Coconut Trees

In a small town in southern India, in the coastal state of Kerala, where the banana fritters were delicious and the heat was scorching, Prema was living her quiet life as a high school teacher. The small town had a school of around 500 students out of which Prema taught Chemistry to 100 of them.

She was 45, a wife to a much older man, a mother to a 20-year-old son and a daughter in law who took care of her husband’s old mother. She was a quiet but strict teacher who rarely gave her students any grace marks or extensions for classwork.

Life was the same every day. She woke up early, made breakfast and lunch, cleaned the house, gave her mother in law her medicines and ensured the old lady was occupied watching the soap operas on television and then she went to school. She came back home, cooked dinner, checked on her mother in law and graded papers or prepared exam question papers. Her son was away in the big city pursuing his degree so she had some breathing room from her motherly duties. Her husband was a Government official who came back home by 6 p.m and spent the rest of his day watching the news or meeting his childhood friends at one of their houses.

“Can you check when this movie is releasing? I want to watch it in the theatre” her mother in law asked her during dinner. “You can barely go for walks and you want to go to the theatre” Prema responded. “You just have to take me by rickshaw to the theatre and then I can make it happen, I will not watch this movie on TV, it’s not going to happen” “Well you can take yourself then because I’m not taking you” Prema told her. “You are not that busy, I see you on your phone all the time once you’re back from school” her mother in law said with conviction. “I keep an eye on my students’ social media accounts, their parents have let them go wild” Prema responded. “You are up to no good” her mother in law said ending the conversation with a smirk.

She had grown tired of being a caretaker over the years. The rigid routine she had to follow to keep up with motherhood, teaching, being a wife and a care taker to an older woman with deteriorating health had made her develop this disciplinarian personality. If she became laid back it reflected in her teaching and her mother in law falling sick. 

Despite the monotonous life she led, Prema had a secret. A secret she liked to keep to herself. A secret that could cause her neighbours to start spinning the wheels of gossip.

She was part of a gardening group on Facebook where she met Joy. He was a middle-aged man from the North East. He stayed in Shillong, he was a tour guide and an avid gardener. He was also a father to 2 daughters. His wife and he had separated several years ago. This was her secret, her closest companion was a stranger online.

Prema’s son had introduced her to the gardening group when she was struggling with growing certain vegetables in their backyard. They would grow to a certain level and then stop. It had started with group conversations and then became private messages between Joy and her. He was the reason her avocados were bearing fruit and her spinach was blossoming.

It had been 2 years of talking online every day after their duties were done to their families. It was her favourite time of the day. They would discuss what they did at work, the status of their gardens and life in general. Joy would send her beautiful images of the Eastern valleys, waterfalls and treks he would go on as a tour guide and Prema would share serene images of Kerala’s backwaters and beaches.

She dressed in her brightest saree and went to the temple near the river and video called Joy when she sat near the water so that they could enjoy talking with a view. They commented on the local fishermen, the changes they made to their cooking off late and how they wanted to get away from their responsibilities for a short while. 

Why was it wrong for her to want a companion to share her thoughts with? She chose to share her life with her husband who she had a duty toward but did they have anything in common other than talking about their son? Their last conversation was about the electricity bill.

Prema’s husband was a good man, he liked advising younger people and loved to be around his friends. He was a good father to their son and tried to be a good husband or at least he thought he tried. They just didn’t have a relationship outside of their son, his mother’s issues and fish curry.

So why did Prema and Joy never meet in person? Prema had no excuse to give her family as to why she would want to go to Shillong. Their idea of taking a vacation was going to Munnar which was just a few hours away or visiting some temples in Tamil Nadu and that was it. She had no family in the North East to visit nor any friends to use as a reason to visit. Joy had the same reasoning from his side.

They decided to remain online companions, their conversations and interaction over text and calls were just about enough. Sometimes in life, you choose to make things uncomplicated and they had chosen this path.

Did they ever get caught? They knew how to keep it discreet from their families. They had a few close calls with the suspicious child or spouse wondering who they talk to so often but it didn’t result in them being revealed. They remained each other’s invisible companions in crime.

Until one day, the calls and messages stopped. And Prema had nobody to talk to. She wanted to tell someone about her student who was stealing some of the lab equipment that she had caught and reprimanded. She wanted to talk about the pumpkins that were now growing wild in her garden. She wanted to talk about how much she disliked the latest Mohanlal movie but there was no Joy. He was her only friend/lover whatever you wanted to call it.

She tried to use her limited stalking skills to find out what had happened to him but she could never find out. There was nothing much you can do with a number that was now listed as invalid.

The days were busy but lonely and she always wondered if she had said something to cause this to happen. Or if Joy was physically harmed or even worse, dead! Many times she wished she could ask someone for help or talk to someone about Joy but she couldn’t trust anyone with such a big secret. So she suffered in silence nursing the loneliness and hurt that followed.

“Your belly is looking bigger than last month,” Prema told her husband. “Bigger?! It looks the same. You are noticing my belly more than necessary” he responded. “Well, if something that big is in front of my face I can’t help but notice it,” she said, making a face at him.

“I thought you bought me a red saree for Meenu’s wedding, this is such a drab colour!” her mother in law was yelling “You don’t need to wear red, you’re 80, not 50, it’s not an old person’s colour” Prema responded sarcastically. “You can’t tell me what colour to wear! I want a red saree, I am telling my son about this” her mother in law said in rage. “You can try, you’re not getting one since I already paid for this one” Prema said ending the argument.

It was cruel to take it out on her husband and her mother in law but she couldn’t control it. She was angry and she had to direct it somewhere. They seemed to think it was her natural behaviour anyway.

The years flew by and Prema learned with much difficulty to let go. Her mother in law had passed and her son was working in an IT firm in Pune. She was close to her retirement from school and her husband had already retired.

They took comfort in each other’s company, now that they were all they had left. They learnt to talk about things other than their son and fish curry. They even played a game of chess every week and took trips together to visit their son. He occasionally helped her out with her vegetable garden until he killed the chillies and she asked him to stop helping.

One year her son wanted to give them a trip to any place of their choice for their wedding anniversary as a gift. “We’re too old to be going on trips,” his father told him. “Everyone’s parents are going for trips outside India and I am asking you to just go to Kashmir”. “Kashmir is too far and too cold, I am not going to cold places” his father informed him. “I would like to go to the North East, I heard it’s beautiful and it’s not a cold place” Prema suggested. “Fine, you get good tea in Assam so I am okay,” her husband told the both of them.

Their journey started in the beautiful Kaziranga national park in Assam and then moved on to the root bridges of Meghalaya. It was their last day, it was in Shillong, the city was crowded and had long traffic jams. “We came to get away and this place is no getaway!” her husband complained. It was when her husband was taking his long afternoon nap that Prema decided to get away.

She took a taxi to the Upper Nongrim Hills, the address she had saved many years ago. Joy had always spoken about how his house overlooked the hills and that he enjoyed waking up to the view every morning.

She found a small pale yellow house on the highest floor of an old building. It had the nameplate ‘Sangma’ written on it. She was afraid to ring the doorbell and hear the bad news if Joy was dead or hurt. But, she had to know, it was now or never. An older woman opened the door “Can I meet Joy Sangma?” she asked her. She was half expecting her to say that this was the wrong address but the woman nodded. Prema introduced herself as being part of one of Joy’s tours in the past and now that she was visiting again and wanted to hire him for another tour. She deduced that the older woman was his wife based on how she suspiciously asked Prema several questions. She was asked to wait outside.

She anxiously looked at her watch, her husband would wake up in an hour. She looked up and there he was. Joy didn’t look like he had aged at all. He had some grey hair at his temples and a few wrinkles but otherwise he looked much younger than his current age. He even still wore the same style of clothes as his photos from years ago. A pastel coloured shirt with jeans and a neck scarf.

They stood looking at each other for an uncomfortable and awkward few seconds. “You always looked nice in yellow,” he told her. More silence followed. “Are you here because you’re angry?” Joy asked her. “No, I’m here for closure” she responded. “That will take some time,” he told her in a quiet sad voice. “She caught you didn’t she? Your wife” she asked him “We were separated but it was better for our children that we get back together. I did not lie about the separation ” he answered with a sigh.

“Can I ask why you never told me the reason and ended it?” Prema asked him, ignoring his previous statement. “Because I was ashamed that my secret was caught and everyone in my family found out, I didn’t know how to tell you, I didn’t know how you would react and it was best to end it without saying anything further”.

Instead of a long explanation and an even longer conversation, Prema decided to leave. Her taxi was waiting for her, she had 30 minutes left before her husband woke up. “Goodbye Joy, I regret pining for you over the years. It’s sad that I always imagined this moment so differently in my head”, she said. “I never once forgot about you, I thought about you everyday over the years…I just didn’t want to continue” he told her, his voice filled with guilt as she was walking away.

The next day, Prema was on the flight, on her way home, her husband was snoring in the seat next to hers. It was a night flight and the lights were off, all the passengers in deep slumber. She allowed herself to finally break down.

The tears slowly rolled down her eyes, she sobbed quietly as she remembered the events from the previous day. All the hurt and anger she had been carrying over the years at herself and Joy was released. She let herself cry until her body stopped feeling heavy with emotion.

It was done, the truth had set her free. Nobody knew what had happened and nobody needed to know, it was her secret and it would remain that way. She was going home a changed woman.

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