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People will know me as the epitome of motherly affection and virtue. But they will never come to know of the searing pain that afflicts my life in these autumn years of my life.
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Swagata Tarafdar is one of the winners of the October 2020 Muse of the Month.
The eastern horizon looks magnificent in a riot of colours as the orange-hued sun slowly makes its appearance on the sky. The serene water of the Yamuna sparkles in this early hour of the day.
I take a dip quickly in the river water. Then emerging from the river, I fill my pitcher resting on the bathing ghat with water and turn towards home. After returning home, I put the pitcher down and water the basil plant in the courtyard of our house. Did I just say ‘our’ house? That means, does my subconscious mind still consider Nanda Rai as my husband? I sigh heavily. Then I drag myself to my room to change into a dry cotton saree and head towards the puja room.
Lord Narayana is the presiding deity of this household. As soon as I enter the puja room, the fragrance of fresh flowers engulfs me. I notice a small cane basket full of flowers kept at one corner of the room. My lips curl into a smile of satisfaction. Malini, my personal retainer, has plucked the flowers and kept them here for my morning ritual of worshiping the Lord.
My health is failing of late. I can no longer work as hard as I used to do before. So I had no other way than employing a personal retainer. Nevertheless, Malini is a very hard-working woman and she takes great care of Nanda Rai’s household.
I lit a few joss sticks and offer the flowers at the feet of the Lord. I then start my prayers, “One about whom we don’t get any clue at all through mind, words, or actions, who pervades this universe, and by whose power we easily come to know everything in this universe, I take refuge at the feet of that Narayana of incomprehensible power.”
I pause and reflect on my personal misfortune. Then I start praying fervently to the Lord, “O Narayana! Please cut asunder the cord of my maternal affection which binds me, so that I become free from the ‘sense of mine’ towards the body, house, and children, and gain refuge at your lotus feet.” I start to sob silently.
I don’t know how long I sobbed sitting in front of Lord Narayana when Malini’s voice snapped me out of my funk. She was calling me for breakfast. Unwillingly, I stepped outside the puja room.
Of late, I have lost my appetite. Malini placed the plate in front of me. It contains flattened rice and curd. As I start eating my breakfast sitting on the kitchen floor, Malini starts preparations for the lunch. She peels and chops the vegetables. And occasionally stirs a pot on the chulhah, containing butter. The butter melts into ghee. The rich aroma of ghee wafts in the kitchen.
“Maa, I need to take some leave. Will you be able to manage on your own for a few days?” Malini asked me softly.
“Why? Is there anything urgent?”
The thought of managing the household on my own annoys me. I think I have got used to her presence in my life.
“Lalita is pregnant, Maa. It’s her first pregnancy. So she has come to stay with me. The pregnancy has come to full term. She is due to deliver the baby soon. I need to be with her at this time.”
I know Lalita, Malini’s daughter. She used to come to our home when she was a child. Now she is a lively young lady. Malini is a lucky woman, indeed. I too gave birth to a daughter. But destiny separated us. And the son whom I raised so lovingly, never looked back at me.
A commotion is heard outside in the cowshed. The cowherd boys have come to take the cattle off to graze. Men whom Nanda has appointed to milk the cows have come. The clanging of brass vessels can be heard. Some women have come to take milk, butter and ghee to the market. Malini goes out into the courtyard hastily to supervise everything. Life for a cowherd family is not easy. There is work to do from dawn to dusk.
I focus on finishing my breakfast. After finishing the breakfast, I come outside the kitchen. There is lot of work to do. I squat in front of a vessel full of milk and start churning the milk to turn it into butter and buttermilk. When my son was very young, he used to love to savour butter. I don’t know what he loves to eat now.
My mind drifts in and out of a reverie. If I hadn’t lost my daughter that day, I too have become a grandmother by now. Like Malini. Daughters make at least one yearly sojourn to their parents household. They also come during their first pregnancy customarily. Sons don’t have any such obligations. I have heard that my son has sired children. Though I never had the good fortune to meet any of my grandchildren.
I still remember that fateful night. The sky was overcast from the morning. Then came the drizzle in the evening. By night, it changed into a heavy downpour. A violent storm raged outside. Inside my room, I was writhing in pain. Then I felt an excruciating pain around midnight and lost consciousness. When I regained my consciousness by morning, I saw a little baby boy sleeping beside me. I wrapped him in a loving embrace. I was a mother finally. I felt complete. I named the boy ‘Krishna’ or the Dark One, because his complexion resembled that of rain bearing clouds.
I raised my son with great care and affection. I had everything a woman can ask for: a home to call my own, a loving husband, a healthy child. My happiness knew no bounds. But back then, my fledgling self didn’t know that happiness is fleeting. It has always eluded me.
I know that the bards will sing paens for me in future, praising my love towards little Krishna. People will know me as the epitome of motherly affection and virtue. But they will never come to know of the searing pain that afflicts my life in these autumn years of my life. The pain is so intense that sometimes it seems that it is ripping open my heart. The pain brings tears in my eyes, making my vision blurry. Through that blurry vision, when I look at my own reflection, I don’t see the image of an ideal mother. Rather I look like a sham who failed to protect her newborn daughter.
My son was no ordinary person. He had demons to slay, wars to win, kingdoms to conquer, philosophies to preach. So one day, he left us to fulfill his own ambitions. And he never came back. I being his mother, always prayed for his well-being. I heard that he had become a king. That he had married, not once, but eight times. But I didn’t witness even a single wedding. I tried to accept his absence in my life with equanimity. Perhaps this is the fate of all mothers with successful sons.
Then came the revelation. The revelation that shattered my world forever. Kalawati, my friend and confidante, revealed the secret to me. Kalawati is the mother of Radha, my son’s playmate. Krishna told the secret to Radha which she, in turn, told her mother. And from Kalawati, the news travelled to me. She told me that Krishna was not my biological son. That I gave birth to a baby daughter that night. Vasudeva exchanged her with his own son. And my beloved husband, Nanda Rai, wad privy to all these happenings.
I never craved for a daughter. I just craved for a child made of my own flesh and blood. Nanda deprived me from being a mother to my own daughter. A daughter who would have become my own reflection. Since that very day, I started to loath my own husband. By suppressing this terrible truth from me, he has proved that he considers me nothing more than a foolish woman. A puppet in his hands, perhaps. I was never his life-partner in the true sense of the term. I tried hard to trace my daughter, but in vain. It seems as if she vanished in thin air.
We wait for so many things in life. For women, the waiting game starts in childhood. I remember my girlhood years when I used to play with dolls. My mother used to tell me that one day, I would have a husband and children of my own. While taking care of my dolls’ household, I dreamt of a real household of my own. Husband. Children. Grandchildren. Now in the twilight of my life, I realise that there’s no reward at the end of this waiting game. That the household that I once dreamt of is a mere illusion.
Today I finally realise that I am not Nanda’s wife. Or Krishna’s foster mother. I am Yashoda. Only a woman. A woman who can be manipulated. A woman who can be fooled. And a woman who finally realises the futility of the waiting game at the fag end of her life.
Editor’s note: Shashi Deshpande is a multiple award winner, the most notable of which is the Sahitya Akademi Award. While she has been widely published in English, much of her writing has also made its mark in Kannada and Marathi literature, the languages she speaks in her personal life.
Daughter of a Sanskrit scholar, she has read most of our mythologies, and, as she says here, ‘which she reads “against the grain”, from her own, feminist position.’ Her short stories, books, and essays are all ‘woven from Indian women’s lives, their day-to-day living deeply impregnated by religious, social, and political traditions, and gender relations determined by male power structures.’
The cue is this quote by her: “But for women the waiting game starts in childhood.”
Swagata Tarafdar wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: By Raja Ravi Varma – Link, Public Domain
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