She’s mad, they tell me, she’s always been that way. And now she’s just got worse. I listen as they discuss her, without saying a word. My sister-in-law chips in from time to time as my mother-in-law explains how she has finally done the unthinkable – she had tried to poison her boy. “But don’t be scared of her,” my mother-in-law assures me, her hand resting on my shoulder. “Your father-in-law will keep her in check, she listens to him.” “She’s scared of papa,” my sister-in-law confirms. I nod.
The next day they bring her home. She’s my aunt-in-law. Apparently I have met her at my wedding. But I have met so many people that I cannot remember her. I try and recall if there was a mad woman present at the sangeet, or haldi, or if someone had created a scene during the ceremony. But my mind draws a blank. I do not find her even vaguely familiar as I watch my husband help her out of the car. His grip seems gentle from my second floor balcony, but I know how firm it can be. She holds on to the car door for a while, not wanting to move ahead. I see him tug her, watch his lips move, but I am too far away to hear. She remains firm. Then my brother-in-law joins them and begins to pry her fingers open, to weaken her hold on the car door. That’s when she lets out a wail – a cry so loud that I step back as though I have been slapped by the sound.
My mother-in-law rushes towards her to wipe her face with the aanchal of her saree, her mouth sputtering inaudible words. My father-in-law moves everyone away, pries her grip loose and begins walking her to the house. The wail is now a loud sob. I can hear it.
My sister-in-law appears in the balcony beside me, a mug of coffee in her hand. “Here it begins, the drama,” she says, sipping the steaming drink. The strong smell awakens my senses. I watch the cup move to her lip. “Things will change around here,” she continues, ignoring my greedy stare. And then, just as suddenly as she appears, she turns and walks away. The aroma deserts me too.
I look back, but there is nothing to see. The scene that was being enacted on our porch ended while the coffee had me distracted. The car has been driven off. The performers have entered the house. My mother-in-law has advised me to stay away, just as she has to my sister-in-law’s children. The reasons are different, however. I am pregnant and I do not need to be around anyone who can influence me adversely. They are small and may fall prey to her evil plans. After all, she has just tried to kill her boy. That’s the reason her husband has finally thrown her out.
The drawing room is crowded. I climb down the stairs. No one is looking, so I do not have to be confined to my floor. I stand a little away and I know for a while I will not be noticed. She is sitting now, sipping on lime juice. I am shocked to see how young she is. I know my father-in-law has treated her like a daughter, but when I see my sister-in-law sit beside her, I can barely differentiate between their ages. Her hair is short, neat, tame. Her fair complexion looks pale, but there’s a sparkle in her eyes. She’s wearing a white saree with faded pink flowers. Even her blouse is white. It should’ve been pink, I find myself thinking. Why has she dressed like a widow?
“Come in,” my husband says to me. I turn red in embarrassment. I have been spotted. I glance towards my mother-in-law, sure of a disapproving look coming my way. But she’s engrossed in instructing the servants. The look does come from my sister-in-law, but I ignore it. My husband leads me to her. “My wife,” he says, as I bend to touch her feet. She runs her hand through my hair, and as I straighten myself she holds my hand. I don’t know what to do. She looks up at me, the lemon drink still in one hand. Her eyes are black and alive. Before anyone can say anything, she asks, “Have they told you that I am mad?”
I’m frightened. I try to pull back my hand but she tightens her grip. “Bua,” my husband speaks, trying to take back control of the situation. But her glare shuts him up. “Your wife is pretty,” she says as her voice changes, turns soft. Then she glances at me, and gestures to the empty place beside her on the sofa. “Come, sit next to me,” she says. Now I am very scared. I don’t want to. I don’t know how not to. My mother-in-law intervenes. “She needs to rest,” she says. “She’s in her first trimester, doctor has said complete rest.” Then turning towards me to offer an escape route she says sweetly, “Why don’t you go up and rest?” I grab that opportunity, nod and turn away. The old servant is sent after me to ensure I don’t wander off elsewhere.
Throughout the day, titbits of news trickle in. I’m told that bua has been housed in the spare room on the same floor as my in-laws. She hasn’t brought much with her, just a small suitcase. According to the old servant, when she got married and left the house sixteen suitcases went with her. That many hadn’t even come with my mother-in-law, I am told. I want to know what was in the suitcases. So do the other servants who are cleaning my part of the house.The ground floor is cleaned first, then my sister-in-law’s portion on the first floor, and then mine. My portion is never swept or dusted before lunch. “One bag had gold, one had diamonds, one had silk sarees,” the old crone narrates. The servants’ hands slow down as their eyes widen. “Nonsense,” I mutter. “What nonsense?” the crone snaps back. “How else do you think she got married? Who would have married her without that dowry, the poor mad thing that she is!” My mother-in-law’s heavy breathing alerts us. The servants rush back to work while I pretend to fold clothes on my bed.
Climbing up has become tougher for my mother-in-law over the last year. There have been talks of installing a lift in the house. I hope it doesn’t happen. At least this way she doesn’t come into my quarters more than once or twice a day. She sits beside me and starts instructing the servants. She asks them to remove the vase from the side table and put it on the centre table. She asks me if I have taken my medicines, if I am feeling well. Then she holds my hand, caresses it and tells me to stay away from bua. “She’s not bad,” she explains, “Just mad.” After she leaves I shift the vase back to where it was.
My husband comes home after eight. He showers and goes down to watch television with his father and brother, with whom he has spent the entire day in the office. My sister-in-law potters around between the ground and first floor feeding the children and forcing them to complete their homework. My dinner is sent up these days because I am not supposed to exert myself. I never know what is being cooked till it arrives on my plate. Most of the time the old crone is sent to supervise my meal, to ensure I eat healthy. But today she has been sent to feed bua who apparently has decided she will not eat unless she is sent back home. That means I am left unsupervised at my meal time. I look at the vegetables on my plate and decide to waste something since I have the opportunity. But I am hungry, so I eat it all. The servant who comes to collect the dishes tells me that the lock has been removed from bua’s bedroom and bathroom, just in case she does something to herself. “Has she tried something like that earlier?” I ask. The servant is relatively new and doesn’t know much, but she begins to fabricate stories, so I ask her to leave.
My husband has told me about his mad aunt. Something about how my father-in-law had brought her up as a daughter, how he had loved her. It hadn’t interested me much then. But now I want to know more. When he comes up after dinner, I ask him casually, “Did bua eat?” He shrugs, and adds a “Yes” in afterthought. Taking the remote from my hand he changes the channel to news. I am not ready to give up yet, so I ask another question. “Has bua always been mad?” Without looking at me he says, “It’s got worse over the years.” I want to know if she’s been to the doctor. If she’s received the right kind of treatment. “She’s been on some medication,” he says. “It wasn’t so bad when she got married.” A thought strikes me and I take the remote from his hand, forcing him to look at me, surprised. “Did your family tell her husband about this..this madness?” He scowls, takes the remote back, changes the channels and snaps, “Don’t make a big deal about this, OK? She’s here only temporarily, till some other arrangements are made.” I cannot stop myself. “But where will she go? We’re her family. If she doesn’t stay here, where will she go?” My husband rubs his forehead. It is almost eleven. He looks tired. “I don’t know. We’re trying to figure it out. But she can’t stay here. It’s not safe for the kids.” He absent-mindedly caresses my stomach.
I cannot sleep, even though his soft snores do not bother me anymore. I get up to get a glass of water. The silver moonlight has flooded my balcony. I walk over there, glass in hand, and stare out. It’s a bright night, the merry moon is pouring light across the streets. That’s why I can see bua sitting in the garden, on the grass, busy digging. She’s no longer in her white saree. She’s in her nightdress now, the colour not clear from my second floor balcony. Her back is towards me. I remember the servant telling me about her unlocked door. They feared her doing something to herself, but they didn’t anticipate her walking out. I smile at the thought.
The house is still now. I know it is a risk but I decide to take it. As softly as I can I climb down the stairs. The first breathing dragon I need to evade is my sister-in-law. She sleeps with her door ajar. I barely breathe as I climb down. On the ground floor there’s a passage light left on. I’m not sure if it is intentional or someone has forgotten to turn it off. I have never walked around the house this late. In the early months of my marriage, when we’d return from the nightclub, my husband would ask me to remove my heels and run up silently while he locked up. I walk towards the door. It is shut. I wonder how bua plans to come back in, as I leave it ajar and slip out.
The luminous moon makes it easy for me to reach her. There is no breeze but the night is cool. Bua does not hear me, but I hear a smattering of words. I realise she’s talking to herself. She’s so involved in the conversation that she does not notice me approach. Reluctant to surprise her, I walk in front so that she can see me. I sit down on the soft, moist grass. Bua has dug a deep hole using a spoon. She has two more spoons placed by her side. She looks at me and smiles, as though she expected me to come and join her, as though this is a part of our daily ritual. I smile back. She continues digging but is looking at me while she works. “Bua,” I mutter softly, suddenly afraid. There’s too much light, my voice seems too loud. “Bua, what are you doing?” I ask as softly as I can. At first I hear no reply and I wonder if she’s heard me. But then she looks up, her face calm like the moon shining directly above her head. “I’m digging a tunnel,” she whispers. “A tunnel?” I ask looking at the hole she’s dug. She nods and gets back to work. “I’m going to escape once it’s ready,” she giggles. Suddenly she seems so young. I reach out to touch her face. She closes her eyes and lets me caress her cheek. When I remove my hand she looks at me worried. “Will you tell them my plan?” I change my expression into a serious one. “Never,” I say. She continues to stare at me, then says, “Is it because you want to use my tunnel too?” I look at the two spare spoons and pick one up and begin digging along with her. “Maybe I’ll escape with you.”
Written by Richa Wahi