Bones are solid, but there are sections where a single stroke is enough to severe a femur from the rest of the mass. Lessons from the days of serving in the army. Memories flood back and you get quicker, more efficient. Within a couple of hours, you are halfway through. The dinner lies untouched; rotis, chicken curry, fried green beans and salad. The phones have been ringing all evening but you've ignored them as you persevere, hands bloody, mind a whirl.
The stack of twenty-four boxes is filling up quickly. If you run out, you will have to go to Big Bazar tomorrow, and that will mean a day's delay. To save space, you decide to throw the guts on the garbage heap outside. The butchers often discard their unsold entrails and by early morning, the crows devour them; birds won't know the difference between human and animal entrails. Now that the neighbours are in their air-conditioned bedrooms, insulated from noise, you step outside. Throw the yellow polythene bag with the intestines, hear the soft plop as it lands on the pile of rubbish. It's about three feet tall; a swollen heap of food waste, broken plastic buckets, rusty pieces of tin. Like the moon, it waxes and wanes through the week, when people dump their rubbish without waiting for the municipality trucks. You're tempted to throw some of the boxes, but then the smell would be overpowering.
Usha is proving tough to pack. There's so much of her – fat and lard collected over the years. In contrast, you are trim. Dressed impeccably – hat, full-sleeved shirts and pressed trousers. Once an army man, always an army man! You have accepted that code of conduct. She, on the other hand, has never developed the elegant persona of an army wife.
The phone rings again, slashing through the silence, through your concentration. It's afternoon in America. It is Sarika calling yet again to enquire about her mother. You ignore it. Later, you'll tell her you were so tired looking after Ma, that you'd fallen asleep. There is no time to chat now. The boxes have to be hidden before the sun starts exposing the whole world with its brightness. The only possible place is the study – air-conditioned, private, as the servants are not allowed in without your permission.
'You need AC in your death as well, don't you?' you taunt her half-cut body.
It's three in the morning and by four, the temple at the corner of the road, which Usha visited almost every day, will open. Yesterday, the priest had knocked early in the morning. When you opened the door, he stared at your dressing gown, never having seen one before, and asked, 'Where is Ma? She hasn't come to visit Bhagwan for quite some days. Is she fine?'
'She's just been unwell with fever. Is this a time to come and disturb anyone?'
He'd peeped inside, a bony face with missing front teeth – almost as if he knew you were lying.
'I will do the puja for her today,' he said. 'Can you give me the money – only twenty five rupees? Just for some flowers?'
'No, I can't. I don't need any puja done, and I need to sleep.'
'Sleep!' the old man cackled, 'The skies have woken, the birds are singing.' He gestured towards the garden. Dawn comes early in the tropics. It already feels humid.
'Or can I just take some hibiscus? Ma gets some for the temple usually…' He pointed at the shrub near the gates, laden with massive red blooms.
'You can't! Just leave!' Very annoyed, you slammed the door on his face. The sycophants she'd surrounded herself with!
From the balcony you'd watched him. The dhoti rode up his thin bare legs as he cycled fast. You had to check he wasn't stealing flowers or hiding behind one of the trees to spy. People were beginning to notice that Usha hadn't stepped out of the house for two days now.
By this time, she is stinking. You liberally spray Lynx deodorant everywhere. Death is fascinating; within minutes, the body turns hard, and not long after that, puffs up. Without breath, the body is as good as a rotten carcass. Without breath, there is no mind or soul. It can be disposed of in any way.
The gates in front of your house stand tall indicating someone of repute lives here. A retired civil services officer lives next door – you are a bit wary that his daughter is visiting with a baby and is often out on the balcony- but your house is the more statuesque. The only things you've never liked are the access through the small dirt road and the butcher lane just off the entrance to the house. A cluster of about five or six shacks. In front of each, a wooden block, on which the butcher neatly slices the meat with his cleaver; from the ceiling, headless carcasses hang, skinned but with the hairy bit of the tail on; at the back, goat heads are neatly piled and bought by those who can't afford the abundant meat of the body. When the children were young, they fought over the bone marrow. Who would be the lucky one and get the big bone to suck the marrow out? Usha would smile victoriously if she did. As if it was the pinnacle of one's life to cleanly bring out the bone marrow from the leg of a goat.
When she'd slumped down, you'd panicked, but for a moment only. The hot water had burnt some of her face. Your fingers had left deep welts on her throat. There was no way you could escape punishment if they found her. And that's when you had seen those butchers, chop chop. Chop, chop. You observed them: how they lay out the carcass, and then nice and easy go chop, chop. Almost like cutting vegetables. The blood seeps into the wooden block and rivulets of blood embed in the grains of wood. You don't have a gigantic chopping block, but you do you have an old bed. The single bed that was yours long before you were married. It's a waste of good wood, but it's the best option. Your job: Cut the fat body into smaller chunks. Hide the boxes. Slowly dispose of them.
Sarika and Sachin have been calling over the weekend. Sarika from her sunny California, Sachin from his cold Toronto. You explained their mother was unwell. They called back again the next day. You said she couldn't speak as she had tonsillitis. They have emailed her. 'Why doesn't she reply?' they ask. Why don't they see her on Facebook? Sarika had helped Usha open a Facebook account. You never expected she would get the hang of it, but she did and was now connected with the children and a bunch of relatives and strangers. You need to get into her account to check messages but you aren't able to crack her password.
What is your password, you silly woman? You have screamed a few times to her severed head, but she's useless. Just as useless as she was when she was alive.
The hands: which force-fed Sarika and Sachin when they were kids; vast mounds of rice and dal, or khichdi rolled into balls, stuffed one after the other into their mouths, which she would forcefully open with her fingers. Eat, one more ball, eat, finish your food. Till they cried, till they vomited. The hands were now stacked into a single box, fingers neatly chopped, rings removed.
That mouth: with which she chewed on the bones of chicken or goat. A little pile on her plate, the meat chewed into fibres, the marrow sucked long, deep, till floop, it escaped into her mouth. How many times had you instructed her not to make such a noise, not to slurp, her fingers looped like a spoon to lift the gravy into her mouth. The mouth wasn't identifiable anymore. It was in one of the boxes with masses of jelly flesh.
That neck: which had wanted to be adorned with thick necklaces of gold, rubies, minakari work. Long earrings drooping on to her fat shoulders. Every anniversary her demands had grown. Now as you severed the neck from the body, you also unclasped the gold chain with her pearl pendant. It could go into the safe. The neck was easy to chop, with no bones, nothing to hold it firm.
The legs: which you had parted, in the early years of the marriage when you didn't mind touching her. At twenty-five, married to a twenty year old girl you hadn't seen before, the match arranged by a mutual family friend. The legs between which she had pushed out Sarika, then Sachin two years later. Blood, hair, cellulite, wobbly flesh. You haven't seen her legs this fully exposed since several years. The legs, which are now taking up so much space that you toss some of the larger pieces into the empty rice jar.
There were times when you'd raised your hand on Usha. She'd retorted once. Her slap on your face was hard; it had cut through your skin. Another time, she'd complained that you were seeing another woman and when she'd asked, so arrogant, so demanding, you lost your temper. The afternoon at Mrs Sengupta's house, the widowed, lovely Lalita had been memorable. Lalita liked to entertain, liked to make her men feel special at a modest cost. When Usha, sneering, asked how she had tasted, you flung your hand across her face. The beast of a woman, with no delicacy, no elegance. Your wife of thirty years and no respite.
'I am not your slave,' she'd shouted, but in a way she was. She had no other livelihood. She completely depended on you. When the children left home, there were no more rules. You went and came as you pleased. She certainly learnt her lesson and didn't question you anymore. But her captivity gave her new desires. She ate more, shopped more. Expensive sarees, gold, diamonds, designer bags that she read about. Expenditure wasn't a problem, there was enough coming in from the consulting work you did after retirement.
Two days back, she'd taunted – 'Mrs Sengupta is seeing someone else. Are you not able to satisfy her in bed anymore? But you were never that good. I have seen better!' You saw red. You had hit her across the face, pushed her against the wall. She'd run to the kitchen and picked up the saucepan of hot water from the hob. It was self-defence, when you grabbed her and tilted the water over her. She'd screamed, and then laughed, brazen woman, and that's why your hands had gone on her neck. It hadn't taken long. She'd collapsed on the floor, her legs shaking for a while, green polyester saree riding to her knees. The hot water peeled away the skin on her shoulders. Your fingerprints were etched on her neck. She lay massive and visibly dead on the floor.
From the butchers, you realised the only solution was to cut the problem into smaller pieces, into easy to hide pieces. Pack the pieces in boxes, hide the boxes. Lock her life away. Then announce to the world that she has gone missing, ever since she fell unwell and raged with fever, she didn't seem right in the head.
'She has walked away somewhere. Find her, find her,' you would scream in tears.
You are still cutting through her. The television is talking about Mandela's death. The calls have been increasing. The relatives, possibly tipped off by the children are calling incessantly. The cook, whose name you don't know, is too scared to ask you anything, since you've shouted at her to mind her own business. Luckily, the servant boy Gobind is away in his village for some more days. Tomorrow morning you will wake up and announce your 'My wife is missing' story.
You wish it could have happened that way. That one day she would have just vanished of her own accord. Instead of all this – tendrils of meat nestling on your clothes, shredding of the blood-stained clothes, packing into a cardboard box and hiding in the study.
The last box is done. The boxes locked away inside the large steel trunk. The trunk covered with some sacks and old bed sheets. Spray some room freshener, have a shower, switch the air-conditioner on at full blast, then in your bedroom, in the coolness, where there is no more smell, no more blood, no trace of the tiresomeness of Usha, you fall asleep. You are free.
In the morning, next door, Kavita joins her parents on the balcony. She has come home for a few days with Baby Raj. Like every day, a small retinue tries to feed the baby; her mother, her father, the maid. Everyone joins in to see that the morsels of porridge or khichdi are swallowed and not flung out by those perfect little lips. They show him birds, her mother sings songs, her father makes faces. They distract him, so that the spoons of food go in smoothly.
Kavita notices the crows. Several, large winged. They caw so loudly that Raj stares transfixed. He forgets to chew; the porridge forms little mounds in his cheeks.
'Kaa, Kaaa,' he says excited.
'Kaaaa,' her father shouts.
'Kaaa,' her mother says and waits for him to open his mouth.
The crows swarm over the dirt heap, more join them. After a while, faintly nervous, Kavita says, 'Why are there so many crows today? Like Hitchcock's birds…'
Three stray dogs appear. They look healthy, they sniff in the heap. They bark at the crows.
Her, mother, Bindi, a bit askew as always, looks at them silently. 'These are not ordinary crows. These are ravens, much blacker. Where did they come from, so early in the morning? It's not a good sign.'
Her father is meanwhile looking over at the house next door.
'There's a police jeep in the Colonel's house. Wonder what has happened?'
A bit later, they hear shouts. As if accusations, protests.
Then they see the colonel, dressed immaculately in a hat and suit, led by a police officer to the waiting jeep. He is followed by two constables, holding a black trunk, on which a large jar is balanced, filled with something, squashed and dark.
Issue 59 (Jan-Feb 2015)