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“For the first time she was doing something for herself on her own. And she did not feel guilty.” A short story about social autonomy.
Here is the fifth winner of our August 2016 Muse of the Month contest, Sunandita Roy.
The cue was: “For the first time she realized that nothing was permanent in life – friends, circumstances, riches or parental love.” — Tanushree Podder, Nurjahan’s Daughter.
Somewhere in Mumbai
Zarine Sethna stared at her reflection on the dresser mirror as she ran the comb through her waist-long hair. The woman in the reflection looked stronger than how she felt inside today. She drew in a deep breath as she applied kohl in her eyes.
Today, Zarine Sethna, second wife of the famous Parsi industrialist Late Jubeen Sethna and mother of his three grownup children was doing something on her own the first time in her life.
Today was her wedding day – she was getting married. Again.
As she ran the comb through the thick burgundy-tinged mane, her thoughts were elsewhere. Her mind had taken a slow trail down the memory lane some nineteen years back when she was in her late teens.
Way back then, a happy-go-lucky girl, Zarine, was born to lower-middle class Parsi family. While growing up with five other siblings, Zarine hardly knew that her father, Adel Dorji, a poor tailor by profession could hardly make ends meet. His only dream was to quickly marry off his four daughters and ensure his two sons join his tailoring shop as soon as possible.
When the owner of Sethna Industries Jubeen Sethna’s maternal aunt Rubia had come to Adel Dorji’s tailoring shop, she had seen Zarine helping her father. She was taken by the girl’s striking beauty and quiet demeanor. Zarine was quietly sitting in one corner and doing intricate Parsi needlework on fine chiffon that her father would try to sell later to his clients.
When Rubia suggested a match to Jubeen’s mother Nadira, she agreed almost immediately. All Nadira wanted was a mother for her three little grandchildren who had lost their mother recently.
Zarine’s parents were beyond themselves when the proposal came. They couldn’t believe that such a well-off family will be interested in Zarine. The decreasing number of people in Parsi community was already a matter of anxiety amongst all. And getting a decent groom was next to impossible almost all the time.
Thus they were so happy that no one bothered to ask what Zarine wanted. Even the fact that Jubeen was already forty-two years old or had three children while Zarine was still in her late teens was happily overlooked. The man had money, power and a readymade family – what more could a girl want? And he belonged to a high-class Parsi family. That was a icing on the cake.
Before Zarine knew it, she was already a Sethna bride. Alone with her new husband on their wedding night, a thousand different things were running through her mind when Jubeen cleared his throat to break the silence.
“I don’t want any more children.” This was the first thing Jubeen Sethna told his newly wedded wife. It was a statement. A decision that he wanted his new wife to know immediately. He knew he was being blunt but Jubeen didn’t know how to put it better. He wanted to make a few things clear from day one so that there remains no confusion in the future.
“I need to clear a few things with you. I had a wife. Shaheen was her name. I loved her more than anything in this world. But a bitter twist of fate took her away from me. She recently died of Cancer leaving behind our two sons and a daughter.” He paused for some time and noting her silence continued.
“Farook is 14 years old, Fardeen is 7 and Fatima is 18 months. They needed a mother. We all know it. Keeping their well-being in mind, we decided to bring you in our family. But I know if I have another child again, not that we cannot afford it, but there will be some injustice done to my other three kids. I don’t want that to happen. My Shaheen wouldn’t want that either. So, I have taken this extreme decision. You will get all my support as long as I shall live – financial, mental. But you shall promise me that you will not demand a child of our own, neither my love. Promise me Zarine.”
Zarine stared at his extended hand, her mind now gone blank. That was the day her fate was sealed. Zarine knew that this was how she would spend the rest of her life.
Zarine devoted her entire time looking after Jubeen’s three small children and her new household. It took time for the kids to get used to their new mother. Little Fatima was too young to understand the difference while Farook and Fardeen were skeptical at first. With Nadira’s help slowly Zarine won over the entire family. Soon Farook, the eldest son became Zarine’s pet.
A week after Fatima’s twenty-first birthday, Jubeen was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Fearful that he does not have much time in hand, Fatima was married off quickly to a distant cousin. A week after the hasty wedding, Jubeen passed away.
That was the day Zarine realized that nothing is permanent in life – circumstances, family, relations. With a sudden twist of fate, everything changed once again. And she had no inkling of what to do next. After almost 2 decades suddenly Zarine felt lost all over. It was like her wedding day once more and she didn’t know what to do.
As time passed, living all alone in the huge house was becoming too much for her. Sometimes she felt the walls were closing down on her. Jubeen’s kids were now grown up and married, living in different parts of the city. After they left home one by one, her life revolved around taking care of ailing Jubeen. And now Jubeen was gone.
Zarine was quite close to Sara, Farook’s wife. Zarine didn’t know why, but somehow she liked talking to the young girl. Unlike Zarine’s upbringing, Sara belonged to a modern Parsi family and worked in a multi-national company in Mumbai. One day while speaking to Sara over the phone, Zarine just blurted out her dilemma. Sara, being a quiet and astute girl, told her calmly, “you need a break Mamma. Go out somewhere. How about shopping?” The prospect sounded like music to the older woman’s ears. Without thinking, she quickly changed her clothes and went to a nearby shopping mall.
For the first time Zarine felt weird as she had never ventured out alone like this. She had always gone out with her daughter Fatima. This feeling of walking around all by herself felt so weird. She kept on feeling that people were staring at her. After roaming for some time, she entered a coffee shop and ordered an iced tea.
The café was otherwise deserted. The nearby table was occupied by a group of men evidently having a business meeting. Soon the meeting was over and all the men left expecting one. While typing furiously on his laptop, the man signaled for the waiter to bring the bill. And that’s when he looked up and saw her. His heart skipped a few beats.
After all these years she looked still the same.
Those eyes, he thought. Beautiful eyes. Eyes that had haunted him even though he knew she was off limits. He had first met her at a family wedding some ten years back. Jubeen was once his business associate and that’s how he had come to know the Sethna family. He knew them well. But the day he met her, he started avoiding the Sethnas. She was bad news for his sanity. Soon he got an opportunity to settle abroad for some years and he left India. His brief marriage with Nandini Singh was something he could easily forget as well.
Now after all these years he was back and here she was haunting him again. Like a ghost. Her pale skin, her waist long burgundy-tinged hair, her hazelnut eyes or her peach pink lips was enough to drive him up the wall back then. He knew Jubeen Sethna would happily slice him in two if he ever got any inkling of what his friend might be thinking.
Not waiting for the bill, he threw in a thick wad of notes on the table and was about to slip away unnoticed when suddenly she looked up and their eyes met. Instant recognition lit her eyes and she smiled and he almost died.
‘Chand Malik!’ Zarine thought. She remembered him so well. He was taller than average men she had met. And other than that there was nothing extraordinary about him except his smile that would bring dimples to his cheeks. But still she remembered him clearly and she didn’t know why. She watched him get up, and slowly walk towards her, his eyes never leaving hers. There was some intensity in his eyes that almost burned her skin. Goosebumps ran up her arms, her skin tingled, her heart paced faster. Her mouth was so dry that she had to lick her lips to moisten them. In her thirty-seven years of life, Zarine Sethna had never felt something like this ever before.
And suddenly Zarine had the weird feeling that her life was about to change. All over again.
1 year later…
Today was her wedding day.
To Chand Malik.
The man she loved.
The man her kids hated. Detested in fact. And they had threatened to cut off contact with her as well if she married him. When she had asked why, her eldest son had told her simply, “he is not our father and he is not a Parsi.”
Her world had come crumbling down. Not that she had expected a warm hug but she had not expected such animosity either. All three of them now hated her for tainting their family name.
Her only encouragement had come from her daughter-in-law Sara. “Don’t listen to anyone, Mamma.” She had convinced Zarine. “You don’t owe anyone anything. In fact they do, your children. For whom you gave up your entire youth, your life. Everything. Now it’s time to gather up whatever is left. People don’t get chances a second time. You have got. Don’t let it go, Mamma. Marry him. I am with you.”
“But what about the kids? My Farook, Fardeen and Fatima?” Her lips trembled as tears rolled down her eyes.
“They are not kids anymore. Give them some time. They will understand. In this world and age you cannot be so conservative. Times have changed. We need to move along with it. Don’t worry Mamma, just do it.”
Zarine got up from the ottoman and adjusted her pale peach colored saree. It was a gift from Sara. “The color is perfect for your skin,” Sara had said.
With a heavy heart she looked around her house where she had spent the past 21 years of her life. This was her world. This was everything to her. Now she was going to a new place and new surroundings. For the first time she was doing something for herself on her own. And she did not feel guilty. She just felt happy.
She looked at her watch and knew she it was almost time for him to come. He had told her that he will pick her up at 11:30 AM. On her way to the Registrar office, Zarine wanted to visit the Fire Temple as she knew that this will be her last. Once she marries Chand she shall not be allowed inside.
The sudden sound of the doorbell made her look at her watch. ‘He was half-an-hour early’, she thought. Zarine hurriedly went down the hall and opened the door to find Sara standing there with a bunch of red roses in her hand.
As Sara slowly moved aside, that’s when Zarine noticed them. Farook, Fardeen and Fatima.
“Shall we go?” asked Farook. “You don’t want to keep the groom waiting, do you?”
Her heart beating furiously, Zarine looked at her daughter-in-law.
Sara simply nodded grinning happily.
Zarine smiled back, happy tears gently rolling down her cheeks.
Sunandita Roy wins a Rs 250 Flipkart voucher, as well as a chance to be picked one among the 10 top winners at the end of 2016. Congratulations!
Image source: pixabay