“Om Bhur Bhuvah Swah.” Pritha chanted the scripture from memory. Brought up in a missionary boarding school, she had been introduced to the ritualistic puja of a middle class Bengali Hindu household only after her marriage. The first morning in her in-law’s house, Pritha had been expected to assist her mother-in-law during the morning puja. When she had expressed her ignorance, her mother-in-law had taunted her, calling her a brown skinned memsaab. Pritha had looked to her new husband, Biplab for support but he had looked away thus endorsing his mother’s opinion by his silence.
And that set the tone of their relationship. Every time Pritha found herself the subject of criticism and had appealed to Biplab for support, she had been met with silence and nonchalance. Biplab was the proverbial Bengali bhadralok, a gentleman. Soft spoken, polite, dutiful. He had been a dutiful son, a dutiful husband and later a dutiful father to their two children. He lived his life in moderation but to Pritha that translated to detachment and lack of passion.
The only child of doting parents, the initial years as bahu of a joint family were tough for Pritha. But with a stoic determination so alien to her effervescent passionate nature, she moulded herself to the requirements of her new family and with time even won their approval if not their appreciation. Over the years, her sister-in-law married and moved away. Pritha’s mother-in-law and father-in-law died in quick succession of each other. Biplab sold his ancestral home and the family of four shifted into a modern luxury apartment in an upscale locality of Kolkata. One of the few traditions that Pritha retained from her life with her in-laws was the ritualistic puja every morning.
Six months ago, Biplab had died of a sudden massive cardiac arrest. After his death Pritha realized that she had come to be dependent on Biplab over the years and missed his presence. But she felt none of the devastation or soul numbing grief that one expected, after a marriage of thirty years. Her grief, like her marital life, was at the best lukewarm.
But that was not what her children saw. For her son and daughter, she appeared the helpless widowed mother, heartbroken and lost without their father. Which is why they insisted that she come and spend time with them. So here was Pritha at Noida, living with her daughter Rupali since the last three months.
Rupali had always envied her parents their marital harmony and the bond they had shared. Rupali adored her mother but idolized her father. His calm rational demeanour was a perfect foil to her mother’s volatile nature and histrionics. With his serene composure and his non-judgemental attitude, her father was the lighthouse to guide her home when Rupali found herself in choppy waters. After his death rupali missed him terribly.
Rupali had always hoped to meet a man just like her father and have the ideal marriage like her parents. But her two affairs of the heart in college had not lasted. It was always Rupali who called an end to the relationships. In her moments of introspection Rupali admitted that from the very first day of her relationships, she had always looked for an escape route, a flaw that would give an excuse to end the affair. Rupali had never understood it herself, the discontent, the restlessness, the claustrophobia that she felt in her relationships, till she moved to Noida to intern at Design Studio, a well-known house of fashion.
There Rupali met Gitanjali Iyer or Ginny as she liked to be called. Ginny was as bohemian as they come with Afro style braided hair, a nose ring on her septum, multiple ear studs, colourful kaftans, flared trousers and chunky jewellery, which made sure she was heard before she was seen. Like Rupali, Ginny too was an intern but she had none of the shyness or submissiveness that Rupali possessed. Nine months into their internship, while Rupali and Ginny had been working late together on a project whose deadline was fast approaching, Ginny had suddenly turned around and kissed Rupali hard on the mouth. Even today, three years since that fateful day, Rupali could not ascertain what shocked her most, Ginny’s kiss or the myriad wonderful sensations that coursed through her. It had all felt so alien yet so right.
For days after, Rupali avoided Ginny. She even tried to date one of her male colleagues. Finally she gave up and accepted the truth about herself. With acceptance came relief and a sense of freedom. She understood why none of her previous relationships had worked. This time round Rupali approached Ginny.
That was three years ago. In these three years their relationship had progressed at its own pace. They were now both junior designers at the Design Studio and slowly carving out their own niche. The next logical step was to move in together. As the ever practical Ginny pointed out, they spent most of their time together, hence it made no sense to maintain two establishments. But Rupali refused to live together till she had told her parents. The time never seemed right. Rupali always found an excuse to keep postponing the moment of truth. Then she ran out of time. Her father died. The one man who had understood her and would have surely supported her, was no longer there. But now her mother was here and Ginny insisted Rupali tell her mother.
“Rups, it’s now or never.” Ginny gave her an ultimatum.
As Rupali watched her mother go about her puja, she wondered how Pritha would react. Her mother was temperamental and prone to melodrama. Would she create a scene or would she sensibly accept the inevitable? Oh! How Rupali missed her father!
Mangala watched her mother-in-law surreptitiously from under lowered lashes. Her mother in law was clearly distracted, her mind far away from the book she pretended to read. To say that Mangala had been surprised when her mother-in-law had called from Noida, to say that she was coming to Dharamshala for a visit, would be an understatement. Her mother-in-law knew that her son and Mangala’s husband Dr Rupak Roy was out of the country attending an orthopedic conference in Glasgow. He would not be back for a month and Mangala was alone at Dharamshala. Yet Pritha had insisted that she wanted to visit immediately. She seemed determined to leave Noida as soon as possible. Mangala wondered what had transpired at Noida.
Mangala was aware that her mother-in-law was not fond of her. Dr Mangala Tamang, a Nepali of Indian origin, with skin too fair, a blunt nose and almond shaped eyes was not exactly what Pritha had in mind for her only son. Mangala had often overhead her mother-in-law refer to Mangala as ‘chinky’ when gossiping with her relatives over phone. Mangala did not mind. Chinky was a term she had got accustomed to while studying Medicine in Delhi.
Mangala had met her husband Dr Rupak Roy while pursuing her fellowship at Glasgow. In the bone chilling grey depressing climate of Scotland, the two Indians from warmer climes gravitated towards each other. Mangala’s parents had welcomed their Bengali son-in-law with open arms but Pritha, Rupak’s mother had put her foot down. She went into hysteria claiming that the chinky eyed pahari had bewitched her son. It was only because of Rupak’s father, who came out of his habitual nonchalance to assert his authority, that the marriage had taken place.
Therefore Mangala was very surprised that Pritha chose to visit her while Rupak was away. Mangala waited every day for her mother-in-law to criticize her cooking, the way she ran the household, the home décor but this time her mother-in-law seemed mellow. She spent most of her time lost in her own thoughts, responding in monosyllables when Mangala tried to engage her in conversation. And she waited for her son to return.
Mangala dreaded the day Pritha would learn the truth that her son was not returning to India any time soon. The truth that Rupak’s and Mangala’s marriage was over. The truth that Rupak and Mangala had filed for divorce.
After completing their studies at Glasgow, Rupak and Mangala had returned to India to join a super-speciality hospital in Dharamshala that provided state-of-the-art facilities and modern treatment to the people at an affordable price. Mangala at once fell in love with the quaint hamlet. She loved the simple people and their innate cheerfulness. At first, so did Rupak but with time he became disenchanted and disillusioned. A state-of-the-art hospital in India was still far below the standards of a hospital in Scotland.
At around this time, cracks began to appear in their marital relationship. At first they both struggled to set things rights but finally one day they accepted that the marriage was over. With acceptance came relief. After seven years of marriage they decided to part ways on grounds of incompatibility. They had wanted to inform Rupak’s parents face to face, but before they could do so, his father passed away. It didn’t seem right to burden his mother at the time of her bereavement. Then, Rupak left for Glasgow to finalize his new job at The Glasgow Infirmary. He had promised Mangala that he would break the news of their impending divorce to his mother on his return. But once in Glasgow he kept postponing his return. Mangala suspected he did not have the stomach for the inevitable drama that would follow once Pritha learnt the truth.
Mangala looked at her mother-in-law. The indomitable lady appeared frail and lost. Mangala’s heart went out to her mother-in-law. Perhaps Pritha was more broken than she let on.
“Ama.” Mangala said in the gentlest of voices. “There is something I need to tell you.”
Pritha marvelled at the changes that had taken place in her life over the last thirty two months. She had returned from Dharamshala, heartbroken, let down and betrayed by both her children. Repeatedly she went over the conversation with her daughter Rupali, that fateful morning.
“Ma.” Rupali had said in a hesitant voice. “I need to tell you something.”
“Yes?” Pritha had asked, unaware of the explosive disclosure her daughter was about to make.
“I am in love, Ma.”
“That’s wonderful, Rupu!” Pritha exclaimed, resorting to Rupali’s nickname. “What’s his name? When do I meet him?”
“Her name is Ginny.” Rupali replied, apprehension creeping into her voice.
“Ginny? That’s an odd name. What’s his full name?” In her excitement Pritha had missed the emphasis on “her.”
“Her full name is Gitanjali Iyer.” Rupali replied and waited for the inevitable explosion.
“Gitanjali? But that’s a girls…” Pritha’s voice trailed off. She stared at her daughter aghast.
“Yes, Ma.” Rupali said in a barely audible voice.
There was a moment of stunned silence as Pritha digested the truth. Then all hell broke loose. Pritha raved and ranted, berated and beseeched her daughter in turn.
“How can you? Have you no shame! When did you become so abnormal? What went wrong in your upbringing?” Pritha had been hysterical.
Rupali tried to reason with her mother.
“Ma, I am not abnormal, just different. It’s to do with my preference, not my upbringing.”
But Pritha refused to see reason.
“Get married to a man. At least you can try to change.”
“I have only one life, Ma. I cannot waste it trying to change.” Rupali said tearfully.
Pritha had left the next day for Dharamshala to wait for her son, hoping he could set right her upside down world. Little did she suspect that another explosion awaited her there, another betrayal!
“Ama.” Mangala said in a gentle voice. “There is something I need to tell you.”
“Uh huh.” Pritha replied immersed in thoughts of Rupali.
“Rupak will not be returning from Glasgow soon. He has decided to take a job and settle down there.”
“What about you?” Pritha could not comprehend what her daughter-in-law was saying.
“I shall not be joining him.” Mangala’s heart broke at the look of bewilderment on her mother-in-law’s face. “We have decided to go our separate ways. We have filed for divorce.”
“But how can that be? You had a love marriage. You were so in love with each other.”
“Yes, we were. But with time we fell out of love. We still care for each other but are no longer in love.” Mangala said sadly.
“Marriage isn’t all about love. It’s about adjustment, about compromise.” Pritha had pleaded with her daughter-in-law.
“No, Ama. I have only one life. I can’t live it in compromise”
Pritha had returned to Kolkata heart broken, disillusioned. She kept to herself and stepped out of the house only when required. She refused to answer her daughter’s calls and her son rarely called. Then one day, friends from Pritha’s book club barged back into her life. They would not take no for an answer and forced Pritha to join them every Sunday for book reading sessions, followed by snacks. It was there that Pritha met Amit.
Amit Chaudhuri was a painter and a closet poet. He was a widower having lost his wife to cancer within five years of marriage. He had no children. An easy friendship blossomed between Pritha and Amit, which extended beyond the book club to shared coffee and the occasional dinner. If Pritha realized that what they shared had progressed to something beyond platonic friendship, she decided to ignore it. Till one day, six months ago, Amit proposed marriage.
Pritha had been scandalized. She was honest enough to admit that what she felt for Amit was beyond mere friendship but marriage?!
“Are you crazy, Amit?” Pritha had asked in a stunned voice. “No one gets married at our age. What will society say? What will my children say?”
“Well, I am in love and love is akin to craziness.” Amit had joked. Then he had sobered up. “I do not know what society will say and I do not care. As for your children, you will never know what they have to say till you ask them. But, I do know one thing. We have one life to live and we should live it the way we want to.”
After much pestering from Amit and cajoling from her friends at the book club, who apparently had been aware of the blossoming romance and approved of it, Pritha had called her son in Glasgow. Rupak had received the news with nonchalance, congratulated his mother and wished her well for her new life. Even a stranger would have displayed more emotion.
Pritha put off speaking to Rupali under one pretext or the other. Pritha knew how Rupali had always idolized her father. She would never accept another man in her mother’s life. Rupali would feel betrayed.
However it was not fair to keep Amit waiting forever, so here was Pritha standing before the telephone gathering courage to make the call.
“Tr…ing, tr…ing.” The phone rang twice before Rupali picked it up.
“Hello.” Pritha heard the brisk voice of her daughter.
“Rupu.” Pritha said tentatively.
“Ma?” Rupali answered in disbelief.
“Yes, Rupu. It’s me.” Pritha replied.
Then before she could lose her courage Pritha blurted out everything. She told Rupali about Amit, their friendship which over time had transformed to love, and his marriage proposal. Having said it all in one breath, Pritha waited for the inevitable tirade. She was sure Rupali would berate her, mock her, and may be even call her names. When she heard nothing Pritha assumed that Rupali had disconnected the call.
Then she heard her daughter’s voice choked with emotion.
“Congratulations! I am so happy for you Ma. When have you set the date?”
Pritha laughed through her tears.
“How could I set the date without consulting you, silly?” She said.
Then she paused before she said softly, “And Rupu, bring Ginny to the wedding please. I would love to meet her.”
For a long moment nothing could be heard except for muffled sobs as mother and daughter gave in to the deluge. In the silence, vows of forgiveness, acceptance and unconditional love were exchanged.
Finally after a long conversation, Pritha put down the phone, emotionally drained but happy beyond measure. Then on an impulse she picked up the phone again. She dialled a number she still recalled from memory.
“Hello. Dr Mangala Tamang here.” Pritha heard the calm confident voice of her daughter-in-law.
“Mangala, it’s Ama.” Said Pritha wondering if Mangala still thought of her as Ama.
“Ama?” Mangala sounded incredulous.
Before Pritha could reply, Mangala continued in an excited voice. “Congratulations, Ama. Rupak has told me everything. I am so happy for you. You deserve all the happiness. So when have you set the date?”
Pritha didn’t know what surprised her more. The fact that her son was still talking to his ex-wife or that Mangala was so genuinely happy for her mother-in-law, who had not kept in touch with her after the divorce.
“Will you come to the wedding, Mangala?” Pritha asked tentatively.
“Of course, I will Ama.” Mangala assured her cheerfully.
Kolkata, 2 months later
Pritha had wanted just a simple marriage registration. But everyone refused to comply. So the registration was followed by mala badal to the accompaniment of uludhoni. Later there was a dinner party attended by their book club friends. Finally everyone left, including Amit. He realized tonight Pritha needed to be with both her daughters. Even Ginny, showing a rare glimpse of sensitivity, had retired to her room.
Pritha, Rupali and Mangala walked out onto the terrace. Under the vast night sky, the three ladies raised their flutes of champagne in a silent toast. A toast to life, the one life they had and the courage to live it on their own terms.
Mala bodol : (Bengali) part of marriage ceremony where garlands are exchanged
Uludhoni : (Bengali) a high pitched sound made by clucking of tongue, considered auspicious
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