When her mother-in-law died, Prem took up the task to clear her belongings. There was really not much else she could do. Nobody could help her out because she was still in quarantine, and the thought of everything remaining untouched for too long spooked her. The sooner she could clear out everything, the better it would be, she thought. There was also a level of curiosity since she had never seen any of Sumitra’s belongings before. Prem had been married for five years, but Sumitra was still a bit of a mystery. She never let Prem into her room until the very end, and frequently slammed the door shut if she caught the whispers of Prem’s footsteps closing in. It annoyed her sometimes. She felt like an intruder in the house that was supposed to be hers, which made her feel resentful.
The virus caught Sumitra and Prem quickly. One day they had gone shopping, and the next, they were cooped up with the results staring them in their faces. Prem’s husband was away and was advised not to return to the house. Sumitra got bad fast, barely giving her time to process that she had caught something that haunted her since it came into existence. She couldn’t breathe and Prem had to call an ambulance to take her to the hospital. But Prem herself was not allowed out of the house until the virus left her. Two days ago, she woke up to a call from her husband informing her that his mother had died. There was no funeral. She couldn’t see anyone for another week.
Could it really be? She thought. Is she really gone?
Prem didn’t know how to feel.
She thought she was the best person to clear everything because it would be uncomplicated for her. How much sentiment could the process really involve? Of course, she was sad that Sumitra had died, but things were just things, and Prem had no connection to hers. Clearing was supposed to be easier because… well, she had never seen most of the things before. None of the items evoked any nostalgia for her, and a tattered sweater and cracked spectacles were just that. Nothing more. There was no lingering or sighing as she had done when she uncovered things that belonged to her father in her childhood home. She didn’t press any objects to her soul with the hope that she would be pulled back in time. It was easy tossing them into bin bags that would move miles away, overnight.
Still, as she sat in Sumitra’s room, it was strange to think that she was holding Sumitra’s hand five days ago as the paramedics carried her out. Sumitra tried to squeeze Prem’s hand, but she didn’t have the energy. As they strapped her into the ambulance, Prem thought Sumitra told her thank you as she waved goodbye, but she wasn’t sure how true that was.
Sumitra was a hoarder, but Prem never realised to what extent until she sat on the floor of her room with piles of ancient Quality Street boxes, filled with keys that opened lost doors and watches that fell victim to time. Each drawer unravelled more pieces of a past that Prem had no place in. Soon enough, though, she was putting together slivers of Sumitra’s enigmatic life, but she was not there to tell her what any of it meant. And it hurt.
She was not there.
It was her room, her bed, her letters. But not her.
She wouldn’t be coming back.
Prem missed her?
She opened a drawer and found a pair of trousers. They were hers. A rude push into the past revealed a memory.
She was looking for the trousers everywhere. She had worn them the week before. Where had they disappeared?
“Mum, have you seen my linen trousers? The beige ones I bought recently?”
“Nai.” Sumitra huffed, not meeting Prem’s gaze. “How am I supposed to see them anyway? I never know what you buy and when. And I never ask either.”
Prem started to get annoyed and decided to leave before she said anything she would regret. Sometimes, it was exhausting for her to “control her tongue.” She had never put so much thought into the consequences of her words until she met Sumitra. She never knew what it meant to be a daughter-in-law. Not loved enough to be forgiven and not hated enough to be forgotten. It was a bittersweet dance, adjusting to life with another woman.
“Never say anything rude to your mother-in-law. She’s not me”, her mother’s voice rang in her ears. “Ik chup, sau sukh.” A moment of silence, a lifetime of happiness.
Prem was back on the floor of Sumitra’s room that smelled distinctly of old age and dusty coats being masked by a floral detergent and the sharp pinch of disinfectant. The garbage bag was brimming with Prem’s unbelonging. She pulled out another bag with a grumble, and as she mindlessly grabbed things and dumped them into the bag, a box stumbled out of the cupboard. The top was filled with what seemed like random receipts from old holidays. Prem let out an audible sigh of frustration, not understanding the need to keep receipts from the ‘70s and ’80s. She gathered all the receipts and dumped them on one side. The next layer was torn-up letters and postcards. Her curiosity resurfaced. She always read every letter she came across. So far, she had found raunchy love letters, heavy accusations, and banality in words written by others long gone.
Words and pictures were valuable to Prem, even if they were not hers. Prem believed that there was always a story if she looked hard enough, and she loved stories. Sumitra was also privy to Prem’s undying love for them. After piecing the torn letters together, she realised they were all addressed to her late father-in-law, but none written by Sumitra.
1989. Finland. Thinking of you.
1993. India. I hope you find happiness.
1999. Tokyo. Thank you for the lovely memories.
Not even one from her mother-in-law.
Prem met her husband’s father two years before he died. By that time, he had suffered three strokes, was permanently disabled, and could not speak. The man she knew and the man who nurtured her husband were apparently two completely different people. In his prime, Kulwant Singh was a larger-than-life genius. Towards the end, even incoherent communication had become difficult for him. He would burst out crying, refuse to eat, and get frustrated when taken out of bed. Perhaps he remembered himself in those moments. Vivid, loud, a sense of humour that could bring down the mightiest, and a mind that could keep them there. When Prem looked for clues about the person her father-in-law had been in her husband’s eyes, she only saw a swarm of pain as he tried not to grieve a father that was still alive.
Sumitra looked after Kulwant tremendously through his illness. Prem always wondered whether it was love or duty that kept her going. It was difficult to tell with brown women of Sumitra’s generation. Was she there because she wanted to be or because she had nowhere else to go? Was there a difference? Either way, Sumitra always did more than what was expected of her when it came to Kulwant.
A few weeks before Kulwant’s death, Prem heard Sumitra scream at the top of her lungs. Her husband’s face dropped with panic, and he ran; the only word he could muster was dad. In the kitchen, Sumitra was chopping tomatoes like nothing had happened, and Kulwant sat on his wheelchair with tears streaming down his face.
“What happened?” Prem asked reluctantly, feeling awkward that she stumbled into something that she wasn’t supposed to witness.
“I’m tired,” Sumitra mumbled after a moment’s silence.
“I’m tired. I can’t do this anymore.”
When Kulwant lay in the hospital, seemingly at the end of the road, the family was asked about life support. A 75-year-old stroke victim, who couldn’t walk or talk, with a compromised immune system, fighting an infection that had damaged most of his organs. Was he going to go on life support? All heads turned to the woman whose opinion mattered most.
“We’ve suffered enough.” She spoke.
Grief has a way of aging people immensely. Prem had seen it with her grandmother, her mother, and all the women in her life that had been left behind. She saw it in her own face when she thought of her father, and she saw it in Sumitra while her husband was still alive. But when he died, and Prem looked at her face, Sumitra looked like a scared little girl, just as she had as she was being taken away to the hospital. Sumitra spent months figuring out how to live without being needed. She’d walk up and down the corridors of the house that felt so tiny just a few months ago as she would struggle to push her husband in his bulky wheelchair. Suddenly, her five foot frame felt too small for the lofty ceilings that she never paid attention to before. It was strange. She spent close to half a century in this house, and she felt like she was noticing it for the very first time.
“I can still hear him calling for me.” She’d say out of the blue.
“Yes, you spent a long time doing a lot for him.” Prem would reply.
The final layer of the box consisted of pictures of attractive women whom Kulwant was handsomely in awe of. There were two copies of each picture, one was the whole version, and one was the product of what she imagined was rage because they were violently chopped and ripped down the middle.
As Prem spread out all the contents of the box, the jigsaw came together.
1989. Finland. Thinking of you.
He is holding a woman in a beautiful black dress. His hands rest firmly on her back, and she leans into his shoulders perfectly.
1993. India. I hope you find happiness.
Receipts of laundry bills. One men’s shirt. One brassiere. Bills for breakfast for two in bed.
He stands behind a woman with slender and shiny legs. Her face is glowing, and her smile is wide. Prem recognises the way Kulwant looks at the woman. She’s seen the same spark of desire in her husband’s eyes many times before.
1999. Tokyo. Thank you for the lovely memories.
A woman in a sheer purple blouse shyly places her hands over her mouth. He has his arm around her, the other hand on a thigh belonging to someone else.
The windows were wide open, but the breeze had halted. Prem needed to get out of the room. The air within those four walls was laden with some type of anguish she had never felt before.
Prem thought about how Sumitra indulged her with bits and pieces of her family history. Talking about the past was easy for both. She missed those times when as the clock struck 4.00pm, the two of them would gather from their corners of the house, put the kettle on for tea, and Sumitra would narrate to her whatever memory was reaching out from the dusty pages of the past. Perhaps it was easy for her to speak to someone that was not there from the beginning. A claim about someone’s personality was just a matter of fact, not a personal attack or an insult to memory. She could do what Sumitra’s children couldn’t- listen without feeling. In those moments, they weren’t mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. None of the labels that society gave them mattered. They were just two women listening to each other and reminiscing freely about lives that neither had lived.
Sumitra’s voice began playing in her head. She saw her step out of old photographs where she smiled so freely. She could see her spin her way through the room in a flowy pink salwar kameez and sit down to tell her a story.
For brown girls born in the 1940s, growing up in a small community in Kenya, choice was a strange concept. They didn’t choose anything. Everything was chosen for them. Where they studied, for how long, whom they married, and even when they had children. Lives never belonged to those that were supposedly living them. That was the era that Sumitra was from.
Of course, she went to an all-girls school. Segregated from the white and African girls her age. The only time these girls would see and communicate with people who looked different to them was during sporting tournaments.
“I loved the tournaments.” Prem remembered Sumitra saying, her eyes filled with a spark of yearning.
“I loved playing sports, and I loved winning!” Sumitra would chuckle. For the briefest moment, she was a teenager again.
“But I had to hide, you know. My brothers couldn’t find out that I was competing. They especially couldn’t find out that I was wearing shorts while competing!”
Suddenly, Prem had become a confidant as her mother-in-law recounted forbidden adventures of shaving her legs in her school bathroom and dumping the evidence so nobody would find out. She was the second youngest child of five sisters and two brothers. The town they lived in was prone to gossip, so she had to watch her back constantly. Lucky for her, on the occasions that she would get caught, the patriarch of the family would ignore all accusations that came up. She was his favourite, after all. The only daughter he called Baby. The only one who reminded him of his favourite sister, who died long before any of his children were born.
During one of these adrenaline-filled tournaments, her victorious high was cut short by a new referee when he called a foul after she scored a goal in field hockey. The audacity, she thought. She sized this new referee. His turban was starched and white, his beard was not shaped, and his frame was lanky at best. What did he know anyway? Her protest went unheard. Sulking, she decided that revenge was the only remedy to her embarrassment. She slashed the tyres on his bicycle.
The next week the tense exchange repeated itself on the pitch. When she made her way to his bicycle again, he caught her red-handed.
“What decent Sikh girl goes around slashing tyres like this?”
“What decent Sikh boy calls out fouls when there are none?”
The reparations were easily agreed upon. A thermos of coffee under the shade of acacia trees, while watching flamingos take flight over the clear waters of Lake Nakuru. This arrangement continued for the next five years. Somehow, the Ambarsariya boy from Kitale met the Lahori girl from Nyahururu and under the African sun, their love story began. In some of the letters that Kulwant wrote to Sumitra after their weekly rendezvous, the events of their meeting were concealed behind ellipsis or phrases of desire. This made Prem blush, thinking of what it meant. A choice was made, and for the first time in her life, it was Sumitra’s.
The ’70s roared into being, and Sumitra turned 21. It was time, her family insisted, that a suitable match was found. Her father was criticised by his sons for allowing her to live alone in the next town, working and getting ideas of independence. After all, no decent family wants a daughter-in-law that knows too much. This arrangement had to end.
She was summoned home, put in a bright yellow salwar kameez, and handed a tray of tea for the guests who had arrived from Nairobi. The red flags flew high, and she guessed what was going on. She had to hit her shot. Before being thrust into the battlefield, she stated to her mother in the bluntest way possible, “I’ve already found someone.”
Her brothers were appalled. How could she just choose for herself? Sumitra felt fear lump together in her legs. After everything that had happened, how could she marry someone else? Something had to be done. She approached her brothers later and condemned them. “Have you forgotten all the letters I’d deliver to the girls both of you fancied before you got married?” This time, the goal was clearly in.
“After five years of hide and seek with the world, we can finally be out in the open.” Kulwant wrote to her a week before their wedding date. “Yes, you will be in my arms, my home and bed forever now… oh! Sumi, meri jaan! I just cannot believe it at times… I hope and pray it stays like this forever.”
Prem’s discoveries brought forward a part of Sumitra that she had only ever seen for the briefest moments in the past. A part of her that she hid with immense effort. Despite difficult moments between them, she knew they always chose to put things aside and move on. As if they felt that holding on to a grudge would strip them of the moments they shared where they could travel back in time.
She wasn’t the type to harbour many regrets, but at that moment, her deepest one was that she could never understand what Sumitra’s struggles had been. She could never break down the barriers of age and expectations to see her as a girl who dove headfirst into love, not knowing, or caring where it would take her. She could never tell her that she had also been that girl.
The contents of the box stared back at Prem, as if ashamed to have been discovered. She looked around Sumitra’s room, and as her eyes lay on the clock, she realised it was 4.00 pm. She got up, put the kettle on, and realised that this was the last story Sumitra was ever going to tell her.
As she watched the contents of the box go up in flames, she thought about how Sumitra’s body didn’t get this. It didn’t get the flames, the prayers, the tears. So, she gathered all of it. All the bags that were filled with fragments of Sumitra’s life. She emptied them all in the middle of the courtyard where Sumitra would sit and dry her hair, and the flames leaped up to touch Sumitra wherever she was. Prem sat down on the floor, and the tears flowed freely from her heart. As her unbelonging burnt away, she cried for all that was and all that could never be. For Sumitra, herself, and what they had lost. What she had gained.
About the Author:
Tanisha Mehta is a writer based in Nairobi, Kenya. A graduate of Broadcast Journalism and Gender Studies, she seeks stories of identity and belonging and explores telling them in a variety of ways through The Watu Project. Her work has been published by The Partition Museum, Amritsar. A fourth generation Kenyan of Indian Origin, she lives with her husband, three dogs, and an inheritance of identities that cross time and space.
Featured image by MichaelGaida / Pixabay