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And The Night Was Fragrant With The Sweet Smell Of Liberty

Posted: September 24, 2020
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She is a harbinger of ill luck, they scorned, as Anadi Babu’s dead body was brought in from the police station. A hit-and-run case. 

The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.

Narayani Manapadam is one of the winners of the September 2020 Muse of the Month.

Mrinmoyee Devi stared at her reflection in the mirror. Where was the woman who generously applied red sindoor along the parting of her long raven black hair? As her hands swayed, her conch and coral bangles used to connect in a harmonious rhythm and remind her of her marital bliss.

But fate had been cruel to the daughter of a humble headmaster from Chakdaha. The coarse fabric of her white saree irritated her smooth ebony skin. Somewhere the unmistakeable aroma of kosha mangsho wafted in through the grills of the window. How she longed to savour the slow cooked mutton. But the norms of a conservative society dictated a widow’s diet. Frugal, insipid – and vegetarian.

**

“M. U. T. T. O. N”. Mrs. Baker repeated the alphabets slowly as 15 year-old Mrinmoyee jotted them down in her bound notebook, her tongue protruding as the unfamiliar curves of the English letters wove their magic on the white paper.

“Let’s call it a day, little lady.” The Anglo-Indian lady got up from her chair. “Your father wanted to discuss something with me.”

Mrinmoyee had a fair inkling of what was about to follow. But she said nothing. And, as if on impulse, she bent down and touched Mrs. Baker’s feet.

“Mrinmoyee! What are you doing? You know…” Mrs. Baker retreated a couple of steps back, choking on her words. A moment of uncomfortable silence passed between the two. And then the English teacher exited her student’s room. Never to set foot inside again.

**

Mrinmoyee Devi tucked in her Gopal Thakur to bed, kept a copper tumbler filled with water and two pieces of sondesh she had prepared in the evening. After the customary ritual of putting God to sleep, she got up. If Mrs. Baker ever saw her favourite pupil in this situation, she would have been shocked.

**

“Maa. I don’t want to get married.”

SLAP! That was her mother’s response to her supposed impertinence.

“Why did you ask Mrs. Baker to leave?”

Kadambari Devi didn’t respond, but glared at her husband. “This is the result of your liberal upbringing.”

Chatterjee Babu said nothing. The strict headmaster of Chakdaha was usually tongue-tied in front of his wife.

“As it is, it’s difficult to get a suitable boy for her. Look at her complexion. Which sane person would marry her? You tell me!”

“Maa. I could have taught at Baba’s school if I had continued my education.”

“O Maa Go. My daughter wants to remain a spinster throughout her life.”

And the melodrama continued.

**

The rickety bed looked forlorn. Did the cot miss the creaking sounds of Anadi Banerjee making love to his wife? The delightful sensation deep inside her as their union reached a crescendo would make her want to moan loudly and dig her nails into his bare back, but she would refrain herself.

Good Bengali women didn’t behave like whores. They just submitted to their husbands. And Mrinmoyee had been the ever decent wife. Her mother would have been so proud of her.

**

“Joy Maa Kali. I had almost given up hope. Anadi Babu is God.” Kadambari Devi didn’t attempt to wipe away her tears.

Mrinmoyee said nothing. So far, 35 prospective grooms had rejected her. It was not that she was ugly. But she had been cursed with dark skin. And that equalled a calamity in a conservative Bengali household.

“Listen. You should obey your husband. Understood? Don’t just nod your head!”

Mrinmoyee muttered a feeble yes.

**

Anadi Banerjee was a good man. He worked as a postman in the Nabadwip post office. His first wife had died of pneumonia. Time was running out and he wanted a progeny to further his family bloodline. As a result, the dark complexioned 18 year-old Mrinmoyee who spoke a smattering of English had come into his life. His neighbours were not pleased though. They were convinced that Mrinmoyee was useless. These half-baked memsaabs are so arrogant, they whispered amongst themselves.

She is a harbinger of ill luck, they scorned, as Anadi Babu’s dead body was brought in from the police station. A hit-and-run case. The culprit was never found. And Mrinmoyee didn’t have the guts to follow it up. She braced herself for tougher times instead. For insults – like Kolonkini.

**

Mrinmoyee Devi pursed her lips as she kneaded the chana. She had mixed some date palm jaggery in the fresh curd cheese. Of late, she had started experimenting with different types of sondesh. It gave her a comfort she hadn’t imagined. As the jaggery melted in her mouth, she felt a sudden tinge of happiness enveloping her body. If only…

On a Janmashtami evening, when her neighbours were busy celebrating the birth of Lord Krishna, Mrinmoyee Devi charted her own destiny. The chanting Vaishnavites didn’t notice the widow slipping away and boarding a cycle rickshaw.

**

MRINMOYEE MISHTANNA BHANDAR was a roaring success in Calcutta. Even the Englishmen stopped by to have her speciality – gur’er sondesh.

Now five women worked under the widow. It was hectic. Weddings now were incomplete without her trademark desserts. But Mrinmoyee didn’t complain. Those girls had been thrown out of the society due to various reasons and their lives had been rendered meaningless. And then they met this woman from Nabadwip.

Mrinmoyee looked at her extended family. Of course her life could have taken a different turn if she had continued her English lessons with Mrs. Baker. If Anadi Babu had been alive, she would have been nursing a baby by now. What was the use of ‘ifs’ now? She couldn’t turn back the clock now. And truth be told, she didn’t want to. Her past was now firmly behind her.

“There are no mistakes. Only opportunities which you should grab with both hands,” she had advised young Radha as she sought refuge at Mrinmoyee’s shop.

So what if her childhood couldn’t be regained? Her future was in her hands. As Mrinmoyee Devi closed her shop, she paused for a second. To breathe in the night air. It smelt of independence.

*

Editor’s note: Elizabeth Stamatina “Tina” Fey is an American actor, comedian, writer and producer, best known to her fans for Saturday Night Live as a comedian and later 30 Rock where she famously impersonated Sarah Palin while Amy Poehler impersonated Hillary Clinton during the 2008 US elections, and her autobiography Bossypants and the movie Mean Girls as a writer.

There were many other interesting things that she also did, both on and off screen. But all along, she has been this brilliant woman who is best perceived as a sort of ‘glamorous’ librarian, with legendary work ethic, deadpan humour, and a grounded personality, qualities that helped catapult her comedy projects to unprecedented levels of success. And of course, a feminist. I wholeheartedly recommend that everyone reads her book, Bossypants.

The cue is this quote by her: “There are no mistakes, only opportunities.”

Narayani Manapadam wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations! 

Image source: shutterstock

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