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A surly woman tutted, “tsk… her first Karva Chauth, and see how it ended.” “Do you think the Chowdhurys are a cursed family? First Lata, and now Kusum…” whispered another.
A blanket of doom had shrouded the conservative village. Once again, fate had played a twisted joke and people had been reduced to helpless bystanders witnessing the cruel drama. The modest houses, which had worn a festive look the previous night, were now cloaked in grief. A few youngsters had been entrusted with the responsibility of removing the marigolds adorning the mud walls. A heap of flowers formed near the large banyan tree–flowers not yet wilted, but an inappropriate sight to sore eyes and broken hearts.
Clear dew drops were still glistening on the verdant greens, but people had started trickling out of their homes as word spread around. Not minding the chill in the air, men-folk huddled outside the Panchayat office. Their dhotis, though white and spotless, were symbolic of their sorrow and shock. While the elders settled on stringed jute cots, the middle-aged men and youngsters took refuge under the trees. Stinging hushed whispers floated all around. They were nothing but empty words, yet powerful enough to drown the residents of the village in deep despair.
Just a little distance down the unpaved road, a few women sat on their haunches, their faces resting in the well of their palms. “Poor Kusum,” said one, looking at the henna on her hands.
“She was so happy yesterday,” said another, “and she looked so beautiful in her red lehenga.”
The women froze in their sentences and quickly covered their heads under their ghoonghats as the sounds of a vehicle reverberated louder than the mooing cows.
A skinny boy wearing nothing but a loincloth came running towards them, his excitement palpable through the gaps in his teeth. “Ma, can I come too?” he tugged at a woman’s saree. “Shh… this is not a celebration. Go home and ensure all children stay inside.” He winced in pain as his mother pulled his ear.
“Let’s go…” a wizened woman whispered, and soon a trail of footsteps followed her.
By the time the women reached the forlorn house, a few men had already taken command, barking orders, instructing one and all. The rest stood scattered here and there, heads bowed down in sorrow, hands folded in obeisance. Having downloaded its sole passenger, the empty vehicle zoomed by, raising a cloud of fine brown dust and leaving behind a sea of despair.
The village women shuffled inside noiselessly, offered their silent condolences, and sat cross-legged on the floor, occupying every inch of the courtyard.
Lata sat in the center of the muddy courtyard, the brown being the only colour amidst the white all around. A slight westward wind shifted her ghoonghat, exposing her blanched face dotted with tears and snot. Her only son, the light of her life, now lay under the white sheet – drained of vigor, with white cotton stuffed in his ears and nostrils.
A few steps separated her from the matriarch of Chowdhury family, Phoolmati Devi, who sat hunched on a cot, massaging her temples with her bony fingers. Her stone-cold eyes were, however, glued on Kusum. If only this girl knew how to take care of her husband. Her veins throbbed and thumped at the sight of the maroon henna on the girl’s arms and feet. She felt a fiery rage at the bindi still adorning the girl’s forehead and the vermillion in her center parting.
Phoolmati Devi immediately turned towards Lata, and the sharp contrast soothed her raging senses. She had ensured Lata had led an austere life – bare wrists, bare forehead and a broad empty center parting. The creases on her mottled face, the grey strands, the jutting collar bone made her look older than what she actually was. That had been Phoolmati’s way of seeking revenge. She deserves it, thought the matriarch as her lips pursed into a thin line. Her only son had died in a road accident, but she blamed Lata, her widowed daughter-in-law, for his demise.
“First, I lost my son, and now my grandson too! Why do I have such bewitched women in this family! Why can’t they pray with devotion for the long lives of their husbands?” she wailed, beating her flat bony chest.
Lata’s ears pricked as she witnessed her mother-in-law’s breakdown. The body language of the huddled women brought back memories of a distant time, of an older conversation. It is a strange thing about old conversations. Sometimes, you remember the pauses in between sentences more, the sighs, even the expressions, even if you cannot see them.
Though the incident was over two decades old, it remained fresh as forever. How could she forget the day when she had lost her husband? At 25, fate had snatched her happiness. She vividly remembered the heavy pauses amidst the vicious jabs, the cruel taunts laced with harsh pokes. She shuddered as she recalled the angry expression on the faces of the women tormenting her and her mother-in-law’s steely gaze reminding her of her position in the house—a burden, an inauspicious presence. In one instant, Lata had lost everything – her husband, respect and value.
And now history was repeating in a crueler form.
Kusum is just 17! Only yesterday, the girl had fasted and prayed for her husband’s long life. And today she is being blamed for his death.
The guileless girl sat hugging her knees. Her glass bangles jingled as she rocked back and forth. Her face, marked with dry streaks of tears, was enough to melt the coldest of hearts. But Phoolmati Devi was blind to tears. Her icy heart made her blind to others’ sorrow and despair. She understood the language of customs and traditions, nothing else.
Lata watched in horror, bracing herself to relive the worst as a group of women rose from the ground on her mother-in-law’s instruction. The men-folk hurried out to escape the harrowing events which were about to unfold soon. Letting out heart-wrenching wails, the grieving women settled next to Kusum, whose limp arms put up no resistance when someone grabbed her wrist and crashed her glass bangles. Tiny coloured splinters fell to the ground, but the sounds went unheard under ominous wails.
As the glass bangles shattered and fell, something broke inside Lata too. Paying no heed to the circumstances and ensuing consequences, she raced towards Kusum. Her hands trembled as she embraced the broken girl.
“Lata!” The decrepit walls quivered under Phoolmati Devi’s roars, but Lata remained seated, comforting her shocked daughter-in-law.
“Ma ji, I suffered in silence all these years, consoling myself that it was my fate. You blamed me for your son’s death, even when you knew it was not my fault. You snatched away everything from me—colours, jewels and joys. You called me an ill omen, barred me from stepping out, and treated me worse than an animal. But-”
“How dare you!? Who do you think you are to talk to me like this?” Phoolmati Devi thundered, as she couldn’t believe her ears. Her brows creased in fury at the realization that the meek doe was rebelling. Her face reddened with shame and anger when someone tittered, “looks like Phoolmati’s daughter-in-law is inspired by our prime minister, Indira Gandhi ji!”
A determined Lata, however, refused to be silenced. Even though she was trembling with fear, she held up her palm to silence her fuming mother-in-law and the assembled crowd. “I know you blame Kusum for Lallan’s death. But both you and I know he died of drinking illicit hooch. I am sure you have already planned of the many ways in which you will torture Kusum to seek revenge. I was naïve and had nobody’s support when you tormented me all these years, but enough is enough. Don’t you realize she was already suffering by being married to Lallan. You knew he was raping her and beating her every night, but turned a blind eye to her bruises.” The assembled crowd let out a collective groan at the skeletons being spilled out into the open.
But Lata didn’t care about them anymore. “I ignored her tears, her sufferings, fearing you, fearing the society. But enough is enough! Kusum is not alone, she has me.”
Engulfing Kusum in a tight embrace, Lata declared, “Ma ji, please answer me honestly, does this little girl deserve to be punished? What’s her fault? She has already lost her husband. What pleasure will you get in denying her dignity?”
She stood up with a renewed confidence, looking squarely into her mother-in-law’s glassy eyes, “nobody will tonsure her head, erase her bindi or force her to wear white. I’ll see to it that she is not forced to sleep on the cold floor, and she will not eat a single meal without salt or spices. My tongue may be dead with all those years of bland food, but I am not dead inside.
In the name of customs, I cannot let you ruin another life.”
Phoolmati Devi shuddered in horror as dried leaves rustled in the path of gusty winds blowing in through the courtyard. Kusum’s hazel orbs swam with relief and gratitude as she bowed down to touch her mother-in-law’s feet. Lata’s heart raced as she prepared herself to embark on a journey in a new role.
Not a victim, but a protector.
Not a silent sufferer, but an agent of change.
No one knew whether the matriarch Phoolmati Devi would challenge the winds or embrace the change, but one couldn’t deny the fact that the seeds of change had been sown amid gloom.
This story had been shortlisted for our November 2021 Muse of the Month short fiction contest. The author-juror Anuradha Kumar said about this story, “A story of a woman standing up for the rights of her daughter in law against the matriarch of the family and the forces of patriarchy that tries to crush both of them.”
Image source: a still from the film Ramprasad ki Tehravi
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