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An Open Window

August 7, 2013

I could not take my eyes off her face nor could I turn away from the red salwar kurta she wore that blended so well with the red which had caked her face.

By Vandana Jena
Short Stories: An Open Window

Two hours later she had jumped from the fourth floor window.

She jumped from a window on the fourth floor on New Year’s day and died instantaneously, fuelling the belief that committing suicide in the office complex was an annual ritual.

When Shyam came and broke the news to me his face was ashen. It was one thing for him to shake his head gloomily, touch his temple to indicate that she was not all there and would one day kill herself, it was quite another thing to see her broken, lifeless and bloodied.

It was he who accompanied me to the hospital. I could not take my eyes off her face nor could I turn away from the red salwar kurta she wore that blended so well with the red which had caked her face.

There was something macabre about her death. I tried to imagine her jumping from the fourth floor and lying spread-eagled on the ground, while the work in the department had gone on.

Yet just two hours before she had been alive. Alive but depressed. I had been engrossed in reading a file and had not even noticed her presence till I heard her shuffling her feet by my side. She had come with two files in her hand, which signaled that they were urgent, but she had been reluctant to put them before me.

Her hands wringing, her eyes firmly focused at the ground before her, she had said, clearing her throat a little, “Ma’am you had said that if I ever had any problems, professional or personal, I could come to you.” She looked what she was, a terribly unhappy soul.

Had I made such a rash promise? I wondered, looking curiously at her face. I did not remember. I looked surreptitiously at the clock. It was nearing twelve. I had a deadline to reach by three. Luckily Geeta was still busy looking at the floor. I heaved a sigh and called for tea.

Phoolwati, my peon, brought the tea after some time. Both Geeta and I watched when Phoolwati placed the two cups on the table, poured out the milk and sugar, stirred the tepid tea vigorously, as though by some strange alchemy she would make it piping hot, and served it with a flourish. Sipping on the tea I said expansively to Geeta, “Now tell me.” It was the right opening.

Words tumbled from her lips at an amazing speed, as though if she slowed down she would lose the courage to go on. It was a story which I had heard before, from the lips of her colleagues, from the lips of my Under Secretary, from almost everyone in office. However this time I was hearing it from her lips.

Her husband had walked out of the house one day, a year after her marriage, never to return, leaving her behind with an infant son. She had spent two years looking for him. Two years during which she visited hospitals and the morgue and police stations as well, her son in her arms, waiting for news of her husband.

She did not say how she had coped with life, she did not speak about her mood swings, the depression, which had been hereditary, that assailed her when she thought he was dead, the hope that resurrected her when she felt in her bones that he was alive, the sense of mystery at his sudden disappearance.

What had helped her retain her sanity was the son in her arms and her parents by her side. And then one day, while walking through Noida she spotted him, an infant in his arms, another woman by his side. ‘It was his wife, ” said Geeta, “he had married again.”

“But that’s bigamy,” I said immediately.

“That’s what I said, ” she told me, “But he told me he had obtained an ex-parte divorce.”

“How is that possible?” She answered my query with a tired, “His lawyers sent the notices to the address where my parents lived before their retirement. I did not receive them.” It was a deliberate ploy, but one which had succeeded. I wondered what shattered her more, the divorce or the deception. But whatever it was, it destroyed her. “It broke me,” she said, “His deserting me and my son for someone else.”

“I’m not surprised,” people had said, as the story of her marriage had been known to all, “Who can live with someone as petulant as Geeta?” I looked at Geeta, whose face was marred by frown lines and a sulky pout. Who knew who was to blame?

Both, I was sure, were to blame for their marriage. But he alone was responsible for destroying her, for her lack of self-esteem, her nervous breakdown, and her depression.

“It’s been seven years now,” she said, “But I can’t get over his betrayal. And what hurts, what really hurts me even more is that slowly my friends have abandoned me. When I try to join them for lunch they make excuses. My friends say that I depress them.”

“Geeta, no man, but no man is worth crying over, especially not the man you married. Forget him and move on with your life.” It was easy for me to say these words. They cost me nothing.

“Yes, “said Phoolwati, who had brought another round of tea along with a plate of burfi , “You are lucky, you have a well paid job and just one child to look after.”

“Do you know,” she added, “when my husband died, leaving me four children to look after, what a struggle it was for me to bring them up.

I saved every burfi I got in the functions I attended, broke it into four pieces and gave it to my children. I tore up my sarees to make clothes for my daughters. I worked overtime to earn that extra rupee.”

I looked at Phoolwati with respect. Life must have been much tougher for her, for she was just a peon. But she was a survivor. Geeta seemed to cheer up and as she left she said, “Thank you for saving my life.” Two hours later she had jumped from the fourth floor window. God alone knows what demons had got into her which forced her to take the plunge.

I stood in the hospital, seeing Geeta’s lifeless form, trying to fight back tears. I felt sorrow, sorrow that a young life had been snuffed out in the prime. But mostly I felt guilt.

Guilt that I had not realized how close she was to committing suicide. Guilt that my advice had brought no comfort to her. Guilt that I had not put her in a taxi and sent her home. “Don’t blame yourself, ” said Shyam, showing unusual perception, “She would have committed suicide anyway.”

That evening two policemen came and took evidence. It seemed ironical that suddenly Geeta had no friends. Like her husband had done in her lifetime, others deserted her in her death. Everyone pleaded ignorance about her, her circumstances, her life, and her depression. I had not realized that a police uniform inspired so much fear.

“You were the last one to see her alive,” the policemen turned to me questioningly. Perhaps I was. And I knew all about her life, her version about it anyway and I told them all I knew.

The next day when I went to office a colleague asked me surreptitiously, “You were the last one to have seen her alive. What happened?”
“What happened?” I was perplexed, “What do you mean?”
“Did you say something?” he prodded.

It dawned upon me then that he actually thought that something I had said had provoked the suicide.

“Don’t get me wrong, ” he clarified, “A few years ago someone had committed suicide from this building after a fight with his boss and he left a suicide note blaming him for it.” I wondered if it had been just luck or an instinct of self-preservation, which had made me call Phoolwati into my room while Geeta was there.

I met Geeta’s parents during the cremation. Her parents were stoic about her death. “If it had not been today, it would have been some other day, ” they said. That is what her psychiatrist had told them anyway. I met Geeta’s son as well. “Today is his birthday,’ whispered his Grandmother.

I looked at the seven year old. That explained Geeta’s depression. It was a reminder of her husband’s desertion.
I wondered how her son felt knowing that his birthday was also the day he had lit his mother’s funeral pyre.

That day I returned home late. The lift was out of order. I had to walk up the sixth floor.
“Where were you? ” shouted Sushant as I entered the house.
“I went for Geeta’s cremation,” I said. “You could have informed us about your whereabouts,” he said, “At least we should know where to contact you if there is a funeral in the family.”
I sighed. “Sushant, I’m not in the mood for a fight, not today of all days, spare me, “I said as I entered the bedroom.

Suddenly I heard a loud clatter. Sushant had dropped the dishes on the floor. That was his revenge. The bai had left. I would have to go back, wipe the floor and cook dinner all over again.

I felt tired, really tired, and emotionally drained as well. I saw the open window. It seemed so tempting. I closed my eyes. Perhaps it would pass, this weakness. When I opened my eyes again I was all right.

It’s been three years since Geeta died. I am alright now. All feelings of regrets that I could not save her, all traces of guilt have gone. Wherever she is, I know Geeta is at rest. Everyone says that she took the easy way out, that suicide is a soft option. I wonder. And as a matter of caution I avoid looking down open windows.

This short story was first published in Meghdutam.com (between 1999 to 2002).

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