Storm Before the Calm

Storm Before the Calm

April 15th 

Binodini’s worn-out pale sari looked old and stale next to the blazing bright white of her daughter’s shroud. The dry coarse wind possessed her loose, straggly tresses and they whipped wildly at her wailing mouth. The decrepit hut in the background loomed with an air of sulky doom.

Onlookers crowded the narrow strip of raised alley that parted swathes of farmland and bits of settlements on either hand. They watched with interest how the young widow beat her chest and fell into a limp faint in between bouts of bawling. Women of the village tried to hold her shaking frame from throwing itself onto the bamboo stretcher on which her daughter rested in eternal sleep. Within a matter of minutes, the stretcher was lightly rested on the shoulders of four pallbearers and in a haze of bamboo plants, flower offerings, incense and conch shankhnaad, the funeral procession slid away. The sound of their chant, “Hari bol, Hari bol…”, diffused and faded as the doleful march receded into the distance in the turbulent gale. 

“My child, my gem!”, she wept inconsolably. “Ohhh…my daughter! What is there for me to live for anymore?”

***

The previous afternoon… 

The village elders and elected heads sat pondering upon the delicate matter. There was the young man and his mother, levelling grave accusations of theft and entrapment at Binodini and her daughter. The young babu was articulate and clever. He described in detail how Tuki had latched onto him, pursuing him relentlessly since the training he had conducted. He asserted that he had responded to her only to try and help her mend her ways. His phone had gone missing and he had even lodged a police complaint. Later he saw that Binodini had the phone with her and using it she kept pestering him for attention day and night. Binodini tried to counter the accusations with some confidence but she wasn’t gaining many sympathisers. Tuki was trembling and frightened. The police were there as well, trying to arrange for a settlement to avoid the hassle of following up on an FIR. 

When the dreaded question came up, “How far has it gone between you two?”, the young man denied any involvement whatsoever beyond holding Tuki’s hands once. 

The social worker tried to speak on behalf of Tuki but they wanted either Binodini or Tuki to do the explaining. Binodini would have to share her daughter’s ordeal in detail. She simply could not do so in front of the entire village. She sensed her daughter and herself being plunged into an abyss of doom. The day ended in a fiasco for them. Tuki was asked to return the smart phone and keep her distance from men of good families. The young man was asked to be more careful while conducting his workshops and set a boundary for his generosity.

After the meeting, Tuki seemed happier than she had been in a long time. So what if she was painted as the offender with low morals, at least she didn’t have his phone any longer. He had wrung every drop of well-being from her life and now she was a villain in the eyes of her family and community. She couldn’t even go back to school. Still, her mother was with her and that was the only thing that mattered. 

Binodini prepared a good meal that evening and the two of them fed each other from the same plate. Late that night, Tuki’s shivering, twitching body awoke her mother. Binodini rushed to call her brothers–in–law for help. The Kalbaishakhi was brewing in the midnight sky. Despite the blazing lightning and deafening thunder they somehow managed to get her to the circle hospital where she was declared ‘brought dead’. The cause of death was stated as ‘Sudden natural death syndrome’, in the hospital files. Perhaps she had prayed fervently to be taken and Yama heard her.

***
Twenty-four hours earlier…

Binodini couldn’t afford to be incapacitated under the weight of her problems. A lifetime of living meal to meal had sharpened her awareness of and respect for the present moment. She couldn’t afford to idly luxuriate in her sorrows for too long. Her heart had bled with her child’s, through the night, but harsh daylight summoned her back to practicality. She was just completing her prayer rituals with watering the tulsi plant in her courtyard. She hadn’t sent Tuki to school that day. She wondered who she could turn to for advice on the situation. Perhaps she should go to the police. But she feared them too much. Maybe the madam from the NGO would be good to talk to.

Her thoughts were interrupted when a loud voice boomed across the front yard.

“Binodini, are you home?”. It was the panchayat representative from the village. “I am here to give you the summons to a panchayat meeting this afternoon. There is a complaint against you and your daughter.” 

Binodini was aghast. A chill cut into her heart. 

“ Hiren Babu, what are you saying? How have we wronged anyone? Surely …there must be some mistake.”

“Listen, I don’t know much about the details but it’s something to do with that boy who works in the Agriculture department here – it’s his mother who has demanded a hearing. They have also made a complaint at the Police station. Be there at the sabha bhavan by three in the afternoon.” 

She could learn nothing further about the sudden frightful development. “Who will save us?” She babbled to herself, her mind consumed with anxiety for her daughter.“ People will come to know of her shame.” 

It wasn’t just raining but pouring ill luck and to keep from drowning in her misfortune, her mind raced to clutch at the few straws she could think of. She decided to take Tuki along and immediately pay a visit to the madam at the NGO.

Then she suddenly noticed that the entire extended family had emerged from the hutment within the compound and were looking towards her questioningly, having overheard Hiren babu’s blunt proclamation. They had never before shown any inclination to understand or sympathise with any of her problems. They couldn’t be expected to begin doing so then. Binodini felt completely alone and bereft of support. She made a feeble effort to explain things. “ There is a small problem. I’m sure it will get sorted…”

“Boudi”, said her brother-in-law in an accusing tone. “You have to come clean on the problem. The Panchayat won’t call you without a staunch reason. What a shameful day for our family! You let Tuki go too far with her wilfulness. Now we shall all have to pay the price… where’s Tuki? Let her come out here.”

“I’m just taking her to the NGO madam. She will advise us well,” said Binodini crisply. “Hounding her is not going to help.”

“Things were getting out of hand with that babu. Were you too blind to see it?” Cut in a sister–in–law. “We should know how far things have gone between them… let Tuki come out here now!”

Tuki emerged from the hut just then and everyone flocked around her, blinking their eyes in anger.

She hung her head in apology but her voice was steady. “Kaku I’m like your daughter…hope you will forgive me one day. He said that he wanted to marry me…”

“ Marry you! That’s quite laughable. Why would he take a pauper’s daughter for a wife? This audacity will lead to no good for any of us…”

“Ask her if she has given up her chastity.” Said someone from the crowd. “Yes, we should know all the facts before the meeting.” Concurred another.

Somehow news of the commotion had reached the ears of the social worker from the anti-crime and drug abuse NGO. She arrived at their hutment just then. She asked to talk with Tuki and her mother only. 

On her prodding, Tuki opened up about the systematic abuse she had been suffering at the hands of the instructor babu. It had started the day she gifted him part of their first harvest. Ushering her inside a secluded room in the office, he had touched her most inappropriately. When she squirmed and begged him to stop, his aggression only increased. He had whispered menacingly in her ears that it would be more painful next time if she ever spoke a word of what happened. If she stayed quiet, he would marry her.

“He kept stalking me after school, calling me to his office on certain days when people wouldn’t notice. Then he gave me a smartphone…and my fate in hell was sealed.” Each revelation from her daughter left Binodini feeling smaller. She had been unforgivably blind to her child’s suffering. 

“ We need to immediately lodge a counter FIR at the block police headquarters. “ The social worker urged.  

“ Yes madam, and please speak on our behalf at the meeting this afternoon.” Binodini pleaded.

 

***
 April 12th …

Since the last bickering between mother and daughter, things had taken a turn for the worse and went on a steady decline. Tuki always seemed to be in tears. Binodini prodded and pried, to no avail, hoping to get her to speak her mind. Tuki couldn’t be prevailed upon to share anything though her vulnerable expression spoke volumes and made it seem like she wished to confide. Binodini had a hunch that it might have something to do with the opposite gender. She had occasionally seen Tuki walk back from school with the babu from the Agriculture office. Only recently, as she watched, they had stood talking at the end of the road and parted only reluctantly. Earlier she would never in her wildest imaginings have thought that the exchange between them was anything but innocent. But now that things were undeniably headed south, she was compelled to voice her doubts.

She tried talking with her. “Tuki, you are not old enough for all this. What was that babu talking to you about?”

Tuki lowered her eyes and said nothing. Her mother had not seen her smile in weeks. 

“You can talk to me, you know.” 

Tears streamed down the girl’s sad face.

One night Binodini awoke uneasily to the disturbing sound of clicks from a phone. The light was on and Tuki was in the kitchen. She waited for her to put off the kitchen light and come back to bed. Then, growing curious she went up to the door quietly to see what occupied her daughter. The sight almost knocked the life out of her frail body. 

A video was getting recorded. A video of her daughter without a string to cover her shame. 

Binodini stood staring, rooted to the spot, not quite understanding the goings on. Then struck with the obvious, she slumped to the floor. She looked away and closed her eyes, not knowing how to react. She felt her small world collapse with crushing finality. An acute hopelessness swallowed her being, arresting her breath. She hammered her head hard against the wall, punishing herself for her misfortune. Her sorrow welled up to inundate her eyes and though her conscience had morphed into an angry scream, she bit her hand to muffle her cry. It wouldn’t help to alert the neighbours. 

Tuki was quick to run for cover and don her clothes on being discovered. Rage shortly propelled Binodini out of her stupor. She caught her daughter by her hair and dragged her to the bedroom. Then picking up her slipper she rained slaps all over the whimpering girl. 

“You whore! Just what do you think you are doing? Are you out of your senses?” She rasped.

“Yes maa, yes! I am going mad…” Tuki keened in a rusty choked moan.

“I cannot stop this…I’m falling maa…I’m falling and failing you terribly…he…he calls me a whore too.”

Binodini caught her daughter’s arms savagely and shook her hard. 

“Tell me who this ‘he’ is,” she growled. Without waiting for an answer, she pushed Tuki away and began to curse and berate her further.

“Why didn’t you kill yourself before doing something like this? Who will marry you now? And your uncles…can you imagine what they would do to you…to us? We are ruined! How far has it gone with this man?”

“Maa…Oh maa! I am trapped in this. How can I come out of it? It seems impossible to make all this stop. He has many videos of mine. I don’t know what he is doing with them… but I’ve started getting weird calls from strangers. If I refuse to send new ones he threatens to show them to the village folk, threatens to kill me and harm you…I thought he loved me for all the care he showed before all this happened…but now I know, when it is  too late, that it is nothing but hate and only hate!” 

“Is it that Agriculture office babu?… I won’t let this rest. You are only fifteen. I will demand a Panchayat meeting. I’ll expose the scoundrel!”

“No mother, please don’t do that…it won’t save us from ruin. I think death may be the only way out for me…perhaps that is the price I must pay for being foolish …for thinking this was the thing, my friends, in school called ‘love’…let me sleep on your lap for a while maa…” 

Binodini wished to stop her broken daughter from mouthing such talk of dying, but she said nothing. Tuki curled up near her mother who cradled her with a forgiving, aching warmth; their joint sorrow racked their trembling bodies in spurts of seizure into the wee hours of the morning.

***
 February

It had been about a month since their first harvest that Binodini began noticing a steady change in her daughter’s attitude. She had started acting quite strangely out of character and was steadily losing the interest she had shown in their business. Binodini couldn’t comprehend her daughter’s change of heart. The glow in her eyes was now replaced with a lost, clouded gaze into nothingness. She longed to hear the innocent tinkle of her giggles which never seemed to surface any more. She was even reluctant to help with the chores. She tried to involve Tuki in the work.

“Tuki come help me prepare the compost for the mushroom bed”,

‘Maa, I’ve just painted my nails. Can’t spoil them.’ 

It was difficult to recognize the once chirpy and bubbly girl. She grew more taciturn with each passing day. She had always taken her mother into confidence and showed that she valued her opinions. Lately, Binodini had begun to feel only silence throbbing deafeningly within their four walls. Tuki shunned her mother’s company and slinked away into dark corners and clumps of trees beyond their compound. On returning home in the afternoon, she no longer hungered for her mother’s cooking. She wouldn’t look her in the eye. Binodini couldn’t imagine why or how her starry-eyed chatterbox would change like that, so drastically. The mushroom shed fell into neglect. Tuki was the one with the training and her mother couldn’t cope with the cultivation by herself. Binodini was convinced that an evil eye had fallen upon them. But not even healing rituals or talismans seemed to work. The old Tuki couldn’t be found again.

Soon Binodini lost patience. Only an ugly berating could get Tuki to contribute a little to the daily affairs of their household. Binodini was surprised at how easily she could spew choice invectives at her own flesh and blood. Tuki retreated further into her shell. 

Once Binodini happened to walk in on her while she was purportedly studying. But she wasn’t. She had a smartphone in her hand. She was furious.

‘ Where did you get that thing from eh?’ She demanded, lunging to smack her soundly.

Tuki dodged the slap and whined that a friend had lent it to her. 

‘ The whole world has smartphones. Only we live in the dark ages. She sobbed accusingly. 

‘ We should let our business pick up before splurging, don’t you think you, silly girl?”

‘What’s the point? You never give me anything I want!’

The exchange left Binodini feeling angry and defeated.

***
 Six months ago

Tuki was fifteen and she went to the neighbourhood school. She was a bright and pleasant child. When she lost her father, she slipped easily into the role of the primary support prop for her heartbroken mother. “ Don’t worry maa”, she had said, “I’m planning to stick with you and die an old maid! You have me to lean on whether you like it or not.”

 She usually rushed into the kitchen when she got home from school, hungry for a quick meal of pantabhat. Binodini eagerly served her child the food and sat with her awhile, impatient to hear the day’s gossip. The gossip was only an excuse and what she lived to see each day was her child’s animated and expressive visage as she spoke with excitement. Tuki would take brave bites of the chilli on her plate, suck in a cooling draught of air, and prattle buoyantly in between hasty mouthfuls of rice. Then came a day when she brought home news that would alter their lives forever. “ Maa, do you know … we had a very interesting vocational class today. They talked to us about mushroom cultivation. You worry that we don’t have enough money, don’t you? Well, this could change that for us. There is a workshop at the agriculture office you must attend tomorrow.”  

Binodini was interested but a little apprehensive. “ Do you think I’d be able to understand what they teach? I wish you would come with me.” So Tuki missed school and attended the workshop with her mother. One workshop followed another and soon the mother-daughter duo were quite ready to begin the novel venture. The training seemed to bring out the best in Tuki. She was clever and quick to comprehend instructions. Binodini beamed with pride when the instructor complimented her while the girl blushed abashedly.

The agriculture department office kept offering guidance from time to time even after conducting the training. They helped to finance the project as well, through a small loan. The young babu was especially accommodating. “ I’ll come over to your place and help set up the process.” 

This made Tuki even more excited and she gained the confidence to get the project going. Binodini sought permission to use the backyard from her brothers-in-law, who shared the compound with her. They initially baulked at the idea, thinking it to be an upstart one, but finally agreed to give her a bit of space. 

Soon the shed materialized, and every afternoon, once home from school, Tuki would bustle about, diving into the nitty gritty of their interesting pet project. Her energy was infectious and mother-daughter pitched in together to clean the wicker-walled cultivation shed and make preparations for the mushroom bed. She had learnt to make the compost, handle the spawn and cast it well. A few months later, when the first crop tumbled out of the straw bed, Tuki was dancing with joy. Binodini wanted to offer the first harvest at their family shrine. Tuki insisted that they save some of the crops for instructor babu as well, and she went to offer him the gift at the office. That evening she returned home flush and flustered. “ Calm down girl, why this unreasonable excitement?” Tuki only gave a tight half-smile, saying nothing. 

They ventured to sell the successive sproutings fresh, ferrying big baskets of the produce to the evening or weekly market. Business was good and it gave Binodini hope for a better tomorrow for the first time since her husband’s death from snakebite two summers before. But her peace and happiness had come with an early expiry date. 
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Glossary:
Shankhnaad: sound of the conch shell
Kalbaishakhi: nor’wester storm
Yama: Lord of death
Pantabhat: left over rice fermented in water for later use.
Babu: a title for an Indian  gentleman
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One thought on “Storm Before the Calm

  1. The characters of mother and daughter fending for themselves despite living in a difficult world and with the tensions between them is well written. It is a really moving story.

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