To Be Or Not To Be [#ShortStory]

“We are women, Draupadi, of royal blood. We do not have the luxury of exercising our choices, our personal likes and dislikes." A fabulous modern retelling.

“We are women, Draupadi, of royal blood. We do not have the luxury of exercising our choices.” A fabulous modern retelling.

Here is the first winner of our June 2016 Muse of the Month contest, Priya Mani.

The cue was: “Once you stop worrying what the world will think of you, your life will become that much easier to live.” – Anita Nair, Ladies Coupe.

To Be Or Not To Be

They tucked into a coffee shop, armed with shopping bags from a handloom sale. The older woman wore an elegant beige saree bordered with crimson, while the young looked dapper in her burgundy kurti.

It was their afternoon out, when they would scoot off in a Honda, sometimes to a movie, sometimes to a concert, or simply a temple or a beach.

They had made it a practice, a fortnightly affair, after the dull and sombre war, to take these breaks from dolorous routine. If anything, the war had brought them closer, in a beautiful camaraderie that rose from a mutual admiration of the each other’s strengths, the sacrifices they had made, but mostly from the freedom of being oneself in the other’s presence, of being understood in a way only a woman understands a woman.

It was both liberating and empowering.

They looked forward to each other’s company, to the long conversations these outings entailed, the endless discussions on anything under the sun. Differences of opinion? Sure they did arise. After all, they belonged to different generations, each bestowed with a nature markedly in contrast with the other.

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In all honesty, the older woman was often in awe of her daughter-in-law, the panache with which she handled her marriage, her radiant confidence, her astute understanding of statecraft, and her unfazed outspokenness. Her daughter-in-law was indeed a power woman in ways she had never been. And forthright to a fault.

The younger woman was not wholly unaware of the fact that sometimes, just sometimes, her mother-in-law would have preferred a demure bride. “Perhaps, like Sita,” she chuckled to herself, as the older woman rose to go to the washroom after ordering her cuppa. And yet in all fairness, life had not been easy on this woman, who, although the first wife, had always been the second choice of her husband. Widowed early on, she had seen a lot of struggle, raising her sons.

A beep on the phone trilled into her reverie.

“Ma, there is a message for you.”

Kunti’s face fell as she read the message. It was from Gandhari. She wanted to come-a-visiting her.

Draupadi knew how these visits went. After the initial niceties, Gandhari would invariably plunge into her favourite topic, of how life had given her the raw deal, and how she was now bereft of sons, while Kunti had all her five sons intact. Her outbursts drained Kunti emotionally, even left her with a nagging sense of guilt.

For someone who always spoke her mind, Draupadi never relished her mother-in-law’s meekness. “Why don’t you tell her her sons got what they deserved? And put a stop to these visits once and for all?”

“How can I say that, Draupadi? What will she think?” said Kunti, visibly flustered by her candour.

“This is the problem with you, ma. You care too much for others’ feelings.”

“It would hurt her if I refuse, Draupadi. She is suffering a great deal of agony, as it is. Much though I dislike her coming, I must put up with her for decency’s sake. I don’t have a choice.”

“Says who?” bristled Draupadi.

“Come on, Draupadi! We cannot always do or speak as we feel. Especially when we live in a society.”

“I don’t deny, ma. But does it always have to be at the cost of individual happiness?”

“We are women, Draupadi, of royal blood. We do not have the luxury of exercising our choices, our personal likes and dislikes. Certainly not at the cost of social decorum. You know how tongues wag.”

“That they will. Don’t I know the filth they spoke when I married your five sons, simply to honour your word. But I cared about you, ma. We cannot always live in constant fear of public censure.”

“No one is exempt from it, Draupadi. Not even Lord Rama and Mother Sita. Then to think of us mortals. After all these years of conditioning, it is difficult to change myself to think otherwise. Perhaps, it comes easily to you.”

“Who said it was easy, ma? Was it easy when I stood alone in the court that day, disrobed and humiliated? Didn’t I wish, fighting tears of rage and shame, that the earth swallowed me whole. But if I wouldn’t speak up for myself, no one would. No one did. Had it not been for Kanha…” she broke off, trembling with the memory of the outrage, hot tears flushing down her cheeks.

Kunti pressed her hand, regretting her words.

“I am sorry, dear. I shouldn’t have said that.”

“It’s ok, ma,” whispered Draupadi, pulling out a tissue from the box, willing herself to composure.

Minutes ticked by in silence, as they sipped their coffee, lost in their thoughts.

“All I am saying, ma,” said Draupadi, when she found her voice again, “sometimes, you have to stand up for yourself, call a spade a spade. Nothing wrong with that.

People will say one thing today, and something else another day. Look at Rama himself, the epitome of ideal manhood as you would have it. He exiled his wife for the sake of his people. And who suffered? Sita, the children, perhaps Rama himself.

If you were to go by a recent internet survey, it is Krishna, yes, our very own Kanha, whom most women aspire for as the ideal man. He who broke most rules, and not Rama, who adhered to societal rules. So what happened to public opinion and censure now?

Ma, we don’t have to be shackled by the rulebook. Not all the time. Don’t you think? We are given but one life. Why should we live it like an apology?”

So saying Draupadi rose to pay the bill.

“Was she right, after all?” wondered Kunti as an ancient longing hidden in the recesses of her heart came gnawing at her again. “Would any amount of regret bring back the luminous first-born she had barely held to her bosom before casting him away on the river, away from her life? The child she had rejected for fear of public censure…”

“Ma, time to go,” said Draupadi, gently nudging her from the morass of memory. They picked their belongings and the shards of the past, and slowly left the cafe.

Priya Mani 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: senior Indian woman by Shutterstock.


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