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Although the attention that it had garnered in Samir’s social circle was a deterrent to an outright ban on writing, the downside was that Samir had carefully read every story, and given ‘suggestions’.
The fourth winner of our October 2019 Muse of the Month contest is Ujwala Shenoy Karmarkar.
The trilling of the early morning alarm propels Sunaina into the kitchen. She sets the water to boil for tea, automatically crushing the ginger, setting out two cups in the tray, before she pauses. Why two cups? Samir is no longer here. In fact, he will never again sit across her at the kitchen table, sipping his tea, idly scanning the newspaper before leaving for his morning walk.
Tears sting her eyes. She sucks in a breath, then another, willing the feeling inside her to go away. Finally, she gives up, letting her tears flow.
This is her first day of real solitude, after the last of the close family have finally left. No well-meaning hand on her shoulder or some platitude uttered in a soft comforting tone.
She finishes her cry, resolutely wipes her face carefully with her pallu. The water has been merrily boiling away all this while, reduced to half. Convenient, she thinks grimly. Just the right amount of water that she needs. Reaching for the canister of tea-leaves, she wonders. Why make tea? I have always loved filter coffee. ‘Elaichi (cardamom) flavored’ coffee, the way her Aai used to make it. When had she last made it for herself? After that first week of married life, when Samir had decreed, “We drink only ‘aala ghalun chaha’ (ginger tea). Please learn how to make good tea from my mother.” …. that had been that. No more coffee.
The Royal We!
Countless times had the Royal We been brandished against her! ‘We do not allow the women in our family to work outside the home’, ‘We do not like your visits to your family’, ‘The women in our family wear only Saris’…’Those wedding pictures with makeup made you look vulgar. Understood? So no lipstick’ And on and on and on. The length of her sleeve, the loudness of her laugh, her conversation with visitors, the length of her visits or conversations with her mother…..
Defiantly now, she picks up the jar of filter coffee (kept only for guests). Adding coffee and cardamom to the boiling water, she hungrily breathes in the distinct aroma wafting in the stillness of the kitchen. Closing her eyes, she is suddenly back in her mother’s kitchen, in her ‘Maaher‘- and with it come memories of a million of her Aai’s hugs, Baba’s many affectionate smiles and ohhh, a hundred sibling squabbles with Dada and Taai!
Tears prick her eyelids as she recollects her enforced absence when her father passed away, the feeling of helplessness when Samir forbade her from nursing her ailing mother, her longing for her now-estranged siblings – all because of the ‘Royal We’.
The tentative knock on her door takes her by surprise. It is Mrs. Das, her neighbour. Her doe eyes in a pleasant smiling face, are taking in Sunaina’s swollen eyes and drawn face.
“Would you like to join me for a walk? Not far! Just the local ‘garden’.” she asks.
Samir had always discouraged her friendship with other women, preferring her to socialise only with the wives of his friends and associates. Moreover, her morning hour was always reserved for preparing a sumptuous breakfast for Samir, served piping hot, when he huffed home from a ‘walk-and-talk ‘ with his cronies!
Today, however, she dons a pair of sandals, and joins her neighbour, making a mental note to buy herself appropriate footwear later.
In the local park, a gaggle of women awaits them, and they set off together after brief introductions. Her sari makes brisk walking difficult, and one of the women remarks, “Aap salwar kameez pehen kar aao! (wear a salwar-kameez for the walk)”
And Sunaina thinks, ‘Why not!’
Something rebellious is unfurling in her, a sense of being, a feeling of resurrection, all triggered by that nostalgic whiff of coffee with Elaichi.
Round and round they walk on the ‘promenade’, talking about anything and nothing. The air is invigorating, the brisk walk stimulating, the company undemanding; all cocooning her in a feeling of belonging somewhere, to something that she had longed for without even realising it.
As they cool down after the walk on some benches, the women continue talking about clothes, children, movies, cosmetics… and Sunaina listens hungrily.
Returning to her flat, she picks up the newspaper from the doormat. Another requirement for the Royal We – only an English language newspaper! ‘I’ll subscribe to a Marathi newspaper’, she promises herself. The daily editorials and crossword puzzles, quirky funnies and festival specials; she has always longed to read those in her mother tongue!
A leisurely shower later, she glances at herself in the bathroom mirror. Another decision made, she digs out the lipstick that was a gift, but never used. It is at the back of the drawer, hidden away. Dare she? A penultimate gesture of defiance. She carefully applies a layer on her lips. She believes cosmetics were ….War paint. She awaits their resurrection.
But for today, this one layer is enough. She approaches the rocking chair in the balcony and seats herself. She feels fortified for this battle. One more thing remains, the one thing that means the most.
Her writing pad is on the table, her latest story ready to be sent for publication in time for Mother’s Day.
Recalling her first contribution to a magazine for a recipe contest…..she remembers the thrill of seeing her name in print …. hugging the knowledge to herself, protecting it from Samir’s sure derision. Later submitting other pieces- travelogues, theatre reviews and more recipes. Her short stories are her real joy, though. Words strung together by her imagery, creating characters, situations, lives, emotions; her pride equalling that of a mother giving birth to a child….. displayed to the ‘entire world’ to ignore, hate or like, to criticise, discuss or perhaps if she were fortunate, receive praise. Through her stories, she could live, love, defy, opine, comment upon, support, oppose in a way that she had always longed to do.
All of which ended, when at an office party, Mrs.Naik, the boss’s wife had gushed, “Oh, Mrs. Samir, (for they were all identified by their husband’s name or surname). Your story about the unwed mother, so well written! …. you actually know someone like that???!”
Torn between chagrin at not having used a pen-name and pride at meeting a fan of her work, Sunaina had watched Samir turn stony-faced while bracing herself for his tongue-lashing in private.
Although the attention that it had garnered in Samir’s social circle was a deterrent to an outright ban on writing, the downside was that Samir had carefully read every story, and given ‘suggestions’. Anything deemed outrageous by him had to be changed, the plots sanitised, complete with a ‘happy ending’. But ‘Happy!’ for Samir did not mean ‘Happy’ for her. Their definitions of ‘happy’ were so antithetical that she would have laughed if she could have. Instead she cried.
“You better stick to writing about normal people. No unwed mothers or any feminist crap. Anyway, this hobby of yours …it’s a pauper’s occupation…who reads this, anyway?” he had said. If no-one reads it, then why bother to censor the content, Sunaina had wondered.
What had been a simple joy became the pinnacle of violation for her. How she hated herself for letting him corrupt her creations, puny as they were.
She picks up the writing pad now, on which ‘she’ has written her story for Mother’s Day. It is the story of a mother who supports her gay son when he comes out, even openly opposing her own husband. The story had ended with the mother walking out of the family home.
Typically, Samir had failed to see the point of the story.
“What’s this gay business, ehh? Supporting the son who is not normal…utter stupidity!”
She reads ‘her story’ once again. The entire concept has been contorted to a parody of what she had originally intended……Samir’s editing has ended up defeating the purpose of the story.
Pulling out the pages one by one, she feels relief in meticulously tearing them into ever tinier pieces imagining as she does so that each piece held a word….a word dictated by Samir. Holding the pieces in her fisted hand for a moment with a fury accumulated over years, she then tosses them over the railing like confetti.
The words flutter and flow with the wind. She feels a deep satisfaction as they disappear from view. She starts to rewrite her entire story in her own words. It would be her story. Only hers.
Editor’s note: In 2019 our beloved writing contest, Muse of the Month got bigger and better (find out how here) and also takes the cue from the words of women who inspire with their poetry.
The writing cue for October 2019 is this quote from the poem Mascara by Indian poet and author, Meena Kandasamy, known for her writing on feminism and caste annihilation, often reaping from her own life.
once. . .
She awaits their resurrection.”
Ujwala Shenoy Karmarkar wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: shutterstock
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