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“When she was thirty, she met her second husband, a fan who wooed and won her over with flattery and charm. You were seven years old then. You hated him on sight, Suman told me later.”
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Ujwala Shenoy Karmarkar is one of the winners for the February 2021 Muse of the Month. About this story, our author juror for this month, Damyanti Biswas says, “This is a novel masquerading as a short story, and I would encourage the writer to expand this if they wish, because it contains enough emotion and conflict to sustain a longer narrative.”
It was originally titled ‘Absolution for My Mother’s Sins’.
*Trigger alert: This story speaks of child sexual abuse and PTSD, and could be triggering to survivors
Dr. Iyer stood at the window staring unseeingly at the gardens of the sanatorium. The lawns were, as usual, dotted with the mentally ill walking with or being wheeled along by their attendants. A call had just come in from security personnel about a certain visitor who had demanded entry. The next hour would be a difficult one, but God willing…today she would finally be able to help her patient, no…correct that… help two of her patients.
The door opened after a cursory knock. Dr. Iyer’s visitor was Ranjana Shrivastava, the singing sensation and musical prodigy. Tutored in music by her mother from an early age, she had at the age of 18, won a reality music show impressing the judges with her talent. In the final episode of the show, she had played the piano and sung the Illayaraja composition- a lullaby “Surmaie Ankhiyon Mein Nanha Munna Ek Sapna De Ja Re” with a haunting depth and maturity that belied her age. Since then, in the past twelve years, she had gone on to become the darling of music composers and critics alike, wowing audiences across the globe and winning many awards .
Dr. Iyer was not star-struck, although this confident, albeit belligerent young woman was a far cry from the blood-covered, terrified eight-year old girl that she had been many years ago! Silently she lauded Suman for the love, care and patience that had wrought this change.
“Dr. Iyer! Are you the psychotherapist who’s in charge here? Can you tell me the meaning of this!” Ranjana was waving a paper, which was yellowed with age. She slammed it on Dr. Iyer’s desk. “I found this with my mother’s effects in a bank locker, after she passed away… it’s a receipt for a huge amount of money paid to this institute.”
“Ranjana, why don’t you take a seat?” Dr. Iyer’s soothing and calm voice startled Ranjana.
“Do I know you, Doctor? Have we met?” She asked with a puzzled frown.
“Yes, we have.” replied dr. Iyer. “Your mother, Suman was a good friend of mine. I sincerely mourned her passing. We had not met for the past 22 years, since she moved to Canada with you…but we have been in constant touch. Suman and I grew up together. You know, neighbours and friends in a small town always share a special closeness, a different chemistry.” Dr. Iyer paused. “Suman was learning music and l was a student of Psychology. We had planned to collaborate in creating a sanatorium like this one. With alternate therapies, mostly using music to treat the mentally ill…”
Ranjana sat down heavily in the chair opposite Dr. Iyer. What could she say in the face of such calm reason?
Ever since Amma’s death, she had felt so alone, all alone in a world full of people who wanted to know her, be with her, but none of whom she loved or wanted to know. Amma had been her one and only constant, her anchor, her port in any storm. She missed her so much. What she had discovered in that locker had further unsettled her. She had not slept for weeks, constantly waking from a fitful sleep filled with dark dreams; feeling a panic, a fear of… what did she fear… she did not know.
Something about Dr. Iyer’s eyes and voice brought a long-suppressed dread to the fore, like a limb that had gone to sleep and is tingling back to life. Conversely, this grey-haired bespectacled sari-clad woman also reminded Ranjana so much of her own Amma that she felt like laying her head down in the woman’s lap and venting the feelings that overwhelmed her.
Dr. Iyer was speaking. “Ranjana. Anything you say to me is confidential. A doctor cannot reveal what has been said in the sanctum of a place of healing.”
“But you are not my doctor, Dr. Iyer!” said Ranjana haughtily.
“Ahh… but I did treat you, when you were eight years old. That’s why I seemed familiar to you just now. So you see, I’m already your doctor and am bound to reveal nothing.” Dr Iyer continued serenely. “Have you wondered why you have trust issues, no close friends, or have never dated, or feel panic at smell of alcohol? Why do you suppose Suman left you this trail of bread crumbs to follow? A trail that leads to me…..to this place.”
Ranjana said nothing, bursting with questions but reluctant to ask. A Pandora’s box once opened, spilled its secrets indiscriminately, irreversibly.
“Let me make it easy for you, Ranjana,” continued Dr.Iyer. “You have always known that Suman is not your birth-mother. In the box, you found many pictures of yourself as a baby with a woman. Her face is disturbingly familiar. There’s a birth certificate with a birth-date that corresponds to yours, and the name of the mother on it is Suhasini Mathur. Ergo, you have concluded that the woman in the pictures, Suhasini, is your real mother. You are right, my dear. Suhasini Mathur is, indeed, your birth mother.”
Dr. Iyer paused slightly, then said, “What shocks and horrifies you is that the name Suhasini Mathur also appears on the newspaper clippings in the box; clippings that relate to a gruesome murder that happened 22 years ago. My name comes up as one of the special witnesses in the trial. Am I right so far?”
Ranjana was silent, her face hot with shame. Her heart drumming weirdly. She had hoped and hoped for a denial. Her mother, Suhasini Mathur, the musician and singer who, in the middle of the night had murdered her husband by stabbing him in the back thirty one times. Suhasini Mathur, who had been found wandering aimlessly on the road, covered in his blood. Ranjana had Googled the murder since she had found the clippings. So she knew that the man who had been killed was not her father (Thank God!), but the second husband of the woman named Suhasini (she just could not think of the murderess as her mother). There was also some speculation about adultery and torrid affairs in the links that she had pulled up.
Dr. Iyer was silent now. Should she go on, she wondered to herself. Should she reveal the whole truth and risk undoing the years of care and hard work put in by Suman? Her own contribution was also not small, for Suman had constantly consulted her, often talking and sobbing late into the night. It had been difficult to breach the mental wall of grief, silence, and shock that been little Ranju’s armour. Even after Suman had taken her thousands of miles away to escape the prurient gossip, it had taken years of love and patience to make Ranjana the woman that she was today.
Taking a deep breath, Dr.Iyer said, “Suhasini was Suman’s younger sister. They were fifteen years apart. Suman was a talented singer, but her real talent lay in teaching music. Suhasini was a prodigy… like you. She would touch the keyboard and magic was created. Again…like you. Suhasini fell in love with a fellow-musician, Dhruv, and married him, and had you, a bundle of delight. You sang before you could speak… do you know? Sadly, Suhasini was widowed before she was twenty four.”
Dr. Iyer studied Ranjana closely. How much did she recollect?
Ranjana was looking anxious now, hyperventilating and sweating. Her eyes closed, her fingers were massaging her temples. “I don’t remember… can’t…” She whimpered.
Dr. Iyer continued doggedly, “Six months into this marriage, Suhasini had a miscarriage. She was ill for a long time after that, and unable to leave her bed on most days. The only times she did get up, she would cook you a meal and feed you, and play the piano with you snuggled up next to her on the seat. Do you remember what your mother would play most often? Do you remember your favourite lullaby?” She asked softly.
Ranjana was rocking back and forth. A soft voice…. a sweet lullaby… then… a dark presence, a sibilant whisper, foul breath reeking of alcohol, a heavy hand muffling her cry, a weight crushing her and suddenly, blood, only blood. A voice crying and then silence.
“Ahhh, Ranju… I see that you remember! That night, your mother saved you from being raped by him… her husband who was drunk. Weak as she was, she gathered the strength to stab him over and over. But the sheer violence of what she did and the thought that she could not protect her child from such evil affected her mind completely. She has never been the same… ”
Dr. Iyer’s voice trailed away into a tearful whisper, finding it impossible to maintain her detached facade.
Dr. Iyer vividly recollected rushing to the police chowky in response to Suman’s frantic summons, to find eight-year-old Ranjana quietly sitting in a corner, covered in blood, dry-eyed, refusing to let anyone touch her. The child had no recollection of the ‘incident’, having blocked out the memory completely. Even later, Ranjana had not eaten, spoken or slept for days. Dr. Iyer had pieced together enough to know the reasons, but had kept it from being generally known. After formally adopting her, Suman had taken her out of the country to protect her, deciding that Ranjana’s welfare was paramount.
The two women sat silently. Ranjana’s memories still raw and tender… an old wound that needed to heal; Dr. Iyer feeling like Atlas who gets a reprieve from his heavy burden.
Just then a haunting melody rose in the air. The long French windows carried the rippling sounds clearly to the two women sitting in uneasy silence. Someone was playing the piano. Someone close by. Without realising it, Ranjana’s fingers moved in time with the music.
“Is that….?” whispered Ranjana, hopeful.
“Yes, child. She never recovered from the mental trauma. The court released her into my care.” said Dr.Iyer. “This is the only ‘normal’ thing she does. The rest of the time, she lives detached, in a cocoon of no feeling, where she retreats into herself. She plays this lullaby from beginning to end. Every single day. Then she breaks down and says sorry over and over again. She feels guilty for not protecting you. In her mind, she is still reliving it.”
Darkness slow and deep, quiet, still unmoving, unbreathing in a dark sugary sleep: no pain, no joy, no sight, no sound, no taste; she remained floating, distant. She wouldn’t wake up. She stayed in this cotton-wool world, its soft sleepy music lifting her up through the roof, the banisters, the rooms up above, through the entire weight of the building, it’s steeple. She rose like a wisp of cloud.
Her fingers moving of their own volition, flying across the keys, the melody a part of her blood, her sinews, her soul. Her baby has to be protected, her Ranju has to sleep undisturbed. All of a sudden the dark spectre of evil rises up…. her world pierced and destroyed… she is crying… helpless.
“Sorry, baby… sorry. I failed you…I failed you.” Suhasini bends her head, her tears falling.
Suddenly, she feels a touch on her shoulder. A voice saying, “No, Ma. You didn’t fail me. You saved me.”
A nudge and someone squeezes in beside her on the stool.
A hand appears beside Suhasini’s on the keyboard and then another, whose fingers pick up the melody. They play it one more time, this time in tandem- “Surmaie Ankhiyon Mein Nanha Munna Ek Sapna De Ja Re.” The melody rendered in two voices blended in perfect harmony fills the room.
Editor’s note: This month’s cue has been selected by Damyanti Biswas, author of the multi-faceted and fast paced crime fiction book, You Beneath Your Skin, reviewed here.
Damyanti Biswas currently calls Singapore her home. Her short fiction has been published, or is forthcoming, at Smokelong, Ambit, Litro, Puerto del Sol, Pembroke, Griffith Review Australia, as well as other journals in the USA and UK. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart, Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions and is available in various anthologies in Asia. She serves as one of the editors of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her debut literary crime novel, You Beneath Your Skin, was published by Simon & Schuster, and optioned for screens by Endemol Shine. She’s a mentor at Pitch Wars, a program for aspiring authors, a blogger for the past thirteen years, and sends out a curated monthly gazette for writers and readers.
The cue is from her book You Beneath Your Skin, which you have to incorporate into your entry – whether at the beginning, end or somewhere in between.
“Darkness slow and deep, quiet, still, unmoving, unbreathing in a dark, sugary sleep: no pain, no joy, no sight, no sound, no taste; she remained floating, distant. She wouldn’t wake up, she’d stay in this cotton-wool world, its soft, sleepy music lifting her up through the roof, the banisters, the rooms up above, through the entire weight of the building, its steeple. She rose like a wisp of cloud. “
Ujwala Shenoy Karmarkar wins a Rs 750 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: a still from the the film Talaash
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