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Every discussion with Amol seemed to resonate with Sunaina while the most basic conversation she had with Dwarkesh left her feeling inept and unworthy.
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Urmi Chakravorty is one of the winners of the December 2020 Muse of the Month.
“Didi, your tea is getting cold…the weather is turning nippy here,” Sunaina gently nudged Hemlata out of her reverie.
“Yes Nain, I’m just having it,” Hemlata replied, savouring that special taste after what seemed like aeons. She looked around and tried to take in the setting in one panoramic glance. The room was small but not cramped and done up tastefully. A few pieces of folk furniture and handicraft added colour to the room.
Sunaina always loved colour, Hemlata mused – rich, vibrant ones. The two women continued to sit in silence and seemed in no hurry to talk. The passage of years had placed an invisible barrier between them which impeded easy dialogue.
Sipping on the flavourful ginger tea, Hemlata wondered how Sunaina had managed to brew it exactly the way she preferred, even after so many years. After all, hadn’t she wilfully and ruthlessly obliterated her past and moved ahead? As Hemlata looked out at the low Munger hills in the distance, a series of happy scenes flashed before her mind’s eye, like a kaleidoscope of her past.
“Didi, Didi, quickly tell me…which one should I wear on Ashtami evening?”
Hemlata stopped arranging the betel leaves in her silver inlaid paan box and looked up. Sunaina was holding up three resplendent Jamdaani sarees for Hemlata to choose from, a child-like glee and excitement suffusing her radiant face.
The question seemed redundant. Every six-yard that the 18-year old Nain draped, seemed to take on an extra sheen, thanks to her pristine beauty and effervescent personality. Sunaina, or Nain, was Hemlata’s co-sister, younger to her by a good 12 years. Hemlata harboured almost maternal feelings for Sunaina, giving in to every impish demand of hers and doggedly defending her, whenever her pranks led her to trouble. At other times, she secretly admired how Sunaina reconciled herself to her destiny of being married to a scholarly man, 13 years her senior, whose temperament was diametrically opposed to hers.
Dwarkesh, the younger Chaudhary scion, was a highly erudite man whose every desire and passion revolved around his world of letters alone. He was an accommodating man who never restricted Sunaina from following her whims, but that was about it. After spending the whole day flitting around her palatial marital home, Sunaina often longed to spend a quiet relaxed evening with her husband, discussing matters big and small, that would, in some way, place them on a common emotional platform. But that was not to be. Work was Dwarkesh’s both raison d’etre and also his nemesis, and he intended to keep it that way.
While there was no dearth of people inside the hallowed portals of Chaudhary Niwas, teeming as it was, with elderly relatives, hardworking house helps and playful children, Sunaina felt a profound lack of companionship, of a soul connect – something that Hemlata could sense but never really understand or empathise with.
Hemlata was everything that Sunaina wasn’t. She was a born aristocrat and possessed that unmistakable charm, finesse and propriety that came only with an established and entitled background. She had effortlessly blended herself into their privileged ecosystem within no time. Since childhood, she was conditioned into believing that for a married woman, family honour mattered above all other considerations and no one could convince her to think otherwise.
With Sunaina, it was different. She was a young, free-spirited soul, well brought up but with a mind of her own. The motherless only child of a village postmaster, Sunaina had studied till Class 8 and found happiness in the little wonders of the world. Her material demands were very few, her only longing was for love and camaraderie – something that was missing in her marriage.
The only dowry she had carried with herself was her infectious joie de vivre that touched everyone who crossed her path. Except Dwarkesh, of course. This Chaudhary clan of the early twentieth century Bengal functioned through a strict set of impositions and the onus of upholding them rested mainly on the bahus. Their resources were abundant…their choices, zilch.
Very early into her marriage, Sunaina realised that she had become the proverbial trophy bird imprisoned in a golden cage. Luckily, her innate zestful nature made accepting it, a little easier.
Every year, just before Durga Puja, the village would come alive with the annual Sharad Mela – the biggest spectacle in their otherwise sleepy hamlet. As a new bride, Sunaina fervently wanted to visit it.
Hemlata helpfully prodded Dwarkesh, “Why don’t you take Nain to the village fair, Dwarkesh? It’s her first, and tomorrow being a Sunday, you’ll be free, isn’t it?”
Dwarkesh replied absentmindedly, “Boudi, we have a poetry reading session coming up next week. Lots of pieces for me to review….I’m afraid, I’ll be buried in work these next few days. Why don’t you and Dada take Nain with you?”
Hemlata agreed, a tad disappointed in him. The next day Nain feigned a headache and stayed indoors. Thirdwheeling was not exactly her idea of fun! This and various similar incidents gradually sounded the death knell of their marriage over the next two years.
“So Nain, tell me, how have you been? Do you stay here alone?” Hemlata pointedly asked this and then immediately shifted her glance to avoid eye contact with her.
Sunaina took a deep breath and replied, “Didi, Amol is a good man. We got married in a temple and have two teenaged kids. He’s become the Principal of the high school here and people seem to really like him,” a tiny smile escaped Nain’s lips as she said this.
“We’re not affluent,” she continued, “But Amol works very hard to give us a comfortable, satisfied life. At the end of the day, aren’t we all craving such a life, Didi?”
Her composed, assured response took Hemlata by surprise – not everyone has the courage to claim living such a contented life! Could she, the revered elder bahu of the famed Chaudhary family, honestly vouch for her happiness? Her husband had passed two years ago, leaving her in considerable wealth and a family which cared for her. But had she, through these years, really lived an ideal life….one which she had a control over? One, where she was considered an equal stakeholder? These were questions which suddenly seemed to break the bubble of her carefully curated existence and made her feel positively uncomfortable.
Hemlata took a long, hard look at Nain and something within her stirred. She went back twenty years to the time when the tongues had just started wagging.
Conceding to Nain’s plea to resume studies, Dwarkesh had appointed this young school master to come home thrice a week and tutor her. He was a fresh graduate from Calcutta with impressive credentials. Amol would come in the afternoon and sensibly leave before the menfolk returned from work and the ladies got busy pampering them.
Amol and Sunaina hit it off right from day one. He was very easy to get along with and displayed a rare equanimity and earthy pragmatism. Blessed with an affable nature and a delightful sense of humour, his presence seemed to light up Sunaina’s days. He had grown up in an orphanage and earned scholarships to fund his education. He made history, geography, philosophy, even simple arithmetic calculations sound so simple, so comprehensible.
As the red flags became more and more evident, Hemlata, once, casually asked her about Amol. She had never seen Nain speak so fondly about anyone, not even Dwarkesh. Hemlata had two young children who kept her busy through the day. Besides, she was already heavy with the third one. Something inside her snapped and she came down heavily on Sunaina.
“Nain, do you even know what you’re doing? Every day, either the maid or the washerwoman or the flower girl comes in with some juicy tidbits about the two of you. How do I answer them? What is it that you’re seeking outside of your marriage? Is there anything that we haven’t served you on a platter in this house? Why’re you so bent on tarnishing the family pride? Or have you still not been able to measure the ambit of your good fortune, given how hard up you’ve always been as a child?!”
Hemlata was seething in anger, her voice dripping with disdain as she spoke the last sentence. When it came to upholding familial loyalty and obligations, she brooked no dissent.
Her words seared Sunaina’s soul like a branding iron. Hemlata’s pregnancy and fatigue did not allow her to spend much time with Sunaina these days. The latter acutely missed the banter she shared with her only friend and confidante in the house. It amplified her loneliness, and unconsciously she veered towards Amol for a panacea. And now this unexpected tirade broke her heart into smithereens.
Sunaina did not offer any explanation, not because there wasn’t any, but simply out of the love and respect she felt for Hemlata. She bowed her head and quietly walked out of the kitchen. And later, the house.
The following morning proved to be the worst ever for the Chaudhary household. Their bubbly, beautiful Choti Bahu had left, rather eloped, with that young upstart Amol. In a simple handwritten note addressed to Dwarkesh, Sunaina declared she was moving out of their marriage citing irreconcilable differences and the absence of a shared marital goal.
A few early risers claimed to have spotted the two crossing the river in a boat. Luscious tales of their adulterous romance kept spinning as the rumour mills went into overdrive. Dwarkesh headed to an undisclosed destination for an indefinite period. Hemlata was hit the hardest. She took this incident as her personal failure, her inadequacy, in grooming Sunaina the right way. She got sucked into a vortex of self-reproach and despair and went into an early labour.
Twenty years had elapsed since. Dwarkesh remarried soon after and this time, proved to be a more responsible husband. Hemlata’s three children grew up well, got married, and led settled lives.
For some time, Hemlata had been feeling somewhat unwell and on the physician’s advice, went to Munger for a change of environment. Munger, with its salubrious weather and serene beauty, acted like a balm on her tired soul. However, through a sheer quirk of fate she ran into Sunaina there, during one of her routine walks. And when she invited her home, Hemlata could not refuse.
Hemlata rose abruptly. “Nain, I must leave now, it’s getting late.”
“Didi, please wait some more, Amol and the kids will be back any moment now,” Sunaina said, glancing at the grandfather clock. Suddenly, she held Hemlata’s hands, looked intently into her eyes and asked, “Didi, please tell me truthfully…have you still not forgiven me?”
Hemlata hesitated but only for a moment, dithering between convention and calling, and then embraced Sunaina tightly.
Meeting Sunaina after two decades and seeing her in a happy space changed a lot of perspectives for her. Age, experience and life lessons had largely mellowed her previous resentment and rankling. She had finally removed the blinkers of patriarchy and prejudice that she had been sporting all these years.
If she had initially slammed Sunaina and Amol’s alliance as a depraved one, she now saw it as a beautifully balanced and nuanced relationship. What she had earlier denounced as blasphemy, she now accepted as a suppressed woman’s spirited quest for self-esteem and assertion.
Steeped in the twilight haze stood the new, reinvented Hemlata, not the revered repository of the Chaudhary legacy but Sunaina’s closest ally, her lost-and-found soul sister. As the two women, once again, celebrated their organic synergy, shedding copious tears of joy, a shaft of crimson and orange blaze lit up the room as the sun outside went down with the promise of a new beginning, a better morrow.
Editor’s note: “Ideas are kind of magical. Sometimes I get them from reading or listening to people, but at other times, they just appear mysteriously,” says Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, bestselling and award winning author published in over 50 magazines, in over 50 anthologies, and having written several award winning books.
Her characters, as she says in this interview, “go through their difficulties and come out often stronger, wiser and more compassionate. I think they give hope to readers who are going through their own griefs. Perhaps that is why people – men and women – relate to my books. The characters’ sufferings make them feel that they are not alone.
The cue is this quote by her: “But maybe as I get older, I begin to see beauty where I least expected it before.“
Urmi Chakravorty wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: a still from the Hindi short film Methi ke Laddoo
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