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Manju ji’s heart melted at her antics. She always wanted a daughter like her but the stern mother-in-law in her prevented her from accepting Anisha as such.
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Seema Taneja is one of the winners of the December 2020 Muse of the Month.
‘Mom, what should I make for breakfast today? I will also chop the vegetables for lunch.’ Anisha handed her mother-in-law a cup of tea and sat down to have hers.
‘What’s the hurry for breakfast? Go, have your bath first.’ Manju ji snapped. She didn’t like that her daughter-in-law stepped into the kitchen without having a bath.
‘Mom, actually I have to leave early today since I have a meeting at 9 AM. So I want to finish all the work before getting ready.’ Anisha smiled and got up to fetch the vegetables from the fridge.
Manju ji squirmed in her seat. She liked Anisha but she didn’t brook any defiance of her rules. And why would she? Isn’t it the duty of every daughter-in-law to uphold the traditions of the family? She was only trying to teach her daughter-in-law what her own mother-in-law had taught her.
Anisha had got married to Rajat six months ago. Both of them worked in a software company and the proximity of working in the same team had brought them closer. Manju was upset when Rajat revealed his desire to marry Anisha. He was her only son and she had many dreams for his wedding. But she had to accede to his wish when her husband also supported their son.
‘My mother is a bit strict and old-fashioned. Would you be able to adjust to her shenanigans?’ Rajat had asked Anisha before their wedding.
‘Mothers have to be strict to maintain discipline in the family. My mother also has certain rules which both of us sisters have to follow. So what’s new in that?’ She had retorted. ‘Don’t tell me you’re trying to scare me into saying ‘no’ to your proposal! Or are you getting second thoughts?’ She had then teased him.
They got married in a simple ceremony, without much pomp and show. Manju wanted a lavish wedding but she had to suppress her desires when Rajat put his foot down. Her displeasure was not hidden from anyone though.
‘You’re still upset that I don’t take a bath before entering the kitchen?’ Anisha asked, looking at the grim and sullen face of her mother-in-law, as she stirred vegetables in the wok. ‘Mom, do you also believe a woman becomes impure after sleeping with her husband? If that’s correct, then the same rule should apply to him also. So would you ask Rajat also to have a bath before barging into the kitchen for his tea?’ Anisha put across her point in a firm but amicable tone.
What cheek, girl! Manju looked askance at Anisha’s comments but swallowed the retort. She didn’t want any unpleasantness in the morning yet she continued to singe at her argument.
‘She thinks she is the smartest and can teach her mother-in-law!’ Manju blurted out to her husband later.
‘Come on! You also know that Anisha isn’t completely wrong. She may speak her mind but she’s also a sweet, sincere and sensible girl. Look at the way she strikes a balance between her office and house chores. You don’t need to ask her for help.’ Ramesh ji chided his wife lightly. ‘What if her ways are a little different from yours?’
‘But what about our culture and tradition? I also used to have my bath at five, even in winters. I didn’t dare raise my voice before my mother-in-law but look at the way this girl argues about everything.’ Manju persisted.
‘But you did crib about the torture from your mother-in-law, didn’t you? Don’t think I have forgotten that.’ Ramesh ji grinned.
‘Oh please, don’t start that again.’ Manju said, a little sheepish at the memory. ‘
Anisha and Rajat stood outside their door, struggling to control their laughter. After thirty years of togetherness, Ramesh ji had become an expert in placating his wife.
A week later
‘Rajat, I am taking the car today because I have to take Mummy to the doctor. Her blood pressure has shot up again and her yearly medical tests are also due.
Mom, I may need to stay with my mother for a couple of days.’ Anisha spoke as they sat down to have breakfast.
Clanggg! Manju dropped her spoon in the cup, splattering tea on the dainty table cloth.
‘You’re asking for permission or informing me?’ She spoke through clenched teeth. She didn’t mind that Anisha wanted to stay with her mother but the fact that she took that decision on her own was unpalatable for her.
‘Mom, I don’t think I need to ask for permission to visit or stay with my mother. She’s as much my and Rajat’s responsibility as you and Dad are. She stays alone but the least I can do for her is to be with her when she needs me. Pardon me for saying this but how would you feel if Rajat is not with you when you are unwell?’
‘Anisha had told me last night but I forgot to inform you, Mom,’ Rajat intervened.
Manju fiddled with her breakfast in a stony silence even as the others chatted about this and that. Anisha picked up her overnight bag and was about to leave when Manju ji stopped her. ‘Take good care of your mother, Anisha. And if need be, call Rajat to accompany you.’
Anisha beamed with joy and gave her a hug. ‘You are the best, Mom. I knew you would understand.’ Rajat and Ramesh ji turned away to hide their smiles. Manju ji’s heart melted at her antics. She always wanted a daughter like her but the stern mother-in-law in her prevented her from accepting Anisha as such.
Anisha’s father had expired in a car accident when she was 10 years old and her sister Anvesha only 3. They were shattered by his sudden death but with the passage of time, they came to terms with it as their fate. Her mother was working and they didn’t have financial problems but the absence of their father – their pillar of strength still rankled.
The father’s death had matured Anisha and Anvesha in their childhood. They were not only good at studies but also quite sensible and caring. They knew that their mother never complained but her struggles and age were taking a toll on her health. They had resolved that they would never leave her alone.
And Rajat supported their decision.
He sat in a pensive mood while Anisha drove to their office. ‘I don’t know why Mom behaves in such an obnoxious manner sometimes. She doesn’t mean any harm…’ Rajat’s voice broke off.
‘Don’t worry, Rajat. I know she is not an evil woman. Like so many women, she is also trapped in the shackles of societal norms and family traditions. She’s always stayed within the house and viewed life from the way her elders made her see it. She has never seen the beauty that lies outside the narrow confines of her home.’ Anisha patted his hand to comfort him. ‘No worries though. You can trust your wife to find a way out!’ she fluffed up her imaginary collar with one hand. They both burst into a guffaw.
‘Mom, my friends are planning to go on a trip.’ Anisha came to her mother-in-law excitedly. ‘It will be a women-only trip so should I register our names too?’ She asked her even though she knew what her reply would be.
‘Women only? What are you saying, Anisha? How can we leave the men behind and go out alone to have fun? This is not our culture.’ she was incensed, as anticipated.
‘But what’s the harm, Mom? It’s only a matter of one day and the resort is quite safe. I am sure Dad and Rajat can manage for a day.’
‘No Anisha, I can’t even imagine going out alone.’
‘But you won’t be alone, Mom. Your friends Rani aunty and Shyamala aunty are also coming so you would have ample company. Besides, I am also asking my mother to come. Please please please, Mom, say yes!’ She pleaded like a child.
Ramesh ji had been watching the spectacle with an amused air. ‘Stop pretending, Manju ji. I know you also want to go. And we will also get a respite from you.’ As always, he teased her.
‘Alright!’ Manju ji relented. ‘But only because you are so keen on this trip and I can’t let you go alone.’ As always, she wanted an upper hand. Many of her reservations about Anisha had begun to fade away but her ego still came in the way of trusting her fully.
The following weekend, Manju and Anisha reached the resort which was just an hour’s drive away. They also picked up Anisha’s mother en route. Their friends had already reached there and checked into their rooms.
Manju ji was astonished to see the plush interiors and the sprawling expanse of green outside. She had never been to such places. After an initial gust of hesitation, she became comfortable. After freshening up, all the women went out to have tea that had been laid out on the lawn. The waiters hovered unobtrusively in the background and kept replenishing their plates. Anisha would check on her mother and Manju ji every now and then.
Manju ji loved the attention and the luxurious atmosphere. She had seen such places only in movies or television serials. She joined her friends for a stroll around the garden while the younger women enjoyed a game of Badminton or jived to the peppy beats of music. She was surprised to see the number of women enjoying themselves without any men by their side. It seemed almost surreal.
She called home to check on her husband and son and was surprised to know that Anisha had already ordered their dinner. How wrong she was about this girl, she rued. She was as caring towards her marital family as her mother.
How could I judge her to be a selfish and uncaring daughter-in-law? For the first time, Manju was angry with herself for being so prejudiced.
After a lavish dinner, they all settled down to play cards. Manju ji sniggered at the suggestion to join them; she had always been told that women from good families stayed away from such vices. But at her friends’ insistence, she agreed to sit down with them.
The chirping of birds and song of peacocks woke her up.
7’o clock! It’s so late! Manju sprang to her feet.
‘Relax, Mom. You’re on a holiday.’ Anisha pushed her back in the bed.
An hour later they gathered in the resort’s restaurant for a hearty breakfast. The women happily posed for photos and clicked a lot of selfies.
Soon it was time for them to leave. Manju ji kept glancing back as their car moved out of the resort.
Anisha noticed Manju ji was unusually quiet during the entire return journey.
‘You didn’t like the trip, Mom?’ Anisha broke the silence.
Manju ji slowly turned towards her.
‘I loved the whole experience, beta. It’s a revelation for me. I never expected that women could be so free without the protective cover of their men. I wonder why I refused to see this beautiful world, till now. Thank you!’ Her eyes were moist with joy and gratitude. ‘And I am so sorry for imposing on you my narrow mindset in the name of culture and tradition. I was so wrong, beta.’ Her voice broke down.
‘No sorries, no thank you, Mom! And how about another trip soon? A longer one this time?’ Anisha beamed.
‘Yes!’ Manju exulted.
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.“
Seema Taneja wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: a still from the film Aamhi Doghi
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