Fiction: Selfless Love

Meenakshi Gogoi

Meenakshi Gogoi

The repeated knocks on her house’s wooden gate early in the winter morning made Prabha hesitantly get up from bed, wiping her half-opened eyes. She quickly wrapped a shawl around her body covering her head and walked towards the gate. It was her neighbour Praveen at the gate. He shared the news of Krishna’s death. “Prabha, Uncle Krishna died of a heart attack late at night. You, please, tell Ashok,” said Praveen. Prabha stood numb for a minute and asked Praveen to come inside. Prabha hurriedly woke her husband, Ashok, and told him about Krishna’s death. It was a sudden shock for him. Ashok quickly got up from bed saying, “Oh, very sad news.” Ashok asked, “How’s Aunt Sharda? Have the neighbours arrived?” Praveen replied, “Aunt Sharda is lost in grief.  A few of the neighbours had arrived. I came to inform you about his death.” Ashok said, “I am leaving for Krishna Uncle’s house.” With moist eyes, Prabha said, “I will accompany you both to meet Aunt Sharda. I want to be with her at this moment of grief.” They agreed. Three of them reached Krishna’s house and saw some village people on the veranda surrounding his dead body. 

Ashok and Prabha plucked flowers from the house garden and sprinkled them over Krishna’s dead body. Prabha saw the grief-stricken Sharda sitting in one corner of her room. A few women were sitting beside her. Sharda was silent, and her eyes were red and swollen. Prabha sat close to her. Their moist eyes met in silence. Prabha said, “Aunt, please take care of yourself.” Holding Sharda’s hands, Prabha said, “I hope you will come out of your loss strongly.” Sharda slowly shook her head and said, “Prabha, sit for some time with me.” Prabha replied. “Yes, Aunt, I am sitting here with you.” Ashok met Sharda and offered his deepest condolences. 

One by one, the relatives and villagers came to bid farewell to Krishna’s dead body. After a few hours, the dead body was taken near a village pond, and the villagers performed the last rites of Krishna as per Hindu rituals conducted by a local priest. Sharda stayed at home with Prabha and a few women relatives. She felt deeply the need of children that day like never before. Suddenly, destiny left her all alone at this old age. 

The funeral ceremony was over and Ashok placed Krishna’s ‘Asthi Kalash’ on a corner table near his garlanded photo frame. Ashok asked, “Prabha, are you staying back or coming home with me?” Prabha replied, “I will stay with Aunt Sharda. She is emotionally broken. I will return home in the evening.” Ashok said, “Okay. You stay and take care of Aunt Sharda. I will come to pick you up in the evening.” 

Prabha prepared tea and offered it to Sharda’s relatives and other village women. Sharda remained silent and thoughtful most of the time. She only responded to others’ condolences to her. A heartbroken Sharda wanted some time alone and requested Prabha to close her room’s door. Prabha approached Sharda’s relatives and, on her request, said, “Aunt Sharda wanted to be left alone. I request you all should not enter her room for some time.” Sharda slowly controlled her emotions, had a cup of tea, and got freshened. She softly asked Prabha whether the relatives had gone to their homes. Prabha said, “A few of your relatives had left for their homes. They did not want to disturb your peace.” “Aunt, a few village women brought fruits and milk for you. Would you like to eat?” Sharda replied, “I don’t feel like eating.” “It is late afternoon, and you should eat something, Aunt. You have to take care of your health,” said Prabha. Sharda reluctantly had a glass of hot milk. She lay in bed and Prabha was by her side. Sharda said, “Prabha, I am alright. It is going to be evening, you can go home now. Ashok must be waiting at home for you.” Prabha replied, “Aunt, Ashok is coming to pick me up. If you want, I can stay with you at night. I will have no problem staying with you.” Sharda wanted no one with her at night. She desired to be alone with good memories of Krishna and mourn his death. Sharda politely said, “Prabha, I want to stay alone tonight and spend some time with myself.” “Okay, Aunt, as you wish. I will come again tomorrow.” Sharda thanked the village women who came to meet her and respectfully asked them to go home. 

In the evening, Ashok brought a bag of fruits, curd, and home-made dalia for Sharda. The house help, Mina, took the bag from him and called Prabha. Ashok met Sharda and said, “Aunt, I hope you are better now. Will you feel lonely if Prabha leaves? She can stay back to take care of you.” Sharda appreciated his concern for her. Sharda said, “Ashok, Prabha cared for me the whole day. She was nice to me. I have to learn to live without your uncle. Don’t worry. Mina is there to help me. Prabha has household work to do. I will surely call both of you if need be.” Ashok was convinced and soon, Ashok and Prabha left for home. 

Mina closed the gate. She put a plate of fruits, a water jug, a glass of hot milk, and a bowl of dalia in Sharda’s room. Mina slept in her room near the kitchen. Sharda was in her room. Her eyes dried. She was awake, remembering her husband’s last days. He had suffered uric acid issues, fever, cold, and cough, followed by a heart attack that took his life. Sharda thought about how she would live her life alone without Krishna. They were married at an early age and lived their lives as good old companions. Krishna had parental possessions of an ancestral home, farmlands, and a grocery shop in the village. He was from a landlord background. After his death, Sharda would have no problem with finances, food, or shelter. In his last days, Krishna told Sharda to live happily after he was gone. He would look upon her after his death from the unknown world.

When alive, Krishna felt his death was near because of his deteriorating health. Sharda often cried and shouted at him for such talks, but she had to gather the courage to deal with the unknown. The night was long and silent. She had a glass of milk and a few slices of apples. Several thoughts were lingering in her head. Sharda decided to open a small library in her spacious living room. She wanted school and college students of the village to use the library. Krishna had a good habit of reading and kept a great book collection at home. From classic Novels, short story books, Journals, and poem collections to biographies and non-fiction books in regional languages. A few books were in English which Krishna purchased from book fairs. Sharda thought to tell Ashok and Prabha about opening a inhouse-library at home. The night grew darker, and Sharda slowly fell asleep. 

The next few days, Sharda mourned the death of Krishna and performed the Asthi-Visarjan, the post-death rituals. Three weeks passed, and one morning Sharda spoke to Shyam, a man working on her farm to arrange for some men and dispose of the old furniture and other decorative things from her living room. She wanted a clean space for the in-house library. 

On a Sunday morning, Prabha entered Sharda’s house and saw a few village men working at Sharda’s farms cleaning the house. The old house items were loaded in a truck and about to be discarded. The old furniture set in the living room was removed. The men carried three broad wooden tables and placed them individually in the middle of the room. Prabha was a little surprised to see that. Sharda said, “Prabha, I am considering transforming my living room into a library. I want the village school and college students to make much use of the library. What do you say?” Prabha replied, “That’s a great thought, Aunt. I favour you.” Sharda added, “I want you and Ashok to inform students about this in-house library. I hope it can be done.” “Sure, Aunt. I will be happy to do that for you.”

The living room looked beautiful, with many books arranged carefully one after another lined up inside the small and big almirahs and polished wooden stacks. Ashok and Prabha helped in arranging books in the library. The tables and chairs were placed horizontally to give the library a nice feel. A small table was set in one corner of the room with a register to make entries. But books were not allowed to take home. Sharda wanted students to read them in her living room for an hour or two every day or at weekends that suited them. Ashok spoke to the village school teachers to inform students about the in-house library. Prabha spread the word among the village women. The village people and children were delighted to hear the news. Slowly, the number of students increased coming to the library and reading books there.

Sharda saw the enthusiasm in some academically brilliant students interested in reading new books and gathering knowledge. Some students came to enjoy the ambiance, but soon they liked to spend time reading and used to visit the library frequently. Sharda was ecstatic to see children around her. She would personally check the register entries, and Mina would keep an eye on the students. Ashok and Prabha appreciated Sharda’s humanitarian efforts. Her compassionate nature was known to others as well. Earlier, Sharda donated money to arrange marriages of daughters from low-income families in the village. She kept doing that even after Krishna’s death. She used to visit her farms every morning and inspect the crops and harvests. A good amount of the farm-harvested vegetables and pulses was sold in her village grocery shop at lower rates so that low-income families could purchase them easily. 

Sharda felt one day, she would leave this world like Krishna. Until she was alive, Sharda wanted to live fulfilling her wishes. She planned a trip to visit the famous waterfall near her village. It was a popular tourist destination. She went with Krishna several times before. Ashok, Prabha, Mina, and Shyam accompanied Sharda to the spot one fine Sunday morning. The weather was beautiful. The sight of tiny yellow and white wildflowers blooming around the hills and waterfall attracted the eyes of nature lovers. Sharda was delighted to view the huge uproaring waterfall, the smooth green patches lying between the hills, and the blossoming wildflowers. Sharda selected a green space for them to sit in one corner near the waterfall. Shyam spread the handloom-weaved mat on the grass. Mina helped him unload the utensils, portable gas stove, and cylinder to cook food from the van. Ashok and Prabha arranged the plastic chairs and a small table. Shyam unloaded the vegetables, fruits, and other food items from the van. Sharda sat on a chair and enjoyed nature’s scenic beauty.  A few tourist couples were seen clicking photos near the waterfall.

Ashok and Prabha joined Sharda. Mina and Shyam sat on the mat and arranged the gas stove and cylinder. Mina prepared the tea, and Shyam distributed the tea cups. Mina said, “Shyam, take your tea cup and biscuits.” Shyam thanked her with a smile. Shyam said, “Mina, have you come here before? It is a beautiful spot. Isn’t it?” “Yes, once with Aunt Sharda and Uncle Krishna. It is a beautiful sight, especially the waterfall. I like the sound of gushing water falling with huge uproar.” They exchanged smiles. Shyam was carrying soft feelings for Mina and was attracted to her. Mina had the same feelings for him. But they had not expressed their feelings to each other. That day they got an opportunity to have good times together. Sharda was not aware of the blooming love between them. She could see the smiles, laughs, and helping nature of Shyam and Mina and their cooperation while cooking the food together with joy and happiness. Sharda viewed in them a glimpse of her and Krishna. She gazed at them in between, escaping their eyes. Sharda thought, “I have never felt their likeness for each other. How happy do they look with each other? Does Mina love Shyam?” Sharda wanted to talk to Mina about Shyam at home

Ashok and Prabha enjoyed photography of scenic beauty and clicked selfies and group photos with Sharda, Mina, and Shyam to make beautiful memories. Sharda remembered the beautiful moments spent with Krishna leaning on his shoulder, watching the waterfall, and feeling the cool breeze. Sharda used to close her eyes in his embrace and would wake up with his planted kisses on her forehead. Sharda missed Krishna by her side. 

It was time for lunch, and Mina and Shyam served lunch on the mat. They all relished the outdoor picnic meal with delight. After lunch, Mina kept the cleaned utensils in the bag. Prabha extended her help to Mina in cleaning the green space before leaving for home. Shyam came closer to Mina and handed her a tied bunch of yellow and white wildflowers. Mina felt shy and happily thanked him for the flowers. Shyam smiled and said, “Lunch was delicious. You are an excellent cook.” Mina said, “Thanks, Shyam. I am glad that you liked my cooked food. I have learned cooking from Aunt Sharda. You know she is fantabulous.” Sharda saw them having a good time from a little afar. The day was well spent, and they reached their homes by late evening. 

The next day, Sharda asked, “Mina, I am thinking about your marriage. I am growing old and want to see you married before I die. Do you like anybody? Please, tell me. I will arrange for your wedding, dear.” Mina paused for a few minutes and hesitantly said, “Aunt, I like Shyam. But I do not know about his feelings for me.” Sharda smiled and said, “Okay. Let me talk to Shyam. I like Shyam, too.” Sharda had known Shyam, a polite and hard-working man on her farm. When Krishna was alive, he would praise Shyam for managing the farm with care and dedication.

One day, Sharda called Shyam at her house. Sharda said, “Today, I want to talk to you about something important.” Shyam asked, “Aunt, what is it? Anything serious?” “Nothing serious. But it is about Mina’s marriage,” said Sharda. Shyam became silent, and after a pause, he asked, “Mina’s marriage?” Sharda replied, “Yes, Shyam. You know, Mina is like my daughter. Her mother used to work for us. After her mother’s death, Mina started living with us. As a responsible guardian, I want her to get married and settle in life. What do you say?” Shyam said, “That’s a good thought. But have you asked Mina about it? What did she say?” Shyam looked a little restless, and Sharda could sense that from his facial expressions. Sharda replied, “Shyam, I would like to know if you want to marry Mina. Do you have feelings for her?” Shyam was surprised to hear that from Sharda. He found it was an excellent opportunity to express his love towards Mina. Shyam slowly said, “Yes, I love Mina. But I am not sure of her feelings. We never expressed our feelings for each other.”

Sharda smiled and said, “Shyam, so if you come to know Mina’s feelings for you. Will you marry her?” Shyam excitedly said, “Yes, Aunt. I will marry Mina.” Mina was listening to their conversation, standing at the back of the door. Soon, she came before them and stood near Sharda. The eyes of Shyam and Mina smiled in silence. Sharda asked Mina, “You heard what Shyam said? What do you have to say?” Mina softly replied, “Yes, I love Shyam and want to marry him.” Sharda happily decided to get them hitched into wedlock. 

One fine Sunday, Sharda arranged for their wedding. Ashok, Prabha, and other villagers had attended Mina’s wedding. Everybody praised Sharda for her kindness and selfless love towards people around her. She was always respected for her good deeds. Mina and Shyam completed the wedding rituals and enjoyed the feast Sharda threw for them. The newly married couple sought the blessings of elders. Sharda said, “Shyam, I will be happy if you live with me in my house. You two are my children. But it is up to you both to decide. I will accept your decision.” Shyam and Mina, devoid of parental love, agreed to live with Sharda and take care of her in her old days. 

Time passed, and Mina and Shyam completed two years of their marriage. Mina gave birth to a daughter. Sharda was ecstatic to hold her little grand-daughter in her arms. She named her Aparajitha. Sharda found joy in little Aparajitha to spend the rest of her old days. She used to sing lullabies and played with her. Mina and Shyam were happy to see Sharda and Aparajitha bonding well. Sharda was growing old, and Aparajitha completed three years. Sharda began to fall sick for days due to old age. She turned 70 and soon encountered respiratory, fever, and cough issues. Sharda felt at heart she would not survive for long. She wanted to tell Mina and Shyam certain things before she died. Sharda asked Shyam and Mina to run her in-house library smoothly even after her death and donated a good amount of money to the village school and college welfare funds. Sharda transferred the ownership of the farms and grocery shop to Mina and Shyam. 

Ashok and Prabha would come home frequently to meet Sharda and have good times with her. Sharda handed Prabha a little wooden jewellery box one evening and said, “Prabha, this is a small gift for you. Please, keep it as my memory with you.” Prabha’s eyes were in tears. She reluctantly accepted the jewellery box at Sharda’s request. 

Sharda’s health used to remain unstable. Ashok, Prabha, Shyam, and Mina spent time with her every day. Aparajitha would plant kisses on Sharda’s cheeks and sit playing beside her. Sharda softly kissed Aparajitha one night before her death. It was her last kiss. She was happy to see all of them by her side. The following morning Sharda died in sleep. Mina and Shyam were heartbroken at her death. Soon, Ashok and Prabha reached Sharda’s house with moist eyes. The villagers dropped into Sharda’s place to bid her last farewell. Mina and Shyam bathed and made her wear a yellow handloom saree. They garlanded Sharda with her favourite jasmine flowers before taking her to the funeral pyre. Ashok and Prabha sprinkled rose and mogra on Sharda’s feet and prayed for her eternal peace. The village school and college students came one by one to offer their last respects. The funeral rites of Sharda were performed and everybody prayed for Sharda’s kind-hearted soul to rest in peace in the unknown world.

Bio: Meenakshi Gogoi holds a PhD from the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi, India. She writes short stories/fiction and loves to read non-fiction and biographies. Her works are published in The Mocking Owl Roost Web Magazine, The Wild Word Magazine, Otherwise Engaged: The Literary and Arts Journal, the Literary Cocktail Magazine, Sunkissed Short Summer Romances: An Anthology by Red Polka Books, Shiuli Magazine, Double Speak Magazine, Muse India (Forthcoming). She is passionate about nature photography and gardening. She lives with her spouse and little daughter in Guwahati (Assam), India.

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