By Ashima Jain
Mansion. The word itself conjures up images of a palatial house, with infinitely large rooms, supremely high ceilings, and ornate light fixtures; surrounded by lush green grounds; all built on prime estate. You get the picture, right?
But in truth, a mansion, in the end, is nothing more than just a house.
Now, I hope you’re not the type who confuses house with home. You see, the two are entirely different. A house is the walls and windows and doors; the skeletal structure. When you put in a family, people who love each other, that’s when it becomes home; the heart and soul in the skeleton.
Now, if I were to ask what you would call a mansion, that is neither a house nor a home, I bet the question may pose to be a bit of a puzzle. Yet, the answer to my question is where this story begins.
I, Ritika Aurora, resided in a place that had been forgotten by the hands of time. A place where coats of paint on the walls of the infinitely large rooms were peeling away to reveal century-old bricks, where the supremely high ceilings had dropped to the floor and were shoddily covered up with planks of wood, and where ornate had been lost to extensive rust.
To be honest, it hadn’t always been like this.
A long time ago, a young couple had inherited the mansion in all its splendour and made it their home. A young boy had spent his childhood running through its rooms, laughing and screaming, playing hide and seek with his precocious friend from the neighbourhood. That same boy had grown up to follow his passions, fall in love and build his own little family here. It had been a happy home where hopes had been born and dreams had come alive.
And yet, all those hopes were dead now. The dreams had long vanished. They had been taken over by a deep sorrow that threatened to pull out every last gasp of air from your lungs.
This was where I spent my existence, alone.
Until, one day, the winds shifted and brought a visitor to my doorstep. So much time had passed since our last meeting that I couldn’t hold back my tears as I welcomed him in. Thirty years is a fairly long time to miss someone, isn’t it?
Even in the dim evening light I could see that his hair had acquired a rather sexy salt-and-pepper tone; his eyes twinkled even more with progressing age. He had seemed to have put on a few kilograms. Nonetheless, he was still as handsome, in his own understated way, as I remembered him.
I wanted to rush to him, put my arms around him, rest my head over his heart, feel his heart beat as he hugged me close and kissed the top of my head. But I just stood to a side, watching him, while he sighed and stepped in with his bags through the intricately carved wooden door.
The place was so silent that you could hear the fabric of his soft cotton shirt rustle like paper when he walked. Through the hall, into the living room, I followed him as he surveyed the room and flipped on a switch which instantly bathed us in a soft, dusty glow. I had been so used to the darkness that the light made me want to hide inside a shell. He turned around the room to see doors hanging off their hinges, broken windows, and dust covered furniture. I walked around to face him and saw the sadness in his eyes. I could tell he had not expected it to be like this. Then again, what had he truly expected? There wasn’t exactly any money, or life for that matter, in this place.
We both stood there, lost in each other. There was much to say but I didn’t know how or where to start. I imagine he must have been feeling the same.
After what felt like another 30 years had passed, but were really only a few minutes, he spoke.
“I’ve missed you, Ritika”, he said, in a tone so soft that I could barely hear him.
Oh dear! A voice inside me cried out. I broke loose from the noose that had bound me in a death grip for so long and leaped in joy, as high up as that broken ceiling, at the sound of his words.
He stepped closer and, with pain pouring out in each word, added, “If only I had known. I am so sorry.”
Fresh tears were stinging the corners of my eyes now; happy tears.
“Better late than never, right?” I managed to say.
He carried on, “I left thinking that the distance will help put it all behind me; I could channel my anguish to build a different life. I was wrong. I tried to forget everything and move on but it wasn’t meant to be. You were the love of my life. Try as much, I couldn’t let go of you.”
I had never in my wildest imagination expected such a heartfelt revelation, especially after the words we had flung at each other the last time we stood face to face. It left me stunned.
I was still wondering how to reply while he slowly spun around the room and once again took in all of its battered, crumbling condition.
“God! I love this place,” he confessed. “It’s as if I can still smell the fragrance of its grandeur, despite the damage.”
He stopped at the large frame on the wall and puffed a mouthful of air on the canvas, which blew away some of the finer, more recent dust, to reveal a portrait. Together, we stared at it. We had been so young and in love back then. “I wish I had returned sooner”, he said, breaking the reverie. “How did I ever abandon this; abandon you?”
“You’re here now, Viraj. That is all that matters.”
He took a deep breath as if to agree.
“Do you recall our last conversation?” he asked.
“Took you long enough to bring it up? And is that what you’re calling it now?” I said, with one raised eyebrow.
“Okay okay, it was a fight. You really know how to hold a grudge, don’t you?” he smiled. Then, with his trademark smug, added, “You do know how much I loved arguing with you; how it riled you up and brought on that adorable little frown between your eyes.” He mimicked me.
I couldn’t help smile at that. The man had always had a way of charming his way through everything. That was the reason I had fallen in love with him when I was all of five years old. Not even time had been able to change that. But I was not willing to give in just yet. I deserved my day in court.
With a somber expression, he asked, ‘Why did you leave me, Ritika?”
I almost instantly flew into a rage. “Viraj, how could you ever think that I would leave you for someone else? We were working together on a project. Your friend’s wife was nothing more than a nosey gossipmonger who should not have been meddling into other people’s business.”
With downcast eyes, he shook his head, “I should never have believed her. She did have a notorious reputation.”
I softened my tone. “That was what I was trying to explain to you that day. You wouldn’t listen!”
He looked up. “I couldn’t think straight. She had called me at the office to say she had seen you with that chap, whatever his name was…,”
“Akash”, I added.
“…Akash, at the Taj Coffee Shop, having lunch, and laughing like two extremely close friends.”
“We had finished a successful presentation and were due back at the client’s office in a couple of hours to finalise the paperwork. So we decided to bide our time by grabbing some lunch”, I explained.
“I was so furious, I couldn’t wait to get home and confront you. Even though a part of me was convinced it was not possible, somehow that part shrank and was taken over by my own devil.”
“Oh! Devil is right”, I scoffed. “You went on to accuse me of having lied to you about everything, that our entire life together was a farce; our marriage a mistake.”
“I had so many dreams for us. I felt them come crashing down like a house of cards”, he continued.
“They were my dreams too, Viraj”, I reasoned. “You and I had shared our lives together since we were kids. Our hopes had nurtured our dreams and those dreams were getting ready to give fruit; all of which was lost to the fire in your heart.”
Viraj remained quiet.
I continued, “We used to derive happiness from each other; cherish listening to each other, talking about our day. How, and why, did we forget to do that?”
After a long pause he admitted, “I realised later that it was a grave mistake on my part to have jumped to conclusions, that too on the word of that stupid woman.”
“She only started it. You, however, allowed yourself to be engulfed by her words. Whatever happened to trust, and confidence? How did they fall from our relationship with a little bump in the road?” I questioned with a heavy soul.
Viraj was silently crying now. I wanted him to look at me, look into my eyes and tell me where we had gone wrong. He stood still, staring at his feet.
“You deserved better, Ritika, and our baby deserved better.” I felt a knife twist deep inside me. He looked up and asked, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“That was the reason I was home early.” I replied. “I had visited the doctor to confirm my suspicion and couldn’t wait to share the delightful news with you.” I moved a few steps away. “But after our argument, when you stormed out, I couldn’t spend another moment in the house. I felt the walls closing in on me. So I took the keys and headed out. I had been so upset that I wasn’t concentrating and didn’t notice that I had veered off to the wrong side of the road. We both know what happened then.” I finished.
“I couldn’t forgive myself after that. I deserved to be punished, not you. I am truly, deeply sorry. I wish I could take back all that I said. If I could go back to that day and live it again, I would do it much differently; better this time.”
I sighed as the tears came again of their own volition. I had waited 30 years for this moment, for him to tell me that he believed me; that all was well again. And now that it was here, I finally felt free. Free from the chains that had tethered me to misery and heartache.
My relief seemed to radiate an intense brightness in the room which was growing with each passing moment.
“I love you Ritika. I always have and I always will. I am coming home to you and I promise you, I will do everything in my power to mend this”, he proclaimed.
I smiled at him lovingly through the tears. “You already have, Viraj. You already have.”
He started to walk through the house, going through each room, flinching at the state of despair. “I will rebuild our home with the wonderful memories, brick by brick if I have to, so we can be together again, just as we had dreamt.”
He finally came to a stop at the window overlooking the piece of land behind the house and, with a vacant look in his eyes, peered out to the birds. He stuffed his hands in his pant pockets and looked down at his feet as if gathering strength from deep within.
I observed him carefully as he walked to the door. I knew that time was running out but suppressed the urge to check my watch. I took a deep breath and started counting in reverse under my breath. "Ten, nine, eight, seven..."
Viraj was now rushing down the cobble stoned path behind the house. As soon as he reached there, he dropped to his knees. I was right behind him, hovering. I couldn’t stay long now. The light was urging me towards it.
He pulled out two long-stemmed red roses and placed them against the stone in front of the bird-house while running his hand over the inscription.
In loving memory of
Beloved Friend and Devoted Wife
“Goodbye Viraj!” I called out to him as he sobbed with his arms around himself. “Our love is timeless and I promise you we will meet again, soon.”
I soared into the sky, far from the mortal connection that had tied me to the earth; a soul finally set free.
I soared with the hope that I might return someday to stay by his side as he grew older, even if only as a bird living in that bird-house.