“No, he isn’t home.”
“No sir, I don’t know where he is. He hasn’t contacted me.”
This time the pause is longer. She could almost feel the waves of disbelief emanating from the faceless, yet strangely terrifying man-with-the-deep voice at the other end of the phone. She waits for him to respond, to call her bluff and smack her with verbal threats as she had for the past 30 days.
Silence. She shifts the receiver to dry her sweaty palms on her sari pallu and absentmindedly rubs off the dust between the number keys of the telephone with her fingers. She waits. The sound of intake of breath through the phone is cut off abruptly. And then, just a dial tone.
Trembling hands replaced the receiver. She holds on to it for a moment, her eyes closed and the other hand clutching her mangalsutra. It seems as if she is safe. For now.
She heads to the kitchen, her eyes noting the time on the clock mounted on the wall. Quickly, efficiently, she steams the vegetables and strains the rice, pausing in between to spread the dosa batter on the pan. A pinch of salt here, a dash of oil there, she moves like a musician, a jazz player, coaxing flavour out of the numerous pots and pans that surround her. Before long, the kitchen is filled with food and the grumbling of her two minions-of-Satan. They move like Shaktimaan, little bouts of cyclone, flying from one place to another and leaving off isolated pools of destruction. For one the dosa is too thick, the other is “borrrred” (the number of ‘r’s being directly proportional to the level of dosa’s lameness) of dosa. She silently packs their lunch boxes, taking care to pack it the way each prefers it, as her eyes roam over her bundles of joy, noting the mismatched slides and wayward ribbons. With a light touch on the head and a tweak of the pigtails, she sees them off. Minutes later, she heads out of the house to her workplace.
The eerie silence and closed offices remind her of the phone call in the morning. It was from the District Collector’s office calling to enquire about her husband’s whereabouts. You see, her husband was one of the thousands taking part in the strike by the government employees against attempts to revoke financial benefits. Not unheard of or very dangerous, as a rule. But things took a turn for the worse when the Collector supposedly agreed to issue an arrest warrant in his name. Her husband handled a significant section in the Office and it was imperative that he get back to work, which was why his refusal to distance himself from the strike was to be dealt with seriously.
And so she had been walking on coal ever since that fateful evening when he was informed of the chance of arrest. A blur of backpack being pulled out and clothes being jammed in, a whirlwind of possible locations to lie low at, an array of quick phone calls, a quick pat on her cheek and he was gone. Her husband, the epitome of common man, with his unflinching sincerity and mild political activism might possibly be arrested. By the police. And locked in a cell.
Her head throbbed.
She thought of the nights when she packed up her 2 kids and headed off to a friends’ apartment, scared that the police might come in and haul her off in an attempt to lure out her husband. Every fleeting bob of light passing through the window was the police coming to get her. The ringing of the phone seemed to induce in her a sense of impending doom. She caught herself praying and making bargains with Him so that she and her own may be left alone. She was tired of living the double life, of acting as if she didn’t know where her husband was, of keeping up the charade of Daddy-has-gone-on-an-official-tour, of playing dumb with her colleagues.
Above all, she was tired of aching for him. Of finding bits of him everywhere. Strands of his salt and pepper hair (lately more salt than pepper) caught on the comb. The lingering scent of his aftershave. His books, with their corners neatly tucked, strewn about on the table…
The ringing of the darn phone cut through her thoughts. Again, the now-familiar sense of dread coursed through her. Involuntarily she shivered. And picked up the phone.
Aah… That familiar voice. A spasm of pleasure wriggled its way through her trepidation.
“How are you? Are you okay?” she asked.
“I’m fine. There’s some good news. The strike has officially ended.”
Relief. Sweet relief coursed through every cell of her body.
“After 31 days, I’ll finally be home tomorrow. I can’t wait to see the kids and you.”
“Ok”, she said. “They’ll be ecstatic.”
“See you then.” The phone went dead in her hand.
And she wept. In utter bliss.
The government employees’ agitation of February 2002 saw around 5.5 lakh government employees participating in an indefinite strike to protest against the curtailment of the benefits being enjoyed by them as part of the steps to overcome the financial crisis facing the State. The strike went on for 32 days. For a detailed report, refer this link to an article which appeared in ‘The Hindu’ in connection with the same.