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 country.

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 loving clown.

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 again.


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 had.










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