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Moreover, he was suspicious of me. He used the word ‘characterless’ often, just because according to most people I was ‘good looking’ and had a spontaneous, friendly nature.
Vidhi was visiting Nalini Mashi’s house for the very first time. The minimalist, elegant style of the living room, the tastefully raised garden in the adjacent balcony were testimony to Nalini Mashi’s refined aesthetic sense. Nalini mashi was in her studio. She was a famous painter. Radha, the cook and the caretaker had welcomed Vidhi in and requested her to wait while Nalini mashi changed and came to greet her.
Dressed in a pristine white saree, her hair tied in a neat bun, a soothing smile adorning her lovely oval face, Nalini mashi greeted Vidhi with a sincere, affectionate hug. Vidhi’s lips curved into a broad smile. She realised how tremendously she had missed this warmth and affection, for most of her life.
‘Your home is more beautiful than I had imagined it to be’ Vidhi said.
Nalini mashi smiled her warm smile. ‘I pour into these inanimate spaces as much of myself as I can. I don’t know what I would have done without these walls and my canvases’, she said, the tranquil smile, still cosily resting on her lips.
‘You know, I had seen you when you were only 6 years old. And then, we got so caught up in our lives, that we lost track, despite being family. Your mother and I. We had no social media, or easy phone call facilities. Strange, how easily we lost everything, despite a shared history’, Nalini mashi said, looking wistfully, at the wall painting of a despondent woman, sitting beside her hut.
‘Had it not been for Chhoton’s marriage, I doubt, we would have ever met. I am so glad we did’, Vidhi uttered spontaneously.
‘Come here, sit beside me, let me take a good look at you.’ Nalini mashi rested her arm on Vidhi’s shoulder. Vidhi recognised Nalini mashi’s affection in her touch.
‘Just imagine! Your boy is also older than 6 now. Sometimes, I miss the decades that we didn’t make any good of. I have to listen to your story, Vidhi. Please tell me about the missed years’, Nalini mashi said, gently caressing a stray strand of Vidhi’s hair.
‘When I was 9, maa fell sick. Baba used to yell at maa, all the time, for as far back, as I can remember. I remember faintly, how he would mention you, even after maa fell sick. That you were not a good lady, that maa should not keep any contact with you. At one point, maa fell so sick, that she had to be admitted into an institution. The house help told me that maa was too dangerous to be had in the house, that she had tried to harm herself. I reached adolescence, but had no clue as to how to take care of maa or to solve the curious questions taking shape in my mind. Sometimes, I would find her elated, and then at times she would be too depressed for me to even dare to touch her. She never recovered from her illness. My maa committed suicide when I was 16.’ Vidhi paused.
‘…Baba didn’t delay much in marrying his long time mistress, or so was the rumour. I spent the rest of my life, till marriage, in boarding schools. Then…I got married to Subhayu. Had our son Neel, who is 9 now. I am trying to give him everything that I have missed out in my life, while growing up – most importantly, warmth and affection.’
Nalini mashi hugged Vidhi tight, as tears started streaming down her cheeks and the only audible word was ‘sorry’.
‘You know mashi, sometimes, I regret not living my life in whole,’ Vidhi said, wiping her own tears.
‘What is it that you regret, Vidhi?’ Nalini mashi asked in a choked, yet soothing, compassionate voice.
‘You know, when maa fell sick, and the whole world fell apart for me, most literally, the only thing that held me whole was academics. I was among the top 3 in class all through, the only first class in the English department, in the whole university, and the only one from my college to crack the Junior research fellowship exam. I regret, I couldn’t do justice to what was once my entire life. Subhayu always says, I am not efficient enough to be a working mom, that I can’t manage the home and the work fronts, equally well. I didn’t want to lose the only sense of family that I had found through him.I didn’t want to deprive my child of my attention, the way I had been deprived, for most of my life. I gave up something I was so passionate about, out of fear. Self-doubt and fear kept multiplying, over the years. And now, unfortunately, it’s too late.’
‘Vidhi, now then you would have to hear out my story, since you say, it’s too late.’
Vidhi was looking at Nalini mashi, admiringly. She was so warm, so loving. Though Nalini Mashi was blood, she was practically a stranger now, considering the more than three decades chasm and yet how easily she could confide in her. Vidhi had never opened up like this in years, the way she was opening up to her mother’s cousin sister, sans reservations.
‘I was like you, Vidhi. A caring mother, a good wife, always trying hard to make everything perfect. And yet, my husband was never happy with me. He never let go of any opportunities to put me down, especially in front of guests. Moreover, he was suspicious of me. He used the word ‘characterless’ often, just because according to most people I was ‘good looking’ and had a spontaneous, friendly nature. I let go of his persistent abuse and shifted all attention to Mamon, our only daughter. She was a brilliant child, like you. She was my world. But as it turned out, she was also destined to be my guest for a few years. I lost her to uterine cancer. My dear, lovely Mamon, my life! And then, I decided, I would frame a life for myself, without my husband. I needed a life without liabilities, a life where I could at least breathe free. I needed my self- worth back. He refused to divorce me. So I sold the few precious possesions that I had, rented a one bed room home and came out of his house. Radha, already a widow then, wanted to come with me, too. I could promise her nothing more than a shelter and two square meals a day. She has been with me, ever since. I took up a clerical job in an office and then slowly, with time and years returned to the canvas. You know, sometimes, I paint Mamon too, and wonder what and how she would have been like.’
‘You see, Vidhi, you have all the potential within you. Don’t let anyone convince you, otherwise. When you muster the courage to make a new start, to give your life the direction that it has yearned for, you will slowly start unearthing the hidden layers of your inner strength, too. It is not late, Vidhi. All you need is, the firm willingness to walk on the new path and the belief in YOU’
‘Lunch is served, Didi and Nalini di,’ Radha announced, politely. Vidhi looked at the elaborate spread and smiled up at Nalini Mashi. She had not felt like a happy child for such a very long time.
‘I have not had such a good time in such a very long time, Mashi. Thank you for the more than beautiful afternoon.’ Vidhi said, before taking leave of Nalini Mashi.
‘Promise me, you will start taking care of the ambitious woman in you, who had been silently suffering in anonymity for over a decade, because you couldn’t acknowledge her presence. Promise me, you will wipe out her oblivion and make her a happy woman by taking the first steps towards re-starting your career.’
‘I promise, mashi. I will not lose sight of that ambitious woman, ever again. Thank you for sharing your inspiring story. I will nurture and work on the new zeal tossing and turning in my heart -the zeal to be whole again.’
‘I shall be waiting to hear the good news of your first job in a college, your promotion to the position of an assistant professor and more. You are meant for great things, Vidhi.’
Vidhi jumped to hug her dear mashi, and knew it was just the beginning of an everlasting friendship.
Editor’s note: This story had been shortlisted for the Muse of the Month June 2019 contest.
Image source: pexels
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