having been there
with his parents during their last days, he worked as a
volunteer and a companion for the old at a care home nearby.
As the rattling auto wound to a halt outside Shridhar's
home, Madhu rushed into the compound calling out to her
favourite uncle. Sudha, still seated in the auto, watched
through the open window as a slow silhouette made his way
to the door. They had known each other for almost all their
lives. Shridhar had always been a friend, supportive, committed,
and a true companion. Surely he did not deserve such a lonely
life, thought Sudha, as Madhu's words echoed in her ears.
"Why not?" she thought, "why not?" Inside, she knew she
had made up her mind, while Madhu helped the old friends
to coffee and some hot upma she had got from home.
"You look...different today Sudha." In spite of a blurred
vision due to an overdose of sleep and other medicines that
were fighting his fever, Shridhar couldn't help notice how
composed she was, as always. Sudha smiled, extending a closed
palm toward him. "This belongs to you Shridhar. I guess
it's time I returned it to you." While a misty-eyed Madhu
looked on, Shridhar found in his hands the old and tiny
silver case he had gifted Pradeep and Sudha almost thirty-five
years ago. Inside, intact, the bright colour of life glowed
more brightly than ever.
When life answers questions that you had forgotten to ask,
you really have nothing to say. And in the silence that
enveloped the trio, a family that always was, took birth
Note to Readers: In parts of Southern India, a man's
sixtieth birthday, also called 'shasthipurtham', involves
a custom where the man and his wife marry each other all
over again. The couple's grown-up children or grandchildren
conduct the event on a large scale. However, this does not
take place in the event of untimely death of either spouse.
In this story, the widowed Sudha, on her sixtieth wedding
day, decides to spend the rest of her life with her only
friend, Shridhar...gifting him a companionship he never