The jarring ring of the bedside alarm woke Kavitha up.  She fumbled around in the darkness to turn it off lest it wake her sleeping husband. The dull clanging of vessels in the kitchen meant that amma was already up and about. Groggily, she stumbled into the bathroom.

A quick bath in mugfuls of tepid water succeeded in washing the sleep off her. Oh, how she longed for an extra hour in bed, in the mornings! Her thoughts wandered off to the days when she’d sleep in till seven or eight, back at her home. Her mother would tiptoe around and get things done, not wanting to wake her up. At the slightest sign of her waking, she’d conjure up a piping hot cup of filter coffee and thrust it right under her nose! Her poor amma, whose deteriorating health had made her father waste no time in marrying  Kavitha off even before she had finished college. It had been amma’s desire to see her daughter married and settled in life before she gave in to her disease.

That was how, a few weeks into her 19th birthday, Kavitha had springboarded from being a feisty, state- level swimming champion into being ‘just a housewife’.

She hurried to the kitchen, where her mother-in-law was busy grating coconut for the chutney. She acknowledged her with a slight tilt of the head. There was a tiny frown on her face today. Kavitha waited with bated breath for the storm to unleash.

‘’ Kavitha, I thought I asked you to soak the rice for the dosa batter last night….’’

Kavitha smacked her forehead in dismay. ‘’Ayyo! amma, I completely forgot. The twins were so cranky last night, by the time they slept..’’  her voice trailed off at the reproachful look directed her way.

‘’I’m sure you have a ready excuse for everything.’’ The sarcasm was evident.”Looks like its upma for everyone today. Poor Ratheesh, he hates upma… can you at least chop up the vegetables for the upma?’’

Biting back her retort, Kavitha went about her usual morning routine of chopping and currying , with gusto. All hell would break loose once the twins were up. She had to finish up in the kitchen before that.

Her mother-in-law, after firing a volley of instructions, had retired to the confines of the puja room. In a way, Kavitha was glad to be left alone. Having amma around only made her nervous and prone to goof ups. It was surprising how even after years of being married to Ratheesh , she was as insecure as a bashful new bride in front of his mother. Every time amma narrowed those eyes of hers and gave that ‘look’, she squirmed like a guilty child.

She finally got a breather when the boys were packed off to school and their father, to office. Amma was at a neighbour’s, leaving her to savour the peace and quiet of the empty apartment.

Sipping on a cup of coffee, she remembered the day she’d entered this house as a coy 19 year old, decked in her bridal finery. Her face flushed with fear and anticipation, stealing furtive glances at her handsome husband, wondering how her new world would be like. Amma had welcomed her with a warm smile, the ceremonial lamp in hand. ‘’Don’t be scared, Kavitha..You are my daughter now and it is my duty to make sure that you don’t miss your mother too much. ’’ She’d said and Kavitha had clung to her and wept.

Overnight, priorities changed. Swimming gear, certificates, medals and dreams were locked away.

She had set about being the perfect wife and daughter-in-law. Eyes downcast, listening, obeying, observing and obliging. Never once asking or wanting. She made her family the centre of her universe and banished her own desires to the suburbs of her heart.

What was there to complain?  Wasn’t it every girl’s dream to have a husband like Ratheesh – handsome, intelligent, who never bothered her with workplace issues, gave her enough money to do as she pleased and kept out of domestic trivia? She wore her sarees to perfection, not a pleat out of place. Bangles chimed , anklets tinkled , bindi and kumkum shone like beacons, as she walked.  She learnt to make the perfect sambar and the crispiest dosas. She lit the lamps in the puja room and chanted the sahasranama every day. Her transformation into the model ‘Indian bride’, who ran a perfect household of sheer bliss, was complete.

In her life of languid insignificance, the arrival of her twin boys had been a momentous occasion. Kavitha had dived headlong into motherhood, delirious with the excitement of a newbie mom. Her days and nights were now a never ending loop of feeding, burping, bathing, pureeing and sterilising.  Still, she plodded on doggedly. Very soon, feeding bottles were replaced by water bottles and diaper bags by school bags.

The shrill ring of the doorbell dragged her back to the present. Perhaps amma was back. She quickly adjusted her awry saree, pushed back a few stray strands of hair and opened the door.

It was Mrs. Ahuja, her neighbour. Her son was in the same class as the twins. She looked beautiful in her floral maxi dress and perfectly done hair.

‘’Hi Kavitha… hope I didn’t disturb you. You see, I have my salsa classes at 3 today. My mother-in-law is away and I have no one to pick Rahul up after school…could you please have him with you here, for a while until I get back?’’

‘’Sure, Sheena… the boys love it when Rahul is around. Maybe I could take them for a swim in the evening at the community pool.’’

‘’Oh that should be great, Kavi! Thank you so much.’’ gushed Mrs.Ahuja and rushed off,  jade earrings dangling, stilettos clacking and hips swaying.

Such poise. Such confidence. Kavitha sighed enviously and closed the door. She then took up from where she’d left off in the morning. Instructing and supervising the maid, changing bed linen, clearing up toys and planning for dinner. When it was time to pick up the boys, she sauntered past the well manicured lawns and the gleaming swimming pool to the gates of her apartment complex. The school bus was already there disgorging a bunch of noisy, hungry kids. She broke into a wide smile as she spotted the twins.  She looked around for Mrs. Ahuja’s son, Rahul and together they headed back to the apartment . Kavitha watched with fascination as the famished boys,  wolfed down their sandwiches and glasses of milk , chattering nineteen to the dozen. Soon they were all pumped up, ready to tackle the pool.

The swimming pool sat amidst the sprawling lawns like an oversized fruit bowl. A cacophony of voices and splashes greeted them as they approached the pool. The boys were beaming excitedly, in their bright swimming trunks. All around them kids laughed, yelled, dived and swam, as the lifeguard looked on desultorily. She led the boys to the kiddie pool and settled herself in a grassy area a few feet away, watching them splash around in glee. The greenish blue water lapped at the tiled edges of the pool enticingly. How she wished she could join the boys. She couldn’t but wonder how things would have panned out if she had chosen to pursue her passion for swimming. Where would she be now? Her thoughts dragged by, as if in slow motion. Who was this prim, ever subservient stranger in the blue cotton saree, who cooked, cleaned and packed lunches? Surely, it wasn’t the same girl who had ridden the dark streets of Chennai at 1 am on a friend’s scooter after attending a birthday party? Where had that fresh-faced, scooter-riding, politics discussing, champion swimmer disappeared?

The loud arrival of Mrs. Ahuja interrupted her reverie. She looked like a starlet in her sequined salsa attire. ‘’Thank you so much Kavi! Hope he didn’t bother you too much.’’ She panted. ‘’ We had such a great class today, I’m so exhausted, but super excited – we’ll be performing onstage this sunday! You really must come.’’ Her face radiated happiness.

Kavitha couldn’t help feeling jealous. Life had been good to her friend; it hadn’t taken away any of her bubbly enthusiasm.

‘’I’ve always wanted to ask you something. Is your family O.K with your…err..umm.. dancing lessons?’’

Mrs.Ahuja looked surprised at the question.’’ Well, I don’t know. I never did wait around for their ‘permission’. Once Rahul started at full-time school, I felt it was the right time for me to actually do something that I was passionate about!’’

Kavitha smiled uncertainly. She still wasn’t sure if swimming or salsa dancing was counted as a housewifely virtue in her family. She gazed absent-mindedly at a bunch of giggling girls singing ‘ringa-ringa-roses’ in the kiddie pool, holding hands. The twins were in their midst, squealing with delight.

‘’Come on Kavitha, just because we’re married with children doesn’t make us zombies. You can’t let responsibilities defeat you and made you stop living for yourself. Call me selfish , but the day I find myself doing that, I might as well drop dead.’’ She concluded dramatically and walked away, a protesting Rahul in tow, not realising that she had triggered something that would bring forth a deluge in her friend’s mind.

Kavitha was strangely silent as she went about her dinner chores. If her mother-in-law had noticed that something was amiss, she didn’t bring it up. Ratheesh as usual had retired to the bedroom after dinner and was poring over a business journal. The twins, exhausted after their frolic at the pool, fell asleep in a jiffy. She tucked them into bed, secretly relieved.

Rathesh had dozed off, magazine in hand. She changed and got into bed. Sleep eluded her. After tossing and turning for hours, she finally gave up and went over to the balcony. The cool night air felt great. In the distance, she caught the gleam of the deserted swimming pool.” It looks so different in the night, almost eerie.” she thought, with a smile. She was possessed by a sudden desire to plunge into its depths. She longed to be in the water, under it and all over it. Like a woman possessed, she darted back to the bedroom and rummaged about in her wardrobe.  She found what she’d been looking for tucked away amidst a pile of old saris – Her swim suit from college days, in a shocking pink shade. Even her choice of colours back then had been bold; not unlike her unbridled spirit.

Almost angrily, she pulled off her ‘nightie’ and slipped into the swim suit. It was too tight around her bosom, and an unsightly bulge hung around her hips. She stared at her ludicrous reflection in the mirror. ‘’Beautiful!’’ she exclaimed, a giggle escaping her lips.

Unabashed, she headed towards the pool, a spring in her step. The lift lobby was dimly lit and deserted. Her neighbours, in all probability were in bed, wrapped in profound slumber. Outside, the wind rustled and sleep hung like a heavy cloud, making the whole thing appear dream-like. “Perhaps this really is a dream”, she told herself as she approached the luminous pool. A waft of chlorinated air hit her nostrils and made her bare skin tingle. She suddenly felt foolish and wondered if she should head back. But an impossible voice in her head egged her on. She took a deep breath and there she was, in a welcome free-fall. Her body cleaved the water perfectly without a splash. The cool waters parted welcoming her – hugging, caressing and smothering her like a lover, long denied .  Her strokes were strong and precise. She sliced through the water with the dexterity of a pro that she was. For a long, long time after that, it was just her and the water – the world around her dissipated. She ceased to worry about her sleeping kids and husband. She didn’t bother about the wrath her mother in law would unleash the next morning. The dull drag of her past and her doubts over her future slipped away. She revelled in the glorious weightlessness of the present. This was as free as one could get.

She threw back her head and laughed – a child-like, full throated laugh that echoed in the silence of the night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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