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In the last 25 years, Urmila hadn’t changed at all. She was still the vulture as she had been back then. Only her prey had changed.
Our Muse of the Month series this year focus on stories that pass the Bechdel test, and are written on inspiration from a new prompt every month. This month, the prompt was “Fearless. Because I’ve Been Afraid”, and the story should pass the Bechdel Test, that is, it should have at least two well crafted, named women characters (we differ here slightly from the classic Bechdel test, in that we require these characters to be named),
The third winner of our June 2018 Muse of the Month contest is Anshu Bhojnagarwala.
The garlands of glowing orange marigold flowers were now drying, curling and turning brown. The team from the decorators was busy taking down the wedding lights, packing off the extra mattresses and chairs into the truck parked outside in the driveway. The guests who were visiting for the last 5 days were leaving in groups. The young bride, her red mehendi still bright, with the sari pallav on her head, was touching their feet in reverence.
Saroj made sure that she had packed enough food for every guest for the train journey. After seeing off the last guest, she told the new bride, “Go get some rest, Aarti. You have been helping me in the kitchen since morning.”
Aarti nodded and started walking towards her bedroom.
Saroj was exhausted. Every bone and muscle in her body was complaining of fatigue, her eyes were heavy and she could already feel the beginning of a bad headache. She had been working endlessly for the last month, hardly sleeping and eating, finalizing wedding cards, sending invitations, cleaning the house for the numerous guests and stocking the kitchen and pantry. Now, with all the guests gone she could finally give into some much-required sleep.
But there was still one huge task left. She could not rest before finishing it. Purposefully she strode towards her mother in law’s room. The old lady, draped in a cotton saree was holding a rudraksh rosary in her hand. Red vermillion shone bright on her head and so did the bindi on her forehead. Her head was covered with the pallav, but one could still see that age had been kind to her body. She had hardly any grey hair on the head and her skin almost wrinkle free glowed like a teenage girl’s.
Even after 25 years of staying with her mother in law, Saroj’s heart beat faster whenever she was around her. Her mother in law had that kind of effect on her.
Urmila beckoned Saroj to sit beside her on her bed. Saroj touched her feet.
“Maaji, all the guests have left. I have asked Aarti to sleep for a while. I am also going to the bedroom for some rest. I have instructed Ramu to serve you your evening tea.”
“Good. But you still haven’t told me what has Aarti’s father given by way of gifts.”
This was the conversation Saroj had been dreading.
“Maaji, Aarti’s father gave Rs. 500 to each guest at the wedding, a gold chain to Vineet, and a lot of electronics like smart TV, air conditioner, microwave oven and a music system.”
“All that is OK, what will I do with these electronics. Can these feed our family or bail us out in dire circumstances?” Saroj didn’t reply. She knew in which direction the conversation was heading.
“Has her father given a gold chain to your father in law and your husband as he had promised during the engagement ceremony?” In the last 25 years, Urmila hadn’t changed at all. She was still the vulture as she had been back then. Only her prey had changed. Then it was Saroj’s father, now it was Aarti’s.
She knew what would follow next. Her mother in law along with her father in law and her husband would invite Aarti’s father home to talk about the promised gifts and, if that didn’t materialize, to insult him.
Saroj didn’t want that to happen. She decided to calm her mother in law.
“Maaji, let me talk to Purushottamji. Maybe he has a good explanation for this.”
“Hmm. OK. You do that. Tell him we have done a big favor on them by bringing Aarti to our esteemed family. Our Vineet had marriage proposals from families who were willing to offer gold sets for me as well as my daughter. We chose Aarti because Vineet was sweet on her. Just make him understand that their daughter was not my first choice.” Urmila sulked. She was in the habit of getting her way, and when she didn’t which seldom happened, she sulked.
“Don’t worry, Maaji. I will talk to him right away.” Saroj had no intention of doing anything of the kind.
In her bedroom, Saroj opened up her Godrej storewell cupboard that her father had given to her on her wedding or rather her mother in law had demanded of her father. Though its colour had peeled off at certain places and was rusting, it was still strong and safe.
Saroj searched behind the stacks of blouses and petticoats. After a few minutes, she found the silk pouch. Loosening its drawstrings, she emptied its contents on the floor. A big fat bundle of notes, few silver coins and one gold coin fell out of it. She had been saving this money for years. She had dreams of going for the Chardham yatra. The gold coin she intended to gift to her first grandchild irrespective of the gender. Well, some dreams remained just that. Dreams. Never to be fulfilled.
Saroj hurriedly put all the contents back in the pouch and as the household was under the influence of the afternoon slumber, she surreptitiously left the house.
She reached Bara Bazar and entered the small shop of the jhaveri. Saroj asked the jeweler how much two gold chains would cost her. The amount the jeweler quoted was more than all the currency put together in her pouch. So, she showed him the silver coins and gold coin. At the end of 20 minutes, saroj came out of the shop with two shining gold chains and an empty silk pouch.
In the evening, she went to Maaji’s room once again. Aarti was already sitting by Maaji. This was not something Saroj was expecting.
“Maaji, these are the gold chains from Aarti’s family. I had seen them when I had opened her trousseau two days ago, but with guests and housework, I completely forgot about it.” Aarti looked questioningly at Saroj, but Saroj signaled her to stay quiet.
“You should be more responsible, Saroj. What if they had got misplaced?”
Maaji took the boxes from Saroj and opened them. She inspected the chains and said, “Hmm. Not bad. Tell your father, Aarti, that I liked the chains.” Maaji beamed at the new bride. Aarti could only nod her head.
In the kitchen, Aarti asked her mother in law, “Maa, what was that? I remember very well that my father had given no gold chains.”
“I know Aarti but that’s something that should stay between only you and me. One word and Maaji would erupt like a volcano.”
Aarti understood the solemnity of the situation and nodded her hand. She didn’t know what her mother in law was playing at but she felt it was wiser to play along.
The following afternoon, Saroj was in the kitchen when maaji called her. In her bedroom, maaji was again with her favourite rosary.
“Saroj, my satsangi friends were very happy to see the chains. They liked it. However, one of them remarked and I agree with her completely, how come I didn’t get any gift from Aarti’s father? I am the grandmother of the groom; I need to be respected too.”
Of all the things, this was not what Saroj had expected to hear. Saroj knew her mother in law very well. She was just using her friends as an excuse; the idea had germinated in her own wicked mind.
“I think I should also get a gold chain. Also, a silver Laddoo Gopal (baby idol of Lord Krishna). We have a brass Laddoo Gopal, my satsangi friends think a silver idol from the bride’s family would bring luck to ours.”
The floor shifted from under Saroj’s feet. Gold chain and silver idol. Where would she get the money to buy them?
“Let me talk to Aarti’s father, maaji.”
“Hmm. You do that.” Maaji got back to her rosary again.
Saroj went to her bedroom to think of possible financial avenues. She had exhausted all her funds. She could not ask her husband for he was totally under his mother’s thumb.
“A small indication of my plan and he would spill it out before maaji. No, no. That won’t work.” She thought aloud. All her jewelry was with maaji. She could not even sell it.
Saroj was upset that she could not find any solution to it. She didn’t want to talk to Aarti’s father. He was a small-time businessman and was in no financial condition to meet these demands.
“The only way was to appeal to maaji’s benevolent side. Maybe she had developed one after attending all these satsangs.” Saroj prayed.
The next morning, after the men of the house left for work, Saroj went to maaji’s bedroom.
She touched Urmila’s feet. “Maaji, I called up Aarti’s father.” Saroj started nervously.
“Good. When is he sending my gifts?”
“Maaji, the poor man has married off one daughter and is paying for the education of other two. He said he needed time as he had used up all his savings for Aarti’s wedding.” Saroj pleaded with her mother in law.
“It is not my problem that he has three daughters and that he has not saved enough for them. Tell him if he doesn’t meet our demand he can take his daughter back.”
Saroj’s heart missed a beat. She had heard these words spoken for the first time 25 years ago and years later they still had the same impact on her. The image of her poor father pleading to maaji with joined hands to give him time as he didn’t have enough savings to buy three additional gold chains floated before her eyes.
But, maaji was adamant – she said very vehemently, “Give the gold or take back your daughter.” Of course, her desperate father had arranged for the gold by borrowing on premium interest. And, now the history was repeating itself.
“No!” Saroj said. She didn’t even realise she had uttered the words aloud until maaji asked, “What?” Urmila was shocked; her daughter in law had never refused her anything.
“Neither will I ask Aarti’s father, nor will he gift us anything more.” Saroj had made up her mind.
“Do you realise what you are saying, Saroj?” Maaji’s eyes narrowed and her face reddened in anger. For once she stopped rotating her rosary.
“Yes, maaji. I can’t have you mete out the same treatment to Aarti’s father as you did to mine.”
“How dare you speak to me like this?” Urmila was furious at Saroj’s insolence. “Do you want me to throw you out of the house as well?”
“You don’t need to, maaji. I will leave this house of my own accord. I have given 25 years of my life to this house, it’s time I lived for myself as well.” Saroj said fearlessly. She didn’t know she had this strength in her. She didn’t know where she would go or what she would do. But if she didn’t do it now, she would never be able to respect herself again.
Urmila had never seen Saroj like this. Her eyes were burning and her pallav had moved off her head but Saroj didn’t even try to put back.
“Maa, I will come with you too.” Aarti’s words resounded in the room. She was standing at the door. She had obviously heard the entire conversation.
Saroj smiled at Aarti. All these years, she could not muster enough courage to fight for herself. Also, she knew what maaji had done to her husband’s first wife. They had said that she had got burned while cooking in the kitchen, but the truth was she was killed for not bringing enough gifts. Then a teenage bride, Saroj was afraid she would be burned too.
Saroj touched maaji’s feet but Urmila didn’t bless her. Saroj for once didn’t care. Both mother and daughter stepped out of the house.
Anshu Bhojnagarwala wins a Rs 250 Amazon voucher, as well as a chance to be picked one among the top winners at the end of 2018. Congratulations!
Image source: unsplash
Anshu Bhojnagarwala, is a popular parenting blogger. She likes sharing her thoughts on health and parenting on her blog, Firsttimemommy, which is one of the top 20 First-Time Mom Blogs. She also likes to read more...
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