"Yes, I am opting to leave your father. For 35 years, I’ve lived my life for him and for you all. I am tired now. The few years that are left of my life, I want to be free."
“Yes, I am opting to leave your father. For 35 years, I’ve lived my life for him and for you all. I am tired now. The few years that are left of my life, I want to be free.”
Here is the first winner of our May 2017 Muse of the Month contest, Kasturi Patra.
The cue for this month was from the movie Frozen, in which Elsa realizes that she is alone, but she is alone and free to do whatever she wants!
The damp October evening breeze hit me straight on the face as I stepped out of the airport hitching the rucksack over my shoulders while simultaneously tightening my grip on Mimi’s hand.
‘Maa, it’s so hot here!’ Exclaimed my 5-year old daughter.
I smiled. These were the more pleasant months in Kolkata but my daughter was used to London’s chilly, wet weather.
‘Oh, it’s not that bad, baby and Google says it will rain very soon. Also, you remember Piku and Pipli, your cousins, right? They’ll be at grandpa’s place and we’ll all celebrate Pujo together. It will be so much fun!’ I scrunched my face and closed my eyes, while smiling at her.
‘But papa is not here!’ She pouted.
I sighed, no matter what, she won’t forget that her dad wasn’t here with us. Shubho had a project going on at his consultancy and he just couldn’t make it this time.
‘But papa will take us to Venice during Christmas, no baby?’
She shrugged like signalling the dismissal of a conversation. Only five-years-old and yet she behaves like a moody teenager, sometimes.
But as the yellow and black taxi hit VIP Road, my daughter became a child once again. ‘Oma! So many twinkling lights! Look that’s a mickey mouse, and there is Cinderella dancing with her Prince and the pandal looks like a giant castle!’
Her excitement was infectious. No matter how many times I’ve seen the decked-up Kolkata during Durga Puja, it was something even I didn’t grow tired of. The city became a bride during this time, with the lights acting like shining jewellery. Even the people jostling in the crowd to complete their last-minute shopping seemed kinder to each other. There is a perfume of happiness and wonder in the air during Puja and the moment you step in, Kolkata sprinkles it all over you.
‘Remember what I told you, Mimi? Durga ma comes to her mother’s place for these five days and so I also come to visit my parents. One day, maybe you’ll come to visit me like this.’
‘Huh! I will never live away from you.’ She crossed her arms in defiance and shook her head.
‘But when girls get married they go away from their parents, baby.’
‘Then I won’t ever get married. Simple!’
I smiled. My innocent daughter still didn’t know that no matter how independent we women became, we’d always be the ones who would sacrifice their parents’ homes and go away with their husbands when the time comes. Look at me, for example. I was earning well here and Shubho and I were quite happy in Kolkata. But when he got a big opportunity in London, I had to leave my job and accompany him. Even though I loved it here, I knew he’d need me there. The first few years were so difficult- getting a work permit, trying to find a suitable job, and on top of all that missing my parents and my life back here.
Then when Mimi came along, I had to balance my baby, the household chores, and work with so much of struggle. It was not like Shubho didn’t help, but most of the days, he spent almost 10 to 12 hours in office, I myself didn’t feel like bothering him too much.
So, I took a job which gave me the flexibility to work from home. Even though it did not pay as much as I could earn if I too opted for a consulting job, like my husband. Our academic credentials were similar and yet I was the one who had to make the sacrifices.
Don’t get me wrong, I was immensely grateful for my daughter. It was because of the highs and lows of my life as a mother that I started writing and then ended up becoming one of the most popular mommy bloggers for one of the best parenting blogs in India. As a result, I even landed a contract with a publisher and I’m currently writing my second children’s book. My job as a coder in a software firm in London is also going well. However, though things turned out well in the end, it had not been a smooth journey. I was there to help Shubho at every juncture but the only support I got for my career was my own.
That’s the reason why I loved visiting maa and baba so much. Two weeks of Bengali food, endless adda, watching movies, visiting relatives, going to New Market for shopping, eating roadside egg rolls and phuchkas, gossiping with my brother and sister-in-law, meeting my school friends, visiting College Street and stuffing my bag with books. I take back as much Kolkata with me as they allow in the airline baggage. The rest I carry in my heart.
It was Bijoya Dashami, the last day of Puja. I was chatting with my sister-in-law, Mou, in maa’s bedroom when maa entered and closed the door behind her.
‘I need to talk to you both.’
Her serious tone made me nervous. Was she or dad seriously ill?
‘I waited till the end of Pujo to break the news. I wanted to talk to you girls first because I felt that being women, you will understand better. I’ve decided to leave your father, Tuli. We can opt for a divorce if he wants or else, I just wish to live separately from him.’
For a moment, I felt like someone pushed me out of the tenth-floor bedroom window. My heart stopped, my stomach did a flip flop, while I was too shocked to even scream.
‘What?’ I asked, to make sure I didn’t hear it wrong.
‘Yes, I am opting to leave your father. For 35 years, I’ve lived my life for him and for you all. I am tired now. The few years that are left of my life, I want to be free. I want to live for myself, do what I want to. Paint, play the tanpura, join a yoga class, learn Spanish, travel solo. Some of the things I’d wanted to do all my life but wasn’t allowed to.’
I remembered how beautifully mum sang while playing the tanpura when we were young. Then over the years there were layers of dust gathered on the musical instrument till one day she threw it off. I saw her eyes glittering with teardrops that day but when I asked her, she told me it was because she had dust allergy.
I also remembered how she would take my Atlas and pore over the maps in the afternoons when we she thought we were sleeping.
I asked her one day, ‘Maa we need to learn those maps for our exams, what do You learn from the Atlas?’
She had a faraway look in her eyes. ‘There are so many lands far, far away calling our names, if we only choose to hear. I wish I was a migratory bird who could fly and see those faraway places.’
Like most Bengali families those days, travelling for us meant Darjeeling or Puri. Sometimes, we’d visit other parts of India but our dad was never a huge fan of travelling. Maa had once asked him if we could visit Bhutan and he replied,
‘Why waste money like this when we need to save for the children and for our old age?’
This was the only thing she asked after almost 15 years of their marriage. She never spoke about travel anymore.
Baba, on the other hand, had different hobbies like collecting expensive pens and vintage watches, playing golf, he was also a member of some of the eminent clubs in Kolkata.
But when it came to maa, was she not allowed to have any desire because she didn’t earn?
‘I was a teacher in a reputed school when I was married off. Your baba told me that he wanted someone homely who’d look after his house and children. My parents said, “Your husband is your everything now, you need to listen to him.”
‘All my life I’ve done that. Listened to him. I cooked and cleaned for him, brought you kids up, married you off. No one ever thought of asking me to express my desires?’
‘I loved my job as a teacher but it was taken away from me. I dreamt of traveling to faraway places. I was a trained singer but if I practised in the evening after your dad returned and I had some free time before dinner, he’d say he wanted some peace and quiet, so I left that, too.’
‘I wanted to learn Spanish but you know how your dad thinks his money is for him to decide how to spend. These days I have started learning from the Internet, though. My grandchildren taught me how to use computers.’ The corners of her eyes folded as she broke into the familiar grin. This is the face I always thought of whenever I felt low. And yet, there was so much of unspoken pain behind her face?
‘But how will you do all this, maa? We all will definitely help you but all this requires a lot of resources.’ Mou broke the silence.
Maa held Mou’s chin and shook it gently. ‘Don’t worry, child. I have been saving for this day for a long time. All the wedding jewellery that my parents gave have been stored away in lockers. I saved quite a bit while I was teaching, too. I have a bank account that no one knows of, I’ve been saving from whatever I was left with after I spent the money your father gave for family expenses. Also…’ she had that naughty smile once more.
‘For the last couple of years, I’d been secretly working as a teacher in an online teaching platform. They pay quite well. My knowledge of geography was always sharp and since that’s one thing I never gave up on, it has remained as good.’
‘You know, I’ve booked the tickets for an upcoming Europe trip with an all-girls travel group, already.’
When was the last time Maa looked this happy?
‘But maa, it has been 35 years, wouldn’t you feel alone without baba?’ I finally asked the question that was bothering me for so long.
‘Yes, darling. I will be alone. But I will also be Free. Free to live a life I’ve always dreamt, free to taste and touch the world beyond these four walls, free to fulfil all those dreams that I’ve cherished since I was a child.’
‘Don’t worry about your baba’s well-being. We have a good housekeeper now. Plus, with all the savings he had accumulated for retirement, there will be no problem. And if you talk about companionship, did we really have one? It was a one-way street since the beginning. Besides, I will keep visiting him in case he needs me for anything.’
I smiled. I told them about my chat with Mimi in the taxi. How I was teaching her about the sacrifices we need to make as women.
‘You know, maybe, it is time we stop teaching our daughters that their lives’ purpose is only to satisfy a man’s needs.’ Ma looked at the mynah sitting on the tree outside. ‘Instead, we should tell them that their lives belong to them and they should decide how to spend it. It is not a big deal if you don’t find a partner who agrees with your life choices. But don’t settle for someone who will clip your wings. Rather stay alone. Yes, you might be alone but you’ll also be free.’
While we three hugged each other with laughter and tears, the drums outside reminded us that it was time for Maa Durga to return to her husband’s house, while it was time for Our Maa to step into the outside world. I was sad yet proud of her.
We all stood up to face the men outside.
Kasturi Patra wins a Rs 250 Amazon voucher, as well as a chance to be picked one among the top winners at the end of 2017. Congratulations!
Image source: pexels
Kasturi’s debut novel, forthcoming in early 2021, had won the novel pitch competition by Half Baked Beans Publishers.
She won the Runner Up Position in the Orange Flower Awards 2021 for Short Fiction.
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