The evening wind ruffled through the vineyard and blue sky appeared in patches from between the green leaves. Ashish spotted a brown leaf and clipped it off instantly. A garden is the soul of a house and a well maintained garden beautifies the exterior of a house like nothing else. It also portrays that there lives a responsible family in the house, if not a happy one.
Ashish looked at the vineyard intently, trying to spot more dying leaves. It was a routine Sunday evening. He would soon pick up the basket full of dead leaves from the various plantations in his garden and dump it in the municipality dustbin placed across the road. He made sure he clipped only the dead leaves or the leaves that were about to die. Autumn had always been a merciless killer. It took an extra effort to keep the garden green during the autumn for as long as possible but in the end, everything would turn to the colour of dust and fade away. Then he would stop it for the rest of the winter, mending the garden. The garden would go into hibernation during the entire winter and Sundays would become dull, to be spent drinking wine, reading books or turning back the pages of life by looking at the photographs taken during the time that was spent in the company of few good friends.
He breathed out heavily as he dumped the bucket in to the dustbin and turned to walk back towards his home. It didn’t register naturally at first. The screeching of tyres and the blaring of a car horn tore apart the blanket of silence that had settled on the neighbourhood as the day neared to end. The car stopped a couple of feet before Ashish. To his utter surprise, he was neither shocked nor afraid. Nothing bad had happened to him ever in life and he sort of took this good luck for granted. He focused his vision on the driver’s seat but couldn’t make out the driver’s face between the refraction of the settling sun through the windshield and the reflections of the dusked sky at it. He didn’t have to wait for long though. The passenger door opened and a man of about fifty autumns old leapt out of it.
“Sorry Sir, are you alright?” The man asked.
“Yes, I am fine”, replied Ashish with his eyes still glued at the driver, “Does he have a driver’s license?”
The man chuckled, “Yes, she does. She is a better driver than I am. May be that’s why you are alive. If it was me driving, I would have panicked seeing you strolling like a wild animal on the road and would have definitely knocked you over before I could even think about the next step.”
Ashish grinned at him, “Well, bless me then!”
“You already are, apologies again!”
The man began to walk back to his car but was stopped by Ashish, “I haven’t seen you around here. Are you guys new here or visiting someone?”
“Oh yes, we are the proud owners of villa K-29, recently bought, and we have been driving through the community for the last half hour to find it.”
Ashish had a good laugh before he said, “What a coincidence! I live in S-13 over there, and this dustbin is placed right in front of your villa plate.”
The man moved across the dustbin to have a look at the villa plate. It was K-29 indeed. He frowned, kicked the dustbin and said, “What a stupid placement of the dustbin! Bloody one can’t even find his own home!”
Ashish remained silent.
“Honey! Park the car, we have arrived at our destination”, the man shouted at the car and then turned towards Ashish and said very politely, “Thank you very much for if it wasn’t for you, we would have been roaming all night to find our home.”
“Oh no, don’t thank me, all of us are destined to find our homes”, Ashish replied.
“And our gardens too”, the man’s wife said. Ashish turned around and saw an extremely slim woman in her mid forties.
“This is Shalini, my wife, and hey, I am Gautam”, he held out his hand towards Ashish which he grabbed instantly and introduced himself.
“You have a beautiful garden Mr. Ashish”, Shalini said.
“Thank you. I work hard to keep it that way.”
“A retired man has a lot of time!”
“God must have created the world during the spring! Isn’t it?” Ashish said to Shalini on a chilling winter evening. The chirping of birds was at its loudest. The sun had already dipped below the horizon but few of the clouds were still like shining gold in its trailing light.
“I wonder if there were any seasons at all during the creation of the worlds”, Shalini replied.
“Oh yes, there were! Trust me! Spring helps in imagining beautiful things whereas Autumn dulls everything.”
“May be, but then Spring is followed by Summer that burns everything. It is as if there are two perfect couples, Winter-Spring and Summer-Autumn, working in tandem. One couple blossoms and the other destroys.”
“Looks like you solved the mystery relating to the Angel and the Devil.”
“There are no such things, only men and women.”
“Or gardens in the spring and in the winter.”
It had been three months and the newly arrived couple had been the topic of discussion in the entire neighbourhood.
They never behaved their age. Gautam had been throwing grand parties every weekend whereas Shalini had turned the dead piece of land in front of her villa into an exceptionally beautiful garden. Ashish went to a couple of parties before he realized that booze was not something he could deal with on regular basis. After that, whenever he went was to spend some time away from his loneliness. Both Gautam and Shalini complimented each other and seemed very happy in each other’s company. Until one night Ashish saw Gautam slapping Shalini. He was strolling in his garden. It must be around midnight. He was walking barefoot on the grass as per his daily routine before retiring to bed. First he heard Shalini shouting, then a metal hit the floor and he spotted Gautam standing right in the center of a window near the main entrance. He saw Gautam’s hand following an imaginary arc and Shalini’s hair flowing in the air. Ashish stood rooted in his ground. It wasn’t surprising, but it was highly unexpected. Gautam and Shalini were just another couple dealing with their issues and it was none of his business poking his nose in their private life.
The gardens outside the houses sprang into new life with the arrival of spring. New leaves grew on the plants and made way for buds to flower. In a few weeks, the entire locality would be filled with fragrances of various kinds of flowers and the humming of countless bees and insects. New life had always excited Ashish. He had already prepared his garden for the spring and so had Shalini.
Whereas Ashish mended his garden because he loved it, Shalini did it to pass time and the difference showed. Ashish hadn’t asked her anything about her marriage and the parties continued like usual. No matter how much Shalini tried to portray herself as a happily married woman, there was a certain sadness in her eyes that Ashish had spotted and it didn’t matter to him whether she laughed hard on a joke, he knew she wanted to cry her heart out in the loneliness.
One afternoon, after being certain that Shalini was alone in the house, he knocked at the door.
“Is Gautam home?” He asked to a surprised Shalini who had a wondering look at her face.
“No, he isn’t. He will be back by 8. Anything important?”
“Not really, I just wanted to borrow your sickle, mine doesn’t seem to work properly, got to get a new one.”
“Shall I inform Gautam to bring you one while coming back?”
“Oh no, it’s all right. I’ll fetch it next week. Actually, there’s a lot of weed growing around my garden lately, just wanted to get rid of that. I won’t take more than an hour or so.”
“Alright”, she let him inside and went to the storeroom to get him the sickle.
Ashish stood near one of the pictures of Shalini and Gautam. The picture was probably taken in the early years of their marriage and they both looked very happy in each other’s presence, just as they looked at all the parties they organised.
“It was taken at our first wedding anniversary”, Shalini had came back with the sickle in her hand.
“You two look absolutely stunning”, Ashish said while looking at the picture continuously.
Both of them remained silent for a very long time. When Ashish realized that the silence had began to get awkward, he gathered his courage and asked, “Are you happy with Gautam?”
“What sort of question is this?” Shalini was obviously surprised at the Ashish’s suddenness.
“It is a simple one Shalini.”
“But why are you asking me this?”
“Because I saw him slapping you.”
Shalini remained silent while staring at him. Ashish fumbled his pocket and handed over a card to her, “I used to be a psychiatrist. If you are comfortable with sharing your thoughts, I would very much like to help you.”
Shalini took the card from him at looked at it. It appeared to be in a very bad condition. Ashish’s name was written on it. He had probably made a huge effort to find one of his old cards to give to her.
“He slapped me last night because I was arguing with him about his drinking. He was drunk.”
“Oh. I didn’t know he slapped you last night. I saw him slapping you one night during the winters.”
Shalini bowed her head down and remained silent.
“I’ll talk to him if you want me to”, he said after another stretch of silence.
“No. There is no need of that.”
“I don’t think it is. I didn’t know it happens on a regular basis, but now that I do know, I think it can become dangerous for you.”
“It hasn’t become dangerous in the last twenty years, he slaps, he apologizes and that is it.”
“That is it until he slaps you again?”
There was another stretched silence before Ashish said, “I have an advice if you would like to have it.”
“Slap him next time he slaps you.”
“Oh come on!” She chuckled. A sign that she was beginning to feel comfortable with Ashish’s knowing about Gautam’s habit of manhandling her.
“And go where?”
It was Ashish’s turn to be silent this time.
The season of clear night sky when the sky lights up with the light of a billion suns so far away from each other that it takes a thousands of human lives to cover the distance between two of them. Ashish craved summers like a writer craves a typewriter. It was the time to pack away the gloomy woollens and keep the happy yellows and greens ready to wear. Just the smell of the summer made him happy. For him, life happened between the months of April and August. The temperatures rose, both outside and inside. He hadn’t talked with Shalini again about her already ailed marriage but he had made sure to stay in constant touch. And when two stones rub against each other, a fire starts.
Shalini began to stay absent from the regular weekend parties thrown by Gautam. She went for a walk or stayed in her room, reading, leaving Gautam to make excuses about her unavailability. Gautam seemed to not care, as if he was thankful for her not being around him so he could flirt openly with other women. He was good at it too, probably the richness helped. Ashish attended the parties but not regularly and he was happy to notice that Shalini had developed strength to do what she wished.
“Do you think I should leave him?” She asked one evening, standing outside his garden, watching him pull the weed out of his garden.
“It is a big decision you know. Have you thought about your life ahead? Your life without him?”
“Not really, but I have few options.”
“Think hard. Don’t take any decision that backfires your safety.”
“My safety?” Shalini asked surprisingly.
“There are positives too in your marriage. Gautam has given you a good lifestyle.”
“Yes, and he has also kept me away from being a mother, from having a child of my own”, she said.
Ashish stopped and looked at her.
Shalini continued, “Yes, he didn’t want kids too.”
He shook his head and continued pulling the weed.
“May be I should get rid of the weed too, my garden looks totally messy”, she said and began to leave.
“I can do that for you, you know”, he said keeping himself busy.
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
The same night, just as Ashish was walking back to him home after his midnight stroll in the garden, he heard shouts from the villa no. K-29. He looked at the villa, trying to spot anyone of the two. Right then, the main door opened and a figure walked out into the darkness. Ashish couldn’t make who was there. But then he heard a sound coming from the garden across the road. It was as if someone was pulling the plants out or the weed. He chuckled. The figure stopped and looked at him.
He slowly walked inside his villa, turned on the light just above the door and walked towards his bedroom.
Tonight, the door remained open and the bulb lit to guide the way.
The garden full of weed was most welcome.