The Recounter of Memories by Neeta Deshpande

For the first time in many years, Swati waited for the city bus. The bus stop was near the chapel, whose white façade was taking on the colours of the evening. The setting sun perched on the house across the narrow street. A bread-seller cycled past her, sounding his horn as he made his way through the traffic. She looked at her watch, following the second hand around the dial. Its insistent ticking drove her to even more impatience and she looked away, peering into the distance.


After an anxious wait, she spotted ‘Infant Jesus’, a large bus with far too many passengers, careering towards her. The conductor blew his whistle, then smiled warmly at her, as if he were aware of the intimate details of her life. Swati climbed in, hoping she would find a seat soon.


Sandwiched between sweaty men, she thought about how she’d have to take the bus to get around in Panaji from now on. The annoying wait, rubbing against strangers, and the blaring music! She had sold her biscuit-coloured Maruti Zen only yesterday, unable to afford the loan payments on her own. After endless back and forth, she had decided it was better to save money, now that it was all going to be over. A solitary life stretched out before her, without a familiar landmark or milestone in sight.


After winding its way around the intersection, the bus lurched to a halt at the bazaar. By now, the crowd had thinned, and Swati waited to grab a seat. When the fisherwomen on the front seats alighted, she sat down, relieved. The bus raced towards the beach. Arriving there, it swerved around the circle, affording Swati a glimpse of the strip of water at the horizon. Her mind went back to the early days of her married life, when she would frequent the beach with Vilas. Her husband would place his arm around her shoulder while they walked barefoot on the sand, the drama of sunset a testimony to their wild attraction. She forced herself to think of the present. She planned to get her books from him this evening. In a little over an hour, she would reach her house. His house, she reminded herself sternly. But she might as well put up with the bitterness of it all. When she was unable to sleep in her still unfamiliar rental flat, it would be better to reach for a book, instead of nursing her misfortune.


She wondered how Vilas would react when she asked for her books. Would he be angry? Irritated? Or would he not mind at all? That would hurt her more than anything else, his nonchalance. When she was sick, he would never keep her company, doing the bare minimum to attend to her physical needs. It was almost as if he were a paid nurse, taking care of her only because he had to. After a tiring day at work, when she looked forward to talking to him, he would shut himself up in the bedroom, firmly out of reach. Why had he become this person she no longer recognised? More than Vilas, she was worried about what her little son, her Samir would think. What would he say when his Aai would separate her stuff from Baba’s? And wouldn’t her son wonder about what would happen to his own stuff – his bicycle, Lego set and Beyblade?


The shouting of the conductor pulled her away from her troubles. 'Busstand, Busstand, Busstand'. He was almost demanding that people board the bus. After it was crammed, it shuddered as it began to move. Further down the street, it careened around a Maruti Zen, reminding Swati of her car. It was better this way, she consoled herself. She no longer had to drive through the traffic, honking at wayward motorcyclists.


'Excuse me, Madam,' said the old man who had occupied the seat next to hers. Swati was annoyed that he sat right beside her.


'Excuse me, what’s your birth date?' the man asked again. 'You see, madam, I maintain a diary with birth dates and observations about people I meet. Who knows, I might run into them again, and wouldn’t they be happy if I remembered them?'


Another bothersome stranger! Swati ignored him. But the man persisted. 'I met two little girls yesterday, and wrote down their birth dates here … see...’ said the man, opening his black diary and showing it to her. Swati looked straight ahead.


'You know, when I was teaching, I’d take down the birth dates of all my students at Elphinstone college. Now Mumbai has gone to the dogs. But what a city it was! Marvellous in the rains.'


'Hmm…' Swati found herself saying, half surprised.


'Hot vada-pav in the mornings at Dadar…'


Without realising it, Swati had started nodding her head. She could not get herself to ask the man to shut up. She stole a glance at him now. He had a small, roundish face with a hint of innocence. Sparse, white hair and a bushy moustache completed the picture. Swati looked away, smiling to herself.


'Mumbai is a terrible city for retirement, I must tell you,' the old man was now saying. 'But my wife loves it. She won’t even think of moving out. When we can afford it, we come here to Goa.'


What a chatterbox, thought Swati. She wondered where he was going to get off. By now, she had stopped thinking that he was trying to pester her. He was just an eccentric old man. But why did he pick her?


'My wife takes such good care of me, I tell you', continued the stranger. 'She irons my clothes, finds my socks, even polishes my shoes. So many times I tell her, you don’t need to do all this. But she just doesn’t listen. She’s grown old too, of course.'


Of course. Why do I have to hear your entire life story! Swati almost demanded. But she stopped herself. If she had to say something, she should at least not be disrespectful of the elderly gentleman.


'You know, Panaji is a very nice place. I have so many good memories of the beach…' Now he’s moved on from Mumbai to Panaji! How can this guy have so much to say to a stranger? For a moment, Swati thought of her husband and son, of the disturbing quiet in the house she’d walked out of a month ago. The other day when she visited, the potted plants in the balcony seemed to be doing all the talking, their leaves moving a little to the breeze. There was no conversation between her and Vilas. She remembered when they talked like fond cousins meeting during the summer vacation. Anyway, she thought, she’d rather not think about all that now …


'You know, my wife likes watching movies.' Swati realised that her neighbour had been talking all along. 'Chalti ka naam gaadiAwaaraShri 420. Going to the movies used to be so wonderful! And then the VCRs arrived. And now, the DVDs. But my wife has not given in. Only last week we went to the multiplex to watch … what was it … they're all so forgettable, movies these days.'


In spite of her annoyance, Swati couldn’t help but notice how much this stranger talked of his wife. She remembered hearing Vilas’s conversations on the phone with his friends. She would wait for him to utter her name at least once. But he never did. It would upset her incredibly, but she never told him about her feelings either. What would she have said anyway?


'My wife is also a very good cook. Her chole, dosa … umm … vada, dhokla … She never compromises on a home-made meal. And her puran poli…'


'I have to go,' Swati muttered under her breath and squeezed past the man. The bus was now approaching its destination and she decided she should alight quickly so that the man couldn’t follow her. Others also moved towards the door, holding plastic bags, umbrellas, babies. She got down and made her way through the chaos at the Panaji bus stand. She had to take another hour long bus to reach Madgaon, her home for nine years of married life. She had walked for only a minute, when she realised that she’d forgotten to get her change back from the conductor. She chided herself as she looked for the counter to buy her next ticket. Her thoughts now went back to the old man.


Was it so wrong that he had talked to her about his life? Why couldn’t she have said at least something to him, perhaps about his wife, or Mumbai? Then again, why should she talk to strangers? Swati reached the ticket counter, only to be annoyed by the queue. A foreigner before her opened his bag and pulled out a swank tablet, reminding her of Vilas and his obsession with gadgets. That was Vilas’s world – his computer, iPad, cell phone, mp3 player…. Where did he have time for family life? For playing badminton with Samir in the garden? For a conversation with her about getting a modular kitchen installed? Before she could collect her thoughts, she was already at the beginning of the queue. She bought her ticket, boarded the bus, and sat by the window.


As the engine roared, she noticed that the seat next to her was empty. The bus took the road to Madgaon. She opened a book of short stories – the first one elaborately describing a beautiful wedding. She would have preferred to read about divorce, now that she'd made up her mind, she thought resentfully. She thought of her seven-year-old who was living with his father for the time being. She desperately hoped that the decision would be in her favour after the divorce was filed. She couldn’t bear the thought of being separated from her son, though she’d forced herself to move to another city because she needed to be away from her husband, and from the intruding questions of acquaintances. Besides, she wanted to protect Samir from having to witness their vicious fights. His gentle face was always agitated nowadays. His beautiful eyes glistened with tears. He never talked about the divorce, as if trying to believe that it wasn’t happening. His silence gnawed at her heart, took over her mind. She wondered if Vilas had convinced him not to talk to her. Or did her son find it impossible to accept that his mother wanted to leave his father?


Every once in a while, her mind wandered to the old man on the previous bus. More than the man though, she wondered about his wife; how she looked when she was young, and how they nurtured such a loving relationship. Now she wished she had talked to the man. But what if he had followed her? 


After the bus turned a familiar corner, Swati got down and walked towards home. What had been home, rather, she firmly told herself. She looked back on the troubled years of her married life. The darkness around her seemed to seep through her mind, painting those years in shades of grey. Her thoughts went back to the time when Vilas had started demanding a second child. She had vehemently fought him, because she wanted to focus on her career which she had put aside for Samir's sake. But he had argued, insisted, even insinuated that she was a bad mother, unable to understand that Samir needed a sibling. Their fights had taken over their lives, embittering their relationship so much that she began to resent everything about him. Swati remembered the occasions when Vilas had cursed her, screaming at the top of his voice, which always brought silent tears to Samir’s eyes. She remembered every disgusting word her husband had uttered. Words that had scarred her. Words she would never forget.


Trying to compose herself, she rang the bell. Was he showering after a day at work? And where was Samir? Finally, Shantabai opened the door. As Swati stepped in, she noticed Vilas peeping from the upper floor. His eyes rested on her but he said nothing. Swati didn’t know what to say either. She shifted her weight from one foot to another, hoping that Samir would come bounding down the stairs now, as he used to when she returned from the office. But she knew he wouldn’t come. She would have to go to him. When Vilas ignored her and walked away, she approached Samir’s room, trying to convince herself to be optimistic.


The door was closed. When Swati put her ear to it, she detected no movement inside. She paused, bracing herself, then pushed the door open. Samir was lying in bed on his stomach, his head nestled in a pillow, eyes closed. Was he asleep? Or pretending? Swati tiptoed to the bed and stood watching him. For a moment, she felt like a lonely, incapable goddess looking at her creation but unable to mould his life according to her wishes however much she tried. She could try again, she thought, and started to tickle him.


When Samir opened his eyes, she was reminded of her own, like old marbles which had lost their lustre. His silence wounded her. How he would delight her with peals of laughter when she would tickle him in the past, their voices resounding through the house, bouncing down the stairs, out into the garden. How they would both laugh and run around, Samir tickling her back, Swati pretending that it wasn’t affecting her at all till she burst out laughing. All that was over now. He merely opened his eyes and pushed her away. 'How are the puppies?' she asked. He did not answer, staring at the ceiling. Swati wanted to smile at her son, but couldn’t get herself to. At times like this, she wished that Vilas and she had mended their relationship somehow. Tired, she sat beside her son, wondering whether she should get on with collecting her books instead. Just then, she saw Vilas at the door.


'How’s the new project?' she asked, not having anything else to say.


'Why do you ask anyway?' he replied. Swati chose to remain quiet, not wanting to revisit the same old meandering arguments. She didn’t want another fight in Samir’s presence.


'I came for my books,' she finally said. Not having the courage to say it with her son looking at her, she had turned her back to him.


Vilas left the room, as if he hadn’t heard her. Swati knew what she had to do now. Mechanically, she reached for the cardboard boxes she had stored in Samir’s room, and walked out without turning to look at his reaction. One by one, she picked out her books and stacked them in the boxes. When she couldn't resolve whether a book belonged to her or Vilas, she left it on the rack. After taping up the boxes, she carried them down the stairs, and arranged them neatly by the door. Then she rushed out and hailed an autorickshaw. Returning to the house, she thought of seeing her son again, but couldn’t muster up the courage. Worn out, she piled the boxes in the autorickshaw, and proceeded back towards the bus stand.


On her way back to her new residence, the bus reverberated with the blare of its raucous engine overpowering the silent night. Swati’s thoughts spread through her mind like a tangle of knotted creepers. Memories of her arguments with Vilas appeared, as if she were watching the same movie for the umpteenth time. She remembered the day she’d come home with a second prize in a poetry contest, eager to disclose the news to him like a little child.  But when she told him, he didn’t even look up from his computer, muttering congratulations under his breath. She refused to talk to him the entire day, and finally consoled herself that no marriage was perfect. She could live with their routine fights, which had become a way of life. But when Vilas began to insist that they have a second child, their differences stormed through their marriage, till they could no longer salvage it from the wreckage.


Trying to take her mind off the past, she revisited the events of the evening like a schoolteacher going over her prepared lesson. She worried about her deteriorating relationship with her son. Overwhelmed by her emotions, she instructed herself to forget it all. But her thoughts wouldn’t relent, clinging to her like parasites, feeding off her insecurity, her anger, her melancholy. They engulfed her, sapping her of all her energy, as if she were drowning in a sad, confusing dream sucking her into its vortex.


She took a quick breath and looked out of the window at a bus stop. The dark night stared back at her with vacant eyes. She only wanted to talk. Just about anyone would do. He wouldn’t even have to talk to her. Only listen to her, hear her out without interrupting the flow of her thoughts.


Just then, she thought she heard a voice behind her. 'When is your birthday, Madam?' she heard, and turned around sharply. But there was no one there. She looked towards the door, hoping that the stranger would be walking in. But by now, the bus had already started.



Neeta Deshpande is a freelance writer based in Bengaluru.