The Life and Death of a Coward
She stood at the entrance of the general ward for a few moments, hesitant to enter because of the blood, the crowd and the chaos. Around almost each bed were women, just like her, with dark and weathered skin clothed in discolored cotton sarees, wailing over their husband’s injured and dead bodies. The doctors shuffled in a businesslike manner from bed to bed treating those who could still be saved. Young nurses strutted nervously around the room with medicines and syringes, probably wondering if the job was for them. The ward boys carried the dead bodies to the morgue to make room for other injured patients.
She gathered her strength and moved forward through the maze of beds and corpses looking from bed to bed, searching for her husband, carefully holding the ghoonghat over her face in one hand and a small battered cloth purse in the other.
At the other end of the room, she finally saw her husband laid upon a bed, very still. The site of his body gave her quite a scare. His face was very pale. She put her hands over his nostrils. He was breathing but only barely. His body was heavily bandaged except his legs which was weird because it was his legs that looked the funniest. The legs were heavily scarred and there was a grisly purple blotch beneath the knee on one of the legs. But what probably terrified her most was the blood stain that was slowly spreading on the bed sheet and the fact that all the doctors were busy attending other patients.
She became really anxious…why was nobody treating him? She looked around, sweating profusely now, worried that she might have to return into the crowd to search for a free doctor. But to her relief she found one only two beds away. ‘Doctor Sahib! ‘, her voice sounded like that of a sparrow at a dhobi ghaat, out of place and barely audible. She called for the doctor again, louder this time. Instantly she flinched; she never raised her voice near her husband. But when her husband did not react, she felt something entirely different. It had felt so alien to her that she could not quite place it at the time.
It was only later on, when she had pulled the oxygen mask off his face, that she had realized what it was…freedom.
She thanked her neighbors for taking care of her daughter and entered one of the many huts on the roadside, each of which was walled and roofed by thin corrugated iron sheets, undistinguishable from the others except for the advertisement poster of a local toothpaste brand taped onto the metal. After the hospital, her small hut made her pretty comfortable. She quietly laid her daughter in the wooden cradle and smiled for the first time in the day. She gently began rocking it.
‘I hope Ravi is able to manage everything in the hospital. It’s a pity he does not like his father. I wish he did. But can I blame him? He hasn’t really had the best of childhood. At 16, he is already so much more mature. Maybe I shouldn’t have left him at the hospital alone. Not that I don’t trust him. He’s a wonderful son. But maybe, it’s too much for him? Well, I didn’t exactly have a choice, did I? Had to feed Lali too…she’s so frail anyways. I did not come back from the hospital because I wanted to. No, obviously not. I would have stayed there whole night if I could have. Yes, of course. But I did not have a choice really. Because obviously, I do want my husband to be okay. To even think otherwise would be evil. But really, I had to take care of Lali. Ah, my daughter…she’s so pretty and so innocent and so quiet…not like those who wail all day and night. Oh, I really wish that my husband liked her.’
She kissed Lali’s cheek as Lali lay in the cradle, peacefully sleeping, sucking her thumb.
‘Ma?’ Her son had returned. He looked tired, much older than 16, his shoulders were stooped and the face drained of all color.
‘How’s your dad?’ She asked handing his son water in a dented aluminum glass.
Ravi sat down on the charpai, drinking down all of the water in one gulp. ‘They had to cut his leg off… said it was crushed beyond repair.
But he’ll live.’ He said that as if he was announcing the time, without a hint of emotions.
‘Oh…’ That is all she could say…taken aback and at a loss of words. She felt ashamed that she wasn’t crying and grieving already. ‘Don’t worry…everything’s going to be fine. With our love and care, he’ll be fine.’ She thought it was the appropriate thing to say.
Ravi sharply turned his head to look at her, wearing an expression of utter incredulity. ‘Love? For him? Right!’ He scoffed.
For a minute, the hut was graveyard silent. Ravi sat there rubbing his eyes with his palm. She wondered if he was just sleepy or if he was fighting back tears. He then looked at her and said, ‘I don’t think you understand what this means? The government is only paying 50,000 rupees for the injured as compared to a lakh for those who died in the building collapse.’ He said the last sentence real slow.
‘How do you think are we going to pay for his medical expenses?’ His voice quivered with emotions now. ‘You’re already working. I am already working. We’re done… for ever.’
She could see his eyes definitely brimming with tears this time. He didn’t look sad however, but his face was red with rage.
‘I wish he was just DEAD!’He said that with such hatred that she thought those words alone would kill. ’Then maybe…I could go back to studying again.’ He stormed out of the hut crying as she stood stunned.
The skies resounded with thunder and the clouds poured water in plenty. She went to the doorway to slide the iron sheet shut. That is when she saw him, her husband with a malicious gnarled smile on his face, in the flash of the lightening against the backdrop of the dark of night. Her heart skipped a beat; she backed off as her husband dragged himself into the hut with a crutch in one hand and his wooden leg leaving an impression on the wet earth.
‘Give me the money, sweetness!’ he said, his stretched smile further distorting his scarred face.
‘Wh– what?’, she stammered, her eyes wide with fear.
‘Your money…today is 1st, isn’t it? Give it to me.’ The smile had completely vanished.
‘Wh–why?’ She had begun to shiver.
‘You very well know why!” He wiped his hand over his lips.
‘N-no its for-’
‘Give it to me right now, you sl***** wh***!’ He bellowed, his face was livid with anger.
‘Please…it’s for her medicine!’
‘Her? You dare defy me for her!’ He quickly dragged himself towards her daughters cradle and grabbed her in his free hand like she was a lifeless doll. ‘This-little-piece–of-SH**!’
Her daughter began crying, the wails muffled in the mayhem of the storm and her husband’s heavy panting.
‘Stop it! She’s our daughter for god’s sake!’ She had begun sobbing herself, feeling helpless and tiny.
‘I’ll have nothing to do with this useless piece of junk, you understand?’ He growled, his soaked body shook with rage. He lifted her daughter over his head. ‘Now give me the money- or I drop her!’
‘N-no pleaseee…’ she could taste her salty tears as she began crying profusely now.
‘Before the count of three. One…’
‘Don’t do it, I beg you!’
‘WAIT!’ she shrieked. She took the purse out of her blouse with trembling hands and handed over the money to him.
‘Good girl!’ He placed her daughter in the cradle. ‘And now…’ the nasty smile returned, ‘…it’s time for some punishment so you don’t dare defy me again.’ He held the crutch high in the air and gave it a mighty swing.
The air hissed around the crutch as it rushed towards her skull. Just as it was about to make contact, she woke up.
She was sitting on the charpai, sweating and shivering. She looked around. Her son hadn’t returned yet. She began crying. She wasn’t merely crying because of the dream, she was crying because that is what she always did, pitying herself and wishing she wasn’t such a coward that she was.
Today, the ward was silent. The crying was elsewhere now. She was sitting besides her husband as he lay there sleeping, with an oxygen mask on his mouth and a bunch of tubes wrapped around his skin.
She liked it when the ward was noisy. The noise kept her distracted; kept all those bad thoughts at bay. But today they were unrelenting, stubborn.
She thought about the nightmares. How her husband beat her for money and sometimes, just because he felt like it.
She thought about how her husband drank off the money she earned, forcing Ravi to work at a tea stall, ruining his childhood. She thought about those tears as Ravi had stormed out of the hut.
She thought about how this man on the bed forced her for another boy. How that man went mad with rage when it was a girl and how he nearly killed her.
She finally saw that man on the bed for what he was, a beast in human flesh. In that moment of clarity, she knew what had to be done.
She looked around and then drew the curtains around the bed. She took a deep breath and pulled the oxygen mask off his face.
He woke up with a start. The machines on the bedside started beeping loudly. His breathing quickened. For a moment, as he looked at her, his eyes had malice and hate. Then they travelled from her hands, which had the mask to her face, which was calm. The eyes grew wide and for the first time she saw fear in them.
He twitched in his bed and coughed. The beeps from the machine were getting quicker. She saw him struggle as he beat his hands on the bed. Then, after a couple of minutes of struggle, his eyes closed and his breathing almost slowed to a halt.
When she had taken the mask off, for a moment she had sensed freedom. But as soon as she had seen him thrashing about his bed, that clarity had subsided. No, she could not take someone’s life. But after all he did, he did NOT deserve to live. She was not the one to decide. No, don’t panic…in a minute or two, it’ll all be over. Stay calm. No…no, she could not do it. God would never forgive her. Think about your son and daughter…they deserve a better life.
She thought about them and somehow stood there, shaking pretty badly. And then his eyes had closed and the breathing almost stopped. That was the moment when she completely panicked. She realized that she could not do it. She quickly placed the mask back on him. Anxiously, she waited…finally letting out a sigh as the beeps slowed down and the breathing became normal again.
After the incident, every day she would come to the hospital and sit besides her husband and weave a sweater for Lali. As she would sit there, an image would keep coming back to her. That of his wide terrified eyes.
She often looked at her husband to see if he was watching. He frequently did but never said anything.
On the day of his discharge, she handed over the sweater to him at the doors of the hospital and said, ‘I would really like it if you would put this on Lali.’ He looked at her for a moment and then silently nodded, taking the sweater in his hands.
She smiled as she pushed the wheelchair into the bright sunny morning.