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“We all have our own ways of grieving,” Namrata said in a firm voice. “Sandhya was always close to her father. She does not need to justify her actions to outsiders.”
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Smita Das Jain is one of the winners for the September 2021 Muse of the Month, and wins a Rs 750 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. The juror for this month, Manjul Bajaj commented, “Very well written. The reader is drawn into an unfolding situation. Other participants wrote on the theme of women and performing last rites. This one worked best for not being in flashback, for describing the action as it happened.”
Sandhya stood outside the colossal bungalow. She had taken the last flight from Bengaluru to Delhi and boarded a taxi from the airport for her parental home. It was fifteen years since her previous visit here.
The brightly lit house stood in stark contrast to the rest of the street at that hour. She scrutinised the extensive but unkempt garden from outside. The breeze bullied the reeds forcing them to swish and sway to its vagaries, forwards and backwards, this way and that. Everything was as it had been yesterday and the day before. The cuckoo bird continued its ‘coo-coo-once-is-not-enough-here’s-another,’ coo-coo call, pleased with its own poetics, its rhythm unfaltering. So much had transpired, yet nothing had changed.
Sandhya was in no hurry to enter the house.
“Sandhya, beta,” the guard called out. Aside from the silver of his hair and wrinkles on his face, he looked the same. “You have grown so much,” he said while opening the gate.
“How are you, Kaamal kaka?” Sandhya asked, frowning at the long column of cars neatly lined up on one side of the road leading to the house from the gate.
“Visitors have been arriving in droves ever since it happened,” the elderly man said. “It was a shock to all of us when your father passed away with a sudden heart attack at noon today. Hale and hearty he was this morning.”
Sandhya nodded. She had shed copious tears throughout the day after getting the news and now had no more left.
She took a deep breath, pulled the compact carry-on luggage bag and walked towards the house.
Some familiar and some not so familiar faces crowded the large living room. People had organised themselves into cosy groups and whispered among themselves. The murmurs from various corners in the room ceased when Sandhya came into view.
“Sandhya.” Namrata, her stepmother, called out and got up from the sofa. The petite figure dazzled with all the gold in the forehead, neck and hands. Apart from the missing signature red bindi on her forehead, she appeared the same woman of fifteen years ago to Sandhya.
Namrata embraced Sandhya and started to cry.
“It has been so long since you came,” Namrata said, sobbing. “Your father is no more to welcome you.”
“You would be happy today that Dad has died,” Sandhya hissed in her ears.
Namrata took a step back, her eyes betraying the hurt.
“You have all his money now for which you married him in the first place,” Sandhya continued, her tone low enough not to carry to others in the room.
“I loved your father.”
“Love with a man seventeen years older than you!!! I used to call you di during your visits for mother’s classes. Little did I knew about your intentions then.”
“Sandhya di.” Sandhya turned around to the sound of the excited voice from the back. Nimi, her seventeen-year-old stepsister, looked happy to see her. She was two years old when Sandhya had left home.
“How are you, Nimi?” she asked politely.
“Ok, considering the situation,” the young girl replied. “It is terrible that Papa has left us. But I am glad to finally meet you. You are every bit as pretty as Ma had described to me. Papa also used to talk a lot about you.”
Sandhya was surprised and felt guilty about never enquiring about Nimi during her father’s regular visits to Bengaluru.
“Come, see your father one last time,” Namrata led Sandhya by the hand to the far end of the room, where her father lay alone atop a white shawl. Another shawl of the same colour covered his body, with some feet protruding out. A solitary diya shone a few feet from his head.
Sandhya gingerly pulled down the shawl from her father’s face. He looked like someone in deep sleep about to get up any moment.
“She is not even crying,” someone in the crowd whispered loudly.
“Why would she?” Another voice chimed. “She had left home fifteen years ago.”
A hush descended on the crowd.
“It is time to take the body for cremation,” Namrata’s elder brother, Naresh, said.
Namrata took one last look at her husband’s body. A thick solitary tear flowed down her cheek.
“Sandhya, can we leave for the cremation ground now?” she asked gently.
Sandhya nodded at her.
“Who will light the pyre?” the family priest asked, holding out a round earthen pot with the holy water in his hand.
Naresh was starting to say something when Namrata said, “I will.”
Loud gasps could be heard before everyone in the room started to speak all at once.
“Women don’t light the pyre,” Naresh said.
“Says who?” Namrata challenged. “It is the right of next of kin to give mukhagni, which is Sandhya, followed by me. I am ready to do so unless, of course, Sandhya wants to do it.”
Namrata’s diminutive presence towered above everyone in the room. She looked every bit of the woman who had defied conventions all through life.
All eyes moved to Sandhya.
Sandhya thought for a few seconds before looking straight into Namrata’s direction. “Perhaps, we both can do it.”
Namrata’s lips parted a little before she nodded.
The chants of Ram Naam Satya Hai reverberated in the air.
Dawn had broken through. Sandhya sat on the bed of what used to be her bedroom, exhausted but not sleepy.
Like the rest of the house, the room appeared just as she had left it. The bed was in the same position, near the window. Her soft toys were all curled up on one side of the bed. The same childhood photographs decked the wall in front of her.
The wall on the left was adorned with more recent images- pictures from her graduation and post-graduation ceremony, a photo from her court marriage, the news articles of her achievements framed proudly.
Sandhya closed her eyes. The past flashed before her.
Theirs was an unhappy household. Her father and mother were wonderful parents but terrible spouses, always at daggers drawn. She couldn’t recall either of them smiling at each other.
Her mother used to take music classes at home, and Namrata was her favourite student. Eight years older than Sandhya, the bubbly and vivacious girl had charmed her way to everyone’s heart in the household.
Then one day, her mother had fallen ill and never got up from bed. The sound of silence replaced the quarrels in the house. Her father didn’t spare any expense to get her treated; he had himself looked after her, along with Namrata. Despite the best of care and prayers, her mother had breathed her last six months after the episode.
Namrata and her father had gotten married within a year, much to Sandhya’s bewilderment and consternation. People in their social circle smirked at the couple’s almost two-decade age difference, gossiped on the barely-there interval between her mother’s demise and father’s remarriage and speculated on the cause of her mother’s death.
Sandhya had borne the brunt of these malicious remarks.
“My friends tease me all the time,” Sandhya had hollered in tears one day to her father and Namrata. She could never think of Namrata as a mother.
“People will talk; they have nothing better to do. One day they will forget this and start talking about something else. Be patient, dear,” Namrata had advised her.
“Easy for you to say,” she had shouted and fled to her room. Namrata had followed her.
“Stay away from me,” Sandhya had dismissed Namrata’s affectionate pat. “You have made my life hell. Why did you marry my father, Namrata di?”
“I love him, Sandhya,” Namrata had entreated.
“Nonsense!” Sandhya had retorted.
Sandhya had resisted Namrata’s attempts to get close to her and yearned to escape to college in another city. Nimi’s birth a year after the remarriage had strengthened her resolve.
She eventually left for college in Bengaluru and never looked back at Delhi, much less the house. She completed her higher studies, found a job, and her life partner in the city that was home now. She had made it clear to her father, during his regular visits, that Namrata wasn’t welcome to meet her. Life seemed fine until today.
In hindsight, she could see the twinkle in his father’s eyes and hear the chuckle on his lips during these meetings. He was a much happier man in his second marriage.
Sandhya sighed and opened her eyes. There was no water in the room. She started for the kitchen but stopped at the sound of her name while passing Namrata’s room.
“This is so unfair of Jijaji,” Naresh was thundering, “to leave all assets, including this house, in Sandhya’s name. It is as if Nimi and you didn’t matter to him at all.”
“Your Jijaji had willed his entire property to Sandhya even before we got married,” Namrata replied. “From Day One of our relationship, I was in full agreement with Sandhya being his sole heir. I won’t have you speak ill of the dead soul.”
“But Sandhya doesn’t like you. What if she turns you and Nimi outside the house?”
“Sandhya has her reasons to dislike me, which I understand and appreciate. But there is not an ounce of spite in her. Even if it were to come to what you said, you don’t have to worry about me, Bhai. The regular little savings from the household budget provided to me has accumulated enough to provide for a cosy little home for Nimi and me for the rest of our lives.”
Namrata continued after a brief lull, “This house was always too large for me. I stayed here for your Jijaji’s sake but could not maintain it as Didi did. Sandhya will tend to the garden much better and restore the house to its glory days.”
Sandhya had overheard enough. She returned to her room and plopped down on the bed. The past seemed different when examined with a new lens. Sandhya had always blamed ‘greedy’ Namrata for ruining her formative years when she was the culprit for leaving her home without giving anyone a chance to forge new relationships.
‘Well,’ she mused, ‘It is never too late, in fiction or in life, to revise.’
“Must you leave so soon, Sandhya?” Namrata asked, disappointed. Naresh, Nimi and the two of them had finished their breakfast. Sandhya had expressed her intent to depart for Bengaluru on the first available flight during the meal. “You haven’t stayed for even twenty-four hours.”
“I am leaving my luggage behind. I would like to spend a longer time with Nimi and you than initially planned. So if both of you are fine, I will go to Bengaluru, make some arrangements and return with my husband and daughter.”
“How marvellous!” Nimi exclaimed. Namrata’s eyes widened, and a faint smile appeared on her face. “That would be nice, Sandhya. However, I also wanted to discuss your father’s will today.”
“No hurry, Namrata di,” Sandhya said and got up from her chair to walk across to Namrata at the opposite end of the dining table. “Can I call you di? It is difficult for me to call you Ma, but then we can define our relationship in our own way, right?” she asked in a soft voice.
Tears coursed down Namrata’s cheeks as she clasped Namrata’s palms in both her hands and nodded. Instead of a grown-up Sandhya, she saw the chirpy young girl with a thousand-watt smile. That smile hadn’t lost its charm after all these years.
Sandhya went to her room. The incandescent rays of the sun peeped in through the window. The mélange of blue, green and other myriad colours invited her outside. Yesterday was different. Today would be a bright new day.
Editor’s note: This month’s cue has been sent by Manjul Bajaj, the author of Come, Before Evening Falls (shortlisted for the Hindu Literary Prize in 2010) and Another Man’s Wife (shortlisted for the Hindu Literary Prize in 2013) and In Search of Heer (listed for the JCB and other prizes in 2020). She has also written two books for children—Elbie’s Quest and Nargisa’s Adventures.
The cue is from her book In Search of Heer.
“The breeze bullied the reeds forcing them to swish and sway to its vagaries, forwards and backwards, this way and that. Everything was as it had been yesterday and the day before. The cuckoo bird continued its ‘coo-coo-once-is-not-enough-here’s-another’, coo-coo call, pleased with its own poetics, its rhythm unfaltering. So much had transpired, yet nothing had changed.“
Image source: a still from the film Listen, Amaya
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Smita Das Jain is a writer by passion who writes every day. Samples of her writing are visible in the surroundings around her — her home office, her sunny terrace garden, her husband’s car and read more...
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My voice matters to me, my opinions hold my name. I want to be remembered for what I have disobeyed. That I am unapologetically me.
(Every time I write about myself, a part of me is liberated. This is a lot about women who dare to wear imperfections as their most precious attire. This is a tribute to all those women who believe in their womanhood, who believe they are special, beautiful, and powerful with their flaws. Who face humiliation on a daily basis for they are flawed, but they don’t pay their ears to the society that always points fingers at them. Instead, they sing, they dance, they eat, they drink, they cry, they smile, they fall, they rise, living in their own world of sisterhood, for they know their tribe has their back.)
I celebrate myself every day.
Every time I face rejection in the marriage proposal
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