Fiction | ‘Shall Breathe Now’ by Rinu Antony | Creative Writing Workshop

Cooking in the humid, sultry weather was pure torture. Mikhila turned on the exhaust fan and waited; a pearl of sweat hung from the tip of her nose precariously. Another slithered through the side of her face. Without warning, the salty drop of sweat dropped in her coffee mug in front of her. She closed her eyes and felt the heat pressing on her from all the sides. Her landline phone rang in  the living room. Mikhila didn’t move and the ringing died down. 

She peered over the windows shadowed by the curtains and struggled with the idea of opening them and airing the room. She stepped back as steam came off of the saucepan with oats. Mikhila was suddenly irritated, and wondered why she continued to eat oats for breakfast since she never liked it in the first place. Like most others, she preferred to eat Indian food for breakfast, which was anything but sweet. 

“Mikhi, look at the amount of oil that goes into making most of the Indian food!” Tanveer had grimaced at the parantha she made the day after their marriage. 

“Consuming excess oil on a daily basis can do damage to your body. Let’s decide one thing. We’ll eat oats for breakfast daily, and we can have Indian meals for lunch and dinner,” he said.

Mikhila’s face and voice couldn’t contain her displeasure, “Daily? Oats?”

Tanveer looked at her, squinting and with pursed lips. “Fine. On weekends we’ll have whatever you want to eat for breakfast. Come on now, give me that smile I fell for.”

Tanveer!

Mikhila’s eyes darted towards the draped windows once again. If she opened the window and saw the bright sun, people moving around in their perfect world, a part of her might yearn for all of it and that would be a betrayal to her mourning, she chided herself. Sighing, she turned off the heat. Grabbing her mug, she walked to the living room and sat on the couch. 

“I am lucky anyway, that I do not have to be outside in this sweltering heat. I could die of sunstroke.” Mikhila reasoned aloud pitifully and surprised herself. 

It was the first time she heard her voice in the last six days. Thirty-seven days had passed since the death of her husband. Thirty-seven days since he was lost to the sea. Thirty-seven days since she last saw him or his body. For four days she waited eagerly for the call to inform her that Tanveer’s body was recovered or even by a hopeful miracle that he was somehow alive. But after a month, her hope turned to despair and she shut herself in their house, refusing to attend any calls. By then she dreaded the idea of identifying his body or what was left of him. To see him and yet not to see the face she loved dearly would kill her. She  lost her sleep and would wake up screaming in the middle of the night. She would dream of the police knocking on her door and dragging her to a morgue to identify her husband. She would always wiggle out of their hands and scream to let her go because she knew her husband was just a stinking, swollen mass of flesh now. The recurring nightmare made her dread sleep altogether.

Mikhila sipped her coffee reluctantly and breathed in the musty smell hanging over the house. Setting the mug on the glass table, she closed her eyes and imagined how her life would have turned out if she had a child. Unlike some women who claimed to have always wanted to be a mother, she never had such thoughts, not until the third year of their marriage. That’s when she noticed the subtle changes in his attitude towards her. Tanveer never wanted a child but Mikhila had hoped that he would change eventually. Even the sound of children playing in the neighbourhood, annoyed and irritated him. As the year passed by, she lost all hope and even became weary of bringing up the topic of having a child. 

Mikhila began to sob when she opened her eyes. 

“If only I had a child, I wouldn’t have felt so lonely”

***

Navigating in the dark by touching the familiar objects around her, Mikhila switched on the bathroom light and entered inside. The woman looking back at her in the mirror was a mess. She had a pale skin, sunken cheeks, two dark pouches under the eyes, unkempt hair and a heart desolated by the loss.

Mikhila tugged at the loose, dry chapped skin on her lips, drawing a bead of blood. She turned the faucet and splashed water over her mouth. She sucked at her bottom lip and felt slightly nauseous at the metallic taste of blood. 

Mikhila was startled when the silence of the house was once again broken by the vexatious, familiar sound. 

Her stomach rumbled and she ambled towards the kitchen and switched on the light. Though she knew she wouldn’t find anything edible in it, she opened the refrigerator and peered at the empty shelves. Groaning, she closed the refrigerator door. Looking over her kitchen cabinets,  she suddenly felt tired and rejected the idea of cooking. 

As she was about to turn off the light she noticed, to her delight, the saucepan with the untouched oats. Grabbing a spoon she gobbled up the cold oats and found it tasty for the first time. Just as she swallowed the last of it, the ringing started again. A tear fell from her eye and she started trembling. 

“It’s time you faced the truth.” She choked on her words. 

She felt as if her feet would give away but she managed to walk to the living room without bumping into anything and lifted the receiver with her sweaty palm. 

“Hello?” The woman on the other side sounded breathless.

Mikhila didn’t respond.

“At last! You picked!” the voice on the other side exclaimed, then unsure if Mikhila was still on the line, she repeated, “Hello? Hello?”

“Who is this?” Mikhila asked, bracing for the worse.

“Ha,” the woman laughed, “Mikhila? Mikhila, it’s you, right?”

Mikhila wanted to answer in the negative, “Hmmm.”

“I have been trying to reach you for almost a week.”

“Who is this?” Mikhila was confused now. 

The woman didn’t reply right away, and then said, “If I tell you who I am, you won’t hang up, will you?”

Mikhila didn’t feel right about the whole conversation. She said no, reluctantly.

“Veena.”

“Who?”

“You don’t remember me? Me? Right, well it’s been almost six years now. How time flies!. You seriously don’t remember me? I’m Tanveer’s—”

Mikhila slammed the receiver down and on second thoughts, replaced it on the table. Her breathing became faster and finding the couch, she slumped on it and buried her face in her palms. Despite the humidity, a chill ran down her spine and she struggled to calm her breathing. 

“You are the last person I want to remember,” Mikhila muttered inside her cupped palms.

***

Bleary eyed, Mikhila went through all the stuff of Tanveer to keep her head off the phone call from two days ago. Sleep had been elusive since Tanveer’s death but she couldn’t sleep a wink the past two days. Her head was drumming and she felt nauseous since morning. 

She opened Tanveer’s wardrobe, and felt some of his shirts and t-shirts. She took out a burgundy shirt, his favourite and holding it tightly to her chest, she cried. She wished to feel Tanveer against her. Wanted his arms around her. But that can never happen.

Later, Mikhila made coffee and drank it in Tanveer’s coffee mug.  She sauntered through her memory lane as she sipped, remembering the first time they had met. 

Mikhila, a dental receptionist, was twenty-nine when she first met Tanveer Katri.  Before meeting him, she was a woman determined to remain single for the rest of her life. She firmly believed that one could only be happy by remaining unmarried and experiencing the beauty of life alone. Her parents got divorced when she was thirteen. She lived with her mother till she turned 19, around the time her mother remarried. 

Neither of her parents kept in touch with her, and as the year passed, she estranged herself from them.

On a chilly, late November morning, Tanveer asked her to get the dentist’s appointment. He had to wait for thirty-five minutes for his turn to come. Since he was the only one in the waiting room, he struck a conversation with Mikhila, asking her about her life and family. Even though Mikhila didn’t ask him anything in return, he did tell her about himself. He was a thirty-eight year old financial advisor, married to a travel agent, had no children and was living a very comfortable and happy life except for the bothersome toothache. After he was checked by the dentist, before leaving, he stopped in front of her desk and asked her if she could have coffee with him someday. Impulsively, Mikhila nodded. It didn’t take them long to go out more often.  

Whenever she was with Tanveer, Mikhila always knew that her actions were wrong and she was voluntarily causing discord in a couple’s marriage. 

After around nine months of dating, Tanveer proposed to her one day. Her suppressed guilt unveiled itself, all at once. Mikhila refused to meet him for a whole week. Not only was she whacked with guilt but staying away from Tanveer hurt her even more. On his insistence, she agreed to meet him one day, glad on the inside. He convinced her that he never loved his wife as much as he loved her. He was filing for a divorce and it was good for all three of them. 

***

Mikhila sat cross legged on her bed. She glanced up at the wall clock. The bedroom walls were mostly adorned with her and Tanveer’s photographs. That was one of the things he loved; taking their photos. Whenever they travelled, he would request a passerby to take their photos. Mikhila’s gaze travelled from one photo to another till it stopped on one.

It was her favourite. Tanveer’s too.

In the photo, Tanveer was cupping her face with his lips touching her forehead. Mikhila’s arms were draped over his neck. Groves of coconut trees lined the  background. Though their faces weren’t visible, it was undoubtedly their most beautiful photo together. The photo was taken in Palolem beach in Goa. Though widely promoted for its dolphin-spotting tours, Mikhila and Tanveer did not spot a single dolphin during their stay.

Mikhila heard the sound she dreaded. And yet, she sprinted towards it and this time the receiver was lifted on the fourth ring.

“Hello?”

“What do you want?” 

“See, I knew you’d hang up the moment I told you who I am but…”

“Vee…”, Mikhila could not even bring herself to utter the name, “Veena, why are you calling? And how did you get this number?”

Mikhila heard another laugh on the other side, “From your husband. My ex.”

Mikhila thought she didn’t hear it right. “What? Tanveer?”

“I know it might enrage you but he…”

“That’s not possible! You are lying!”

“Sure. You are entitled to think whatever you want, but Tanveer called me about eight or nine months ago, crying…”

“You are lying,” Mikhila whispered, her hand shaking in disbelief.

“No. He was crying about a lot of things, his dreary and monotonous life. How he wished to escape from it and if only he could press the right button on the remote to change his life and transport him to another world, he would have done that. I have no idea what ‘remote’ he was blabbering about. Like I mentioned, the first time he called me was around nine months ago. He called me from the number I remember. I didn’t bother to answer it. Then two days after that I got a call from an unknown number and it happened to be him. The moment I realised it was him, I disconnected the call. Just a few weeks after the second call, I got a call from another unknown number. It was him. But before I could disconnect, I heard him crying. That’s when he started complaining about his life. The last time he called me was from your landline number. He didn’t say much. Simply apologised for calling me thrice before and hung up on me.”

Mikhila drew the receiver away from her ear and held it against her hip as tears spilled from her eyes. She really wanted to break the phone, go to the comfort of her bed and sleep away this nightmare. Instead, she wiped her eyes with her other hand and brought the receiver against her ears.

“Hello? Hello? Mikhila? Are you there?”

“Mmm.”

“Are you okay?” asked Veena. 

Mikhila knew Veena was not a bit concerned. In fact, if she closed her eyes she could see Veena grinning. 

I can’t blame her, thought Mikhila.

“Why?”

“Why did he call? For one, he sounded drunk as a skunk and second, he’s a rascal.”

Mikhila winced. “Don’t. He’s…”

“He loses interest in his women as fast as people lose interest in their clothes.”

“He passed away.”

The silence on the other side was profound. So much so, that a tiny part of her thought the whole phone call was a fabrication of her imagination.

“I know. A friend of mine told me.”

Mikhila suddenly felt weary but felt companionship in Veena. There was no reason to, but she felt she needed to tell her everything.

“I see. So, he left a suicide note on the dresser and by the time you returned from the market, he was gone with what seemed like an intention to end his life by drowning. How convenient! Do  you concur with all this?”

“Please…”

“You didn’t find his body,” Veena stated. “They didn’t I mean, right?” 

“No.”

“You will not find his body anytime soon, at least not until he actually decides to end his life.”

Mikhila was perplexed. But at the same time she didn’t want to know what Veena had meant. I should hang up before it’s too late, thought Mikhila. 

Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. 

Despite her mind cautioning her, Mikhila asked the question that was nagging her since the revelation, “Veena, could you give me the numbers he called you from?”

“Gladly. Just a second.” In the brief silence that ensued, Mikhila heard a child’s shriek followed by a giggle in the background. She wondered if Veena remarried and had a child. Instantly, the pain of being childless tugged at her heart. Veena’s voice came over and she read the numbers.

“Two of them are his number. The last one is not his.” Mikhila said.

“Well, it is his. He hid the number from you. And I know why.” Veena said.

Mikhila felt sick, her hands were clammy and beads of perspiration formed on her forehead. She held the headrest of the couch tightly. 

I must lie down, she thinks.

“A week after I heard whispers of his suicide, for no reason, I dialed those three numbers. Two were switched off, the ones you said were his. The last one was answered by a woman. For a few seconds I was too surprised to speak. I didn’t expect it to be answered at all. When I asked for Tanveer, the woman hung up on me. After that I tried twice, with the same result. The number was switched off. And probably discarded immediately.”

Mikhila slammed the receiver down. Heaving, she tore the extension out of its socket and hurled the landline across the room.

She crumpled on the floor and wailed.

***

Sitting on the front steps of the porch, Mikhila nestled the coffee mug in her hands. She was wearing her favourite outfit, a mustard kurta and sage green palazzo. Tanveer hated the outfit. 

It was drizzling outside and a cool breeze ruffled her cheeks and swayed her damp hair at temples. A plate with half eaten paratha lay beside her. All the house windows were wide open. 

***

A THE BOMBAY REVIEW CREATIVE WRITING WORKSHOP PIECE

Rinu Antony works as a content writer in a digital marketing agency in Nagpur, India.

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