That morning, Madhuri, standing in front of the mirror finished combing her hair. She thought she didn’t look 60 which was her age. She was still good-looking despite having lost some teeth, and it was only her graying hair which really made her look older. The pressure cooker now sounded, and she went into the kitchen to attend to it. She then prepared soup for Anand. Carrying the hot soup, some bread and vegetable salad, she went to the other wing of the house and knocked on the door. Anand’s faint voice came asking her to enter, and she went in.
He was seated on an easy-chair wearing a housecoat as it was a bit cold. Magazines and newspapers were strewn around him on the floor. Despite his bald head and sunken face, he didn’t look unhandsome. As she put the dishes on the dining table, Anand said “Madhuri, I’m not feeling too hungry.”
“But you’ve to take some nourishment or you’ll grow even weaker.” He had a variety of ailments, and had recently retired from active life.
Casting aside his housecoat, he got up and sat at the table. He was in his shirt and vest, and she noted he had thinned down a lot. She stood watching as he tasted the soup. She would never sit with him on equal terms unless specifically asked to. He said “Soup tastes nice. I’ll again repeat, I’m indeed lucky I’ve you to look after my home at this stage in life.” She smiled. She said “You finish. I’ll come back with the fruit.” She carried the papaya to him and said “I’ve arranged your medicines for the day in the pill box according to the hour.”
He finished his food, got up and said “ Madhuri, I’m going to sleep for a while. My auditor might call. Tell him there’s no hurry, and I’ll talk to him after I’ve decided.”
Madhuri cleaned the table, closed the door and went back. She now sat to lunch. As she ate, she got a call from her daughter Neetu who was married and lived with her husband in another suburb of the city. Mother and daughter chatted for a while, when Madhuri gave her daughter a bulletin on Anand’s health as usual. Then she sat down to watch TV. There was a movie on one of the channels which caught her attention. As she watched, a woman loses her husband after a surgical procedure in a hospital. Madhuri felt it was unnecessary to dwell at such length on scenes of death and mourning in the movie. It reminded her of the death of her husband Vinay. His body too had come home from the hospital…. . Too painful to contemplate! She switched off the TV and went for a siesta. But she was interrupted by the auditor’s call, for which she had the answer ready. She knew what it was about, as Anand had told her: He was a wealthy man, and in view of his chronic ill-health, had decided to draw up a will.As she now lay in bed, she felt a sense of pride in being in Anand’s house, running it, practically taking the late Mrs.Anand’s place. How long will I continue here? She shrugged off that aspect from her mind not wanting to think about the future.
A few days later, Anand said “Madhuri, I don’t feel well. The doctor has suggested that I enter hospital for investigation. I’ll be there a couple of days from tomorrow.”
After Anand’s return, he didn’t say anything about the result of the tests at the hospital. Madhuri too, not wanting to pry, didn’t ask about it. But one day as she was rendering accounts to Anand, he said abruptly “I’ve cancer. I could last anywhere from 4 to 18 months.” She was silent.
Anand was often in pain. That day he called Madhuri and said very unusually “Why don’t you talk to me? I’m bored.”
Should she talk to him about the past? Why not? She said “My mind always recalls the old days when my family had lived opposite your farmhouse outside the city. You would come there. The very first time I saw you, I fell in love with you. But my parents told me we were inferior in social status compared to you. So I would be largely restrained in moving with you.”
“ Despite it, you were my benefactor. It was you who had arranged my marriage with Vinay. You had presented me with a costly gold chain as a wedding present.”
“I too had a great fascination for you. My wife was nowhere compared to you in beauty and figure. May be if I had married you, we could’ve had children. My wife was overly obese. The doctors had said she wouldn’t conceive.”
Madhuri was silent for a long while. Then she said with hesitation “You’ve a daughter. My daughter Neetu is yours too. She’s a love child of our making. You remember that week before my marriage? We were intimate together.”
“Sure. I was alone in the house at that time. All the staff had been given off to attend the fair.”
“I married Vinay shortly afterwards. Neetu was born short of 9 months later. I knew I was pregnant when I had married Vinay.”
He asked “Does Neetu know?”
“Nobody knows. Nobody will ever know.”
“I’m glad you told me at least at this stage.” He paused and said “Normally a woman who gets pregnant that way, would’ve threatened the man with exposure to get…..”
“I was too much in love with you. I could’ve never brought myself to blackmail you, or prevent you from marrying in keeping with your social status.”
“I appreciate the nobility of your thinking.”
3 weeks later, Anand lay in bed almost in a coma. A male nurse attended to him as he had refused to be admitted into hospital. The doctor visited him, and felt the end was near. After Anand died, when she was alone with the body, Madhuri, with copious tears flowing down her cheeks, gave him a last kiss.
The doctor certified that Anand had died of cancer. Nobody knew that to end the misery of the man she loved dearly, Madhuri had been substituting placebos in the pillbox in place of life prolonging medicines. That had hastened his departure from the world. She later came to know that Anand had left much of his wealth to Neetu. Madhuri had lied saying Neetu was Anand’s love child. She was really Vinay’s daughter. Madhuri had cleverly made it appear that Neetu was Anand’s daughter so that she would inherit!
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