I had begun observing a quiet cheer in Kamla’s demeanour. Not that she was a sad person by nature but lately, she seemed a lot more affable. Her body-language was noticeably cheerier, and she hummed along as she dusted and swept our house. I had been morose lately, and seeing her everyday, in this happy avatar, certainly helped pass long days doing precious little. However, she was less efficient too. I wondered whether I should ask her if her husband’s brother, who lived with her, had finally turned over a new leaf, or that her younger child had been admitted to the English school she had aspired to. But why bother her with questions, I thought, and we carried on with our routine, albeit less miserably.
Then it happened: she revealed to me that she had found, quite by accident, in her child’s school bag a queer looking contraption she referred to as Pen. It was not so much like a pen, as it was like a sophisticated cigarette-holder, fashioned with a silvery-white metallic body with pretty nails driven into its side. It appeared quite ordinary yet attractive. And it was heavier than it looked. An interesting discovery indeed. Since it seemed to have had a significant bearing on her conduct, I waited for her to tell me more.
“I don’t know, madam, but it seems to affect me nicely. I am less sad.”
She said that whenever she flagged it in front of the mirror, she felt a spurt of joy and all traces of anger toward God or her brother-in-law Ramesh, in particular, disappeared from her heart. Their love life had improved drastically, she blushingly added in a hurry. Love life? She continued, stressing that she wasn’t about to ask her son where he’d acquired it. She had kept it with her, on her person, within her saree blouse, close to her heart. Clearly, its magical effects were real and tangible on her persona, and the faith with which she told me these facts touched me deeply. She was sold on this idea that the Pen, which now appeared to me much like the Magic Lamp of Aladdin, was effectuating much positive change upon her godforsaken life! Who was I to refute her reality!
Nevertheless, I was shocked to learn that they, Kamla and this Ramesh, had a love life. So far, he had sounded like a monster, not the protector he had started off as. After her husband died, his brother had moved in and obviously laid claim to his elder brother’s wife, in the natural scheme of things. I did not want to dwell on this revelation lest it disturb me more than it already had. I left these facts where I’d heard them, in the air between us.
I studied the Pen after her departure, because she decided to trust me, and asked me to study its effects till she returned to work the following day. At first, I refused to take it, but then I had troubles of my own. No harm done, and I succumbed to her pleas. After she left, I waved it around. I felt foolish as I walked up to the long mirror in my bedroom, waving it around. I didn’t sense any change, not within, not without.
When Viren returned from work, I thought I might show it to him. He was in a sullen frame of mind, which was the norm. I would have to wait. I made coffee and sat the mugs down on the centre table, and placed the Pen, which poked at me from my pocket, between the coffee mugs. Viren was lost in his thoughts but noticed the glitter. He picked it up and began twiddling with it. As he held it under close inspection, I saw its reflection in his glasses, and a slow smile spread upon his face, lighting it up. He suddenly sprang to action, talking nineteen to a dozen. For a minute I thought I was imagining his voice talking about our shared passion for music and theatre. He asked me if I’d like to join him for a play that weekend. What was happening? Was this ‘Lamp’ of Kamla spreading its warmth and light already? Could this be true? Was I to believe this hocus pocus? But there he was, my Viren, yakking away. The mood had an upswing without doubt. A ‘Lamp’ which needed no rubbing too; this was, frankly, unbelievable!
There was no denying that there had come about a stark transformation in the room where we had sat and sipped our coffee, one grim evening after another. We could be on to something after all. A quiet thrill coursed through me. We could all have a go at it, but first I must put it to the test fully. One joyous evening didn’t cut it.
I went to bed deeply disturbed that night. I would have to return the Pen Lamp to Kamla; she needed It more than I did. I tossed and turned fighting the temptation to lie to her, saying I had lost it. My conscience won and the following day, it was returned into Kamla’s anxious,waiting hands.
Life returned to normal as far as I could tell when one morning, a few days later I found Kamla wiping her moist eyes just outside the front door. What could have ensued between the time she left my home after duty hour, at 11 am, and 1 pm, that had brought her back to my door? After all she did have the trusted Pen Lamp. Oh! I had begun to believe in its powers, hadn’t I!
“Bolo, kya hua Kamla?” I hesitatingly ventured to ask her what happened.
“Arrey Madam, I was walking down the staircase after finish work here, when Ramesh…” and she broke down again, letting the tears flow unabated. I was a little disconcerted. seeing her in this cheerless condition. It was an awkward situation, should I hug her, stroke her back with compassion, offer her a cup of tea- it wasn’t my thing, and we didn’t get too comfortable in a relationship such as ours. Her tears didn’t seem sorrowful as they seemed to be streaming more from a sense of relief. I was reassured.
I held her close to me in an attempt at comforting her, in spite of all my misgivings.I am not a hugger. Her body odour instantly invaded my senses. I simply couldn’t allow myself to display any disdain. The 3-day old saree she wore was free of its original colours, bearing a splash of what might’ve been a splendid saree at one time. It was clearly unwashed.
“Ok, take a deep breath Kamla, sit down” I made her sit on one of our dining table chairs, something I would never do under normal circumstances, and she obediently did as told, while blowing her nose onto her saree *pullav. That does it, she’s got to throw this saree away for sure. I fetched her a glass of water from the kitchen.
“Here, drink up.” I paused for her to drink the cool water and stop weeping.
“Ok, speak now, tell me all. I will report Ramesh if he has brought any harm to you Kamla, fear not.”
“No Madam, not like that. Ramesh ask me for money. So I gave him the two hundred rupees I have in my blouse. Of course, Pen also there.” She snuffled a bit, wiped her nose again, and continued, “I see him peering down my blouse when I am taking money out.” Stopping to blow her nose, she continued, “I didn’t like it. One thing to desire me, but to look me like cheap slut,” she went quiet again.
“He said we will marry me one day soon. The children need father, so I am quite happy.”
“Then..?” I prodded with concern. So far so good.
“Then he grab rupee notes from my hand, but he hold my hand and looking at me, you know, stare hard. I standing there, Ramesh standing there. I am scared somebody see us like that, you know, lovers like.”
But they were lovers, what was the big deal?
I hung on, permitting her to collect her thoughts.
“Suddenly he go. I think he spot Pen, because Madam, he look at me as if he see ghost,” her voice trailed off…and she started weeping again, albeit less forcefully.
“Noooo, not like that,” she began earnestly again,“he not scared, he just ….I mean, I not understand. He look at me blank, and then he run away.”
Now she was blabbering to herself almost.
“He ran where to?”
“He run toward gate, then look back, sorry you know as if he is sorry to be hard on me, and take my money. I see he hand my rupee note to guard. Guard looking me. Then Ramesh disappear full speed. Very strange, no Madam?”
This was an unexpected turn to the story. Yes, it was strange all right. I was gobsmacked!
“You see guard give me money. I am shock! It’s that Pen. BUT I don’t find it. Maybe it fall out,” saying so she stared at the floor, in case it got conjured up. It certainly hadn’t fallen out in front of me, and she was bemoaning the loss of the Pen because she thought it had brought her good fortune. I was amazed at our collective naivety.
I almost believed her. I truly wanted to. My life had also somehow gotten mixed up in this fairy tale.
For one, I was convinced that if the Pen did work, it seemed to work differently on everyone.
I had to send her off now, she was messing me up.
Even as I wrestled with the many thoughts that were jamming the rational side of my head, she planted the Pen it in my hands determinedly. Hadn’t she just told me she had lost it? She was transfixed though and couldn’t help staring at it even as it moved from her hands to mine. All at once her face wore a look of relief and she sighed, but not with strain.
It was exceedingly bizarre to watch. She was looking at me, with her tear-strained face one moment, and the next there appeared a gleam in her eye; from aggrieved to radiant was what it seemed to me.
“Oh you found it?”
“Why Madam, I never lose it, would I? It is bringing me much respect and love. You borrow now, I am happy. When I am sad again, I will take from you. You also need joy, don’t you Madam?” She barely looked at me, as she got up from the chair, tucked in her saree expertly and walked out my front door. I was left holding the Lamp – Pen, wondering what had just happened.
That evening, Viren arrived in his usual desultory manner, uttering profanities about some colleague or other, cursing his boss. It was time to test Kamla’s Lamp again. I pulled it out from my pocket and lay it on the table. It gleamed mischievously, and caught Viren’s eyes.
“Now what have we here,” and he picked it up as if he had not seen it the previous evening. And there it was, the smile, the crease between his brows gone.
The Pen Lamp was now all mine, I trembled with my newfound weapon, and the myriad possibilities flying around in the air I was breathing in. It was already showering my partner with its blessings. There we were.
Viren poured himself a large whiskey and offered me one too, a rarity. He would habitually grab the day’s newspaper, make himself a large drink and sip it through the evening. We’d have dinner together, in silence most days, or just listen to him cussing his miserable life and job, which he was forced to continue with, to pay our single child’s boarding fees and education, and for all my luxuries. Tonight, he actually hung out with me in the balcony, admiring the greens that grew upward from our downstairs neighbour’s garden. It was too good to be true, and I savoured the few hours we spent together, sipping gently from every minute. There was no haste, and it felt like old times.
I would wipe down the Pen Lamp meticulously, and hide it away in my cupboard at night. Life was getting better and better with each passing day. Kamla too, continued to thrive.
Months passed by and Viren and I began travelling again. I took the Pen Lamp wherever I went, and never forgot to wipe it down before putting it to rest. It was my ritual, and I didn’t want it to ever get dusty and dirty. I would pray to it, to keep doing its thing. The faith that this was a magical Pen Lamp was complete, and it had come to me because the Universe knew I needed help. Kamla had been my savior and I doubled her salary, gave her some of my sarees to wear to work, and started buying her gifts every time I would travel.
Kamla, in turn, had become a bit cocky and started expecting gifts from me. One day she even asked me if I could increase her salary, hinting that all my newfound joys were because of her. Unfortunately, I had thanked her on many an occasion and confessed that I owed her big time. She remembered.
“No Kamla, I think I pay you more than your fair share. I increased your salary six months back, and doubled it in fact. You are getting greedy. I have your back, and if you never need any extra help, there’s an emergency, there are excessive medical bills, you may ask me, but the answer for today is No,” I told her the day she asked me for a raise.
She was quiet, but not for long.
“Madam ji, you only tell me you owe me much. You don’t want to lose it, do you?”
What an ominous jibe Kamla had just thrown at me. I was stunned. The more I thought about it, the angrier I got. I was livid in fact. How dare she!
“Is that what you think? Well, perhaps you don’t want to work here anymore then?”
I was serious. She didn’t think so, and dared to threw a last arrow at me, in a bid to perhaps outwit me, and have me give in.
“Okay then, return my gift, the Pen, and I’ll leave right now.”
I was dumbstruck, but by this time I had lost it. I strode in, picked up the Pen Lamp out of its safe place and literally threw it at her.
“Be gone! Come next month, and collect your salary.”
That evening I was in mourning. I could not believe I had actually thrown my ‘Lamp’ away. Why could I not have just agreed to a small increase in Kamla’s salary? What was wrong with me? My entire existence was at stake now? How would Viren react, I mean the fear that he would go right back to his mean, sullen, sad self, hovered over my being like the darkest cloud imaginable. It was nearing that time of day, when he would return and give me a hug. Yes, he had begun embracing me, and laughing with me, and we were friends now. I feared the worst.
At six that evening, he walked in, drooping shoulders, arm limp by his side carrying his office satchel. There it was, the monster had returned, I could just sense it. I wasn’t sure I should say anything that would trigger his infamous bouts of temper. But I did, close to tears, “Viren, do you want a cup of coffee?”
He looked up at me, and I observed much sadness in his eyes, “Yes please darling, I don’t have very good news I’m afraid.”
His voice held kindness, and so much love. I couldn’t bear it. The relief that spread over my being was huge. I rushed to him, and hugged him saying, “You are alive, aren’t you, and we are together, no bad news can ever take that away.”
He shook me off, but not unkindly. While he changed and returned to our main room, I made excellent coffee but my hands were trembling, as I sat the mugs on the table.
I held my breath as I waited for expletives to swarm out of his mouth, about a colleague, or two, and the bad news of course! He sat, a bit glum, picked up the mug of coffee. Sipped it.
“I think I’ve lost my job, Neena,” and tears rolled down his eyes. My first reaction was, that was it- he had lost his job, but weeping? This was not Viren. My Viren would scream and curse and say he’d take the company to the courts and sue them, but weeping, this was new and unfamiliar. I wasn’t quite certain what I was to do. So I just held out my hand and put it on his, both of his hands. He didn’t remove them, he didn’t shake me off.
“I’m being silly I know, but at this age how will I find another, and Babul has yet to finish school.”
“Listen, Viren, we have enough savings to last us a while, I can get a job too. In the meantime….”
“Yes, would you?” he looked at me with such tenderness, it very nearly killed me. He wasn’t angry- he was helpless and sad. While I felt sorry for him, I felt a huge wave of relief wash over me. He had never wanted me to step out of the house to earn money, and here he was actually telling me that my offer to work was sweet. He had validated me in that one short phrase, ‘Yes, would you?’ he’d said, I’d heard it right.
I wondered if the Lamp-Pen had done its work and left when it was no longer needed.
I moved over to his sofa, and put his head on my shoulder. I wept some too, while he moaned on a bit. We were united in our shared sense of relief even if our thoughts were not joined in meaning; we had outgrown Kamla’s Lamp’s use, and learnt to love again.