T h e C a n c e r
(a short story)
by Anuradha Bhattacharyya (Chandigarh) - India

Meghna Choudhury was a brilliant student. She topped the class of MA in History and secured record marks in her university. The faculty invited her to join there as a teacher immediately. Around the same time Madhav Bhattacharjee had also joined as a faculty member in the same department. He and Meghna became close friends and started seeing each other outside the campus too. Their colleagues soon discovered the secret attraction that tied them together. One day, very casually Hemant said to Meghna, ‘going to see your beau, hm?’ Meghna blushed and said nothing in reply. She repeated the line to Madhav. His eyes lit up and he said, ‘so people have begun to notice us!’ ‘Yes, we are caught.’ ‘Why not surrender now and tie the knot? Is anything keeping you from wedlock?’ ‘No, nothing actually. But don’t you think all this is going on fast track?’ ‘What nonsense. Have you been flirting with me for all these days? This was bound to be.’ ‘I mean, I thought marriage would come in due course and not without warning. Here I am just out of college and just joined work and soon after another responsibility! It is too much to consume.’ ‘You are frightened of the responsibilities. Never mind. I am there to see you through thick and thin. Just say that you’d be mine.’

In this way Meghna got engaged to Madhav. They told their parents and they readily accepted the liaison. After two years Meghna gave birth to a beautiful daughter. She named her Garima, meaning her pride. Soon after that Madhav got an opportunity to do research for six months in Germany. In these first six months of the baby’s life, Meghna lived with her mother Mrs. Choudhury. At that time her baby’s natal chart was drawn. It had Rahu in the fifth house and the astrologer said that it required the girl to perform a yagya when she would be five years old.

Meghna’s parents remembered the thing for many years until her father died. He was visiting an uncle of his who had no off spring. The uncle had been ill for two days with no one to attend him. Meghna’s father went to help him out. But unfortunately as he was crossing the road in a hurry, he was hit by a car on a crowded road. The small city where the uncle lived had no proper medical facility. Mr. Choudhury was rushed to a nearby hospital by the car owner but the people there maltreated the injury in his left thigh and he had to limp around for many months until a sore developed in his bottom. This sore was shown to a doctor in a hospital in the city who administered certain treatments that involved a nurse. Since he objected to having a female nurse for this purpose, a male nurse came and dressed him and helped him to clean himself and go to the toilet and so forth. But this male nurse did not turn up for two days on which Meghna’s mother had to take care of her father. A few days passed like this and he grew pale and lost weight and suffered loss of memory too. Within eight months of the accident Meghna’s father died of melancholy, distaste for everything alive and complete inadequacy of treatment. After the funeral, Mrs. Choudhury’s astrologer advised her to take care of herself because she may be subjected to more trouble soon.

Meghna heard this and felt that her mother should live with her. Her husband objected and Meghna grew indignant about it. She argued with him and protested that if she was also earning, it did not matter if her mother stayed with them. Her mother would share the room with Garima. Madhav’s objection was not regarding the family income. It was mainly the question of making his daughter share the room with her grandmother. His parents lived in a different part of the city and hardly visited them. The child had little interaction with her paternal grandparents on this account. This annoyed Madhav. He wanted his daughter to learn the habits of his family. Now that Meghna was planning to bring her mother to stay with them, all the customs and habits of Meghna’s family would be imbibed by the child. Naturally, he knew he was being biased and intolerant so he did not say all this to her. He only insisted that there was very little space in their house to accommodate anyone else. His parents did not live with them precisely because they were short of space, he argued back. After a long time of arguments, Meghna came up with a compromise. She told her mother that she would spend some time with her every day after work and then return home. Her daughter was already going to school and she could be picked up from the day care by her father on his way home. The mother protested that nothing was wrong and she did not need Meghna to give her company but Meghna reminded her that the astrologer had said that she would have to face some trouble again. In this way Meghna adjusted her routine.

This new routine made a great difference to Madhav’s routine too. At first he came home straight as usual and started feeling bored. His four year old daughter made many demands. She needed to be fed. This was usually done by her mother. Now he had to do it. Then he took her to the park. From the park when he wanted to return the girl would not want to come home. It was only if she was told that her mother would be waiting for her at home that she readily came back. Madhav had to guess if Meghna would be back home by now and then he asked Garima to come home. On certain days his guess would be wrong and the child wailed after reaching home.

A few months passed like this and Meghna began to feel tired of this routine. She arranged for a housekeeper for her mother. Now this housekeeper cooked enough food that Meghna felt like eating before going home. This annoyed Madhav even more because she got late and then cooked something hastily for the father and daughter. Sometimes she brought a curry home from her mother’s place. Gradually she began to send the housekeeper to purchase vegetables for both the households. In Madhav’s house many things began to be missing. Sometimes there would be no butter, no cucumber and no bread. He decided not to say anything because she had only one answer to it: bring mother here.

Madhav also needed company after returning home. When he took his daughter to the park to play he started looking around for someone to chat with. Most of the visitors to the park were mothers or grandparents who sat chatting together in a circle. There was no way of penetrating this group. He preferred to sit on a bench and watched his daughter play at a distance. She was wholly occupied with the swing and slope. As Madhav got into the routine of going to the park, he began to distinguish the newcomers from the earlier visitors. He noticed a beautiful woman talking to the other women who sat in a circle and observed that she could not quite gel with them. She drifted on the fringes of this circle and found nothing to talk about. She loitered around until it was dark and disappeared round the corner of the park. She had the habit of keeping her hands in the pockets of her jacket.

Madhav could not guess the purpose of her visit to the park. He became curious and started observing her movements instead of keeping an eye on his daughter. One day she met his eyes and threw him a smile. This prompted him to talk to her. She told him that she was a sociology student and was at present doing some research on the behaviour of children. Madhav was least interested in her subject of study. He started asking about her family, her home and her other interests. One day he brought her home holding his daughter’s hands between them. He noticed that she was very friendly with Garima and for the first time, Garima did not miss her mother after returning home. When Meghna finally returned home, Madhav introduced the two women to each other.

Within a couple of months, Meghna started suspecting that Madhav was physically involved with the other woman whose name was Sweta Chatterjee. She reasoned that it was not possible because Garima was always around but her suspicions did not die out. She could not tell her mother all this and suffered silently. Meghna would not stay with her mother for long now and after paying her a short visit she went straight home. Her mother noticed this change but kept quiet about it.

However, this did not last long enough. One day Meghna declared that she was not going home; that she would sleep with her mother. This was very surprising because Meghna had a daughter who might be missing her in the night. But Meghna did not pay attention to that argument. She said that Garima was old enough to sleep on her own. It was high time she learned that. Mrs. Choudhury was not satisfied with this explanation and insisted that Meghna was hiding something. Meghna did not reveal anything.

At home Sweta had come to visit them in the evening when Meghna returned. Seeing her, Meghna did not smile, nor did she say hello and rather went into the inner room without a word. This annoyed Madhav and he later made it an issue for quarrelling with her. During this quarrel he praised Sweta a lot and said many things that suggested that he had talked to her intimately. At last he supported his stance by saying that she might as well stay with her mother for good.

Meghna could not decide what to save and what to forego. On the one hand she wanted to protect her mother from any danger that might be lurking about. She surveyed her mother’s household and started suspecting the housekeeper. She checked her belongings that were kept in the anteroom upstairs. She stood by her when she was cooking dinner and she often dropped by in the morning to see if her mother was awake and feeling good.

On the other hand she could sense that her family was falling apart. She observed that Garima did not ask for her as persistently as she did in the early days after her grandfather’s demise. There was something in the atmosphere at home that kept Garima satisfied and comfortable. She noticed some cassettes for children that might have been bought recently. Madhav never complained and would always sneak away with the pretext of going to get milk or bread from the market after she entered home. Finally the day Sweta came, the married couple had a fierce fight.

Mrs. Choudhury managed to send her daughter home that night and hoped everything was all right. She called her brother who lived in Dhanbad and asked if she could go to see him. He told her that she was welcome but only after two weeks. Mrs. Choudhury wanted to assure Meghna that there was no need for her to take care of her mother as she could easily stay with her brother. But this idea failed. Meghna was back again in the afternoon to see her mother. After about ten days, on a Sunday Meghna came early in the morning and declared that her mother should pack her things and go with her. The mother resisted but Meghna swiftly collected some of her clothes and necessities and asked her to get ready to go out.

When the two of them reached home, Madhav was about to go out with Garima. He looked at the suitcase and guessed what Meghna was up to. He said, ‘I am shifting to a different location. You and your mother can stay here.’

Meghna and her mother were stunned. They had nothing to do anymore. Meghna pleaded, ‘What wrong have I done? I just wanted to help my mother!’ ‘Never mind all that. I am through. I am taking Garima along.’ Meghna asked Garima, ‘Darling, won’t you stay with your mother?’ And Garima replied, ‘I will, if you don’t fight with Baba.’

Meghna tried to appease Madhav by several methods. She met him in the university; dragged him to the canteen, pleaded, protested, threatened with suicide, swore and cried a lot. Nothing changed him. He was totally transformed. She could not recognize him anymore. He was all Sweta’s now. He clearly declared that he was head over heels in love with this maddeningly beautiful woman and there was nothing left between Meghna and him to tie him down to the previous marriage. After a week’s time, he sent her a petition for divorce. It was a petition for mutual divorce and Meghna had to sign it.

The petition lay on the table right before her eyes for several months while Madhav had already started living with Sweta. It was already very bad when Mrs. Choudhury consulted the astrologer again. He told her that there would be definitely no divorce. Thus reassured, Mrs. Choudhury and her daughter went to see Madhav’s parents. The parents said they had no business interfering in Madhav’s happiness.

Madhav’s parents could not have been bothered about Meghna’s problem. They remembered that Meghna was Madhav’s love and so he had married her. Now if he loved another woman and wished to marry her, they had little to object to. Their interaction with Madhav was very limited and he was not likely to listen to them at any rate. They had other children to think about and quietly accepted their second son’s family as an addition.

The only thing they did this time was to not welcome the new wife with open arms as they had done for Meghna. They wished Meghna good luck and with joined hands saw the duo to the door. The mother and daughter returned back to the table where lay the incomplete petition. Meghna looked pensively at it and said, ‘If Madhav would be happy after divorcing me, I must sign it and set him free. If I keep delaying he would keep suffering.’

But after she signed and handed the petition to Madhav she showed signs of deteriorating health. Her stamina fell rapidly and she would become breathless in a few minutes. The doctors examined her blood. There was definitely something wrong and they took her bone marrow to test. Then they declared leukemia.

Mrs. Choudhury lived through the impossible times and lost her daughter in about five months. There was no divorce but the disaster that befell Mrs. Chaudhury was greater than a nightmare. She lamented that the astrologer was an imposter. He had misguided her. Garima reached five years of age. With eyes drowned in tears, her grandmother cried, "Rahu or no Rahu! No yagna can restore the loss of her mother!"


(Published in Kafla Intercontinental - Jan-April 2014)