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Janani realised she was no longer a child. Nor did she consider herself a woman. She felt trapped in between, unsure where she would fit in.
As she sat facing the un-plastered walls of her bedroom, Janani pressed the chalk on the hard slate surface. She drew two slanting lines that touched each other at the top. Then, she drew a horizontal line that connected the two lines. ‘A’. She smiled looking at the shaky ‘A’. It was better than her previous attempts.
‘Janani!’ Her mother shouted, making her tremble. Even without turning around, she felt her mother’s glare on her back. The next moment, her mother swooped in front of her, grabbed the slate, and put it back into her brother’s school bag.
‘Don’t let your father see you take your brother’s school things.’
‘I also want a slate, Ma! And I also want to go to school. I want to become a teacher. When will you send me also to school?’ She asked her eyes meeting her mother’s.
At that, her mother’s stance softened. Putting her hands on Janani’s shoulders and kneeling to meet her at her eye-level, she said, ‘When there is more money in the house, we’ll send you, dear. Wait till then.’
Janani wanted to say that she was the elder one, already fourteen years old, and should have been sent to school first. But she knew she was a girl and wouldn’t receive the same treatment. She’d heard aunties say that educating her wouldn’t help her parents in the future.
‘Now come with me. Meena masi, Shekar uncle, and Raveender bhaiya are coming today. Help me make rotis and sabzi for the night?’
It was a rainy day in June. The schools were reopening for the new academic year. Ma had promised that this year she too could go to school. She had studied till the fourth standard in a Bengali-medium school earlier. Now, she hoped the principal at her brother’s English-medium school would allow her to go to the fifth standard instead of repeating a year.
Over the last two years, she had used her brother’s books to learn English when the rest of the family was asleep. Now she could write all the alphabets well though reading them together was still a little tough.
She looked at Baba, waiting for him to summon her and take her to school. He was dressed in a crisp white shirt and dhoti, the kind of dress he wore when there was something important. Ma had given her a new salwar kurta to wear. Janani was happy. She looked beautiful in the new dress. Her brother, Gokul, was also ready with his new school bag and uniform.
‘Gokul beta, you go along today. I’ll not be able to drop you at the school,’ Baba’s strong voice boomed across their long verandah. ‘There are some important visitors coming home today.’
Gokul looked at his sister. Janani took a step forward to go with Baba but her mother held her back by her wrist. She looked at her mother, who shook her head to indicate a ‘no.’
Gokul was already at the gate, the rain falling pitter-patter on his colourful umbrella. ‘Ma, you said I could go too…’ Janani started. Her mother pulled her into the bedroom, made her sit on the stool in front of the mirror.
‘You’re going to go somewhere else, Janani. Somebody’s coming to see you,’ said Misha masi who seemed to have come out from nowhere. She teased Janani as she joined her mother in plaiting her hair and putting a rose in it.
Janani let out a gasp and looked at her mother for confirmation. Her mother’s eyes didn’t meet hers and she knew it was true. She wanted to protest and shout and cry. But more aunts had come in by now and there was a melee in the tiny bedroom.
The prospective groom and his family visited their house and all things were agreed upon quickly. Janani’s marriage was to take place in less than a month.
‘What if you are not able to go to school, he’s a teacher. He’ll teach you,’ her mother comforted her.
‘But he’s three times my age? And what about the curse that killed his first two wives? Didn’t it say that he wasn’t destined to have a wife? Any girl he takes will die within a few years?’
‘Father has done all necessary pooja to ensure that you won’t be hurt. Now be a good girl. You can’t keep waiting for the perfect match.’
Gopal was a nice and a kind man. He hadn’t wanted to put another girl through the same ordeal. However, his elder sisters, who’d raised him since their mother passed away when he was two, insisted he marry again. If nothing at least to produce an heir.
‘What do you teach at school?’ Janani asked, looking in awe at the neat rows of books on her new husband’s table. She had forgotten her mother’s rule of speaking politely and only when spoken to.
‘I teach Maths and English,’ he said, smiling at the look of admiration on her face. She’s so young. I could easily be mistaken as her father, he thought melancholically.
‘Will you teach me also?’ she had to bite her tongue to prevent these words from coming out. Ma had said that she’s not to speak about her wish to go to school but remain an obedient wife.
In the mornings, Janani helped her sisters-in-law in the kitchen, chopping vegetables, fetching water, doing laundry, and cleaning the house. It was a joint family with eighteen members.
Gopal’s three sisters and their families, his younger brother and family, and the youngest one who wasn’t married yet all lived together. The youngest one was approximately Janani’s age. He and Gopal’s nephews and nieces all went to school.
Afternoons were usually time for rest. The sisters-in-law would go take a siesta along with their smaller kids. Meanwhile, the older kids wandered in the courtyard plucking mangoes or jamun and playing hide-and-seek.
Janani would also have loved to join them. But she was no longer a child. Nor did she consider herself a woman. She felt trapped in between, unsure where she would fit in and which group would accept her more easily.
Gopal would be back only in the evening and so she was free most of the afternoons. Later in the evening, she’d be back in the kitchen helping make tea, snacks, and dinner.
One day at dinner, a few months into their marriage, the eldest sister-in-law, the matriarch of the house said, ‘What’s taking you so long, Janani? We are all waiting to see a new pair of tiny legs.’
Janani turned a shade of crimson red. She could see Gopal ears also go red.
‘She’s still a child’ she heard Gopal tell his sister later.
‘So what?’ snapped back his sister. ‘I was fourteen when I had my first child. You better make it fast, else she too will die just like your other wives. And there wouldn’t be any heir.’
The wait outside the operation theatre was excruciating and the whole family was there. Everyone had a prayer on their lips as they waited for the doctor.
Several minutes later, the doctor came out. ‘I’m sorry,’ was all he said. His sisters wailed. Janani sat on the bench, stone-faced.
The sindoor on her forehead was wiped away. She was widowed weeks before she turned eighteen. Gopal had had a massive cardiac arrest while teaching at the school. He had left the world without a progeny.
The funeral rituals went on for several days. Forced to wear white and no jewellery, Janani was unsure of her future. Gopal had been her saviour in this household. He had stood between her in-laws and her and protected her every time anyone accused her of shirking work, being playful, or being ‘barren.’
That protecting insulation was gone now. She was removed from the bedroom that she had shared with Gopal and all his books and was given a little space near the storeroom adjacent to the kitchen. Nobody talked to her. She was not to smile, not to eat, and only to live a life of prayers and pain.
Then one day, somebody from the school where Gopal taught came to the house. After paying appropriate condolences, he asked to see Gopal’s wife.
He told the family that as per the rules of the school, Gopal’s wife could be offered a role at the school since he died while in service. She would have to give a test and interview to be able to get the job.
‘Can’t the post be given to Shubhendu? He’s studied till class seven,’ her eldest sister-in-law intervened to secure the job for her younger sibling.
‘No madam, the first right is that of Gopalji’s widow. Even if it’s just a formality, she’ll have to come to give the test and interview. I can try speaking to the administration to see if this offer can be extended to the next of the kin.’
Her sister-in-law muttered about how women are not to engage socially after they’ve become widows, but the man had already left.
Janani, still dressed in white, boarded the bus that took her to her dead husband’s school. The man who had visited their house led her to a classroom, all the while saying, ‘I’m sorry madam to make you do this. It’s just the school’s protocol. If you don’t want to give the test, you can just sign this paper here saying you don’t object to the vacancy being offered to anyone else.’
‘Can I take the test, sir?’ Please?’ she asked.
Her hands shook as she pressed the pencil hard on the paper to write an A, and then another letter and the rest of it came out effortlessly. She was taken to the headmaster’s room.
‘Are you sure you want this job?’ the old man asked her.
Janani nodded. She had waited for years to go to school.
Now she remembered all those nights when she learned to write using her brother’s slate and chalk. And then the hot afternoons when she learned with Gopal Babu’s books and pencil.
Her wait hadn’t gone futile.
Editor’s Note: This story has been shortlisted for our short fiction contest Muse of the Month in October 2020.
Picture Credits: Still from Netflix’s movie Bulbbul
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