The following story has been published in Issue 13 of the Wells Street Journal
It was 5 a.m. on a Sunday in the city of Mumbai, and the car honks, muezzins’ call to prayer, and Asian koels’ rhythmic humming were beginning to pack action into the day. The dawn was a few minutes from colouring the city’s landscape, which was pronounced with the heaviness of smoke and grime. The relatively silent hour before the milkmen would begin to compulsively strike the rusty bell mounted on the handlebar of their bicycles, to signal their arrival to their daily customers, and after the stray dogs had retreated to their neighbourhoods following a night of quarreling with other strays, was the only time the city truly ever breathed. As chaos was beginning to spread across the length and breadth of the city, the Sharma household was comfortably tucked into the slumber of the dark, ignorant of the telephone that finally fell silent after buzzing intermittently through the night without any luck, and the disruption that a new day, amidst the growing chaos of the city, was to bring in their lives.
The master bedroom was a landscape bearing a series of steady movements. The large family portrait, which hung on the wall behind the bed, gently oscillated every time the vent of the air conditioner moved up the frame of the bed. The baby, who had rolled over to the edge of the bed, tugged at his mother’s blanket looking for the comfort of her touch. The ticking of the antiquated wall clock steadily matched the pace of Sheena’s snoring, which alternated with light wheezing, before the doorbell went off in successive chimes. As the echo of the unexpected doorbell lingered through the house, Sheena sat up with a jerk, wide awake, before pulling her baby in an embrace. The momentariness of silence following the echo was replaced with loud cries of the baby, as Sheena flung the blanket on the other side of the bed and paced out of the room, banging the door shut, as the family portrait that hung on the wall started making more rapid movements. The doors of the house opened to a bout of hot air and an old man lurking at the entrance. On a regular day, Sheena would have been rocking her infant to sleep after nursing him, to soothe his nocturnal hunger cries, while narrating stories about his father’s bravery in the war zone. The expression of the man waiting at the doorstep was anything but what Sheena would have expected. After anticipating the purpose of his presence, Sheena’s eyes, reflecting fear, tried to avoid him, and instead looked at the sky, as if they were conditioned to look for the unpleasantness that came with the darkness of the hour.
The door remained partially open, as Sheena put her foot back into the house in as unhurried a manner as possible. After walking a few steps in the hallway, her body succumbed to the floor, when her feet could no longer hold her. Sheena’s face remained expressionless, as the words she had just heard reverberated in her ears. Your husband has become a martyr. He was killed last night at the LoC. Her face bore the same stillness that the house was in before the tolling of the bells. The words Sheena had just heard swept the ground off her feet and all she did was fix her eyes to the ground. The news that she had been dreading, from the time she decided to marry a soldier, had finally arrived. It was a piece of information that was soon going to alter the reality of her life, as the widow of a martyr. Her infant would grow up without ever having seen his father. The picture that his mind would paint of his father would only depict him as a proud son of his land, a soldier who put his nation above everything else, a martyr who laid down his life to protect the dignity of his country’s soil, and a proud husband who let his loyalty and commitment to his duties precede him. The arrival of the Sunday newspapers in the house, through the gap between the door and the floor, marked the onset of dawn. Cars, scooters and buses were back, bringing liveliness and noise and back to the streets, almost hiding an ambulance in broad daylight. A martyr had united with his family one last time, before returning to the soil of his motherland. As the sunlight became more prominent, the number of people at Sheena’s house kept increasing. Men and women, dressed in white, bore expressions of surprise and grief upon entering the premises of her residence, while practicing the customary namaste. Sheena’s face continued to bear stillness, as she remained oblivious to the growing crowd in the hallway and sat motionless next to her husband’s body, as if she was showing her undying commitment to her role as his better half, even after his soul had transcended the worldly barriers. The man who had borne the responsibility of telling Sheena that she had been widowed, was growing increasingly worried looking at Sheena, who hadn’t given any reaction to the news of her husband’s death until this time. I beg you daughter, please say something. Cry as loud as you want, but please react. The martyr was laid on the funeral pyre for his final procession, after his body was rinsed with warm water and a new pair of white clothes was slipped on. The face of the dead soldier looked every bit tranquil, suggesting the sense of pride that came with his sacrifice. The visitors stood up to pay their final respects to the departed soul by standing in silence, while garlands of white and orange marigolds, festooned with tulsi leaves, adorned the hands of the martyr’s kin. The sound of loud chants soon filled the air, as everyone in the crowd sought eternal peace for the dead. Sheena continued to remain grounded and unfazed by the crowd’s repeated attempts to talk her out of the situation, and distract her from her aimless staring, to get her to express her grief. Cotton plugs were pulled out of the nose and ears of the dead body, and the men around waited to shoulder the martyr and take him to his final place of rest. The women of the family tried to shake Sheena up, until one of them stood up to give one last shot at getting her to react, before her husband was sent off. The infant, who was fast asleep, was placed between Sheena and her husband. The baby’s face gave a glimpse of dried tears that had left marks all over his face, as he tried to move about helplessly soon after he was laid on the bare marble flooring. For once, Sheena’s eyes moved from the ground to her baby; a baby that was desperately looking for the comfort of his mother’s warmth, as he was exposed to the cold and harsh surface of the floor. No longer able to see her child’s pain, Sheena scooped him up in her embrace, thus interrupting her long phase of stillness. Just as the baby clutched his mother’s arm, the air was filled with the sound of heavy gasps. Sheena’s cries reverberated through the house. The visitors expressed their relief in a huge sigh, as tears rolled down Sheena’s eyes. As her husband set of on the final procession, the afternoon sun hid under a blanket of grey skies. The entire city saluted their nation’s hero.