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From my first heartbeat in her womb, she has been my Maa, who was Mudita then? I was curious. Was she my wife's friend? Was she an entity on her own?
From my first heartbeat in her womb, she has been my Maa, who was Mudita then? I was curious. Was she my wife’s friend? Was she an entity on her own?
‘It is difficult to decide who is a bigger cheater – my mother or my wife,’ I thought to myself, as I glowered at the brown tinted okay spirit, through the rocks and glass. My thoughts swirled like a hurricane as the roar of music drowned the collective talk of drunk men and women on the Friday night under the neon lights at Saints and Sinners, Connaught Place. The ‘happy hours’ were over and I was glad to have arrived way past the ‘happy.’
Life had not been ‘happy’ since my father’s demise three years back. And after what happened, at the Citrus Café today, guaranteed that things were not going to ever be happy, ever. At least by the choices that my mother and wife were making- that of cheating and betraying. Or, that is what my heart posited and my mind refuted.
At 1:30 am, I wondered about the conversations around- half awake, half asleep, swirling in a dirty cloud of smoke. Saints and Sinners was my father’s favourite bar. We would often find ourselves on the hot red corner couch on Friday nights. And we would see the traffic, snarling, nose to tail as people scurried around to make a livelihood on the busy streets of Delhi.
I sat with him today (yes, I still reserve a table for two and ensure his favourite Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey does not go waste). And I thought of my childhood- days spent playing scrabble sprawled in our living room, escaping the blinding light and blast of the June heatwave.
“Abir, my son, JD was invented for me. You see Joydeep Dasgupta and Jack Daniel,” he would wink and then call my mom to check if his pomfret curry was ready. He was Delhi’s famous muralist with Mojarto, and had several art exhibitions, and an uptown gallery called ‘Mudita,’ in the posh locale of Greater Kailash.
But this Mudita came later. The first one, my mother, Mudita Roy, came first, from Assam. She was a multi-faceted artist from Assam, a singer known for her wonderful crisp voice, flawless diction, and of course her mastery over Robindro shonggit. And she’d learned to play the ‘bansuri,’ (something that not many Indian women chose,) under the tutelage of Pandit Bholanath of Varanasi.
My parents met during an event organised by Indian Habitat Centre years ago, on a chilly evening of January. The kind when people slurp hot chicken soup on the streets of Delhi and the affluent enjoy bourbon and bonfire in uptown restaurants with red carpet, wingback chairs, delightful company and soft music.
My phone showed 17 missed calls from Naina, my wife, and one from my Mom. I smirked at the coincidence – Saints and Sinners, now that I had two in my life- my wife and my mom, both belonging to the latter.
I always knew Naina was progressive and revolutionary, and seemed to have a different view on all that mattered to people in this world. A 2012 batch IAS officer, I met her at Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie. That’s where I was doing my foundational training for Indian Revenue Services.
Naina Karn- daughter of head constable Pratap Dharamraj Karn, Bihar Police. Coincidentally, he was a flute player too. Though anonymous, he rose to a day’s fame every 15th August for a district event or 26th January cultural program.
Fast forward three years and we tied the nuptial knot. She belonged to a small town in Bihar and had secured for herself what many could only dream of. Her journey from a government school to Hindu college to JNU and UPSC only happened because of her grit. Naina had this envious grit to stand up even if thousand hands tried to hold her down.
Last year, she was awarded the PM’s Awards for Excellence in Public Administration. This was for groundbreaking work done in reinventing education via technology in the nearby districts of Haryana. But today she was breaking much more. Her words echoed in my mind, hammering their way to my heart.
Mr Rupesh Patil, my colleague from Orissa was on a work trip. His flight was delayed, so we entered the Citrus cafe at noon to kill time and enjoy an espresso shot. There was a couple sitting in the cafe when I walked in. As the light was low, I didn’t know who they were until the woman turned around, and I saw it was my wife.
I squinted my eyes a little more, only to find, Naina’s father sitting next to Naina. Before I could comprehend what was happening, I saw my mother walking from the restroom, wiping her hands with a tissue. Stunned, words escaped out of my mouth, laced with spite, “Naina, can you please tell me what is going on before I make my own conclusions?”
She tried to appear calm amidst the rising storm I could see in her eyes. “Let’s go out and talk. By the way, how are are here, in this cafe, right now?”
“Isn’t that the question I should be asking you! Considering you had a meeting at the ministry?” my voice rose.
“Abir, let’s go out. This is not the place for…”
“What’s going on? Papaji is here, again? Why? And Mom? Is there someone else I am missing out on? Was there no coffee at home?”
My mother, back on her seat, kept her gaze stuck on the coffee; her hands circling the rim of the beige mug, the foam settling with each passing second. I looked at her, my eyes desperately searching hers for an answer.
Choosing to not even acknowledge my father-in-law’s presence, I tried to decode the silence that hung in the air, along with the round paper lanterns illuminating just enough of the centre of the coffee table. I was angry at the poorly lit place, annoyed at the mysterious darkness that shrouded the familiar faces and some secrets, I suspected. The suspicion had been stinging me for quite some time now.
“Maa, what’s going on?” from the corner of my eye, I saw my father-in-law’s crow’s feet soften around his silver sideburns.
“Abir, let’s go out. Let them stay here.”
“Stay here? Why?”
Naina dragged me out as my colleague gave me the look that said, “It’s okay, I understand.”
After hiding for days under the dreadful clouds, the sun felt warm and pleasant. But inside, I sizzled like an inferno.
“So, Madam Commissioner, what are you up to?”
“You don’t have to be sarcastic. We were about to come and talk to you…”
Without waiting for her to complete her sentence, I blurted out, “About all the strange things you both have been up to and I was going bonkers wondering what happened suddenly. Oddly so, Maa seems to be happy and composed, wearing gold bangles and enjoying lemon tea she enjoyed with my father.”
“And you are not happy about it?” she asked me.
“That’s not the point. She has changed. You have changed. There is some kind of dumb charade going between you two. I cannot put my finger on it to say what exactly it is, but all is, not well. Reticent and elusive, you have been talking less to me and spending more time with Maa. Not that I find it strange. But you see, when you find a dildo in your wife’s wardrobe, a man is bound to have questions.”
“You sneaked into my wardrobe?” she gasped as if I had just produced a dinosaur from my pocket.
“Whoa… Our wardrobe,” I clarified.
“But it wasn’t…”
“Kept in open,” I interrupted.
“I was searching for my cufflinks and look what I found… Really Naina? When did it all happen? Apart from a fake one, do you also have an alternative real one going bang bang?”
“Abir! Behave.” Naina narrowed her brow, her voice rising as honking cars went by.
“Aha, I get that…”
“Abir, before you cross all decency in your rage, please listen to what I have to say. That dildo is for Mudita. Papaji has come to meet Mudita and I am happy to know that they both want to spend the rest of their lives together.” Naina gulped and closed her eyes before meeting mine.
I turned white as chalk. The ground beneath me froze. So did the sky and the air as I felt all oxygen being sucked out.
Discombobulated I looked at the zigzag traffic and turned toward her, anger taking full charge, “Stop this crap right now!”
“Abir, if that is the level you are going to stoop down to and talk, I refuse to have any conversation with you,” she warned me.
“Hang on Naina, who is Mudita? She is our Maa.”
“Yes. And she still is, but you see I am right now talking about a woman, I adore. I am talking about a woman who is also my friend and someone I care deeply about.”
“So? You will call her Mudita.”
“Yes. If I call her Maa, your Maa, you won’t get any of what I have to share with you.”
“You are not sharing. No, you are informing me.”
“Abir, things happen…”
“And you let them? Dildo? What on earth made you think…”
“Mudita is just 51.”
“So?” My voice could have drowned the entire traffic on the road. We stood outside Citrus Cafe, not the best place for this talk, but who cared? My wife had gifted my widow mom a dildo and I, her son, was the recipient of this information.
I wondered how a son should react, respond, behave, counter, retort or whatever because nothing made sense. So, I tried to breathe, “Did Maa ask you for it?”
“No, but I understand her.”
“Haha! May I please have the pleasure to know how such knowledge gets transmitted to you?”
“Because I am a woman, myself.”
“Naina, parents had a great married life. Three years ago, when my father died, I understand that it left a void in her life. But his memories are abundant enough. Those are beautiful memories of a fulfilling relationship to last a lifetime. I am sure you instigated, she would have never …”
“I saw her looking her honeymoon pictures and then…”
“I overheard her talks with Maasimaa and…”
“And you became a crusader for all 50 plus single woman handing them a dildo each. Huh! You truly are a trailblazer. I should give you an award too. Clap, clap, clap!”
“Abir, let’s go home. We cannot sort this on the streets of Connaught Place. I will ask Papaji to go home with Maa and I will come with you.”
“No. He is not dropping Maa and I am not engaging in any such mad conversation with you. Every fleeting feeling does not require attention, every hormonal swing does not require attention. Maa has several things to keep herself engaged. She is a renowned vocalist and she knows far too well how to lead her life.”
“Except when her husband died and left her feeling so lonely, her music ceased to exist.”
“Just imagine how beautiful that relationship was…”
“Yes, it was…”
“So, you bring a toy for her?”
“That’s biology, no crime.”
“She is my mom, Naina. For Christ’s sake, this is a load of baloney! Some garbage you are creating unnecessary filth with!”
“She is a woman first. Just like you and I. And sex is no crime. The desire to have it or the desire to give oneself some pleasure is no crime.”
“Oh my god Naina, I am ashamed. Do you have no idea how you’re talking to a son about his mom? And wait a minute, what is Papaji doing here? Marriage? To whom? My mom? What the hell is this? When did men become gold-diggers?”
“Abir, his daughter is a District Magistrate, do not forget that. I am choosing not to feel offended because I understand what you are going through, you have the right to feel so enraged. But…”
Our animated conversation started attracting attention from passers-by who stopped to turn, look, overhear and wonder. Naina pulled me towards the parking lot.
She made a quick call to Papaji and then her office, cancelling all her meetings. Her long burgundy hair tied in a bun, the big maroon bindi on her forehead and her expression showed the same grit and indomitability she was so famous for. I already felt defeated.
Back in the car, before I could start that Naina remarked, “Abir, remember last year when dad had come for my award ceremony, that’s when they struck…”
“It’s maa,” I objected.
“What you are going through, I am going through myself. You see it is not only about your mom but my dad too. It hasn’t been easy for me. My mother died when I was five and dad raised me all by himself.
“When they met last year, even I didn’t know how and when something struck between them. After years, I saw my Dad alive, something about his smile had changed that week. I saw him looking forward to the morning tea and the conversation with maa and their endless talk over the bansuri and the pahadi raagas.”
“I get that. So, you did it all for your father. But why my mom? There are many widows out there looking out for…”
“Huh! It so easy to malign Abir, but I do not blame you. When it comes to parents, children tend to become ‘holier than thou,’ puritanical. I don’t blame you. But I heard Maa humming her bhajan for the first time that week.
“After Dad’s death, if you recall, she had stopped playing the flute. We had to cancel her events and we understood that she needed time. Months flew by and I saw Maa sinking in silence, her flute waiting for her lips and her gaze looking into nothingness. I saw it all and realised she deserved her own happiness,” she said.
“There is no need to play around the meaning of my mom’s name. Isn’t it natural- the grief, the process of it, healing?”
“Yes, it is. But tell me Abir, if my father and your mother have found joy in each other and this joy will keep them happy for the rest of their life, is it so bad? What would you choose Abir?”
“How many years do they have? They don’t need to transgress and tarnish their name and life…”
“How archaic. Tarnish?”
“What else is it? At this age, they don’t need sex.”
“What if they do?”
“Stop the crazy insanity spouting from your mouth Naina!”
“And it is not about sex. It is the companionship, the listening, the talking, being there, doing something together, looking forward to each day because they have each other.”
“But we are there.”
“Are we really there? You know it. I know it. We can only try but we cannot take the place of a partner, a spouse in life.”
“Your father will take the place of my father. Hahaha! What a replacement? A retired head constable replaces Delhi’s revered painter and muralist Joydeep Dasgupta. Clap, clap clap, yet again. Yoo-hoo. How cool is that?”
“Don’t bring stature Abir. You married a head constable’s daughter and that is what you admired about him, his ambition, his devotion towards my studies despite circumstances. Didn’t you? Do not bring status again.
“I understand your anger. I understand you. Understand me too. Neither my father will replace yours or your mother will replace mine. That place is safe and sacred. This is a new place.”
“Big heart… a lot of places indeed.”
“And I am glad we all have enough space to fill, refill or whatever you call. The fact is that in life we all have to move on… and choosing happiness is no sin.”
“And forget the past, the loved ones who are no more?”
“No, keep it safe and cherish it. But don’t stop the light from coming in.”
“Naina, no. No.”
“Abbiirrr,” Naina held her hands tightly as if trying to absorb her own words.
“What will people say? It sounds crazy?”
“Only if you label it that way. Mudita is happy.”
“Cool Naina, call them Mudita and Pratap then, all this psychosis seems perfect. No issues.”
“You can think whatever you want to. I didn’t fan the flame, but I didn’t extinguish it either. It came organically,” Naina pursed her lips staring at the Georgian-style buildings.
The car had not moved an inch, but it looked we had travelled a light year. Suddenly I remarked, “So, what’s special today?”
“We met to talk before sharing it with you today,” Naina’s phone beeped, causing the air between us to loosen. “They are waiting for us at home. I do not ask you to understand it all, Abir. I have taken my time to absorb and understand. This intimacy took time, they took time. We all did, so you should too.”
“And what if I do not subscribe to this insanity?”
“I don’t have all the answers in the world. Let’s go home.”
“Hey, hold on! My father’s photo is hanging in the living room and you guys are planning a wedding underneath. What am I supposed to do… kanyadaan?” Naina gave me a long look, there were a million if’s and but’s that stood between us.
“Abir, take your time. I will see you at dinner.”
I stared blankly in silence, my head turned away in utter defiance.
Eight hours and, eight billion thoughts later, I look through the brown coloured liquid and slam it back like a shot. From my first heartbeat in her womb, she has been my Maa, who was Mudita then? I was curious.
They say that you never really understand a person until you climb into their skin and walk around in it. Taking my car, I head home to meet Mudita and Pratap.
Author’s two cents– Somewhere amidst the dense, confusing, sometimes suffocating labels and judgments around the words such as morals, commitment, eternal, sacred, holy ,devoted, faithful, dutiful, righteous and virtuous there stands a woman, and her spirit free from all that defines her.
If you have to understand her, walk out of the jungle and see her under the sunlight that falls. Try to hear what she has to say and you may start seeing the world in a different light.
Picture credits: YouTube
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If you want to get back to work after a break, here’s the ultimate guide to return to work programs in India from tech, finance or health sectors - for women just like you!
Last week, I was having a conversation with a friend related to personal financial planning and she shared how she had had fleeting thoughts about joining work but she was apprehensive to take the plunge. She was unaware of return to work programs available in India.
She had taken a 3-year long career break due to child care and the disconnect from the job arena that she spoke about is something several women in the same situation will relate to.
More often than not, women take a break from their careers to devote time to their kids because we still do not have a strong eco-system in place that can support new mothers, even though things are gradually changing on this front.
A married woman has to wear a sari, sindoor, mangalsutra, bangles, anklets, and so much more. What do these ornaments have to do with my love, respect, and commitment to my husband?
They: Are you married?
They: But You don’t look like it
Me: (in my Mind) Why should I?
Why is being married not enough for a woman, and she needs to look married too? I am tired of such comments in the nearly four years of being married.
I believe that anything that is forced is not right. I must have a choice. I am a living human, not a puppet. And I am not stopping anyone by not following any tradition. You are free to do whatever you like to do. But do not force others. It’s depressing.