Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Love-letter To The Wrong Person

The petrichor in this late monsoon reminds me of the musty smell of your body. You were like a sculpture, too perfect, sculpted in the hands of a master craftsman. Never did it appear surprising to me that I was attracted like a moth towards the flame of you. Until the day of my marriage, I had hoped against hope that you would manage to come and whisk me away from my sepia-coloured life to a technicolour, fairy-tale life full of love, desire and affection. No, you never arrived. Despite my vehement protests, I was married off amidst much fanfare to the person who is known as my husband in society. Yet, I have never been able to love him the way he desires to be loved. Despite my status as a married woman with two children, I never forgot the floral notes of your perfume, the graceful way in which you draped sarees, your luscious lipstick-tainted lips, your raven-black hair spilling to your shoulder, that stolen kiss in a long ago summer afternoon. Nobody can take your place in my heart. The love that I felt for you surpassed all societal restrictions.
Still yours affectionately,

image source: Unsplash

This flash-fiction received a Jury Special Mention at the September 2022 Writing Challenge conducted by Beyond the Box. The challenge was to write a piece of prose or poetry in which every sentence/line begins with the last letter of the previous sentence/line. Word/Line Limit was 200 words for prose/20 lines for poetry.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Yashoda's lament

The eastern horizon looks magnificent in a riot of colours as the orange-hued sun slowly makes it's appearance on the sky. The serene water of the Yamuna sparkles in this early hour of the day. I take a dip quickly in the river water. Then emerging from the river, I fill my pitcher resting on the bathing ghat with water and turn towards home. After returning home, I put the pitcher down and water the basil plant in the courtyard of our house. Did I just say 'our' house? That means, does my subconscious mind still consider Nanda Rai as my husband? I sigh heavily. Then I drag myself to my room to change into a dry cotton saree and head towards the puja room.

Lord Narayana is the presiding deity of this household. As soon as I enter the puja room, the fragrance of fresh flowers engulfs me. I notice a small cane basket full of flowers kept at one corner of the room. My lips curl into a smile of satisfaction. Malini, my personal retainer, has plucked the flowers and kept here for my morning ritual of worshiping the Lord. My health is failing of late. I can no longer work as hard as I used to do before. So I had no other way than employing a personal retainer. Nevertheless, Malini is a very hard-working woman and she takes great care of Nanda Rai's household.

I light a few joss sticks and offer the flowers at the feet of the Lord. I then start my prayers, "One about whom we don't get any clue at all through mind, words, or actions, who pervades this universe, and by whose power we easily come to know everything in this universe, I take refuge at the feet of that Narayana of incomprehensible power."

I pause and reflect on my personal misfortune. Then I start praying fervently to the Lord, "O Narayana! Please cut asunder the cord of my maternal affection which binds me so that I become free from the 'sense of mine' towards the body, house, and children, and gain refuge at your lotus feet." I start to sob silently.

I don't know how long I sobbed sitting in front of Lord Narayana when Malini's voice snaps me out of my funk. She is calling me for breakfast. Unwillingly, I step outside the puja room. Of late, I have lost my appetite. Malini places the plate in front of me. It contains flattened rice and curd. As I start eating my breakfast sitting on the kitchen floor, Malini starts preparations for the lunch. She peels and chops the vegetables. And occasionally stirs a pot on the chulhah, containing butter. The butter melts into ghee. The rich aroma of ghee wafts in the kitchen.

"Maa, I need to take some leave. Will you be able to manage on your own for a few days?", Malini asked me softly.
"Why? Is there anything urgent?" 
The thought of managing the household on my own annoys me. I think I have got used to her presence in my life.
"Lalita is pregnant, Maa. It's her first pregnancy. So she has come to stay with me. The pregnancy has come a full term. She is due to deliver the baby soon. I need to be with her at this time."
I know Lalita, Malini's daughter. She used to come to our home when she was a child. Now she is a lively young lady. Malini is a lucky woman, indeed. I too gave birth to a daughter. But destiny separated us. And the son whom I raised so lovingly, never looked back at me.

A commotion is heard outside in the cowshed. The cowherd boys have come to take the cattles off to graze. Men whom Nanda has appointed to milk the cows have come. The clanging of brass vessels can be heard. Some women have come to take milk, butter and ghee to the market. Malini goes out in the courtyard hastily to supervise everything. Life for a cowherd family is not easy. There is work to do from dawn to dusk.

I focus on finishing my breakfast. After finishing the breakfast, I come outside the kitchen. There is lot of work to do. I squat in front of a vessel full of milk and start churning the milk to turn it into butter and buttermilk. When my son was very young, he used to love to savour butter. I don't know what he loves to eat now. My mind drifts in and out of reverie. If I didn't lose my daughter that day, I too have become a grandmother by now. Like Malini. Daughters make at least one yearly sojourn to their parents household. They also come during their first pregnancy customarily. Sons don't have any such obligations. I have heard that my son has sired children. Though I never had the good fortune to meet any of my grandchildren.

I still remember that fateful night. The sky was overcast from the morning. Then came the drizzle in the evening. By night, it changed into a heavy downpour. A violent storm raged outside. Inside my room, I was writhing in pain. Then I felt an excruciating pain around midnight and lost consciousness. When I regained my consciousness by morning, I saw a little baby boy sleeping beside me. I wrapped him in a loving embrace. I was a mother finally. I felt complete. I named the boy 'Krishna' or the Dark One, because his complexion resembled that of rain bearing clouds.

I raised my son with great care and affection. I had everything a woman can ask for: a home to call my own, a loving husband, a healthy child. My happiness knew no bounds. But back then, my fledgling self didn't know that happiness is fleeting. It has always eluded me.

I know that the bards will sing paens for me in future, praising my love towards little Krishna. People will know me as the epitome of motherly affection and virtues. But they will never come to know of the searing pain that afflicts my life in these autumn years of my life. The pain is so intense that sometimes it seems that it is ripping open my heart. The pain brings tears in my eyes, making my vision blurry. Through that blurry vision, when I look at my own reflection, I don't see the image of an ideal mother. Rather I look like a sham who failed to protect her newborn daughter.

My son was no ordinary. He had demons to slay, wars to win, kingdoms to conquer, philosophies to preach. So one day, he left us to fulfill his own ambitions. And he never came back. I being his mother, always prayed for his well-being. I heard that he had become a king. That he had married, not once, but eight times. But I didn't witness even a single wedding. I tried to accept his absence in my life with equanimity. Perhaps this is the fate of all mothers with successful sons. 

Then came the revelation. The revelation that shattered my world forever. Kalawati, my friend and confidante, revealed the secret to me. Kalawati is the mother of Radha, my son's playmate. Krishna told the secret to Radha which she, in turn, told her mother. And from Kalawati, the news travelled to me. She told me that Krishna was not my biological son. That I gave birth to a baby daughter that night. Vasudeva exchanged her with his own son. And my beloved husband, Nanda Rai, wad privy to all these happenings.

I never craved for a daughter. I just craved for a child made of my own flesh and blood. Nanda deprived me from being a mother to my own daughter. A daughter who would have become my own reflection. Since that very day, I started to loath my own husband. By suppressing this terrible truth from me, he has proved that he considers me nothing more than a foolish woman. A puppet in his hands, perhaps. I was never his life-partner in the true sense of the term. I tried hard to trace my daughter, but in vain. It seems as if she vanished in thin air.

We wait for so many things in life. For women, the waiting game starts in childhood. I remember my girlhood years when I used to play with dolls. My mother used to tell me that one day, I would have a husband and children of my own. While taking care of my dolls' household, I dreamt of a real household of my own. Husband. Children. Grandchildren. Now in the twilight of my life, I realise that there's no reward at the end of this waiting game. That the household that I once dreamt of is a mere illusion.

Today I finally realise that I am not Nanda's wife. Or Krishna's foster mother. I am Yashoda. A woman only. A woman who can be manipulated. A woman who can be fooled. And a woman who finally realises the futility of the waiting game at the fag end of her life.

Image Source: By Raja Ravi Varma

This story is one of the winning entries of the October 2020 Muse of the Month contest at Women's Web.

Friday, July 1, 2022

Happily Ever After

"You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection." ~Buddha

Have you ever heard of "Rosogolla"? If you are a Bengali like me, you must be all-too-familiar with the name of the famed sweet. Or that divine sensation when you put the spongy, syrupy sweet in your mouth. Now imagine a world where everybody is obsessed with Rosogolla. Bards sing paens praising Rosogolla, white like moonlight. Poets write poems about it's out-of-the-world taste. Filmmakers make films where the main theme is, well, Rosogolla and it's virtues. Lovers feed each other freshly made Rosogollas. Newlywed couples gorge on Rosogollas during their first meal together. Does any of it make any sense to you? You're probably feeling befuddled seeing everybody around you fussing over Rosogolla. It is, after all, just another sweet. Why this insanity for it? Quite naturally, in a world obsessed with Rosogolla, people will look down upon you. Over time, you'll begin to think that you are probably different from the others. Now replace the word "Rosogolla" with "Love" and you'll understand exactly how I feel about my existence in this planet. I am Aditi. A 24-year-old corporate lawyer. Welcome to my world.
"Hey, have you noticed the new professor? He is such a dreamboat.", Nisha whispered.
I didn't know how to respond to such comments. 
"I... umm... I mean..."
While I fumbled with my response, Shweta chimed in. "You mean, Professor Chatterjee? The other day in his class, I just couldn't take my eyes off him. He has such a husky, sexy voice."
All the other girls burst into an uproarious laughter. It seemed that just the woody, spicy notes of Professor Chatterjee's perfume would give the girls of first-year a collective orgasm.
I mumbled an excuse incoherently and decamped from the classroom with utmost velocity.

During my teenage, when all the other girls gossiped about men, I always found it hard to participate. I never took a fancy to any man. For a long time, I used to think that I was, probably, broken. That was something hard to accept given the fact that I had a fairly normal childhood. Though my parents never showed any signs of intimacy in front of others, they had quite a functional marriage. They tried hard in their own ways to give me a secure, comfortable life. While my father worked hard to ensure that bills were paid on time, my mother ensured that we had hot meals ready on the table when we were hungry. Then why did I grow up to be different from other girls? For a long time, I simply didn't have any answer. It's not that I liked women instead of men. Surely, I was not a lesbian.
When I was in the final year of graduation, Nisha, my closest friend, broke up with her boyfriend. She was devastated. While I tried to comfort her, I often wondered about the futility of love and relationships with the opposite sex. If this can lead to so much pain and heartache, what was the point of falling in love? I tried to explain my point of view to Nisha. But she merely sniffled and looked at me strangely. "You won't understand, Aditi. Or you'll probably understand when you will fall in love." She looked away to hide her tears.

All this while, I was searching for the answers to my questions in internet. Why was I so disinterested in men, even when I was well into adulthood? Why sex didn't mean anything to me? What was wrong with me? Was there others like me? As I started to dig deeper, I discovered that I was not broken. I was 'asexual'. And there were many people like me all over the world. It was a revelation to me. As if someone had removed my blinders and I had started to see the world from an entirely different perspective.
After completing my studies, I had started working as a corporate lawyer with a reputed corporate. Meanwhile, Nisha's parents had chosen a nice guy for her and she had agreed to go through the arranged marriage route. As her closest friend and confidante, I was playing the role of a bridesmaid. I chaperoned her in all her shopping expeditions and visits to the salons.
"You know Aditi, he likes mountains. So we're heading off to Shimla immediately after the wedding for our honeymoon.", she said coquettishly.
"And what do you like dear? Beach or mountain?", I enquired.
"I just want to see him happy.", she lowered her eyes coyly.

On the D-day, when she was exchanging garlands with her husband, I realised that I, too, wanted to become a bride. This nervous excitement leading up to the D-day, this anticipation of stepping into a new life, blessings of elders and gods, the incomprehensible Sanskrit chants of the priest, seven pheras around the sacred fire, the bright red vermillion in the parting of hair, the glitz and glamour surrounding the marriage ceremony, the meticulous planning for the honeymoon-- I wanted it all. But at the same time, I didn't want to put up with any dowry demands, curbs on my personal freedom, leaving the comfort of my own home, pesky in-laws or domestic violence most of which are ubiquitous features in Indian marriages. I wanted love, security and comfort. And I never wanted a man or a woman as my partner. In short, I wanted to be a bride, not a wife.
I run my fingers over the smooth fabric of the exquisite, lustrous silk saree. The golden threads forming intricate floral patterns make the Benarasi saree look appealing. The scarlet red hue of the saree matches the depth of the pleasure that I'm feeling on my special day. The salon girl's deft fingers fiddle with my long tresses and arrange them in a neat coiffeur. I take a final look at myself in the mirror and adjust the pleats of my saree one last time. The bright red-coloured bindi at the centre of my forehead is sparkling. My kohl-rimmed eyes have taken on a new brilliance today. Slowly, I descend down the stairs. The heavy wedding saree has slowed me down considerably. I saunter towards the wedding mandap teeming with guests. 

My parents have always been supportive of all my decisions and given me carte blanch to do as I please. Though the news of my wedding has created quite an uproar in social media, my parents have not only supported my decision to marry, but they have also gone the whole hog to hire a decorator, a priest and a wedding photographer to make my wedding extra special. Thanks to the decorator, the wedding venue has been beautifully decorated with strings of marigold and tuberose flowers. The priest who is supposed to solemnise my wedding beckons me to go through the wedding rituals. I take seven pheras around the sacred fire, mumble Sanskrit chants after the priest and finally, apply vermillion on the parting of my hair. Then in front of the astonished guests, I fish out a piece of paper tucked safely inside my handkerchief. I have neatly scribbled seven wedding vows on the paper. I start to read the vows slowly.

I vow to accept myself with all my strengths and faults.
I vow to be my beloved always and in all ways.
I vow to live life on my own terms forever.
I vow to prioritise my own happiness forever.
I vow to comfort myself during times of hopelessness, despair, depression, disillusionment, or any difficulty that arises.
I vow to always forgive and believe in myself.
I vow to never refuse, abandon or scorn myself.

Wedding rituals being over, I head towards the dining area to gorge on the delicacies prepared for this special day. I stuff my mouth with the delectable kosha mangsho, unmindful of the stares of the guests who have, probably, never come across such a ravenous bride. I know that many people mock me though some have applauded me saying I'll be an inspiration to many. Some have labelled me as being narcissist while some have criticized sologamy as a bizarre act, something unsuitable for Indian culture. 

People's opinions are a dime a dozen. But I have never cared for others opinions and have always listened to my heart. Between mouthfuls of bhetkir paturi, I start dreaming about my honeymoon. Tomorrow, I'll fly off to Goa to enjoy the bliss of solitude in my solo honeymoon.

Note: Sologamy is the act of marrying oneself in a public ceremony, also referred to as self-marriage or autogamy. While such a marriage has no legal sanction or status, the symbolic ceremony is used by many as an act to emphasize their self-love and independence. There are no rules or social norms. They can be similar to traditional two-people weddings, or not.

Glossary: kosha mangsho- The spicy Bengali mutton curry.
bhetkir paturi- Bengali style Barramundi Fish cooked by wrapping in banana leaf.
Rosogolla- A Bengali dessert.

Acknowledgements: Articles like this and this.

Image source: unsplash

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Review: Stars from the Borderless Sea

Stars from the Borderless SeaStars from the Borderless Sea by Shalini Mullick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"It felt as if he had taken a piece of her with him. A piece she hadn't known existed. A piece that had been hidden deep within her, waiting to be found only by him. He had unearthed it, caressed it lovingly and tenderly, and walked away with it. It would now forever belong to him."
-- "Stars from the Borderless Sea", Shalini Mullick.

There was a time when I loved reading love-stories as much as watching romantic Bollywood movies. Love, once upon a time, seemed a rosy, glossy kind of emotion to me. With age, came wisdom and the love-stories that I used to savour earlier lost their sheen to me. They all seemed too perfect to be true.

"Stars from the Borderless Sea" is a book in the romance genre, a genre that I explored after quite a long time. The book piqued my interest solely because it has been written by Shalini Mullick. I have been reading Shalini's writings for quite a long time and being accustomed to her style of writing, I know that she always creates thought-provoking content. All I can say is that I have not been disappointed after reading the book.

This book is a collection of three romance novellas. None of the stories has a predictable storyline with a conventional happily-ever-after kind of ending. Shalini's protagonists are strong-willed, their love as strong as them. In these three novellas, Shalini has explored how love need not always culminate in a lifetime of togetherness. Love, even if it lasts for a brief period of time, can be healing and can nurture a person's soul for a life-time. "I discovered that, in love, each moment can be a lifetime. And a lifetime of togetherness was what we found with each other. Those moments were so precious to us that we couldn't allow them to be tarnished by the reality that our love would be unrequited." How true!

The first novella is titled "Sayonee" which means soulmate. It's the story of Geetika, descendent of an erstwhile royal family and Shekhar, who dreamt of joining the Indian army. They were college sweethearts. As fate would have it, both didn't complete college and life took them in divergent directions. Yet the love between the two never died.

The second novella is "Humsafar" meaning companion. Rachna, the protagonist, is a paediatrician. When her marriage hit a rock bottom, she found love outside the wedlock in a man named Venkat, her teacher and mentor.

The third and last one is "Humraaz" meaning confidante. In this story, two persons, Mahima and Sanjay, who were both trapped in unhappy marriages, found love and solace in each other.

All three novellas are well-crafted and makes the readers think about love from different perspectives. Shalini's prose is lyrical. Her one-liners make the readers pause and reflect. Like, " is the sum of choices. And often, the choices in one's life are made by someone else." Appropriate lines of Rumi's poetry add to the beauty of the stories.

Another thing I must add is that I haven't come across such personable male characters in a long time. Be it Shekhar, Venkat or Sanjay, each one is the epitome of kindness, compassion and determination. They are the kind of men any woman would fall in love with.

Do read the book and discover the magic of love.

View all my reviews

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Poila Baisakh

It was Poila Baisakh. Iyasmina's eyes became moist when she thought about the Mangal Shobhajatra of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Which country was hers? She left Bangladesh years ago. After her marriage, when she applied for Indian citizenship, she was informed that marrying an Indian person could not be the sole eligibility to obtain citizenship. Presently she was on a PR VISA. She sighed silently as she looked outside the window to the swaying branches of a mango tree. Back in Dhaka, Amma used to make mango pickles during summer. 

Five years ago, she came to Kolkata for professional enhancement where she met Rajiv. They fell in love. Despite vehement opposition of both the families, they tied the knot. But now-a-days, Iyasmina, pregnant with her first child, missed the presence of a mother and a mother-in-law.

An urgent knock at the door jolted her out of her reverie. A beaming Shobha kakima, her neighbour, was standing at the door. She handed her a glass jar of mango pickles. "This is a gift for you. I know that women love the tangy taste of pickles during this time. So I made this for you." Iyasmina teared up. Kolkata suddenly felt like home.

Glossary: Poila Baisakh: The first day of Bengali New Year.

Image source: Unsplash

This flash-fiction received a Jury Special Mention at the April 2022 Writing Challenge conducted by Beyond the Box. The challenge was to write a literary piece in which mango/mango tree plays a key role. Word/Line Limit was 200 words for prose/20 lines for poetry.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

An Unlove Story

She sat motionless on the royal bed, her knees drawn up to her chin. She stared vacantly outside the palace window. She was sheathed in exquisite scarlet red silk, shot through with golden threads forming intricate traditional patterns. Chests of gems and jewelleries were strewn all over the bed. The maids were fussing over whether a diamond-studded necklace would suit their queen or a gold choker would look better. Another younger maid was arranging her tresses in a coiffeur. But her mind was elsewhere, far removed from the cacophony of the royal bedchamber of Hastinapur. Once again, in her memory, she was transfigured into that naïve girl in the sylvan hermitage of Rishi Kanva.
She was the most bright protégé of Rishi Kanva. Apart from theology and philosophy, she took active interest in politics, administration, diplomacy and strategies of warfare. Rishi Kanva's chest swelled with pride whenever he looked at his foster daughter.
On that fateful day, she was poring over a book while she heard light footsteps approaching the hut, followed by an unknown gravelly voice asking, "Who is here?" Rishi Kanva was not present in the hermitage at that time, so she went out of the hut to greet the stranger. A tall, wiry man of athletic built was standing in front of her. His smooth ebony skin glistened in the sun. Clad in exquisite clothes and gems, he looked like a king.

"Who are you?", she asked in her dulcet voice.
"I am Duhshanta, the king of Hastinapur.", he replied smugly.

She welcomed him and offered him a seat. The man was thirsty and asked for water. When she bended to hand him the brass tumbler of water, she noticed him staring brazenly at her décolletage revealed unwittingly. Feeling embarassed, she straightened up and asked hesitatingly, "O king! What else can I do for you?"
"I have come to pay my respects to the illustrious Rishi Kanva. Where has he gone?", he asked.
"Father has gone to collect fruits. Please wait for a while."
He looked surprised. "Is Rishi Kanva your father? But I heard that he is a celibate."
"Yes, what you heard is true. He is my foster father. My biological father is Rishi Vishvamitra, mother Menaka, the celestial apsara. My parents deserted me on the banks of the Malini river immediately after my birth. Rishi Kanva took pity on me and brought me home. He named me Shakuntala because vultures protected me from carnivores. Since then, he has been raising me single-handedly.", she quavered at the recollection of her painful past.

Duhshanta's heart melted for the beautiful woman. Though she was attired modestly in rough cotton like an ascetic, he didn't fail to notice her dazzling beauty. The woman in front of him was blessed with a voluptuous figure. She was a bit heavy in the bottom and her rounded hips swayed alluringly when she walked. Her firm, rounded breasts looked inviting through the diaphanous cloth. Duhshanta felt sick with desire. All he wanted was to get her in his bed.

He said hoarsely, "O beautiful one! Be my wife. Marry me according to gandharva rites."

Shakuntala was taken aback at this sudden proposal of marriage. She felt hot blood coursing through her veins.

She replied demurely, "O king! Please wait for my father to return. He will give me to you."

But Duhshanta was in no mood to wait. He said ingratiatingly, "My heart now belongs to you. Please accept me yourself. The gandharva form of marriage is sanctioned for Kshatriyas. Don't be scared."

The raw passion in his voice unnerved her. "If I marry you, will I become the queen of Hastinapur and rule over the kingdom like you do?", she asked.

The impudence of the woman irked Duhshanta. There was an elongated, uneasy pause which Shakuntala now remembered vividly. It is a strange thing about old conversations. Sometimes, you remember the pauses in between sentences more, the sighs, even the expressions, even if you cannot see them.

Shakuntala sighed silently. Only if she had refused him that day, life could have been different.

Duhshanta curled his lips contemptuously. "Silly girl! If you marry me, you'll merely be my consort. Ruling over a kingdom is not a woman's business.", he said curtly.

Shakuntala was dismayed. But she quickly gathered herself together and replied, "O king! I have one condition. Promise me that the son who is born to me will succeed you. Only if you agree to this, you may unite with me."

It didn't take much to persuade Duhshanta to accept the condition. Soon they got married. Needless to say, Duhshanta ravished her in the nuptial bed and immediately left for the capital on the pretext of some urgent business. Before he departed, he promised to send a fourfold army to escort her to his royal palace.
Rishi Kanva was overjoyed when he heard the news of her daughter's marriage. "I couldn't have found a better husband for you, Shakuntala. But you are young and gullible. You have lived in my hermitage since birth and are not acquianted with the ways of the outside world. These kings can be very wily. But lets hope for the best."
In due time, Shakuntala gave birth to a boy. Rishi Kanva performed all necessary rites of passage. The boy grew up to be big, strong and strapping. He was amiable with a ready smile that endeared him to everybody present in the hermitage. Rishi Kanva named him Sarvadamana. The fourfold army from Hastinapur never came.

When the boy was six years old, Rishi Kanva called Shakuntala one day. "I think the time has come for you to go to your matrimonial home now. Your son is not an ordinary boy, he is the king's son. He should be instated as the heir apparent now."

Rishi Kanva's other disciples escorted Shakuntala and her son to the royal palace of Hastinapur.
The opulence of the royal palace of Hastinapur dazzled Shakuntala. As the ruling king's wife, she had expected a warm welcome, but she got none.

When she entered the royal court, the bejewelled king on the throne suddenly seemed like a distant man. The profundity of the gulf between them overwhelmed her for a moment. But she regained her composure quickly. That man on the throne was her husband, after all. And not just her husband, he was the father of her only son too. She paid homage to the king and declared, "This is your son. Can you remember the promise you made to me in Rishi Kanva's hermitage long ago? Now the time has come to fulfill that promise. O king, instate your son as the heir apparent."

Duhshanta clearly remembered everything. But he didn't had any intention to accept a poor woman from a remote hermitage as his wife and her son as theirs. He had already planned to marry a princess of a neighbouring kingdom. That alliance would further his political ambition and fill the royal coffers with innumerable gold coins. He was annoyed at the sudden arrival of Shakuntala. 

"I can't remember anything. Who are you? I never had any relation with you.", he said tartly.

Shakuntala looked incredulous. She said, "How can you lie like a common man? I am your wife Shakuntala. Treat me with due respect. And how can you disown your own son?" Her voice choked with sobs. Her parents abandoned her at birth. Now her husband was forsaking her. What was her fault? Had she committed any sin to deserve such fate? In tear-choked voice, she pleaded, "I am ready to go back to my hermitage. But do not forsake this child. He is your own son."

"Do you have any proof that this son born from you is mine? Who will believe you? Your mother Menaka was a courtesan. Your parents gave birth to you out of lust alone. Perhaps thats the reason you speak like a slut. Go away from here.", Duhshanta sneered.

Shakuntala's face tightened and her eyes turned steely. She hollered, "You can't insult my parents in front of me. My mother is one of the thirty gods. My birth is nobler than yours. You reside on earth, while I roam in the sky. And I don't want any relationship with you any more. I have raised my son single-handedly till now and will continue to do so. Even without you, my son shall rule over the entire earth."

Suddenly, a magical voice roared from the sky. "O Duhshanta! Accept your son and accept your wife, Shakuntala."

Surrounded by his ministers, Duhshanta had no other way but to accept Shakuntala and her son. He embraced his son and smilingly told Shakuntala, "Our marriage was unknown to the people here. Thats why I argued with you. If I instated my son based on your words alone, there would have been doubt among people. I forgive you for your harsh words." His tone was conciliatory. Shakuntala was surprised at how quickly he changed colours.
She was lost in reverie when a physical touch brought her back to reality. It was her husband's touch. Duhshanta lovingly tucked a stray curl behind her ear. It was their first night together as a couple in the royal bed-chamber of Hastinapur.

"Don't you dare touch me.", she hissed.

"Shakuntala, my beloved wife, what happened?", he asked in genuine surprise.

"I don't love you any more, O king! You may be magnanimous enough to forgive me for my temerity, but I haven't been able to forgive you for what you have done. And I can't allow a man who I don't love to make love to me. Pardon me." Every word of hers dripped sarcasm.

A white-hot fury coursed through him. "But I have already accepted you as my wife. Isn't it enough for you?", he hollered.

"You have been forced to accept me as your wife. But the moment you tried to disown your son, the moment you tried to slut-shame me, I lost all respect for you. Your very presence now precipitates an intense hatred in me. What can I do?", she answered equably. "You married me out of lust only. You saw the beauty of my body, but you failed to see the beauty of my heart or the beauty of my mind. You are such a shallow man, Duhshanta.", she added for good measure.

"Then why are you staying here? Go back to your father's hermitage.", he fumed.

"Don't assume that I am staying here to enjoy the royal hospitality.", Shakuntala laughed loudly. "I am staying here just because of my son. You may forget your duties as a father, but I can't renounce my motherly responsibilities. As a mother, it's my duty to look after him, to guide him, to protect him till he grows up. Once he turns an adult and takes charge of his own life and his own kingdom, I'll consider my job to be finished. Then I'll renounce this royal palace and retire to my father's hermitage. And as far as you are concerned, I don't think you are in any way dependent on your wife to satisfy your carnal desires. You are free to seek pleasures outside the wedlock.", her tone was flat and final.

Duhshanta was dumbstruck. He was used to women fawning over him. It was the first time that a woman showed the impertinence to humiliate him. A cold wind blowed through the palace window, sending shivers down his spine. Was it the wind of change? 

Apsara- Apsaras are celestial maidens associated with Indra's court.
Gandharva- One of the eight forms of marriage. In this form, there are no ceremonies and no relatives are present.
Vultures- The word used in the Mahabharata is shakuna.
Fourfold army- With infantry, cavalry, elephants and chariots.

1. "The Mahabharata 1" translated by Bibek Debroy.
2. "The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin: Tales from Indian History" by Manu S. Pillai.

This story was shortlisted for the November 2021 Muse of the Month short fiction contest. Click here to read the story.

Baba, Baby O...

Much has been said and written about single mothers, but when it comes to single fathers, there has not been much debates and discussions on it. Being a single father is rather unusual and something rarely heard of. Our society has a common perception that compared to men, women are better equipped by nature to handle the responsibilies of raising children. But things are changing rapidly and the changing social milieu gets reflected in pop-culture too. When I first heard about the Bengali movie "Baba, Baby O...", I made up my mind to watch the movie simply out of curiosity because of the rather unusual topic it dealt with.

Meghroddur (played by Jisshu Sengupta), the protagonist of the movie, is a man in his forties. He is bachelor and when he failed to find the love of his life even after four decades of existence, he decides to enjoy the bliss of fatherhood instead. So he becomes a father of twin babies through surrogacy. Later, he meets his love interest Brishti (played by Solanki Roy) at a toy-store where he goes shopping for toys for his children. Brishti, the owner of the toy-store, is in her 20s and she hates kids. Their rather unusual love-story unfolded in the movie.

According to a study by the University of Toronto done in 2016, of the world's 2-3 billion children, 14% are growing up in a single-parent household. In the US alone, fathers make for 4% of the total single-parent households, shows the US 2015 census report. Though there isn't enough data on the number of single fathers in India, it's not something that is unheard of yet there's not adequate portrayal of single fathers in pop-culture. This is why I find the movie "Baba, Baby O..." rather unique.

I found the whole concept of the movie quite interesting and thought-provoking. I am not a pro at reviewing movies. So I am just going to share the reasons why the movie resonated so strongly with me.

First, the movie is laudable for de-coupling the concepts of marriage and parenthood. In most mainstream, commercial movies, the lead couple fall in love first, followed by marriage and parenthood. But this movie does not follow any such linear narrative. Here the protagonist becomes a "Baba" (father) first. The "O" (the significant other) enters his life much later.

Second, given the fact that the protagonist Megh is a single father, it was kind of expected that he would expect his future wife to be a mother-figure in his children's lives. Here, too, the movie strays from the expected narrative. Brishti is a woman who hates children and is least interested in motherhood. But that doesn't deter Megh from falling in love with her. The movie highlights that marriage is expected to offer companionship only. Nothing more, nothing less. Even if both the partners are not on the same page regarding parenthood, there's nothing wrong in it. This is something I absolutely adored about the movie. 

Third, it drives home the point that a parent is a parent, biological or not. To be a good parent, you just need a heart capable of loving unconditionally. There's nothing biological about it. Brishti's mother remarried after her divorce. Her ex-husband, Brishti's biological father, was an absent father who didn't want anything to do with his daughter. On the other hand, Brishti's step-father became successful to be a real father-figure in her life.

Fourth, it debunks the myth that women are natural care-givers. Megh, a man, loves being a father while Brishti, a woman, hates kids. Care-giving has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with individual characteristics.

Overall, I loved the movie for it's rather modern take on marriage and parenthood. At the end of the movie, I had only one niggling doubt in my mind: can the reverse of the situation depicted in the movie ever happen? Would a man in his 20s ever dare to fall in love with a single mother in her 40s? I'll definitely love to watch such a movie.

Acknowledgement: An article on internet about single fathers in India