Meera woke up at dawn, swept her one-room hut, shook her daughters out of their slumber, and walked to the lone hand pump in the village. Meera enjoyed this time because the women spent the first moments of morning cracking bawdy jokes; it allowed her to begin the day with laughter.
A farmer has to work with her body, and because Meera was always working, her body was thin and strong. Despite two painful childbirths and two even more painful miscarriages, her waist remained sturdy and narrow, like the trunk of a Khejri tree. Today, the breeze was generous. Her dupatta, a thin floral red, ruffled like a bloody thundercloud.
Meera’s home had no man. Vimla was born six years ago. Her husband, a man she married but never knew, was often away in the mining town, where he caught tuberculosis and died soon after. Over time, all the village men fell to the same fate and now Meera lived with the fading memory of a man she never really knew, while she raised her two daughters in a village of women.
Pooja, nine years old, the eldest, had Meera’s hazel eyes and a good even smile with white teeth that were beginning to brown at the edges. Meera had lost many of her teeth, because she had never bothered to clean them as a child, and her cheeks caved in, filling the hollows in her gums and making her appear thinner than she already was.
Vimla, the youngest, was ulta, the opposite. If Meera told Vimla to brush her hair, she tangled it further. If Pooja told Vimla to eat her food, she sat for hours, with a wad of roti in her mouth. If her teacher gave her homework, Vimla didn’t bother to touch the books. On some nights, after the three of them had finished dinner, they lay on the cots — Meera on one, Vimla and Pooja on the other — and Meera would hear Vimla singing her older sister to sleep.
Meera regretted the premature end of her own childhood. Meera was thirteen when her mother died. Her father remarried and left the responsibility of running their home to Meera. Her hands grew accustomed to the labour that gradually weathered them.
Pooja went about her morning ritual — whacking the cot to dislodge dust — prompting Vimla to stretch her tiny body over the entire cot. Pooja bathed with half a bucket of water, pleated her hair, ironed her white salwar kameez and blue dupatta and applied a hint of kajal into the rims of her eyes. Vimla wore her wrinkled uniform without fuss. As her daughters walked to school Meera waved goodbye, unaware of the direction her life was about to take.
Walking to her land, spade in one hand, Meera shielded her eyes with the other. The rains were late again, and the heat would show no mercy, but if she worked fast Meera could complete the hardest work by noon. She pushed the spade into the ground, loosening the soil, one scoop at a time.
Sweat rolled down her back and into her blouse, but she paid the wetness no mind. Sweating was as natural for a farmer as breathing or sowing. In out, in out, only her breath; in out, in out, and the rhythm of the spade; in out, in out, clunk. Her spade hit an object.
She dug out the object. It was a tin can. Meera brushed the soil off the container and pried it open. It was empty. She would take it home, clean it up. The girls could use it as a pencil box. Or they could use it as a pitcher to pour water.
At noon, Meera napped in the shade of a peepul tree, her spade and newly found tin can next to her. The other women, after their work was done, joined her to rest in the shade, which grew into a vast, embracing darkness. Meera woke up to the chatter of women sharing lunches. She pulled out her own, yesterday’s roti, and a raw onion.
The heat subsided, and Meera worked some more, sowing the seeds over neatly furrowed rows, before heading back. Her daughters would be home soon and she needed to get more water. She turned the last corner and saw a hunched figure with thinning white hair standing at her door. It was a man.
“Who are you? What do you want?”
The old man turned and Meera stepped back, dropping the spade and can. His face resembled Mohan, but he had aged at least a few decades. How was this possible? She’d seen his corpse, pale and still. She remembered breaking her bangles, her bleeding wrists.
“Is that really you?” As per custom, she wasn’t allowed to utter her husband’s name. The figure gave no reply. She opened the door and he followed her inside.
“Would you like some tea?” Meera heated the milk. She heard her daughters’ giggles as they walked inside and seeing an old man in their house, they were overcome with a fearful shyness.
“Pooja. Vimla. Come, meet your father.” The girls froze. Meera wondered if they remembered their father at all.
At the evening’s turn of events, Meera grew anxious. This man, silent and ancient, looked like her husband and yet by his appearance he could have passed for her grandfather. She feared for her daughters.
“I have to fetch water for the evening. Pooja. Vimla. Come.” The girls rushed outside.
“Where was he before, Ma?” Vimla said. “Why’s he here? When will he leave? Why doesn’t he do anything? Why does he look so weird?”
“He’s scary,” Pooja said.
“Meera, what’s this?” one of the older women called out to her. “Brought your daughters today, is it. What’s the occasion, Pooja getting married or what.” The others laughed and Pooja blushed.
“No reason, Shanta,” Meera said, joining her in line, pot slung on her hip, “just thought I’d get them started early.”
“Our father’s come home,” Vimla piped, then lowered her voice. “He’s scary.”
Shanta chuckled. “Listen, sisters. Meera is kindly sheltering a man under her roof. Now that the girls are older, the thirst has come back, is it.” A few women grinned.
“Mohan’s come back.” Meera muttered. “He’s older, but it’s him. You can come tomorrow and see for yourself.”
“Alright, Meera,” Shantafilled her pot and tucked the hem of her dupatta into her ghaghra, “but tell us also what black magic you’ve done to bring the dead back to life.”
Meera didn’t walk back with the other women. She felt disturbed and needed to think, so she left with her daughters once her pots were full. Upon turning the last corner she saw the spade where she’d dropped it yesterday, lying in the veranda. But where was the tin can? Entering the house, she saw the withered man crouched over the tin container. This sight unsettled her so much that she put down her pots, picked up the can, walked to the corner, and threw it out.
She looked at the man she believed to be her husband. “You’ll have to sleep outside today, there’s no space for all of us, as you can see.” He stared, silent. Pooja stood at the door, Vimla danced outside. Meera forced a weak smile. “The girls have grown up, can you tell?” The man did not speak. As Meera walked to the farm she considered what would happen when she came back. Laying on his cot at the veranda that night, she hoped he would leave.
The next morning, he was still there. He drank the tea she made for him, bathed when she put the water out, but otherwise, he sat, still as stone. He’s a hollow man, Meera thought, a ghost. But he was real, because the girls had seen him, and when Shanta came by that morning she shrieked, declaring that indeed, it was Mohan. Both women walked to the hand pump together and Shanta listened as Meera narrated the events of the previous day, and when they turned the corner, Meera noticed that the can no longer lay on the dirt road.
They were the last to arrive at the hand pump which was buzzing with more chatter than usual. Asha, who lived at the very corner where Meera had thrown the can, was crying.
“It was him,” Asha sniffed, “at first I couldn’t believe my eyes, so I pinched myself, and he was still there. Durga mata, my prayers have been answered. I’m no longer a widow, I can adorn myself with sindoor and fast for the long life of my husband.” Asha rejoiced and the other women repeated their private prayers, giving thanks for Asha’s matrimonial reunion. “I wonder what kind of horrible place one had to live in to age so much in just a few years.” The other women muttered in agreement.
Shanta watched them from a distance.
Within a week, the village women were no longer widows. Some brought their men to the hand pump, while others took them to their farms. The men, all of them, were decrepit and silent, and they did as they were told with hindered movement.
Meera kept her distance from the stranger in her house. She looked after him, but he still slept outside. The girls had overcome their initial fear of the man, but under strict orders from Meera, they kept their distance. Meera no longer enjoyed fetching water, for the only stories she heard were of men.
“How he’s changed. I much prefer this husband to the one I married.”
“He does exactly as he’s told.”
“You know, the other day when the children were at school, I enticed him and we made love. It seems his seed is just as strong as before.”
“The men have become the women of the house and we, it seems, have become the men.”
Meera no longer participated in the laughter. These men were not their husbands. How could they not see that? Shanta had even got her husband to wash the family’s clothes.
That evening, when Meera returned home, she called her man to the kitchen area.
“Bring me a pot of water.” He brought it back, filled.
“Good. Now, do as I tell you.” That night and the following nights the old man prepared dinner. Meera also trained him to wash and iron the clothes. Over time, the men in the village were preparing the food and farming the land. Eventually, the only work left for the women to do was fetch the water, where they exchanged the day’s news.
“I wish Mohan wasn’t so slow,” Meera mentioned to the other women. Now, she didn’t mind referring to her husband by name.
“The girls always get late for school because he takes too long to prepare their breakfast. I think I’ll have him wake up earlier.”
“I know what you mean, sister,” Shanta said. “Just yesterday, I had to hit Chandu to teach him a lesson.”
Meera, along with a few others, clicked her tongue in disapproval.
“What are you saying, Shanta? Do you hit your husband? Have you no shame?”
“What shame, sister? I have three mouths to feed and then this old man wobbles over, and now there are four. The least he can do is not burn the daal. Anyhow,” she said, placing a pot on her head, “he doesn’t seem to feel a thing. No tears, no screams, nothing.”
Meera found herself growing impatient with Mohan. When the clothes weren’t as clean as she wanted, a few slaps every once in a while ensured the next washing would be better.
The women, including Meera, had more free time. Before the tin can’s discovery, they chewed the occasional paan, but now they took up smoking beedis and drinking local liquor to pass the time. The women, once lean and strong, no longer fit in their old blouses. While walking from the hand pump, Meera realised one day that she was only carrying one pot, and she couldn’t remember when she had stopped carrying three.
Sometimes, the children got together on their way home from school and if a man was seen walking — they always walked alone, the men — the children threw stones at him, giggling with delight when the man didn’t respond, at which point they threw larger stones. This, they found, increased the man’s speed, but only slightly.
Pooja emulated her mother’s behaviour, screaming at the old man when his pace was too slow for her. Vimla, on the other hand, often left him secret treats, like a single toffee or one of her chapattis.Mohan was always the last to eat and didn’t always get chapattis.
Because Mohan fetched the water, cleaned the house, prepared the food, and sent the girls off to school, Meera no longer awoke at dawn. She complained that her food was not salty enough or her bathwater was not warm enough. The only time she left the house now was in the evening, not to fetch water but to meet the other women at the village square, where they smoked and drank and talked. It was on one of these walks to the square that Meera heard a woman’s wails. In her doorway, surrounded by a group of women, Asha ripped out her hair and screamed and broke her bangles. With bloody wrists, she looked up at the sky, her swollen, tear-stained face contorted in hysteria.
“He’s left me. Durga mata, he’s gone. Why did this happen? Why did he have to die? Durgamataforgive my sins. Why send him back only to snatch him away again.”
Meera pulled Shanta aside.
“Where’s the tin can?” It had been years since someone last saw it.
The death of Asha’s husband awakened the idea that Mohan too might die. Funny, she’d never considered it.
One-by-one, the elderly men breathed their last. Wails and cremations became a common occurrence in the village, often accompanied by reassuring words.
“He had been such a good man, a dutiful man.”
“In his own way, he took care of me, the children. I loved him with all my heart.”
“If only I could bring him back one more time, I wouldn’t work him so hard. If only I hadn’t beaten him. If only I’d shown him more affection.”
Mohan grew sicker by the week. No matter how much of his workload Meera took upon herself or how much medicine she gave him, his health worsened. Even Pooja acted tenderly towards her father, while Vimla simply cried.
In the middle of a particularly warm night, Meera heard wheezing from Mohan’s cot in the veranda. She sat by his side and held his hand and he looked at her with an urgency she had never seen, and then he was gone. As the sky grew bright, his body grew cold and Meera wailed, pulling out her hair and breaking her bangles, not so much in sadness, but in anger.
The mourning period passed and once again, Meera woke up at dawn and cleaned the house and fetched water, but it was not the same. The women pumped slowly, the fat on their arms dangling. They walked back alone, without jokes or laughter, their eyes glazed. Meera pushed back the memory of an earlier time that threatened to haunt her and wondered if it had been a dream or a nightmare.
Pragya Bhagat is a spoken word poet and essayist. Her work focuses on the intersections between belonging, body image, relationships, and mental health. She is the author of two books: More Than a Memory (2017), a poetry collection, and Yarn: An Interwoven Memoir (Bombaykala, 2018). Her poetry has been featured in numerous anthologies and she has performed at the Goa Arts and Literature Festival, the Spoken Fest, and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, amongst others. She is the winner of the Orange Flower Award for Writing on Wellness.
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