Slipping Sideways

couple-ride-on-bike-usha-shantharam

“Selvi…Selviii…I am going to the store. Help me carry these bags down the stairs.”, Raju called out to his wife who was cooking in the kitchen. It was a typical weekday morning at Raju’s household. He owned a moderately profitable provisions store in the market. Selvi, his wife, occasionally helped him with the finances, cleaning the shop, arranging the goods and holding the fort when Raju had to keep an eye on his orders and delivery.

Selvi was only 20 and had moved to the city post wedding. A good six months had passed by being away from her Ulagampatti life. The red soil. the paddy fields, the sweet water, her cows and hens, her father…Ulagampatti was her own little world that seemed like a faraway dream now. After finishing her morning chores, she sat to read the Dailythanthi. Her cell phone rang. it was Raju, “Selvi, don’t bring me lunch, I have some work outside, I’ll finish it, come home and eat”. Selvi was relieved, the kilometre walk in the scorching heat she could now skip.

Raju arrived an hour later. After gorging on the kara kozhambu and roasted kovakkai, he requested Selvi to come with him to the store to give him a hand as his assistant had taken an off. Selvi shifted uncomfortably in her synthetic saree. She nodded her head, as she laid the paai for him to rest.

Half an hour later, Raju woke up, washed his face and headed down, “Selvi, I’m leaving now, are you ready to go.” She ran down the stairs and told him to carry on and that she will walk down in sometime after doing the dishes. Raju got on to his bike, kickstarted it and rode on. He kept thinking about Selvi. Didn’t she enjoy coming with him on the bike? It’s been six months, does she still feel uncomfortable being close to him? This is not the first time that she has ducked a chance to ride with him. It has happened thrice before, she had given lame excuses to avoid riding with him. Suddenly Selvi felt like a stranger to him. The only thing he seemed to know about her was her love for cooking and her prowess with numbers.

Selvi felt a little proud of herself for having given a seemingly valid excuse. She was very sure Raju would have believed her. She cleaned up the kitchen and walked down to the store, helped him around with a smile and stayed with him till a little after tea. Raju admired her charming smile and her swift hands as she tied the potalams for the customers. Of course he knew her well, she was his wife. What’s there not to know? He called out to her and said “Selvi, it’s getting late for you, you leave now. I’ll manage the store. I’ll come home as usual at around 9.” She told him not to exert himself and to come early for a change and pushed off. As she stepped out, she accidentally bumped into Raju’s bike. Grudgingly she stared at the blue Splendor and continued walking.

That night, as usual after dinner, Raju and Selvi lay down next to each other talking. Raju was curious to know more about his wife. He wanted to know what would make her charming smile remain forever. He began with asking what her big dream was.  Unexpectedly she answered, “To pursue my higher studies” Raju was taken by surprise, for a while he remained silent and then he asked her what she meant by higher studies. She elaborated,” I was always good at maths, I scored 100% in my board exams. I wanted to do my B.Sc in Maths. But Appa had other plans for me.” Raju was even more surprised, even he had got only a 98 in Math. He learnt a wonderful thing about his wife and he smiled at her, “Maybe it could become a reality someday.” Selvi hoped against hope that this would not be a false promise.

A few days later, one fine morning, Selvi’s dad called. His concern Selvi missed, “How are you, my dear? Hope you are being a good wife and adjusting well to the city life.” Hiding all her emotions, in a happy tone she told him that she was the best wife in the world and he should soon come and visit her and see for him own eyes. The ten-minute conversation that followed made Selvi nostalgic, she wanted to go home, her home. That night after dinner, she animatedly described her phone call to Raju. Seeing the bright sparkle in her eyes, he told her, “Listen, wake up early tomorrow morning, I’ll drop you at the railway station and you can go visit your father and come back. You seem to be missing him a lot.” Selvi was moved, but how could she possibly leave Raju and disappear, who would cook for him? But the thought was tempting. That night she went to bed with a smile on her face.

In the middle of the night, Raju was rudely woken up by muffled voices. It was Selvi, she was muttering something in her sleep with a pained expression. He held her hand, and feeling somewhat comforted she went back to being silently asleep. The next morning Selvi was her usual chirpy self. She was making coffee and Raju was reading the newspaper. He casually popped the question, ” Selvi did you have a bad dream last night?” Selvi froze. Her thoughts took her back to that annoying dream that she was trying hard to forget. How did he know? “Illaye, I slept well, I feel really fresh”. Then Raju continued, “So when do I drop you at the station? There is a train at 9 to Manapparai, you can maybe take that.” With her head filled with images from her dream, Selvi snapped back at him, “ No need, we’ll visit my dad some other time, together!” Raju knew she had a point there. She visiting her dad alone would only mean one thing to the village folks, that Raju has dumped her, or she walked out of the marriage, and a stream of rumours would trickle down. So he would just continue with his routine schedule. But was this the real reason, he wondered.

Life’s daily grind continued and Raju had become increasingly busy. The Business was doing exceptionally well and he expanding his store. A couple of months passed by, one fine day Raju came home with a few papers and handed it over to Selvi. Selvi was speechless. It was the Application form for B. Sc. Maths at the Ethiraj College for Women. This was a dream come true and she felt endlessly thankful to Raju. Before she could express her gratitude, Raju told her, “Tomorrow we will have to meet the HOD at the college. With great difficulty, I have gotten this appointment. Be ready by 8, I will take you there.” Selvi smiled at him lovingly and asked him what about the fees. Raju asked her not to unnecessarily worry and that he would take care of everything. The next day morning Selvi was ready, she wore a printed chiffon saree that was a wedding gift. She pinned the pleats and was all set to go. It was getting late and Raju was hurrying her down the stairs. He started his bike and beckoned her to sit, hesitatingly Selvi asked him if they could take the bus. Raju had no patience for this, he commandingly asked her not to waste time and to quickly settle herself. She sat with both her legs on one side and held Raju’s shoulder as tightly as she could. For the next 40 minutes as Raju sped through the traffic, he could hear her prayers,“Muruga, Muruga” She was shaky and as scared as kid lost in an amusement park. By the time they got done with the interview and returned home Selvi was a complete wreck. She changed her saree and straight went to rest for a while. Raju could hear her muffled cries. He walked up to her and put his arm around. Minutes passed, but her cries continued. Finally Raju spoke up, “Selvi, I don’t understand, the interview went well. Don’t worry. You did well. I am sure to get a call tomorrow about the fee payment details.” Selvi continued to remain silent. “You don’t like it here? or worse you don’t like me? Say something Selvi ma.”

“If I join college, will you be dropping me every day?” she questioned him in a low voice, with her face buried into the pillow. “Of course I will, every day. Promise.” assured Raju. “Aiyo that is my problem, this traffic, this speed breakers and blaring horns, and wearing this synthetic saree, sitting with my legs tight together, my bottom slipping away inch by inch from the seat, wondering when I will fall and get run over by an auto. This is the haunting dream you were asking me about the other day,” she finally got it out of her system. Raju couldn’t help but laugh at her outbreak and that annoyed her even more. “Of all the things you should be worrying about, is this is what had been running in your head? Come make me lunch, I am hungry.” Raju cajoled her into getting out of the bed. Selvi continued with her routine household work, but she still couldn’t get the harrowing experience out of her head. The very thought of doing it daily made her shudder.

The next day Raju walked in with a bag and a good news, “Selvi, the HOD madam called. She asked me to come and pay the first installment of the fee by this week. Classes begin next month, I am so happy for you.” Selvi handed over a glass of water to him and told him that she had thought about it and decided not to take up the seat. Raju handed over the bag to her and told her to open it. Selvi’s hand pulled out a beautiful peacock green salwar kameez set. “Wear this now and come, I want to take you for a drive. Let’s go to the beach. Before she could protest, Raju nudged her into the room, closed the door from outside and went down the stairs.

Without much of a choice, Selvi wore the new dress. She looked at herself in the mirror. What she saw in the mirror took her back to her school days. All those days she tried to cycle and miserably failed, catapulting at mangos and playing kabaddi with the girls. She looked very much like that same little girl. Reflections don’t lie. But this one did. She was no more that little girl. One day, few years back, everything changed. Suddenly she was all grown up. She remembered that day vividly. It was the day she noticed the wrinkles on her father’s face for the first time. From that day on he insisted on her wearing half sarees and sarees. Having been brought up without a mother, or siblings Selvi and her dad only had each other to watch the other’s back. This meant many restrictions, but Selvi never complained. After finishing high school, she spent most of her time at home or on the fields with her father. Those were the days when her father passed on life’s wisdom, told her stories of her mother whose face she barely remembered, and taught her the tricks of survival. They became closer. The more wrinkles she saw on his face, the more she tried to make them disappear by making him smile.  And the father did everything a humble farmer could to make his daughter feel protected and cared for.

Selvi’s eyes welled up in tears, she ran down to Raju, the only other friend she had made after so many years. Raju was on the bike, Selvi sat, this time with her legs on both sides. Through the rear view mirror, Raju could see the tears smudging her dark brown eyes, He rode on. Her tears streamed down her cheeks, he rode on. The wind dried them up, he rode on. She put her right hand around him, he rode on. Finally a tiny smile appeared on the corner of her lips, “Let’s go home.” and to that Raju replied, “I am taking you home, to your home.” for which Selvi said, “Let’s bring Appa here and make it our home.”

The image of the couple used is a painting by Ms. Usha Shantharam. You can check it out/purchase it here http://fineartamerica.com/featured/couple-ride-on-bike-usha-shantharam.html

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