In a town not too far and not too close to the city—just enough so one could buy sophistications meant for the rich, yet stay away from the clamour destined for the poor—lived a family of nine. Korshu and Maruni were husband and wife, and they had five children—three boys and two girls. Korshu’s unmarried elder brother Kivru and an orphan dog also lived with them. The house—with its five bedrooms, large kitchen, and open courtyard—was spacious enough to hold all without them getting on each other’s toes, and truth be told they were the happiest of families for miles around. The children were well-behaved and heeded everything their parents asked of them. The elders of the house lived like members of a harmonious council—equal in responsibilities and opinions. The brothers were exactly alike—steadfast, silent, and serious, while Maruni was the child-woman, almost like the sixth in the platoon of her own children: vivacious, funny, curious, and free.
Then there was a disruption.
Five days after his fifty-second birthday, Korshu fell from the terrace and died. They heard the thud of his fall from all parts of the house and ran to find him sprawled on the ground like a flattened spider, blood pouring out of his limbs. The shock plunged the family into days of despair and darkness. Then Kivru took charge of things, because someone had to. He rolled forth the rituals and observances needed at such an hour while the rest of the family mourned.
After the cremation was done and the guests left, Kivru took Maruni aside and told her she had nothing to worry about. He’d take care of her and the children as if everything was as usual.
“But it’s not,” she told him. “He’s gone.”
“You have to forget him and move on,” he told her firmly.
She promised to try.
Life returned to normal within a year for the children. Except for the occasional lapses in restraint, they talked of their father less and less. Kivru became the replacement for their affections, which he gladly accepted and returned. Thus, like an elastic band with its snipped ends tied expertly back together, the family returned to as it was, one member less, but with the sum total of love intact.
But everyone looked to their own hearts. No one noticed that Maruni wasn’t the same. She had changed. She stayed quiet and withdrawn for hours on end in the gloom of her bedroom, curtains drawn, mourning the loss of her partner, the man who stroked her back gently so she could sleep and wrapped his arms around her when she demanded his attention. The wound in her heart had turned to a throbbing pulse, always present, always raw. But no one noticed. She did not tell anybody. Her family was doing well and she thought what she was feeling was her own pain… which must be borne alone.
Then Kivru died.
Now Maruni was the only elder in the house, the one everyone looked to for support. Knowing she couldn’t afford to come undone, she nipped her painful pulse and called on all her resources to take care of the household.
The child had left the woman.
Three monsoons passed.
Maruni discovered the chair on the wedding day of her eldest, Kori. He was to marry a girl rich in many talents from a neighboring family, and everyone was overjoyed at such a good match. The wedding was to be a grand one. When Maruni walked under the red velvet canopy—decorated with jasmine, marigold, and jewelry-laden guests—immediately she saw the gleaming teakwood chair, standing apart like a king from the cluster of the ordinary plastic ones. “What is that?” she asked. No one realized she was talking of the chair until she walked to it and sat down.
“It’s father’s garden chair, don’t you remember? It was in the godown,” one of her sons said. “We brought it out because we wanted a decent one for you to sit on.”
“It smells of him,” she said in wonder. She stroked its curved arms, a look of bliss on her face. She crossed her legs over the ribbed seat and sighed. Everyone watched her with amused indulgence for a few minutes and then dispersed to do their own things. But Maruni spent all of the wedding sitting on the chair, carrying it from place to place and never letting it out of her sight.
She asked her second eldest son to carry it back home for her. He said they’d been planning to sell it off. His mother looked at him in horror.
“I want it brought back,” she said sternly. “Put it in my bedroom.”
“Anything for you,” he said, shrugging, and carried it home.
Now Maruni wouldn’t sit anywhere else but on that chair. She carried it everywhere with her, around the house, to her neighbour’s house, to the garden, to the farm. And it was akin to a ceremony, her setting up that chair and sitting on it. She stroked the ground with her slippers first and then placed the chair on it, ensuring the feet were steady on the floor. If she was talking to someone, the chair’s feet had to be parallel to the person’s feet. If she was watching television, it had to be exactly facing; no misalignment was tolerated. Next, with the end of her saree’s pallu she carefully wiped the arms and the seat. Then, with a small prayer she sat on it, light as a newly-shed leaf.
As if the chair was human. As if… it was her dead husband and she was in his lap.
This was amusing at first, and then exasperating and often embarrassing, especially in public, but Maruni transformed so remarkably in the presence of the chair that everyone tolerated her obsession and said little. As long as she was happy and healthy, they said, what more could we want?
Eight monsoons had passed since Korshu’s death.
Maruni’s obsession with her chair was complete, overwhelming to everyone around her except her own self. She had stopped moving around the house in fear of letting go of her beloved companion and insisted things be brought to her. If she had to go for a bath or to relieve herself, she was carried on the chair and left alone to take care of things. No one knew how or what she did once left alone, and were loathe to speculate. When her children brought their children home, they took up these tasks in rotation, as per a schedule that was drawn up and taped to the kitchen wall. It grew to be as perfunctory as brushing or going to the toilet: a daily task that needed to be done. Slowly, no one thought it odd anymore.
One day, Maruni said she felt cold and a blanket was brought to cover her. She wrapped the richly-embroidered gold and maroon cloth around her body, tucking parts of her inside it from neck down. In the end, she looked as if she were contained within a carapace.
Twelve monsoons had passed since Korshu’s death.
On her chair, Maruni grew rounder and happier, like a being blissful in meditation. Often, they heard laughter and voices from a distance, and they hoped that she was talking to herself rather than the old wooden chair. Her grandchildren brought her food, a toilet bowl to relieve herself in, and sponge and water to wash herself. They placed the things of need on a table close to her, replenishing them when she asked. But she wouldn’t let them touch her or the chair anymore and laughingly said it was her responsibility and hers alone. Why bother when she could take care of it? They were doing enough, anyway.
Now it was the day of the wedding of Maruni’s youngest daughter, Mora. Was she going to spend the day on her chair again? Just like she had for the rest of her children? Her family beseeched she leave the chair and walk to the venue. Didn’t she want to dance, sing, and feel like a normal person?
But by then she didn’t care what others asked her to do or what was right and proper. She refused to leave the chair and only half-heartedly agreed to being lifted along with it to the venue.
But everyone had had enough. They were worried for her. This was a chance for them to make her walk, get some exercise, get back to normal. Wouldn’t the love of her child make her want to move? This was the perfect opportunity to make her give up that blasted chair. So they refused to do her bidding and walked away.
In a huff, Maruni declined to go at all, and instead sat sulking in a corner of her bedroom with the shades drawn. She watched television all day. When her family got back, she was snoring in her chair, wrapped snugly under her red and gold blanket. They shook their heads at each other. Nothing can be done about this, they said resignedly.
They stopped commenting on her and the chair after that. They left her alone. The children played around her while she patted their heads and passed them sweets and benign advice. The wizened dog sat at her feet and licked the fingers protruding from the lower edges of the blanket. Her sons and their wives, now elders of the house, formed a circle around her, eating and drinking, discussing the day’s events and asking for her advice. She was the pivot around which the spokes of the family stabilized and rotated. She was the omniscient fixture in their lives.
As time passed and Maruni’s health deteriorated, she rarely moved at all from the corner of her bedroom. She watched television all day and uncharacteristically asked to be left alone more and more. The family visited her at designated hours, carrying food, emptying her toilet, and asking her about her day. They hated to leave her alone like that—she who was to them like a benevolent deity, cheerful and sensible, wrapped in what looked like a royal and saintly shield. It smelled like rain-soaked mud around her, and the grandchildren often ran to her to catch a whiff and run away again, invigorated. It was their happy corner.
Yes, she was happy. And they learnt to be happy for her.
Three more monsoons passed.
One night, there was a thunderstorm and a power cut. The storm started at midnight and raged for four hours. The children stayed up in bed, terrified. The elders calmed them and prayed for the howling of the wind and the beating on the doors to end. Now and then it sounded like a human was outside in the throes of some diabolical pain. When the storm finally subsided, the family snuggled back to bed, relieved, to rest ‘til dawn broke.
When the sun was up in the sky and the grandchild whose duty it was knocked on her door, Maruni didn’t bid for her to come in, as was usual. The little girl tried to push open the door to enter, but it was jammed. Hearing her cries, the rest of the family gathered around her and each tried to open the door—either with the weight of a shoulder or a trick of the mind—but it stayed shut.
The worried family called for a carpenter. He used his tools and forced the door open. The family hurried inside.
They were staring at their worst nightmare.
Maruni was toppled over on the floor along with her chair. She was still sitting on her chair, only both had fallen together horizontally on the ground. The blanket had slipped from her body and gathered in a pool of fabric a few feet away. Her eyes were closed; a curiously content smile played on her lips.
But… it was odd, the way she was lying. Had the room turned ninety degrees, they might have been starting at her sitting upright, just as normal.
They ran to her.
They bent down and looked closely.
They stumbled back in wonder.
Maruni was not herself anymore: Her parts had fused into the chair. Like one solid limb of a tree, they were growing together, one supporting the other. Sinews of the gleaming dark wood had melded with her wrinkled brown skin, forming a new entity, like creepers on a tree.
Maruni and her chair, they had become one.
Smita Bhattacharya is an award winning short story writer based out of Mumbai. She has two published books: He Knew a Firefly and Vengeful, both of which rank among the top 100 Asian Literature & Fiction on Amazon with a 4+ star review. Though, seeking to write the next big novel, she considers short stories her pièce de résistance. Smita works as a management consultant and travels the world. When not working, and sometimes even when, she stares out of coffee shop windows and wonders about the hidden stories behind the passing faces.