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She was not a conventional beauty. Her defiance and fiery temperament was deemed unsuitable for their family. The conditions laid down by her were totally unacceptable.
The fourth winner of our January 2020 Muse of the Month contest is Sreemati Sen.
She sat demurely, in a nicely pleated cotton sari. Safety pins everywhere to hold the sari together, she thought. A salwar-kameez would have been ideal. But her mother had dissuaded her. “What will they think of you and what about us? Too liberal? No control over their daughter? At least for the sake of our prestige, put on a sari.”
“But Ma, I can hardly move in a sari! And what if it comes undone…then?” She had argued back.
“Listen girl, soon you have to wear saris, ONLY. You better start it now!” Her mother had chided her.
A sharp look had silenced her.
Before leaving the room, mother had reminded her. “Don’t look up when they enter. Keep your eyes to the ground. I hope you will keep these in mind and not ruin our image.”
Radha was ready for the show. It was difficult to imagine that the fierce, independent girl was now sitting decked up awaiting her turn to be analyzed in the marriage market. Luck, she had decided! If only she hadn’t quit the job and hadn’t moved to her hometown, she wouldn’t be sitting here. It was also her grandmother’s dying wish to see her getting married. Yes, she loved her the most and would never think of disregarding her especially when she was on the brink of death.
They had arrived on time. She had learnt from her sister, her little messenger that a family of four – had arrived. She tried to have a look at the young man through her peripheral vision. But her father stood obstructing it.
A steady barrage of questions followed from the man’s father.
“What are your views on joint family? Can you cook?”
Radha: “No, I have never lived in one and I prefer a nuclear family. I am still learning to cook.”
Father: “What plans do you have after marriage regarding work?”
Radha: “Plans? I will continue working.”
Father: “And who will take care of the house and your husband?
Radha: “The helpers.”
She was blunt and honest. There was no point in playing the role of a dumb, subservient woman, even as she noted her parents listening to her in disdain. The displeasure was written clearly on the interviewer’s face.
Radha’s parents sought an opportunity for the young couple to speak in privacy. It was promptly rejected. At the insistence of her grandmother, they relented. They were left alone. She looked back into the gentlest pair of eyes. Those eyes….Ahh those eyes. She could drown in them forever. The mop of salt-pepper caught her attention... Radha stared at him.
He smiled back. She knew her heart was finally at stake. No, not yet! It was now her turn to check the candidacy of this man. She fielded her questions.
“I have some conditions.”
Man: “Yes…Please go ahead.”
Radha: “Let me tell you that if you don’t agree, I will understand. After all it’s not easy for a man to accept them.”
The man nodded, waving aside a careless strand of grey. That’s adorable, she thought.
Radha: “Number one, I will not change my maiden name. I am a Sen and it remains so.
Secondly, there is no question of dowry. I am a working woman and you earn pretty well. We will set up our house together.”
Thirdly, I will stay in my location of posting. We can take turns in visiting each other.
Fourthly, we know how much our parents mean to us. So you take care of yours and I will take care of mine. We won’t interfere in each other’s affairs. Let me know if you find them agreeable and we can discuss it further.”
The man sat still – a solemn look on his face.
Radha: “That’s okay. I don’t need an answer right now. Think about it. Let us know in a day’s time. You can’t leave my family waiting for days, right?”
There was still no answer. Radha’s heart fluttered. So much for being an engineer and a MBA from one of the premiere institutes of India. The man looked weak, despite his tall-built and confidence. No, I can’t allow myself to be tied down to him. That would be disastrous. She prepared to get up, gathering her Pallu and the pleats which had spread around like a flared skirt. She tripped on the border and fell back into her seat.
The man motioned her to keep seated. He bent down, pleated her sari neatly and handed her errant Pallu back. Taken aback, Radha looked back at him. He proceeded to open the door, but turned around one last time. “All conditions accepted. I like that indomitable spirit of yours. Here is my number. Call me tonight when everyone has slept off. And we will talk.”
He left leaving Radha weak and in a daze. That was the beginning. The late night chats became a routine till they got married.
The path was not easy, though. His approval for the alliance had been met with severe disapproval from his parents. She was not a conventional beauty. Her defiance and fiery temperament was deemed unsuitable for their family. The conditions laid down by her were totally unacceptable. And they hated her guts.
His perseverance paid off finally. After a nine-month gestation period they got married.
The marriage registrar and the witnesses looked unhappy. The bride had refused to change her maiden name. It was totally unheard of. The bride’s family stood mute as the groom’s family called for the nullification of the marriage. Radha stood unfazed watching the happenings with a smirk. All of a sudden, a cool, authoritarian voice took over the din. “There will be no change of name. Can we finish this fast and move on?” Radha looked at him. No one had the gall to question him. The marriage was registered.
It was the time for bidaii- when the daughter leaves her home to move to her husband’s. There were no signs of tears, loud cries or sniffles. People laughed and celebrated. They knew that Radha would be back in three days after the rituals. The groom’s family was still grappling with the unnerving details of the marriage; a daughter-in-law who would stay back at her parents’ house, a daughter-in-law who would continue working and not take a transfer to be with her husband.
Married into a family which was settled in Assam, the marriage was no mean feat. Besides the attitudinal differences, the cultural gap was equally wide. The age-old customs and rituals reeked of patriarchy. Questioning them meant questioning the elders present. Washing the feet of the husband with one’s hair and then wiping it clean with the garment one was wearing, was one of the most shocking ritual. The refusal to perform it led to outrage amongst the members. It was their first night together. But the women and the men showed no hurry in leaving. Radha stood her stand while the women folk heaped abuses on her that night. The husband shooed them away, shut the door firmly and pledged to be with his better–half for ever.
Three years of marriage and there was no sign of a baby. They called her banja –a barren woman. Little did they know that the couple had decided to keep work as their first priority. Though the husband was a constant support, the family was yet to accept her. The rift was widening.
The parents-in-law had decided to live with their son and daughter-in-law. Soon the younger son joined in as well. There were unspoken rules in the house which had to be followed. Men ate first while the women waited. The large pieces of the fish and meat were kept for the men. It was imperative for the women to stand and serve, no matter how hungry they were. The men could take as many helpings as they wanted not caring what was left for the women. At times, rice and some pickle was all that Radha got for dinner. She questioned them only to be ridiculed and jeered at. The husband was away most of the time, adding to her agonies. In his absence, the torture mounted. The stress increased manifold. It was not easy to battle it out every day.
Radha had not brought any dowry. She had refused to change her name. She was a dedicated daughter. She worked and was independent. She hardly stayed at home. The helpers did all the work. And she was yet to give them a baby proving her fertility. The allegations continued. They even accused her of witchcraft. If they had not left the couple alone on that fateful day, their son wouldn’t have married her, they said. All this was taking a toll on her mental well-being and her marriage. The refusal to acknowledge her as a family member, the ignominy meted out to her parents and the constant sarcasm was tough to tolerate. Severe resistance served to bring out the uglier side. The husband was also finding it difficult to balance it out.
It was a losing battle. Just when everything was about to fall apart, fate hatched her plan. A transfer to another destination ensured that Radha and her husband were out of the entrapment. They tasted freedom for the first time.
Four years later, they welcomed their first-born, a boy. As the skies opened up announcing monsoon and the arrival of their child, her parents-in-law decided to accept her for giving them an heir to their family. A son would continue the family line and that made the unacknowledged woman acceptable. But as they say, once scorned remains scorned always, Radha refused to revel in the new-found status heaped on her. She decided to raise her son away from the shackles of patriarchy. How could she forget that these were the same people who had threatened to throw her out if she produced a girl. How she wished she had had a girl!
Once again fate had her own plans. Nearly six years later, they had another child -a girl this time. The families erupted in joy. Celebrations began. The rules changed overnight. The birth of a daughter is usually hushed and seldom celebrated with money. But that day, a fixed deposit was made for the baby’s education and not for her marriage. The ceremonies for a girl child are always low profile. But hers was celebrated with much fan fare just the way her brothers was done six years ago. The unspoken rules of equality were laid down. Overnight, the same set of people underwent a drastic change. Education and career became a priority and not marriage. Equal portions of all delicacies were kept aside for both the children. Gifts were bought for them with equal care.
It took a baby girl to open up their mind. It took a girl to make them learn that a being a woman is the toughest job in this society. It took them a girl to understand and appreciate a woman.
The little girl became the game-changer. The game is still ON!
Editor’s note: It’s the new decade of the new millennium, and here’s a fresh theme for our beloved writing contest, Muse of the Month. In 2020, we bring to you quotes feminist women achievers around the world – we hope to bring you some food for thought, and look forward to the same engaging short stories that are a hallmark of our Muse of the Month contests.
Here’s the woman for January 2020 – sassy, bold, clear in her vision about what she wanted from life, an unconventional Indian woman who broke all rules about the ‘good Indian girl’, Sushmita Sen came into the limelight when she was crowned Miss Universe 1994. She then went on to do modelling assignments and films, but is better known for her life choices – be it adopting her two daughters as a single woman, being unapologetic about openly being in a relationship with a much younger man, or her dignified way of dealing with all that life threw at her. The cue is this quote by her: “The world would be a better place if the woman decides what she wants for herself!”
Sreemati Sen wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: By Harsha K R (Flickr: Tanisha’s First Shoot) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
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Sreemati Sen Karmakar holds a Masters in Social Work (MSW) From Visva Bharati, Shantiniketan. She
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