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She would now have a talk with Farooque and impress upon him that a third or fourth marriage would not guarantee the birth of a son and that daughters were as precious as sons if not more.
Maitreyi didn’t seem normal to Chandrika. There was definitely something wrong. Her sister seemed to prefer her own company. Any effort to draw her into a meaningful conversation was met with an irritated look and responses if any were just monosyllable grunts.
Was she in trouble? It didn’t seem so. When did the closeness shared by them diminish? Things were okay till a few months back when both of them went to college together by local train, and they had so much to talk about.
Chandrika had now registered for Ph.D. at the university and her timings had changed. She spent longer hours at the university library while Maitreyi returned home after her undergrad classes. Chandrika did notice a subtle change in her sister’s dress sense. She seemed to prefer dresses in black. She no longer sported a bindi, and when their mother admonished her for it she simply said that she had forgotten about it.
“Appa will not like it. You seem to forget to wear a bindi quite often these days. While you live with us you will abide by our rules. Once married you can do as you please”. Amma was very particular about following tradition.
Chandrika had a nagging doubt at the back of her mind. She had noticed her sister exchange books and notes with Ayesha who returned by the same train. Ayesha’s brother Farooque dropped her at the college gate in the morning. She was in the Arts section while Maitreyi was a science student. She wondered how and when Ayesha and her sister became friends.
“We attend English and French classes together,” Maitreyi had said. “Is there a rule that forbids Arts and Science students from being friends? You are worse than Amma! Why don’t you keep to yourself? Do I keep a watch over you?”
Maitreyi had sounded guarded and Chandrika risked a guess.
“Who is he Maitreyi? Farooque?”
Caught unawares, Maitreyi couldn’t think of a cover up.
“Yes,” she admitted.
“Do you realize what you are getting into? Farooque is a married man with three children”.
“How do you know that? I mean it is true but then his dad also has three wives and they are all treated well. It is a common trend in their community.”
Ayesha’s dad Mohammed Khan was a very honest and respected businessman in town. They were weavers who exported beautiful silk saris and dress material from their small township to Delhi, Lucknow, Mumbai and Chennai. They even had business tie ups in Arabian countries. But should her little sister get involved with a married man?
“Think of your career and future Maitreyi. Marriage can wait.”
“Yes, of course. As if I plan to elope with him tonight.”
True to her word Maitreyi finished her course and joined as a probationary officer in a local bank having qualified the required exam. Chandrika wondered if she had gotten over her crush for Farooque. She was busy with her Ph.D. work and didn’t give it much of a thought.
It was on a Saturday that Maitreyi left home for work and did not return. A short note addressed to her – left in her purse – asked her to let the family know that she was marrying Farooque that very night and would be moving in with him after the wedding.
“Akka, I know that you will be shocked that I have decided to marry Farooque in spite of your warning. I know that I know that amma and appa will be distraught and may never forgive me. I love them a lot but I‘ve made a choice and am willing to face the consequences. I’ve tried my best but couldn’t get him off my mind. I truly don’t know how his family will react to our marriage. I already hear that his first wife Shabnam is creating a ruckus. I have no one but you to turn to. Will you be there for me always?”
Chandrika did not know how to break the news to her parents. Her father was a mild mannered person whose silence spoke louder than his words. Her mother would rave and rant to get over her disappointment but she was not sure how her father would react. But what weighed heavily in her mind was her concern for Maitreyi. Did she know Farooque well enough? Would his family let her work after marriage? Should she herself have been more vigilant? She could have met Farooque and got to know him better as a person. The silly girl had not let on that she was serious about marrying Farooque. Did she meet him at her workplace?
She tossed and turned in her bed when her mother called out to her.
“Chandrika, why hasn’t Maitreyi returned? Has she planned an outing with her friends? She’s been doing it quite often and appa doesn’t like it at all. Did she tell you anything? Her cell phone is switched off. She’s probably watching a movie and has switched off her mobile phone.”
“Why are you so naïve and trusting amma?” she thought while silently handing her Maitreyi’s note.
As expected she was shocked. Tears welled up in her eyes and she covered her face and sobbed.
“How could this happen to me?” She wailed.
Her father read the note and maintained a stony silence. He refused supper and withdrew to his room. The shock was such that he did not wake up the next morning.
Chandrika now had the duel responsibility of consoling her mother and handling wagging tongues and prying eyes of relatives and neighbors. Maitreyi was informed but could not muster courage to attend the funeral. The silence in the house was suffocating. Her mother refused to relent, saying that she didn’t want Maitreyi’s name mentioned in the house.
Chandrika’s heart went out to her sister. Why was society so cruel to her? If it had been more tolerant Maitreyi could have married Farooque with her parents’ blessing. She tried to contact Maitreyi at her workplace after a month but was told that she had opted for a promotion with transfer to a branch in a neighboring town. Farooque’s family lived in another part of their town and Chandrika knew no one from the area. Time being the best healer, it was best not to disturb her sister who might be struggling to adapt to her new life.
Years rolled on. Farooque’s father came to meet them with sweets to announce the arrival of a granddaughter. Amma was polite to him but refused to have anything to do with her prodigal daughter.
A month later Chandrika saw a burkha clad woman holding a baby girl walking towards their house. Her heart skipped a beat.
The sisters hugged each other unable to control their tears. They hastened to a nearby park to catch up with each other’s news.
“How are you doing, Maitreyi? Your daughter looks just like you. What’s her name? You never bothered to get in touch with me. How did you manage to distance yourself from us?”
“She is Mehrunnissa. And I am now Mumtaz. I have the advantage of donning a burkha. I watch amma from a distance when she is out shopping. And I know that you now work in our college as an assistant professor.” Maitreyi smiled.
“You will always be Maitreyi to me”.
Chandrika wanted to know more about her life in a set-up that was so different to the one in which she was raised. After the general discussion about the initial hiccups faced by her, Maitreyi came out with her reason for risking a meeting with her sister.
“Farooque is marrying his cousin Sayeeda next month. His family wants a son and between me and Shabnam we have four daughters. It was bad enough sharing him with Shabnam and now it is Sayeeda. I tried to reason with him. What is the guarantee that Sayeeda will bear him a son? But he refuses to relent. I am not a doormat to be used and thrown. I am planning to leave him.”
“You must have loved him a lot to abandon our family and marry him. You now have a daughter to think of. Does she not deserve a father’s affection? Is divorce a solution? You were dismissive when I pointed out his married status to you. Why don’t you approach your mother in law? She might understand.”
“She won’t” Maitreyi retorted. “She is the one filling his ears against me. Sayeeda is an only daughter among four sons. And we are just two sisters. So she feels that Sayeedais genetically inclined to give birth to a boy. Ayesha may understand. But she is not allowed to express her opinion in family matters. Father in law is better but the mother/son duo doesn’t involve him in such things. Moreover, he himself is thrice married so what can he say?”
“Let me talk to Farooque”. Chandrika felt the need to save her sister’s marriage. It was bad enough that her sister had made a bad choice in opting to marry an already married man. But her separation ought to be stopped for the sake of baby Mehrunnissa who was fast asleep in her mother’s arms.
“Now that you have come this far why not come home? Amma’s heart will melt on seeing Mehr.”
“I am scared, akka. What if she suffers a shock like appa?”
“I am sure she won’t. Grandchildren have a way of winning their grandparent’s heart”.
The sisters walked in hand in hand with Mehr perched on her aunt’s shoulders. Amma initially turned her face away but could not help holding out a hand for the child. With tears streaming down her cheeks she smothered her face with kisses.
Turning to Maitreyi she remarked –
“You have lost weight. You need to eat well to be able to nurse your child. Come over and stay with me for a month or two. I will take care of both of you.”
Chandrika heaved a sigh of relief. Amma had relented as expected. She would now have a talk with Farooque and impress upon him that a third or fourth marriage would not guarantee the birth of a son and that daughters were as precious as sons if not more. They too deserved the love and affection of the family. If he understood and took a stand his family too would be convinced.
She was confident about her counseling skills and hoped to convince Farooque. She would approach his family if required.
After all there was truth in the words
“For there is no friend like sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.”
Editor’s note: This story had been shortlisted for the Muse of the Month May 2019, but not one of the winners.
Image source: pixabay
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