by Rrashima Swaroop Verma
Her favourite lamb curry that I had cooked for dinner was fast congealing in the pot. I glanced at my watch for the third time in ten minutes, then picked up my mobile and speed dialed her. Just like before, it went to voice mail. Strange! It was so unlike her not to answer my call. Outside the steady downpour was becoming a deluge. The sky had darkened, and I could hear the distant rumbling of thunder, almost like an ominous warning.
Ria and I live in a leafy neighbourhood in upscale Koramangala, in Bengaluru, approximately one and a half hours from the airport. She should have been home by now. Trying to push the thought away, I attempted to distract myself with the painting I was working on. Usually, when I retire to paint in my studio after dinner, I’m too absorbed in my work to think about much else but with Ria still not home, it was impossible to concentrate. Just then, the doorbell rang. Even as I dashed towards the door, I knew it wasn’t her. A premonition, as though something earth shattering was about to happen, engulfed me as I swung open the door.
“Mr. Sandeep Varghese?” A somber looking cop in a raincoat stood in the foyer. My heart plummeted as I tried to control the anxiety that was suddenly rising up inside me.
“Yes?” It was barely a whisper.
“I’m sorry to inform you that Ms. Nair has had an accident.” She’d insisted on keeping her maiden name. Somehow, this banal thought struck me before I could absorb what the cop had said.
“What happened?” I managed to utter.
“Her car was hit by a trailer. She’s in hospital with a serious head injury. You were listed as one of her emergency contacts on a card in her wallet.”
The next ten minutes were a blur. The cop solicitously informed me that I wasn’t in a state to drive and a police vehicle would take me to the hospital. On the way to the hospital, waves of panic swept over me as I fought to stay calm. Less than an hour later, I was at the hospital. I have never liked hospitals. The smells, the sounds, the general feeling of gloom and anxiety seem to heighten my fears and misgivings.
I was almost numb with dread and apprehension by the time I entered the eerily quiet Intensive Care Unit of the hospital. ICU. Enough to understand that she was seriously hurt. I approached her bed, trying to prepare myself for the worst. Strangely, despite the heavy bandages that were swathed around her head and the complex web of wires attached to various monitors and machines that seemed to besiege her, she looked oddly peaceful. I stared at her incredulously, my mind stubbornly refusing to believe what had happened. An image of the last time I had seen her, filled my mind. Vibrant, beautiful. Exuding life. I couldn’t believe it had only been five days. I was wondering whether I was allowed to touch her when suddenly, I noticed a man sitting in a chair by her bed, crying softly. Tall, lanky and well dressed, he had a good head of salt and pepper hair and looked distinguished. I wondered who he was. I couldn’t recall meeting him before and was just about to speak to him when a doctor in scrubs approached us.
“Who is Ms. Nair’s husband?”
Simultaneously, we both put our hands up. Almost like two children in a classroom who both know the answer. The doctor looked at us quizzically. I looked puzzled at first and so did the other man. We stared at each other, both of us looking more than a little stunned.
“Who are you?” I demanded then, stuttering with rage.
“I’m Ria’s husband. We’ve been married for eleven years. Who are you?”
The man sounded as furious as me and we glared at each other irately as the doctor started speaking to both of us. It wasn’t his problem to figure out who the husband was. He had to get the message across.
“The head injury has caused severe trauma to the brain. She’s in a coma,” he said gravely.
“Will she live?” I asked before the other man could. He suddenly looked like he was in shock.
The doctor hesitated for a moment before answering. ‘I’m not going to mince words. She’s hanging on by a thread. Anyhow, for now we have to try and stop the swelling. I’d suggest you……’ He looked at both of us “Both of you, have a cup of coffee and try to stay calm. It’s going to be a long night.”
Fifteen minutes later, I was sitting in the waiting lounge when my wife’s other husband approached me. He looked as drained as I felt.
“Would you like to get a cup of coffee? I think we need to talk.”
I knew we did. I stood up and together we walked towards the hospital cafeteria.
It was a long night. Over sandwiches and coffee, Sunil Verma and I poured out our stories to each other. I learnt that Ria had a home in Mumbai as well where she lived with her other husband. It explained her more than frequent traveling to Mumbai. I’d always assumed that it was because her company’s headquarters were in Mumbai but had never imagined in my wildest dreams that she had a home and husband there as well. “Didn’t you ever suspect anything?” I asked Sunil Verma then.
“Why would I have? 60% of her clients are in Bengaluru. I traveled down with her this time. I had to go on to Cochin for work and was still at the airport when her sister called me about the accident. I guess Ria was on her way home to you. Apparently, her sister and you were listed as her emergency persons. She obviously trusted you to be there for her more than me.” He must have been hurt by this discrimination but he didn’t show it.
“I didn’t even know she has a sister. I thought she was an only child,” I confessed then.
“Her sister lives in Mumbai.” Admittedly, he knew more about her than I did. But then he’d known her longer.
I listened on with amazement while he told me about her miscarriages, her desperation to be a mother and her subsequent depression.
“She told me she doesn’t want kids,” I couldn’t help saying then. I felt like shaking her awake and confronting her right then. Despite her current state, I was livid with her. The deception, the betrayal was too much to bear. “Why did she do this?” I suddenly blurted out.
Sunil Verma removed his spectacles and massaged his eyes with his fingertips as he sighed. “I don’t know. She was depressed and I was intensely busy. I had just started a new business. I have to admit that I wasn’t around a lot of the time. And the ten years age difference between us didn’t help. She was very young when we got married.” He seemed more accepting of the situation.
Amazingly, after a while I could sense an unspoken camaraderie develop between Sunil and me. Incredible though it was, I wasn’t angry with this man. I wasn’t even jealous of him. After all, none of this was his fault. He was as much a victim as I was. Strangely, he seemed like a kindred spirit.
I don’t know how many cups of coffee we drank that night but at least I was alert when the doctor told us that the operation had been successful. Well, as successful as it could have been. At least Ria didn’t die that night, but she was still in a coma.
Weeks flew by and Sunil shifted base to Bangalore during that period. He said he owed it to Ria to be there for her. Despite everything, we both felt a sense of responsibility toward her while she lay there, helpless. Sometimes we wondered if she understood what was happening and it almost made me laugh out loud. Seeing us both together like this must be her worst nightmare come true. I alternated between feelings of rage and pity for her, my mind a muddled labyrinth of emotions.
It was a beautiful autumn afternoon, nine weeks after the accident. The leaves were changing colour and everything was blooming outside. Sunil was attending a telephone call in the waiting lounge in the hospital. All was quiet except for the occasional sound of footsteps in the corridor and the beeping of the monitors attached to Ria’s immobile body. I was sitting by her bed, painting. I suddenly felt something change in the room and when I looked up, I almost gasped in shock. She was looking at me, her eyes alert for the first time in weeks. I don’t know if I imagined it, but it seemed to me that her expression was repentant, as though she was apologising to me. Then I saw her flex her fingers and she reached out and squeezed my hand. Her hand felt claw like in mine, but I was too stunned to react. Then she suddenly looked exhausted as though even that had been too much effort. She sighed heavily, her eyelids fluttered, and she closed her eyes. Instantly, I sprung to my feet calling for the doctor, shouting, weeping. By the time the doctor and Sunil rushed into the room, she was gone.
“But she looked at me, she squeezed my hand, she did!” I exclaimed, “Do something!”
The doctor made a commiserating sound. “Perhaps it was what we call the last spark. It’s not uncommon for the brain to surge with activity just before death. She’s gone, Sandeep. I’m sorry.”
Six months have passed. I can’t say life is back to normal, I don’t even know if it ever will be. Admittedly, I have not been able to completely forgive Ria, the betrayal is too enormous, and it has affected my ability to trust anyone again. As Sunil and I get on with our lives, trying to get back to normalcy, trying to cope, trying to live, we have grown to become friends, however crazy that may sound. After all, nobody else can truly understand what it was like to love Ria, what it was like to hate her, to see her slowly wither away as we watched helplessly and what it was like, to finally see her die.