Renu woke up with Aditya’s call at five in the morning. He called to inform that he has reached safely back to his college in Bangalore. Renu tosses in bed to sleep for some more time but sleep is something that is far away from her eyes. She opens the window and looks outside. As the breath of cold and fresh mountain air hits her face, she is hit with a sudden realization. Her bed is empty. The other side of the bed is cold as her face right now. It was the first thought that came to her as she woke up. He was gone. No more he will be reading books by the corner study table as his everyday morning ritual. Her husband who was her best friend, confidant and soul mate is now dead. It was the strangest felling ever.
Theirs a small government quarter assigned to all the teachers in Shimla. The quarter is assigned in Rakesh Srivastava’s name, her late husband. Renu sits on the corner of the bed and peeps into the corridor leading to the kitchen. It is strangely silent. The corridor is dark except for the faint rays of light beaming through the kitchen window.
“Wake up Renu ji, the tea is almost ready,” he would be humming some song and would call out for her every day at six-thirty in the morning. She never made the bed tea, he always did. He was too happy and proud to be serving his specially made Adrak chai. He was shy from flaunting his special talent to the streaming visitors at home every evening. With excited footsteps, he would proceed towards the kitchen and amidst the cranking noise of the various vessels he would be fidgeting with, mix the perfect combination of milk, water, sugar and tea leaves.
“There is a specific time to add the Adrak and sugar in the tea Renu ji,” He said chopping the Adrak into fine pieces. “Making a good tea is like an art, everyone doesn’t get it right. That’s why we all have that one chai wala whose tea we all know is out of the world.” This was one of their mornings together after marriage, way back in 1991 when he demonstrating her the art of making perfect chai. He never liked ginger; He loved to call it Adrak, giving it the perfect desi touch. She peeps towards the kitchen once again. Nobody was humming Mohammed Rafi’s “Jo wada kiya wo nibhana padega.” It was his favorite song and he was a pathetic singer. She still remember the first day in the house with him, he made the chai and handed it over to her and the moment she took the first sip he started singing the song in full force. She choked on the hot beverage. He sounded like a beggar on the Indian railways begging for money. She had to immediately rush towards the bathroom to wipe her burnt mouth with cold water and laugh hysterically all alone. She was the newly bride; she couldn’t laugh infront of her husband for his special talent and doing that would be rude.
Renu gets up from the bed and walks towards the kitchen. She imagines him standing in the kitchen with her and doing exactly what he used to do. She picks up the vessel, put one cup of water and one cup milk in it and switches on the gas stove. She finely chops the ginger and sprinkles it in the above mixture and adds sugar tea leaves to it. She stares at mixture wondering if she could spot his face in it.
“Renuji, are you awake?” He had whispered at 4.30 in the morning that day. “I am having severe headache and fever, Renuji.”
“Hmm…?” What happened?” She said tossing around in the warm bed. It was the one of those chilly winter mornings of October when one knew the snow falls will start soon.
“It’s paining badly,” He said softly caressing her head and removing the unkempt hair from her face.
“Should I get you paracetamol?” She said snuggling upto him.
“Already took them, twice.” The paracetamols become numerous visits to the doctor’s clinic ending up in the oncology department of Fortis hospital, New Delhi. His pain was gone for now but the doctors wanted to do some more test and it was the result day. She hated sitting in the waiting area of the hospital as if she is waiting for her death sentence. It felt barbaric. She noticed patients coming and going. Some looked healthy, some looked tired and some, completely bald. There were others waiting in the lounge just like them, waiting for their share of sentence. Will it be death? Or will they be saved by a miracle? Rakesh on the other hand was calm and composed as usual.
“Don’t worry Renuji, I am not going anywhere. I will be here for a long time to bug you,” He reassured her smiling. She wanted to believe him but her heart was giving away, deep down she knew, something was not right. Her fears turned out to be true when the doctor showing them the test results said very calmly, Mr. Srivastava, “I am very sorry, but it’s inoperable. There is nothing much that we can do.”
“What? What does you mean there is nothing much we can do?”
Rakesh had Brain cancer and the location of the tumor is such that doctors can’t operate on that. The doctor ha given him maximum of six months to live. Just six months? How??
The smell of burnt something brought her back to reality. She realized the milk had spilled all over the stove and she didn’t notice it. Once she finished straining the tea, she realizes she has made extra tea. Not extra but two cups of tea, one for her and one for him, just like the way he always did. What should she do with the other cup now? Give it to the maid when she comes or throw it away?
She picked up both the cups and went to the balcony. She is unsure what to do with the other cup of tea. She kept it in front of his chair. He had a special arm chair where he would sit comfortably every morning with his legs folded up wrapped in his favorite shawl. He would read the newspaper and discuss the world with her; Politics, culture, wars or anything that his curious mind would fancy. Few things she understood, few she didn’t.
She sat on his chair the way he used to. She wanted to feel him the way he did for the past many years. She can never forget the first time they had met. It was not love at first sight as his son would like to tease her as. “Maa, dad was hitting on you from the moment he saw you. He can’t help it, you are so beautiful. Any man would be flat on you!”
It wasn’t exactly the case. He had come to the house with his best friend to see her. She clearly remembers that day. She was nervous and spent all my energy taking care of her saree. She was worried that it will fall open. She did see him though. He was wearing a white shirt with bell bottomed trousers with his smooth fair falling on his forehead and big round spectacles over his eyes. He looked more like a scientist. His friend, the prospective groom on the other hand was busy nitpicking her. He was not happy that her second toe is longer than the first. She will bring bad luck to his family if he married her it seems. That was his verdict after swallowing plenty of samosas and myriad varieties of snacks down his throat.
After two months, her father received a letter from Rakesh’s father inquiring if Renu would like marrying his son. He mentioned that his son liked her and also that he does not have problem with the uneven toe fingers. She said yes to him instantly. Although they never said those three letter words, he held her hand every time they crossed the road and every night that they slept in the same bed, their feet’s were entangled together. Those words were never needed.
She had been terrified to see this day. She wondered how she is going to live without him. She used to fell suffocated at the mere thought of it, not to mention the tsunami of tears every time she saw him in pain. But he was always smiling. Even in the last days, when his head was about to blast due to pain, he would be smiling.
“I had a good life Renu ji,” He had told her. “Although, I would love to see Adit get married, everyone does not get everything in life. I am happy with my life, my family, you. There nothing more to ask for. I am a blessed man!
Her eyes were moist again. She got up from the chair and went to the almirah. She took out his last worn unwashed shirt and put it on. She wants to feel his body smell before it fades off. She then rolls herself in the bed and cuddles herself the way they used to do. She imagines him lying next to her. She wants to entangle their feet’s one more time before he fades away, once for all.