Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Single, But Not Sorry




Kolkata
9th April, 2017

Riya tried to open her drowsy eyes, pushing back the weariness bearing down on her as the early morning sunrays came filtering through the curtains of her bedroom. She missed the familiar beep of the alarm clock resting on her bedside table for an infinitesimal moment. Then the realisation dawned on her that it being a Sunday, she hadn't set the alarm the previous night. She turned over and closed her eyes again. But the recent memory of the previous day's team meeting flooded her mind. Realising the futility of the attempt to fall asleep again, she got up from the bed.

"Who's your In Case of Emergency person?"
Riya mulled over the trick question as she sipped her morning tea. Naveen, her immediate boss, had asked her the question in the team meeting. She was working in the creative team of an ad agency and considered all her colleagues in her team as friends. But none of them was her in-case-of-emergency person. She knew how terrifying an "emergency" situation could be and didn't like the idea of assigning that potential imposition to a friend. Her only emergency person, after the death of her father a few years ago, was her mother who lived alone in their ancestral house at a remote village in Malda, some 350 kms away from Kolkata. Replying Naveen's question, she just mumbled, "I have given these details to HR. I don't need to share that with you. Sorry." She knew she had appeared unduly cross to everybody else present in the meeting including Naveen, but she also knew that there was no other way to evade the trick question. She was 36 years old single woman, living on her own. And she didn't want to let others know how empty her life was.

The trick question had begun to seep in, however. It had become a trick situation. She didn't want to feel empty. Rather she wanted to make her moments, big or small, more meaningful. The longer she sat feeling sorry for herself, the less sorry she felt. It's called a reverse something or the other. There isn't time to get into that now. So dear readers, lets see how Riya dived into action to make her life meaningful.

Riya's diary
April, 2017

I am 36. And I am still single. It's not that I don't crave for that special someone in my life. I look for potential dates in Tinder. But none of my dates have culminated into anything fruitful till date. When I look at my own reflection at the mirror, I see a beautiful, voluptuous woman with long, cascading hair. Then why am I still single? What do I lack in myself? Am I not attractive enough? I feel unloved, uncared for. I want to be number one to someone other than my mother. I want to matter most to someone, to be their first phone call, the first person they think of. And I am not. In the last decade of my life, no one has brought me a cup of coffee, made breakfast for me, put a blanket on me on a cold night, buzzed in a delivery person, turned off the lights before bed, entered my front door using their own key. Because I am nobody's number one. I miss the small things that couples do for each other. I feel lonely on Valentine's day. During Durga Puja, I roam alone in the streets of Kolkata with no one to keep me company. Nobody ever thought, "What should I do for Riya for her birthday?" I am tired of feeling empty. And I don't want to feel empty.

Kolkata
14th May, 2017

Coconut and Peanut were sleeping blissfully. Riya felt a surge of love everytime she looked at the kittens. She had recently adopted them to fill the void in her life.

It was a Sunday and she had ample time to scroll her social media timeline. A notification popped up informing her that it was Shruti's birthday. Shruti and Riya were childhood friends. Shruti was now married and mother of two-year-old twins, Rahul and Rohan. Riya dialled Shruti's number to wish her on her birthday.
"Hello, Riya! It's a pleasure to hear from you after a long time!" Shruti's excitement spilled over the phone.
"Happy birthday darling! Wish you many many happy returns of the day. So what are your plans for today? Dinner date with husband or a trip to the spa?"
Shruti broke into a hoot of laughter. "What? No, no. Rahul and Rohan keep me busy all day. Now-a-days an uninterrupted pee is as good as a trip to the spa. Tell me about yourself. Are you seeing anybody?"
This question always vexed Riya. She wanted to scream that whether she was seeing anybody or not was none of Shruti's business. Instead, she said calmly, "No, I am not seeing anybody. Not everybody is as lucky as you. So how is your marriage going on? Does your husband still take his mother's side when you fight with your mother-in-law?" 
Shruti mumbled something about the children wailing and hung up. 

Riya's diary
May, 2017

Why do people always ask me whether I am seeing someone or not. They never start conversations with "how's life", or "tell me what's new", or even "how are you". This makes me mad. I want to scream at the top of my voice that my singlehood is none of their business. Even my mother accuses me of being too picky. Dear Maa, were you not picky when you chose your life-partner? Did you marry the first person you met? Or the first person my grandparents thought suitable for you? 

By the way, I feel less lonely now-a-days. I have Coconut and Peanut now to keep me company.

Kolkata
18th June, 2017

It being a Sunday, the newspaper came with heavy supplements. Riya enjoyed reading the supplements more than the newspaper. One particular advertisement caught her attention. It was about a women-only retreat at Rishikesh, promising to provide complete rejuvenation of body, mind, and spirit. This was exactly what she needed. She opened their website and booked her seat for September. She decided to spend her Durga Puja holidays at Rishikesh. 

Rishikesh
September, 2017

Riya had kept her kittens at an animal shelter in Kolkata for a few days and come at Rishikesh. Situated on the banks of the river Ganga, the retreat looked picturesque. Away from the hustle-bustle of the crowded markets, the Ashram stole her gaze. From the large glass-pane windows of the spacious Yoga hall, the surrounding mountains looked majestic. Riya was spell-bound. 

She shared her room with another woman, Sreemoyee. Sreemoyee was a doctor and she too hailed from Kolkata. She had worked day in and day out for almost a decade to become a paediatric trauma specialist. When she was in medical college, there just wasn't enough time to meet men. The few men she met, didn't make her feel interested to settle down. She too, like Riya, was a single woman. She was in her early 40s. 

Sreemoyee's smile was warm and inviting-- just like the cup of chai on a misty morning at Rishikesh. To Riya, she seemed like a butterfly without a perch. They discussed about a lot of things, like feminism, relationships, singlehood, books, movies and friends. Riya was thrilled to discover their mutual love for cats. They fitted together like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. At the time of parting, they exchanged their mobile numbers and promised to keep in touch.

Malda
December, 2017

Riya had come to Malda to pay a visit to her old mother, with Coconut and Peanut in tow.
"Do you plan to spend all your life with these cats? Will you ever settle down or not?", her mother was annoyed.
"No, because I find men less affectionate than my kittens.", Riya retorted.
A few days into her visit, Peanut was seriously ill with a fever running 105 degrees. No veterinarian was available in their village. There was not any diagnostic labs. Riya was tensed, almost on the verge of giving up.

Sreemoyee saved him. She was up with Riya all night on call, checking on his temperature every hour, instructing her what to do, telling her not to give up. She consulted a veterinarian in Kolkata and advised Riya accordingly. Sitting more than 350 kms away, she hand-held Riya into saving Peanut. 

Kolkata
13th February, 2018

It was another Valentine's Day eve. Riya was in a low spirit. She too craved for someone to make her feel special. She had Coconut and Peanut, but she pined for the company for another human being. Suddenly there was a call from Sreemoyee inviting her for dinner at a cafè. In these few months, Riya and Sreemoyee had become good friends. So Riya was glad to have company. She took leave from the office early and took special effort to dress herself up. She wore a black dress with a chic jacket.

When she arrived at the cafè at the designated time, Sreemoyee was already there. She looked ravishing in her red dress and fiery red lipstick. 
"Hi! Nice to meet you Sree.", Riya said.
"Hello Riya. Please take your seat. How are Coconut and Peanut?", Sreemoyee flashed a beautiful smile.
"They have become very naughty of late. Always keep me on my toes.", Riya smiled.
A table for two was laid out, champagne et al. Sreemoyee wished her for Galentine's Day. Riya was surprised. She knew about Valentine's Day, but she never heard of Galentine's day. Sreemoyee explained to her that this was a day to celebrate female friendship. Soon an array of delicious dishes arrived. They both enjoyed the night a lot.

After dinner, Sreemoyee dropped her home. "Doesn't this feel like a date night, Riya?", Sreemoyee asked.
Riya nodded in agreement.
"Lets plan more such singles nights. Next time, you decide the venue and the menu."
They both giggled like truant school-girls.

Riya's diary
14th February, 2018

It's another Valentine's day and yet I don't feel empty anymore. Because I have Sree, a friend who accepts me with all my imperfections. I am not anybody's loving wife or anybody's doting mother. I am a flawed, messy woman to the outside world. Yet this friendship with Sree shields me from the harsh judgemental eyes of the world. We may not be in the same boat, but we are in the same storm. And if any crisis situation arises, we know that we have each other's back. I think I have figured out the answer to Naveen's trick question. I have found my in-case-of-emergency person here in Kolkata, finally.

Image source: pixabay

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







Wednesday, March 31, 2021

When Radha Met Rukmini

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
"Rain falls and ceases, all the forest trembles:
Mystery walks the woods once more,
We hear a flute.
It moves the earth, it is the god who plays
With the flute in his lips and music in his breath:
The god is Krishna in his lovely youth."
--- "Canons of Giant Art", Sacheverell Sitwell

Radha could hear the faint melody of flute wafting in the moist breeze. The melody engulfed her in a trance, once more. The heady fragrance of jasmine flowers intoxicated all her senses, once more. The ground beneath her bare feet seemed cool. Was it the wet earth of Vrindaban, drenched in the monsoon rain? Someone gently touched one of her shoulders from behind. The sudden human touch jolted her out of her reverie. No, she was not in Vrindaban. The cool ground beneath her feet was, in fact, the cool marble floor in the royal palace of Dvarka. The jasmine flowers kept in a silver bowl in one corner of the room rendered the air inside the room fragrant. And she was standing right in front of queen Rukmini, in her royal bed chamber. No flute was being played anywhere. It all seemed a figment of her imagination. 

"Please take your seat, Radha. I wanted to meet you in person. That's why I sent my most trusted retainer Nalini to Vrindaban to bring you here.", said Rukmini in her beautiful bass voice. Rukmini was, indeed, an epitome of beauty and grace. Her beautiful yellow silk saree and gold jewelleries only served to accentuate her beauty. "She is indeed worthy of being the wife of Krishna.", thought Radha.

"But why? What made the queen look for a village woman as ordinary as Radha?", Radha couldn't hide her amusement.

"Do you think that you are ordinary? I never thought so."

"That's not the answer to my question. Tell me why you summoned me here."

"Actually I wanted to meet you in person. I want to see what you have that I lack. I want to know why my husband is still in love with you."

Radha cackled. "So you think that your husband loves me. I never thought so. I always thought that my love for him was one-sided. While I loved him, he took it only as flirtation. And apart from me, he had all the gopis of Vrindaban to engage in such inane flirtations. None of it was love."

"That's not true. I don't exactly know what was there between the two of you, but surely it was not something as innocuous as flirtation, at least not for him."

Radha's mind drifted to her days of yore. "Do you know Rukmini that I was already married when I first met him? I was married off to Abhimanyu at a tender age. At that time, I didn't even know the full import of the words 'marriage' or 'husband'. But I failed to love Abhimanyu. He turned out to be an impotent man and consequently our marriage was never consummated. I accepted everything with equanimity as my destiny. And then I met him - Krishna.

It was a rainy and stormy night in the month of Ashada. Dark clouds hovered in the sky. I had come to Nand's residence to pay him a visit that afternoon when the rains started. Nand was very worried as his son had not returned home till then. He asked me to take him home. Krishna was younger than me. Young and naïve. I found him standing under a large tamal tree, shivering in the rain. I held his hand and took him home. The road was dark, with only lightning to illuminate the road every now and then. That day when I held his hand, I felt the surge of a strange emotion inside me - something which I had never felt before. Perhaps that was what poets called as 'love'.

Monsoon made way for the autumn. Then came winter. Finally it was spring. The tamal tree was no longer dark, but instead was adorned with yellow flowers. There was a riot of colours everywhere, with so many flowers blossoming - bakula, kimshuka, kesara, madhavika. The fragrant southern wind was intoxicating. My love for Krishna had intensified by then. But I found him flirting with all the other gopis. I was jealous. I thought he belonged to me only - my man. But how wrong I was. I still had a lot to learn about men and the position of privilege they were entitled to.

Finally when he left for Mathura, I was devastated. He besmirched my reputation. Everybody in Vrindaban gossiped about me. What kind of a woman longs for a man other than her husband! While I silently suffered the pangs of separation, these gossips made my life even more miserable. My life was ruined for ever. But I didn't commit suicide. Neither did I run to Mathura to beg for his love."

"Then what did you do, Radha? Life must have been hard for you."

"Yes, that's true. Nothing was left for me in Vrindaban any more. The only man I loved had abandoned me. I never knew the joys of motherhood. So I decided to live for myself. I adorned my eyes with kajal, applied a kasturi tilak to my forehead, painted a saubhagya bindu with kumkum, rearranged my tresses and put flowers in my braid. Then I went to the bank of river Yamuna and looked at my own reflection in the placid water of the river. I looked beautiful, even divine. I fell in love with myself. I smiled after a long time.

Krishna is an intelligent man, no doubt. While he will leave his own philosophy for posterity, my life will remind women of generations to come that a woman doesn't need a man to live her life. A woman can not only live, but also thrive without a man."

"Did you ever harbour any desire to marry him?"

"Not at all. I never wanted to become one among his many wives and be happy with the crumbs of his love that each of his wife is entitled to. To me, my self-respect and independence are way more precious than the love of a man."

Now Rukmini understood what made Radha stand apart from others.

"Now grant me permission to leave. It's almost evening. I think your husband will return from his royal court any time. I don't want him to know of my arrival."

Radha left. Only the sound of her anklets echoed long in the royal palace of Dvarka.

Image source: Flickr

This post titled "When Rukmini Asked Radha The Secret Of What Made her So Special" has been published on Women's Web as a Featured Post. Featured Posts are a careful selection of highly relevant and interesting posts picked up by the editor's of Women's Web each day. To read the full story, Click here.

Can Your Son Cook?


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Sunday

"Kolkata based Bengali Girl, 30, 5'6", B.Tech (IIT), MBA (Finance) from IIM, working in Banking Sector & settled in Mumbai. Pck- 20 lakh p.a. Healthy habits, both parents Doctors. Looking for a presentable, cultured, educated boy with strong family values, non-manglik, 28-32 yrs, siblings must. MA/MSc preferred, healthy habits only. Caste No Bar. No Dowry. Reply with recent coloured photograph and other details to xxxxxxxx@gmail.com. M-xxxxxxxxxx"

Dasharath circled the ad with his red gel pen. This has become almost a ritual for him now. This scanning of the Matrimonial column of the Sunday newspaper. He goes through every single advertisement that appears under the heading of "Wanted Grooms". After meticulously reading each of them, he circles those advertisements which he finds appropriate for his son Raghav. During Sunday evenings, after waking up from his afternoon siesta and going through the ritual of making elaichi tea for everyone in his family and serving them the tea with biscuits of their choice, he sits down with his mobile phone and the Sunday newspaper. He then calls the parents of prospective brides, one after another, as he goes down the red-marked list of brides. Some parents of highly educated and established brides don't publish their mobile numbers fearing the incessant phone calls they might receive from the parents of prospective grooms. In those cases, Dasharath sends them his son's biodata and some recent photographs via e-mail. Dasharath who was technically unsound and didn't know how to send an e-mail until recently had to learn to make his own e-mail id and use the e-mail app for the sake of his son's marriage. Any parent of sons of marriageable age can imagine his agony. After all, who doesn't want to see their children settled and happy, leading a fulfilling family life.

"Hello".
"Hello. Myself Dasharath Chakraborty. I suppose you have given an ad in search of a groom in today's newspaper."
"Oh, yes. Are you the groom himself or his father?"
"I am the groom's father."
"And I am Sunaina, the bride's mother. Hope you have gone through the advertisement and I suppose your son meets all the criterion mentioned there."
"Sure. He is 28 years, has done MA in English followed by B.Ed. He is currently working as a teacher in a local school."
"Then I am sorry. He doesn't fulfill our criterion. We are looking for a non-working boy. Someone who'll be able to look after his family, who'll prioritize family over and above his career. Actually our daughter has quite a hectic schedule as an investment banker. She doesn't need any more earning member in her family. Janki's father is also a doctor. He was my classmate in Medical College. But when Janki was born, he sacrificed his career at the altar of family. That's how much we value family. We mentioned the educational criterion in the ad just because of the fact that we think an educated son-in-law would be able to help in his children's home-works in future."
"That's not a problem at all. My son is very obedient. We have tried to inculcate the values of family in him since childhood. He is willing to quit his job if need arises."
"Then we can proceed to discuss further. What's his complexion? Is he fair? Listen, I am not going to accept anyone other than a fair-skinned boy as my son-in-law. All I want is fair grandchildren."
"Yes, of course, he is very fair and handsome. He won the title of 'Mr. Fresher' when he was in the first year of college."
"And what is his mother's occupation?"
"She retired from a senior position in a reputed MNC."
"By the way, what is your son's name?"
"Raghav."
"Does he have any siblings? This is a must, as I have mentioned in the ad. I don't want my son-in-law to frequently visit his father's house in the pretext of looking after them during old age and neglecting his own household duties."
"Yes, we have a daughter too. She is in college."
"Since your son fulfills all the preliminary criterion, I'd request you to send a couple of his recent photographs in the e-mail id given in the ad. I have already got 100 calls from parents of prospective grooms since morning. You are 101. My daughter will scrutinise all the photographs and bio-datas and select her groom herself. I'll get back to you if your son is shortlisted. Bye for now."

Next Sunday

"Hello."
"Hello Mrs. Sunaina. I am happy to hear from you."
"There's a good news for you. My daughter has short-listed 10 boys out of total 153 calls received. You are lucky that your son is one among these ten."
"That's great. So what's next?"
"We are planning to visit all the ten boys one by one. Since I am very busy with my chamber and nursing-home, I can only spare the Sunday for this groom-viewing. We'll visit three grooms on two consecutive Sundays and four on the last Sunday. This way it'll take less time. I'd like to visit your home and meet your son next Sunday at 6 O'clock. Janki's father will also accompany me."
"Please come. Also make sure that Janki also comes. After all, it's she who'll marry Raghav. So it's important for them to meet."
"I am sorry but Janki will not be able to come this time. She is super busy and has only a day off on Sundays. So she doesn't like to go anywhere on Sundays. So we'll visit only. Janki will meet the boy who'll be selected finally by us."
"Oh."
"One more thing, we'll stay only for an hour. After that we'll have to visit two more grooms. So make sure that Raghav is present at the home at the designated time. Bye."
"Bye. Take care."

Next Sunday Morning

"Raghav, please apply this turmeric and sandalwood paste on your face. Today one bride's parents are coming in the evening to meet you. You must look your best."
"Please, father. I am tired of this groom-viewing sessions. And in any case, I am not going to apply anything on my face. I am happy with myself. I don't need to preen myself for anybody's approval."
"Don't talk like a fool. You are 28 years already and all your friends are married. And I am not even having proper sleep at night thinking about your marriage. This girl is educated, well-established. I don't want to lose this golden opportunity. And please don't wear this cheap t-shirt in front of the girl's parents. I have already ironed your kurta and pajama. Make sure to wear those in the evening."

Sunday Evening
 
"So Raghav, can you cook?"
"Yes, but only the basics."
"Our daughter is a glutton. Make sure to learn some special recipes before marriage."
"I'll try."
"You told us that you know basic cooking. Now tell me, which specific spices are required to cook mutton rezala? Our Janki loves mutton."
"Umm.... onion paste, ginger and garlic paste, bay leaves, dry red chillies, whole black peppercorns, cinnamon stick, clove, cardamom.... umm...."
"You forgot to mention mace (Javitri). And please don't use red chillies in any dish you cook for our dear Janki. Red chillies don't suit her. You can add green chillies instead."
"I'll remember."
"Now tell me, do you like us? If you get married to Janki, we'll be your parents-in-law. Will you be able to live with us and treat us as your own parents?"
Raghav nodded his head in approval.
"Good. Mr. Chakraborty, we have to leave now. We still need to visit two more boys. I'll get back to you if your son is finally selected."
"Please have some sweets before you leave."
"No, no. We are running short of time."
"Please, I request. At least have the samosas. Raghav himself has prepared these samosas."

Another Sunday, After three weeks....
 
"Hello, Mrs. Sunaina. What a pleasant surprise."
"Congratulations, Mr. Chakraborty. Your son has been selected as the groom-to-be. Next Sunday, Janki will visit your place with her friends to meet Raghav. At 7 O'clock in the evening."

Next Sunday Evening
 
"So you are Raghav. Nice to meet you. I am Janki."
"Namaskar", Raghav joined his palms to greet Janki and her accomplices.
"Suddha desi groom", one of Janki's friends chimed in.
"Stop it, Urmila", Janki rolled her eyes in mock exasperation.
"Achcha, achcha. But Mr. Raghav, you'll have to shave your moustache. Our Janki doesn't like men with moustache.", another commented.
"Mandavi is right. Please shave it before marriage."
"I'll."
"And remember one thing. We are going to be your adhi gharwali. Next time we visit Janki's place, you'll have to cook something delicious for us jiju."

Sunday Night
 
"Hello"
"Hello, Mr. Chakraborty. Janki says she liked meeting Raghav. Though she wishes to meet him alone before taking the final decision. Now-a-days so many marriages are ending in divorce. So Janki doesn't want to take any risk. She wants to make sure that her groom is subservient and willing to go that extra mile for the sake of marriage."
"Ok. No problem from our side."
"So Janki has told me that she'd like to meet Raghav at 'Blue Lotus' Cafe next Sunday at 5 O'clock. Tell Raghav to arrive there on time. Janki is very punctual. She may postpone the marriage if she doesn't find Raghav there on time."

Next Sunday Night
 
"Hello, Mr. Chakraborty. There's good news for you. The meeting in 'Blue Lotus' has gone well. Raghav has been selected."
"Wow, I am so happy. Can we fix the date of marriage now?"
"Of course, we can. Though I want to tell you one important thing before that."
"What?"
"You must have seen that we have mentioned in the ad that we don't have any demand for dowry."
"Yes, I have seen. You and your family are educated, accomplised and progressive. I know you don't believe in the custom of giving dowry."
"Yes, of course. But surely you want to give your daughter-in-law at least something during marriage. But Janki doesn't need any more gold jewelleries. She already has plenty of gold jewelleries. But she never wears those, saying those are gaudy, ornate, old-fashioned."
"So kind of you. Yes, girls of young generation don't like gold jewelleries. Same is the case with my daughter also."
"So I want to tell you that if you genuinely want to gift her something, gift her a diamond necklace with matching earrings. As for the wedding ring, a platinum ring will do. She'll be able to at least wear those in office parties. Otherwise, gold jewelleries lie in bank lockers all the time."
"I'll definitely gift her according to her choice", Dasharath sighed.


Note: The social roles assigned to both genders have been reversed to highlight the overtly patriarchal nature of the institution of marriage, which is biased heavily in favour of men. I believe that in an ideal society, there shouldn't exist any discrimination based on gender, caste, class, religion, language or whatever.
 
Picture credits: Still from Bollywood movie Veere Di Wedding

This post titled "Can Your Son Cook -- What if a girl's dad asked the prospective groom?" has been published on Women's Web as a Featured Post. Featured Posts are a careful selection of highly relevant and interesting posts picked up by the editor's of Women's Web each day. To read the full story, click here.


Simply The Wrong Gender

 

 
 Dehradun, 1927

Ever since Bindubasini's letter had arrived, Chandramukhi's household was aflutter with activities. After all, it's not everyday, not even every year, that she got to see her youngest and dearest sister- Bindubasini, an illustrious doctor of her time. So Chandramukhi strived hard to make all arrangements impeccably. Even her husband, Pandit Keswaranand Mamgain who was otherwise reticent and withdrawn from household chores, was not spared. He took it upon himself to personally supervise all the shopping expeditions to ensure that only the best and fresh from the farm products were procured to welcome his youngest sister-in-law.

Bindubasini would arrive by noon today. In between issuing frantic instructions to servants, Chandramukhi made sure to cook at least one dish herself. She took bath early and was already in the kitchen. Prabha, the cook, handed her the bowl of washed gobindobhog rice. Despite her old age and failing health, Chandramukhi herself was cooking the payesh
"Prabha, please wash the raisins and the cashews. Quick. And hand me that container of sugar.", Chandramukhi instructed.

Meanwhile, a commotion was heard outside. The payesh was almost done. Chandramukhi quickly took a spoonful of payesh and placed it in her mouth. The taste was perfect. Bindubasini would surely love it.

"Maa, Bindu didi has arrived", yelled one of the servants from the courtyard. Chandramukhi's wizened face lit up with joy. She hastily put the anchal of her saree on her head and stepped out of kitchen to welcome Bindubasini, her dear Bindu.
*****

It was time for post-lunch patter. Both the sisters lounged on Chandramukhi's bed. The slanting rays of the afternoon sun filtered through the window created chiaroscuro on the bedroom floor.
"How are you didi?", Bindubasini asked gently.
"I can't say I am doing good. My health is failing, you see. What else can you expect at this age of 67 years?"
A gentle breeze was blowing in the valley of Dehradun.
"Tell me something about yourself Bindu. How are you?", asked Chandramukhi affectionately.
"I am also an old woman like you, didi."
Bindu fished out a piece of paper from her bag. "See this, didi. I came across this cartoon when I went to Calcutta this time. I thought I should bring this to your notice." Bindubasini handed the paper to Chandramukhi.
"Wait. I can't read properly now-a-days without putting on my specs." Chandramukhi rummaged her bedside table for her spectacles. Finally, putting her specs on, she looked at the paper. It was indeed a cartoon, though it failed to invoke any humour in her. It showed a woman on her way to work, looking rather ungainly in a saree and a shirt, high heels, and a long umbrella tucked under her arm, titled, " 'Etodin karini tai!' Officer pathe mahila", literally "'Because I haven't done it so far!' A woman on her way to work." The name of one Binoy Kumar Basu was mentioned as the cartoonist.
"Do I need to say anything?", Chandramukhi sighed. "The cartoon says it all about the prevailing attitude in society towards women's education and participation in workforce."

Chandramukhi's mind drifted towards the memory of her girlhood years. The years of so much struggle, anguish and hopelessness. All those finally bore fruit in the form of the sweet fruit of success. And what a success it was!
*****

Calcutta, 1876

She was just sixteen. Young. Naive. Her eloquent eyes gleamed with her desire to make it big in life. And those eyes were now staring at the imposing structure of the Calcutta University in awe. Would she ever be able to walk along those hallowed corridors of knowledge? She had already sought admission for the entrance examination of Calcutta University. Her application, done under the influence of a missionary David Heron, while at Dehradun, created quite a stir in Calcutta's elite society. Women and higher education? How ridiculous!

At that period of time, North Calcutta had seen considerable Bengali Christian academic activities. Chandramukhi's father too came under missionary influence and eventually converted to Christianity at the age of 16. He subsequently moved to Dehradun by taking up teaching responsibilies there. A Bengali-speaking-Christian, she enrolled herself in the Dehradun Native Christian School in 1880.

Calcutta University, 25 November, 1876

A meeting was held for the sole purpose of discussing Chandramukhi's application in the Calcutta University. The University rules only said that "any person with the required qualifications" would be admitted to study, the term 'woman' was not specifically included. A 'person' was automatically taken to mean only one gender in the visible public space. The women simply had no legitimate space in the public sphere.

The meeting started with the Registrar reading in detail the application of Chandramukhi Basu, the dauntless daughter of Bengal. Frantic discussions ensued soon among members of the Calcutta University Syndicate. After a couple of hours, the Registrar's baritone voice reverberated in the hallowed hall, "... (A)ccording to the received interpretation of the Regulations for the examination, I am unable to entertain the girl's application. Yet empathising with the girl's desires for higher education, I have arranged for her being examined privately under the supervision of the Head Master of the Mussourie School, on the understanding that she is not to be considered a registered candidate. In case she passes the examination, her name should not appear in the list of passed candidates."

Poor Chandramukhi. It seemed that all her dreams were shattered just because she was born as the 'wrong' gender. When the news of that fateful meeting arrived to her, how hard she tried to suppress the tears stealing down her cheek. "Will I ever succeed?", she whispered to herself, drenched in the darkness of the night, on the terrace of their house in Calcutta. Darkness was all around. An all-encompassing darkness seemed to envelop her life.
*****

Dehradun, 1927

"You know Bindu, I still appeared for the entrance exam, though I knew in my heart that it was pretty pointless. I was not going to be accepted anyway."
"But you actually topped that exam didi. Not just that, you set a precedence. So many girls were encouraged to apply after you took the first step."
"Yes. I can still vividly remember that time. Even so-called progressive men like Keshub Chandra Sen of 'Adi Brahmo Samaj' maintained that a woman's highest duty was to care for her husband and family. Even in that kind of prevailing social conditions, I managed to come this far. And you too."
"Yes, didi. You have always been my personal role-model. Inspired by your luminous life, I took admission in Calcutta Medical College. You used to tell us, me and Bidhumukhi, that the future belongs to us. That success will be ours in the future."
"Yes. Even today I believe so. If my life has taught me anything, it's this one thing that success will be ours in the future, however distant that future may seem. These morons think that education and career are the exclusive privileges of only one gender. But I do believe that a day will come when women will have equal participation both in higher education and in workforce. That day, those educated women will make fun of people like this cartoonist for their ridiculous, patriarchal, chauvinistic notions. Only you and I will not be there to witness that sweet success of our own gender."

Both the women burst into a fit of laughter.

Glossary: payesh: a Bengali dessert, made with rice and milk.
gobindobhog: a variety of fragrant rice.

Note: The fiasco created by the Calcutta University was rectified the very next year. On 27 April, 1878, the new rules were declared by the Syndicate, "From now on female candidates are allowed to appear for all University examinations." Consequently, a year and a half after she appeared for the examination, Chandramukhi Basu became one of the first two women to enter Calcutta University. The other was Kadambini Ganguly, the first woman to study medicine in India.

Chandramukhi and Kadambini graduated from Calcutta University's famous Bethune College with a BA degree- they were the first women in the British Empire and in India to get college degrees. Chandramukhi Basu ALSO became Empire's first woman postgraduate-degree holder. She taught English at Bethune College as it's first woman lecturer, and some years later, became the principal of the college- the first woman to head one in all of South Asia!

Two of her sisters, Bidhumukhi and Bindubasini, were also renowned. Bidhumukhi Basu, graduating in 1890, was among the earliest women medical graduates from Calcutta Medical College. Thereafter, Bindubasini Basu graduated from Calcutta Medical College in 1891.

This short-fiction, in the form of conversation between Chandramukhi and Bindubasini is purely fictitious and a product of my imagination, though I have tried to present the historical facts as accurately as possible.

Acknowledgements: 
"Unstoppable: 75 stories of Trailblazing Indian Women" by Gayathri Ponvannan.
"Literature, Gender, & the Trauma of Partition: The Paradox of Independence" by Debali Mookerjea-Leonard.

This story is the third winning entry of the March 2020 Muse of the Month contest at Women's Web. Click here to read the full story.




The Night-Jasmine

 

 
He was pacing back and forth in the hospital corridor. Today he felt so empty from inside. After a while, he sank down on one of the many chairs in the visitors area, clutching his head between his hands. At this wee hour of the night, the hospital was eerily calm except for the pitter-patter of the rain-drops outside. Monsoon had arrived earlier than usual. It seemed that the sky was also mourning his loss by shedding copious tears in the form of raindrops. He felt grief wash over him. He had lost his unborn baby. And his wife was admitted in the ICU.

She was shifted to the ICU for monitoring early that night. Lying listlessly on a bed, she stared blankly at the white ceiling. The ICU reeked of general medicine and cleaning supplies. The air inside was bland, stale, gloomy. The doctors intubated her. One nurse in a pale blue scrub administered sleep-inducing medication to her. Then she whispered in a reassuring tone, "Don't worry. Everything will be alright." For a split second, she almost believed that every damn thing would indeed be alright. But her pragmatic self refused to believe in the chimera. With all her will-power, she tried vehemently to push away the disturbing thoughts clamouring for her attention inside her head. Soon the medication lulled her to sleep.

Darkness slow and deep, quiet, still, unmoving, unbreathing in a dark, sugary sleep: no pain, no joy, no sight, no sound, no taste; she remained floating, distant. She wouldn't wake up, she'd stay in this cotton-wool world, its soft, sleepy music lifting her up through the roof, the banisters, the rooms up above, through the entire weight of the building, its steeple. She rose like a wisp of cloud. She wanted to stay forever in this dream world. The real world was incredibly cruel and she didn't wish to go back there. She hoped to find her unborn baby in this world. "Come to me, baby! I'm your mother. Call me 'maa' just once.", she cooed. But nobody cared to answer her. The sleep started to dissipate slowly. The real life waited for her with all the pain and sorrow.

Getting pregnant proved difficult for her, owing to her Poly-cystic Ovarian Disorder. She went through fertility treatments, used herbal medication for infertility, offered prayers to assorted gods and goddesses, kept fast on auspicious days- all in the hope of having a baby. She searched the internet often and read random articles on "how to get pregnant". Sex was no longer pleasurable. It was just another essential chore which had to be performed during her "fertile window" as indicated by the fertility tracking app that she had installed in her mobile. But in spite of everything, maternal bliss seemed elusive. The experience was utterly frustrating. With every passing day, she sank deeper and deeper into the dark abyss of depression. She was thirty-five and started to think that her biological clock was ticking away. She started to envy everyone who were blessed with children. Even her house-maid had three children. The lady, ignorant of her blessings, often complained of how hard it was to feed three children, given how hard-up her family was. The world didn't seem fair any more.

Then one fine morning, two parallel pink bands on the pregnancy test strip changed her black-and-white world to technicolour. She and her husband were overjoyed and excited. They started to plan how their lives would change with a baby in their family. It was after years that they were planning something together. 

Would it be a boy or a girl?

What would be the name of the baby?

Would they need to hire an ayah to look after the baby?

Who would the baby resemble? The mother or the father?

After a long time, she started to look forward to a future which didn't seem bleak any more. She had a crochet business, but she stopped taking orders. Instead, she began to crochet blankets for the baby. She thought about crocheting a red frock if the baby was a girl. If it turned out to be a boy, she decided to crochet a pair of white booties with yellow flowers. 

As the weeks came closer to her 12 week scan, she started to feel anxious and restless. Her husband tried to allay her fears. He said that there was nothing to worry about, that she was hyperventilating. But she felt fear gnawing at her insides. She had a premonition that something was very wrong inside her- the kind of premonitions only mothers can have.

The sonographer inside the dimly lit room announced woodenly, "I'm sorry. This pregnancy seemed to have ended a little while ago. There's no heartbeat." She was shocked. She lay there, unmoving, breathless.

She had lost the baby.

They called her husband and explained that she had suffered a missed abortion two days back.

Here was the image of her motionless baby on the untrasound screen. 

The anaesthesiologist was called for evacuation of the uterus. Within just ten minutes, the procedure was over.

She had failed to become a mother.

It was so uneventful as if there was nothing extraordinary in all these happenings. But the searing pain of failure was insurmountable. She didn't know how to deal with such profound loss. She let out a throaty, guttural scream. She was bleeding profusely.

The baby who brought so much joy in their lives was no more.

Next few hours passed in a blur. Her blood was sent for investigations. She was taken up for examination and exploration, under anaesthesia. She heard muffled voice of the anaesthesiologist droning on about her low blood pressure and low platelet count. There were transfusion of red blood cells and platelets. Once her vital signs stabilised, she was shifted to the ICU for monitoring. She was extubated after three hours.

Her life was black-and-white again. She tried to shift attention to her crochet business, but the image of her stillborn baby was imprinted in her mind. Focussing on any task seemed difficult. Then one day, her husband brought a potted jasmine tree and placed in the balcony of their flat. They named the tree "Baby June" in memory of their unborn child whose embryonic journey came to an end in the month of June.

She had started to hate her body that was incapable of giving birth. Where did she go wrong? What was her fault? Was it not eating on time, or was it travelling in an auto-rickshaw during pregnancy?

Condolences from friends and relatives started pouring in.

Everything happens for a reason.

It's all part of God's plan.

At least you know you can have kids.

At least you weren't that far along.

You'll get pregnant again.

She was peeved. Why didn't they just leave her to her own devices? She didn't want their sympathy. 

Then one night, a jasmine flower blossomed in the plant. A beautiful, dainty, white-yellow night jasmine flower. It's fragrance enveloped both of them, just the way a child embraces it's parents. Her eyes welled up in tears. She tiptoed to the balcony and whispered to the night jasmine flower, "Baby June! You'll always be remembered. We'll love you forever. You'll always be the one who first made us Mummy and Daddy."

Glossary:
Missed abortion- When the child in the womb fails to grow.
Platelets- One of the components of blood required for clotting.

Note: According to Mayo Clinic, 10-20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage, though the actual number is believed to be higher since miscarriages can occur early in the pregnancy when a woman doesn't know she is pregnant. The impact of miscarriage on women's mental health is well established. If you know someone who has recently experienced such unfortunate incident in her life, refrain from offering consolations. Rather lend her an ear and listen to what she has to say, even if you don't know what to say.

Image source: A still from the film Talaash
 
This story was shortlisted for the February 2021 Muse of the Month short fiction contest. Click here to read the story.







Thursday, January 14, 2021

Yashoda's Lament

 

"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."

Click here to read the full story.

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

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Why Bind Myself in Marriage Again To Appease Society?

 



 "Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha"

Kanaklata stared in amusement as a group of men and women, with hands raised parallel to each other and clapping gayly, were laughing uproariously. She couldn't remember the last time when she laughed so much, that too without any reason. May be, these men and women lived a care-free life, unlike her. Kanaklata sighed silently. She had only known struggle and hardship in her sixty years of existence on earth. And these days, the business of living seemed to be almost like a burden to her. But what option did she have anyway, other than carrying on with her wretched existence? But yes, seeing other people happy and such rapturously in love with life made her smile. That was one of the reasons behind her daily morning walk in this park. A Laughter Club named "The Great Kolkata Laughter Club" happened in the park. Kanaklata watched it's members laughing together every morning as she took a stroll around the park. Nandini, her sister-in-law suggested this to her at a time when even getting up from bed in the morning seemed like an uphill task for her. But then, Kanaklata never imagined that one day she would need someone to ask her to perform such tasks as walking regularly for a few hours, taking a shower everyday or eating the greens. Perhaps nobody can know beforehand how things would pan out in future.

"Boudi, Somu will not come back to you no matter how much you grieve. He is dead, but you are alive. And you have to live your life.", she said.

"You know Nandini, I don't want to live anymore. I can't imagine my life without Somu. I have spent all my life nurturing him. And now he too is gone. What's left for me?"

"All these years, you have lived for your son. Now try to start living for your own sake. I am also alone like you. Your brother-in-law passed away and my daughter is busy with her own family. But that doesn't mean I have stopped living."

"But your daughter is alive and happy. My Somu is dead, Nandini. Our circumstances are not the same."

"May be. But both of us are alone in our own way. Do whatever you like. Socialize with people of your own age. Eat whatever you like. Take a vacation. Trust me, this pain too will heal with time."

And so Kanaklata started to walk every morning at a nearby park at Nandini's insistence.

One day, out of nowhere, one of the members of the Laughter Club said to her, "Hey Madam! Come here." Kanaklata was nonplussed. And all the members of the Laughter Club started laughing.

For the next few days. they kept on asking her, "What will you like to have, Madam? Chai or coffee? Or lassi?" And they started performing the mime of preparing these things. Kanaklata couldn't help but smile at all these fun activities. Soon she became a regular in the Laughter Club. 

Still she found it difficult to laugh without any reason. The energetic and vivacious Harishankar Dutta, the founder of "The Great Kolkata Laughter Club", tried to make it easier for members like her. He guided everyone to laughter with his comedy and jokes. Harishankar's laughter was contagious. But despite all his efforts, Kanaklata only managed to smile at times. A weary, languid smile of a woman cumbered by the trials and tribulations of life. No matter how hard she tried, joy and laughter seemed elusive to her.

Kanaklata made it a point to visit the Laughter Club on a daily basis, even if she couldn't join in their convivial laughter. It was like a breath of fresh air in her otherwise drab and dreary existence. And Harishankar seemed to have such a magical aura in his personality unlike her long dead taciturn husband. He was tall, ramrod-straight with a handsome countenance. His bright eyes were always twinkling as if in amusement. He looked nice when he combed his hand down his salt and pepper hair. Often Kanaklata found herself ogling at him. What a stupid thing to do! That too at the age of sixty years! 

***

Harishankar was a doctor by profession. Divorced at a young age, he had been a single father to his only daughter all through his life. Now that his daughter got married, he suddenly found himself lonely. He was a fun-loving person and loved to see others around him happy. Soon he founded the Laughter Club. He thought that the club would give him ample opportunity to socialise and at the same time, it would bring happiness at least in some people's lives.

***

Kanaklata was married off at a tender age when she was still in college. She wanted to finish her education first, before thinking about marriage. Not because she was a particularly bright student, but because she valued her independence dearly. She loved to go to the college everyday. It was her window to the outside world. But her parents didn't pay heed to any of her objections and married her off.

Kanaklata felt like a bird immured in a cage in her matrimonial home. Her mother-in-law monitored her every movement and criticized her upbringing whenever she made any mistake in performing household chores. She wanted to study further, but her dream never materialised because of strong opposition of her mother-in-law. Her husband remained busy with work all day. Nandini was her only friend and confidante in that hostile household. After Nandini's marriage, when she was feeling lonely, Somu came in her life like a blessing. All her attention shifted to raising her son. But life had other plans for her. When Somu was just thirteen, his father suffered a cardiac arrest and passed away. Kanaklata's bereaved mother-in-law couldn't take the shock and died soon thereafter.

But Kanaklata strangely felt neither sad nor despondent. Rather, she felt liberated. Finally, she was in charge of her own life. She completed her graduation through correspondence and found a job to sustain herself and her son. Though the salary was meagre, she managed to make do with whatever little she earned. Though she never mourned her husband's death, she was a widow to the outside world. She was still young and beautiful. She made it a point not to drape any bright coloured saree. The white or soft shades that she put on, made her look distant and sombre. This strategy helped her to keep predators at bay. 

Somu turned out to be a brilliant boy. He excelled both at academics and sports. He completed studies and was working as a senior executive with a tech firm. He was also a professional cricketer and served as the captain of his office cricket team. But again life took a turn for the worse.

The subway construction site near Somu's office had eaten up half of the road space. Somu was already late when he left the office. The truck in front of him was moving slowly. Riding his two-wheeler, Somu impatiently tried to overtake it at a high speed. But since the road had become very narrow, he couldn't cross over and had to slow down when a car hit him from behind. By the time he was taken to a nearby government hospital, he was declared dead.

Kanaklata was preparing dinner when she got a call from Somu's mobile. A stranger on the other side of the phone informed her that Somu had met with an accident. When she rushed to the hospital, all was over.

***

It was a cloudy January morning. A drizzle in the early hours of the day prevented Kanaklata from going to the park. Kanaklata snuggled inside the quilt and tried to sleep. When the mobile started trilling, she answered groggily.

"Kanaklata, Harishankar speaking. Sorry to disturb you.", Harishankar said in a hesitant tone.

"Not at all. Do you want to say something?"

"Err... would you like to join me for brunch today at 'The Foodie's Delight'?"

"No problem. I am coming."

Kanaklata dragged herself out of the bed and hastily took a shower. Then she made strong coffee to get herself going. She chose a pink dhakai saree to wear. Then instead of putting her signature black bindi, she put a red bindi.

***

When Kanaklata reached 'The Foodie's Delight', Harishankar was already there. He was absorbed in reading a book. In a striped formal shirt and black trousers, he was looking rather handsome.

"Hi!", she greeted him.

"Kanaklata! Please be seated.", he looked up from the book he was reading. Then he closed the book and kept it on the table. It was named 'Laughter: A Scientic Investigation' written by Robert Provine.

"You are looking beautiful today.", he said.

Kanaklata blushed to the depth of her soul.

Soon the food arrived. They ate in silence. After finishing the meal, it was time to leave.

"Kanaklata, today I want to tell you something."

Kanaklata looked at Harishankar inquisitively.

"You know that I was a single father. Since Maya, my daughter, got married, each day seems difficult. I founded the Laughter Club in the hope that it will keep me occupied while giving me opportunities to socialise. But still I feel a void inside me. I long for a companion. Somebody with whom I can talk, share, sip the morning tea together, read the paper aloud. Would you be my companion, Kanak? I promise that I'll try my level best to give you back the laughter that is missing from your life." Harishankar placed his hand reassuringly over Kanaklata's quivering arm. Kanaklata's eyes were moist. 

***

Six months later

It was a cloudy July morning. A drizzle in the early hours of the day prevented Kanaklata from going to the park. Kanaklata snuggled closer to Harishankar and tried to sleep. When the mobile started trilling, she answered groggily.

"Boudi, is it true that you have shacked up with a man?", Nandini was aghast.

"Yes. It's true.", Kanaklata said in a calm voice.

"Why? That too at this age? What did you find in him that you took such a crazy decision?"

"I was afraid to die alone, Nandini. I never felt so lonely and vulnerable before as at this age. I just wanted to talk to someone. And do you want to know what is special about him? Well, he gave me the most precious gift- laughter. This laughter was missing from my life so long."

"Then at least marry the man. You are living with him without getting married. This is not socially approved, you know."

"I don't want to go through the complications of marriage yet again. Cohabiting has no legal complications. Moreover, me and Harishankar have signed an agreement to avoid complications before we started living in, deciding on the terms of our relationship, including finances and cohabiting arrangements. I am happy, Nandini. And I give a damn to your society. When I raised my son alone, did this bloody society care for me? NO. Then why should I?"

***

Kanaklata was beaming with happiness. Now-a-days she laughed with gay abandon. She draped a red saree. Looking at herself at the mirror, she put her signature red bindi.

This post was one of the shortlisted entries for the November 2020 Muse of the Month contest and has been published on Women's Web as a featured post. Click here to read the full story.