It had seemed like any other Saturday when she had woken up.
She had thrown open the kitchen window.
The kitchen faced the east. A streak of golden light turned the vessels to gold. It awoke in her a memory of childhood when the vessels at home had been golden in colour. Now all was clay or steel. She rinsed a large container, set the rice to cook and started cutting beans and carrots. A change was in order. The same red rice and veg curries were such a bore after a while. Today, it would be fried rice and chicken curry. Saturdays were better than other days because Abhijith got back by 2 pm from work. But Sundays were the best of all because they woke late, relaxed in bed all morning and went out for a movie in the evening. She switched on her morning radio programme. There were a few plates and dishes in the sink. She had left them for the morning. A movie song of her youth filled the sun-lit kitchen. My jasmine bud, will you blossom for me tonight? She had blossomed, for Abhijith. She remembered the passionate words and deeds of their young days. Youth. Had it drained away like the water in the sink? She was thirty-four now, neither here nor there. She scanned her reflection shimmering on the glass door of the cabinet. Not bad, she thought, reassured. Still youthful, pretty, desirable.
How she missed her friends in the office! Geena, Monica, Shekar-they were far away, now that she had joined her husband, who had been transferred to this city far from her place of work. It was too far for her to commute. He had fretted after a couple of months alone in the flat he had rented. No home-cooked food, no company. He had urged her to resign and join him. But she had hesitated. So, they had settled for a compromise. Two years of leave. She was on leave, Leave Without Allowances, as they termed it. She had joined him in the flat less than a month back.
It was good to be with Abhijit again; he was a sunny-tempered human being and great company. But in the long daytime, she was lonely—no fun with colleagues, no friends, no companions.
Abhijit has left for work as usual, at half-past nine. All the cooking is done. The waste is sorted. Now to deposit the two bags in the bins on the landing. Sweta opens the front door and crosses to the containers squatting like enormous frogs. One green. One brown. As she pushes one bag into the brown one, something sharp rears up from it and pierces her right middle finger. Blood starts flowing from it, dripping on to the bag and the floor. The condensed milk can; that jagged edge. When would they learn to make a can with smooth edges? She presses her bleeding finger helplessly.
That is when a woman lets herself out of the flat opposite hers
Something about Sweta's awkward stance alerts her. The woman comes swiftly up to Sweta and looks at the blood staining the grey floor.
"You must stanch the flow and put some antiseptic on it," she exclaims.
Sweta looks at her, still a little dizzy.
They walk into her flat together, Sweta and the strange woman. The woman puts her shoulder bag on the table and turns to Sweta…
In no time, the bleeding has stopped. The wound has been neatly dressed.
"Thank you," Sweta says. "It is kind of you. Have a soft drink or some tea."
The woman motions these choices away.
She smiles and says, "I must be going. I have another music class at noon."
But Sweta makes her stay a few minutes more. She likes this stranger, her modestly-draped sari, her neatly clipped hair, her air of refinement. She seems to be about the same age as Sweta. Maybe she will become a friend. The woman says her name is Rema. She earns her living by taking music classes. She lives on the city's outskirts and has an old mother and an ailing father to support.
"I must go now!" Rema exclaims, looking at the big round clock on the wall. Sweta has almost forgotten her finger.
As they wait for the lift, she asks Rema, "Who is your pupil in that flat? I have seen only a middle-aged man going in and out."
"You are new here, aren't you? Joined your husband recently?" smiles Rema. "That man's family used to be with him and I used to teach his child. I came today for the fees they owed me."
They are close to the lift now. The lift is groaning its way up. It is an old squeaking monster. The lift stops, the grille crashes backwards and someone comes out. Sweta exclaims, "Abhijit! What's happened? Are you ill?" He shakes his head. "No, no, I forgot a file. I need it today,… ." His words taper and end as his eyes fall on the woman who is about to enter the lift.
"This is Rema; she is a music teacher," Sweta says. Abhijit is strangely immobile. Rema has a slight smile on her face. And on Abhijit's face is an expression his wife has never seen before.
Sweta waves to Rema as she disappears into the abyss. "Nice meeting you!" her voice echoes. "So lucky for me that she was there. Look, I cut my finger badly, and Rema bandaged it for me," Sweta relates as they enter their flat.
No sooner has the front door shut on both of them than Abhijit turns on Sweta in a fury. His eyes are live coals. She has never seen him so angry.
"Why do you invite strangers into your house? That woman could be a robber, a murderess! You stupid idiot, you will find your throat slit one of these days…," he raves on until he locates the file and storms out.
The deep silence that descends on his departure has swathed Sweta's mind. Then the silence transforms into a monstrous creature whose icy tentacles invade her entire being. At last, it turns into a completed jigsaw puzzle…
She is still seated on the sofa when the doorbell rings, hours later. Her husband has returned. He wraps his wife in a warm hug. "I am sorry, dearest," he whispers in her ear, "I was in a foul mood; forgive me for taking it out on you." "My middle finger," replies Sweta. "What?" exclaims the man; then he notices her middle finger that she is holding up.
"It isn't deep, is it?" he asks her, in concern," I had forgotten about it."
But she only smiles by way of reply.
Every day, Sweta waits. She finishes her cooking early. Then she bins the waste, pulls a chair on to the landing and sits there; every morning till noon.
A week later, her vigil is rewarded.
The creaking lift disgorges Rema. She makes for the neighbouring flat, avoiding looking at Sweta. Sweta calls out to her new friend.
"Rema! Just a second. I have something to ask you."
The woman stops and looks apprehensively at Sweta.
Then Sweta clasps Rema's hand in hers and asks, earnestly: "Will you give me music lessons?"