Aparajita had come home after a long time. Not that she had ever expected to be welcomed with fanfare or extended the red carpet for her stay, but to be relegated to the background, while other events took precedence, had made her resentful. There were celebrations, that too of a massive scale, but it had nothing to do with her arrival. Mrs Malini Rai had another victory to add to her feather and this was a milestone, she was soon to be sworn in as the Chief Minister. “Where do I stand among the laurels of such an eminent personality” Aprajita scoffed as she looked down from the balcony at her mother surrounded by jubilant party workers.
“You, didn’t join the celebrations?” Aparajita turned around as she heard the voice.
“Hi, papa” Aparajita smiled at her father “I don’t belong there, am better off here”, she went back to her resentful self. She saw a quizzical expression on her father’s face. “Why aren’t you there, papa?” She asked her father, with an intent to stop him from questioning her any further.
“She has achieved this after years of hard work, let her revel in her success and enjoy the adulations.” Aparajita smiled at her father’s response.
“You have a way with words, you camouflage your bitter and insecure thoughts with such beautiful words.” Aprajita’s response left her father stunned for a moment.
“Why would you think I am bitter or insecure of your mom’s success Apu” her father questioned, and she could gauge the hurt in his voice.
“You know papa, I have never seen you particularly celebrating mom’s success. I don’t blame you for that, being in the shadow of a successful spouse, is not easy.” Aparajita could see her father smile in response to her words. Was he agreeing to them or mocking her thought as immature? She could not make out what that expression meant and seeing her father walk away, she knew her confusion was going to be unresolved.
A while later Aparajita saw her father walk in with a dark brown leather folder in hand. Seeing the name Nirmal embossed on top, she instantly recognised that folder. But she was surprised to see it outside her father’s closet. The folder was his most guarded possession. As he handed her the folder, she was left stunned.
“You are giving me permission to access your most guarded possession” she exclaimed in shock.
“It’s time Apu, that you declutter your mind. Prejudices have been clouding your mind, preventing reasonable thinking. I don’t blame you, that is where I was not very long ago. The bitterness in me ate away a lot of precious years of my life. I don’t want you going through that, read this.” Her father handed her the folder and walked away.
Aparajita opened the folder and she saw clippings of news articles carefully stuck on sheets of paper with the dates labelled on each of them. She looked more closely, the author of the articles in all of the clippings was Malini Sinha. They were news stories covered by her mother. From the date on the news items, she could make out these had been written by her mother at the start of her career. They were honest, matter of fact writeups and the writer had put forth her opinion without mincing words.
“The world can be damned, but she can never accept being wrong. She was always like this” murmured Aparajita.
When she saw the next article, she looked at it a little closer to see if it was about the same person who she had assumed it was. “Trilokchand Rai bends norms for personal gains.” Screamed the headline. As she read the article, she realised it was indeed about her grandfather. He had served as Minister of Environment and Forest at that point in time. The article made her curious enough to google about the charges of having given the ministry’s assent to his brother’s holiday resort despite several environmental norms having been flouted. Google revealed this piece of news had almost cost her grandfather his ministership, but eventually, the news seemed to have died down, though how she could not find out.
“So, the bitterness between dadu and mom dates back to much before her wedding” Aparajita wondered aloud. “But how did the wedding even happen amidst this animosity?” she wondered.
The photograph of the handsome couple beaming in their wedding finery captured her attention instantly. The bright and happy smile on her parents’ faces showed this was a triumph, they had achieved after a lot of effort. There were a few more photographs of the important milestones in her parent’s marriage. As she shuffled through the photographs, she saw the yellowed, frayed piece of paper tucked in a corner pocket of the folder. As she pulled out the piece of paper and opened the folds, she could see from the lines formed across the folds that, this piece of paper had been read often. She saw her mother’s handwriting on the paper. It was a letter from her addressed to her father.
“Try to step off that pedestal of yours and see my point of view. Whenever you tell me how you have accepted me for who I am, you make it sound like the biggest sacrifice you have made. Yes, I have my career in journalism going well, yes, I can be happy with the appreciation my work is getting and concentrate on growing in that. But I desire more from life and this is an opportunity that gives weight to that desire. So, what, if it is the opposition party that is giving me the ticket, I never was a member of your father’s political party, I have not even shown any support or claimed any alliance to it, I do not connect with their ideology. So, tell me how am I committing treachery against the family, as you claim.
Stop portraying yourself as the martyr. You did not end your political career because of me, you never were interested in it. After the last elections, you had confessed that you were happier being a hotelier than a politician. Then why are you putting up this false façade of making the supreme sacrifice? Isn’t it just to villainise me? Don’t use Apu to guilt me, I am not setting her any wrong example. Marriage and motherhood are a part of my life but I am individual with my ambitions and my urge to explore my life is not a selfish act. I do not owe any further explanations to you or need to justify myself. You need to understand humans have ambitions and the desire to grow irrespective of gender. If you accept me for who I am, then this is also a facet of me.”
Aparajita looked at the faded piece of paper intently for quite some time. The date on the letter revealed it had been written a few months before her third birthday. She was wondering if the letter had been successful in changing her father’s heart? Was it that easy to change someone’s heart, especially a bitter one? Had hers turned so hard with bitterness? As, despite reading it several times, there was no change in the feeling of resentment that she had towards her mother.
Aparajita sifted through the folder further. She seemed to be eager to see more secrets tumble out. She was eager to know, how her mother had managed to gain entry into the house of the man she had almost managed to topple from power, that too as the wife of his only son. “Was papa and dadu’s equation similar to ma and mine?” wondered Aparajita. “Are there any good guys worth marrying in the opposition party?” Aparajita smiled mischievously as the thought passed her mind. But the next moment realised that marriage was too much of peril to undertake just for the sadistic pleasure of seeing her mom in ire. She was indeed getting a little too bitter for good.
“You have such a strong inspiration in the form of your mom, you don’t have to look out anywhere for motivation.” Aparajita’s friends would often tell her, but instead of feeling proud of her mother and her accomplishments, all she felt was anger. Looking back now, she could sense that more than her mother, her anger was about the fact that the shoes she had to fill in were too big. Was it anger or fear?
Aparajita had been sent to a residential school at the age of 7. She came home hardly for about three months a year. Most of the time, she would see her mother busy with her party meetings and political duties. But then her papa was also equally busy with his work, then why is it that she resented only her mother for ignoring her? Had she been ignored? On the contrary, she had clear memories of her mother trying to make her see sense or rather “reform” her. They were diametrically opposite in nature but equally stubborn. It was her mother’s insistence on making Aparajita ambitious and aggressive had that had made her resent those qualities. She never strived for the public life, the adulation and power her mother strived for. In fact, she aimed for a life far from the public eye. It was this clash of ideologies that turned her into a rebel.
Aparajita had been a brash rebel from her pre-teen days. She was particular about doing everything “her way” which was always the stark opposite of what her mom would have wanted. But it was strange that Aparajita had kindred this resentment and animosity with her mother alone, her father also had expectations from her and they did not align with her expectations most times, but she did not share a bitter equation with her father. The kind of relationship the mother and daughter shared was far more complex than what met the eye.
Malini looked up at the second-floor balcony, she was not there. She had stood there a full then minutes witnessing the celebrations of her mother’s success, which in itself was a miracle. But it pained Malini that her only child should resent her to this extent. There had been congratulatory messages pouring in from across the country on her election victory but none came from her daughter. Maybe if she had not been here, it would have hurt her less? Maybe she would have calmed her heart with a false assurance that Apu was too busy to read the news. It wouldn’t have been entirely false; her daughter had never been interested in current affairs and hardly ever watched or read the news. “Had she not been home, maybe she would not have even come to know of the election results” wondered Malini. “How does she manage to survive without knowing what’s happening in the world around her?” Malini found herself smiling at the thought.
Malini shared a lot in common with her daughter. They were both headstrong and focused women, who didn’t like to believe that the world’s verdicts or opinions mattered. The last part Malini knew was not entirely true. She was in a profession where the opinion of the people could make or break her professional prospects. Well, as for her daughter hadn’t, she let her bitterness thrive only due to the opinions of all those around her and stuck to her opinions because she had internalised those negative thoughts of others. But Malini knew her daughter would never accept that the opinions of the world mattered to her, she thrived on the belief that she was a strong-headed rebel. But what was she rebelling against?
Malini wondered if her Apu had ever paused to ask herself that question. Had she even paused once to question herself, she would have understood the rebellion was just a result of the prejudices in her mind. Prejudices which people or rather a certain person had tactfully sown in an innocent mind.
Politics is like a game of chess; she had often heard and it was true you had to calculate every move after thoroughly studying your opponent. It was only when she entered the arena did, she realise that it involved not just studying your opponent, but also devising means of weakening and if possible, destroying your opponent to ensure you could move ahead without any disturbance. Didn’t Trilokchand Rai have better and easier means of accomplishing this task, when compared to her other opponents? With him around, did she need more?
Unlike her father-in-law, Malini had not been born with a silver spoon, neither was this political career a legacy handed down to her. She had been born into a conservative middle-class home. A home where she had been taught from the start that ambitions ought to be practical and life plans had to effectively establish the goal of survival rather than reaching out for the sky. A home where an excess of anything was scoffed at, the rules were no different for ambitions. Malini was treated like an anomaly in the family. For years her parents and uncles had only one goal, to make Malini see sense and bring her on the right path, but she had proved to be a tough, rather an impossible nut to crack.
Malini’s family was not very pleased with her choice of career. Journalism was considered too risqué and neither did it offer job security, “how will you have a peaceful family life, with such erratic working hours?” her mother had questioned her. But Malini had never liked the idea of the conventional life, that she was being expected to live. Her mantra was simple, “this lifetime was precious and it could not be wasted striving to make it conventional, rather it should to spent on achieving the best that was there to grab and explore.” Yes, she strongly believed in grabbing every opportunity that could better her life. That was the reason why she had nurtured her friendship with Prakash Rai with utmost care.
Malini and Prakash attended the same college. Prakash had been smitten with the doe-eyed beauty from the time, he had seen her. He had been floored when he had heard her speak at the debate club selections in college. He was charmed by her confidence and her personality. Malini did not mind the attention she received from him. She had been used to it but did not always welcome it. But with Prakash, there was a friendly warmness in his demeanour, which made her feel cared for. Malini knew and understood the “value” this friendship could add to her life.
Malini was on the verge of completing her course in journalism when Prakash confessed his feelings to her. She wasn’t sure if she could consider him as anything more than a friend, but she was sure she did not want to let go of a friend like him. Maybe, he read her thoughts and did not raise the issue with her again. Malini knew he was serious and the commitment would be for life, but was she ready for that life.
Malini knew her ambitions would get a new lease of strength if she chose to marry Prakash. But she also understood the perils of being married into such an illustrious family, that too one which was headed by a conservative patriarch like Trilokchand Rai. Time passed by and Prakash and Malini continued remaining close friends. Malini soon realised Prakash shared a disturbing and rather bitter equation with his father. She understood that the life Prakash had envisioned for himself was not what his father wanted for him. Not a man for seeking opinions, his father only believed in commanding. She could see Prakash was not happy with his father’s choices but neither did he have the nerves to stand up to him.
Four years after the first confession, Prakash braced himself and proposed to Malini, much to his joy she accepted the proposal. But the journey ahead was the adventure which to date Malini felt she could have lived without. While Malini’s family was intimidated by the stature of Prakash’s family especially his father, Prakash’s family particularly his father was livid when he learned of this blossoming romance. He did not take a minute to label Malini an opportunist and gold digger.
Malini was the journalist who dug out hidden skeletons from Trilokchand Rai’s closet which almost jeopardised his political career. But much to his chagrin, his son married the same women who had been out to destroy him. A marriage which would have been destroyed by him in a matter of hours had it been any other time had to be accepted with celebration. He could not let his image suffer any further setback before the electorate. But he never forgave Malini for putting him in a desperate position, he was confident it was the woman’s doing, his son did not have the nerves.
Aparajita walked into her father’s room clutching the brown leather folder in her hands. She saw him perched on his favourite seat, the rocking chair in his balcony. He was immersed in a book and Aparajita chose to sit quietly on the stool beside him. “I can sense you are brimming with questions.” Prakash smiled at his daughter as he shut his book.
“How do you manage to read my mind every time? But after reading your entry about the time you proposed mom, I have concluded mind reading is a skill, you had from the start.” Aparajita teased her father.
“You seemed to have gone through the contents of the folder diligently?” Her father exclaimed with a nod of his head.
Aparajita was smiling at his expression, but suddenly with a sombre expression asked him “why did dadu have so much hatred for ma? Didn’t you both elope and get married; then why did he reserve the bitterness for ma alone.”
“I am happy to see your concern for your mother.” Her father was smiling. “Coming to your question. I will give an honest reply, which I had never could muster the courage to say before your dadu. Maybe, if I had we would have been a happier family today.” Aparajita looked at her father quizzically.
“You know Apu, your dadu saw your mother as a competition rather, a threat. No this wasn’t about the woman from outside having gained a hold over his only son. No, he never really had much of an affection for me. I wasn’t cut out to be the scion of his political throne, which was a major disappointment for him. But your mother, he saw all those qualities in her, which he had been desperately looking for in his son all those years. He saw in her the will, determination and courage to stand up to him and look him in the eye. Your mother never took orders, only made her own rules. She was the only person to challenge his authority and defy him in his own house. Malini knew the importance of a public image and maintained the visage of the ideal daughter-in-law to the hilt. He could never point a finger leave alone make any public accusations against her. Your dadu’s hatred stemmed from the fact that he had been trumped at his own game and that too by a woman and a commoner.” Aparajita could make out the discomfort in her father’s face at the revelation.
“Shouldn’t dadu have been happy, that his daughter-in-law could be the scion to his throne? Shouldn’t he have been elated that he had finally found his successor?” Aparajita asked with a hint of confusion in her eyes.
“An outsider being made a successor was unthinkable for your dadu. He was a great believer in the caste divide” scoffed Prakash. “His biggest fear was your mother making inroads into the party. Not just him, there were several senior leaders in the party, who noticed your mother’s potential. But your dadu would not let that happen. He wanted a successor, no doubt but the successor could not be a bigger success than him. He wanted a successor he could mentor and control. With your mother, he feared she had the potential to take control of the arena and he would get pushed to the side-lines.” Prakash closed his eyes, pushing back and forth on the rocking chair as he spoke.
“You know, papa, you have a lot of bitterness for dadu in your heart.” Aparajita looked sad as she spoke the words.
“I guess the disappointment that existed in our relationship was mutual,” Prakash replied to his daughter with a deep sigh.
“You, know what papa, I can relate to that, ma and I share a similar equation,” Aparajita responded almost immediately.
Prakash looked a little flustered at this immediate response from his daughter. “Tell me something Apu. Why do you feel disappointed with your mother?” He directed the question at her.
“Disappointed is a big word, but I am hurt and bitter about the way I have been treated. I never got the love, care or attention that I deserved from her as a daughter. Her life has solely been about her and she ensures everyone’s life in this house only revolves around her. I might sound dramatic, but I feel abandoned at times. But you know papa, she is disappointed with me.” Aparajita’s anger was visible in her response.
“Why would you say she ignored you. Your mother is an ambitious lady and being ambitious is not a crime that’s what gives you the drive to achieve. She is a popular political leader, that’s the reason she gets more than her fair share of attention. But she has worked hard to earn it. Why would you resent her for that? Prakash was annoyed at his daughter.
“Is ambition all that important, that you have to distance your child from you to give it enough space in your life?” Aparajita shot back the question almost immediately.
“Why, do you have to make everything about yourself? The decision to send you off to a residential school was difficult for her, but that was the only means of saving you Apu.” Her father’s words shocked Aparajita.
“Save me from what?” Aparajita shot back.
“From being made a pawn in the battle enmity between your dadu and your mom.” Prakash’s response only shocked her more.
“Dadu loved me and adored me. He was probably the only person; I share happy childhood memories in this house.” Aparajita was furious at the unreasonable support her father was giving her mom.
“We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. I agree you were young, but those weren’t the words any parent would have wanted to hear from their child. But today you conveniently blame your mother for the chasm between the two of you.” Prakash could see his daughter’s discomfort on hearing those words, but the truth was seldom pleasant.
Aparajita remembered spending most afternoons as a child in her grandfather’s study. She would come back from school and head to the study to meet her dadu soon after lunch. While he read her books or at times listened to her inane conversations, she remembered being questioned by him often, does she not miss her mom? Was, he not the one who told her the first time about the theory of good moms and selfish moms. Selfish and opportunistic, these were the words, she had picked p from her dadu. He would tell her sadly, “Your mother would have been your perfectly good mom, if only she was not this opportunistic.” When a six-year-old Aparajita did not understand this word, he had simply explained that it meant selfish.
Aparajita clearly remembered that day, when her mother had missed her stage performance in school. She had been caught up with work, she tried to explain to her. She promised to make it up. But Aparajita had screamed at her “you are a selfish, opportunistic bad mom.” As she had stormed away, she remembered her mother standing still.
Malini was standing in the hall across the room, she could clearly hear the conversation between her daughter her husband. It brought back uncomfortable memories. But it was that day, which changed her entirely. She had seen her father-in-law’s smirk when she walked out of the room. The real reason behind her husband’s insecurity in her political career also became clear to her. Trilokchand Rai had used the most conventional weapon to down his opponent. The task was easier for a sexist and chauvinist like him. But he had failed to gauge his victim properly. She was not going to give up and let him taste victory. That was the moment she decided this man had to lose. She was not going to let an old man guilt her for being ambitious or successful. She definitely wanted her daughter to stay far away from such vile. For her daughter’s protection and well-being, she had gathered all the courage she could and made the difficult decision.
A year after that was the first time Trilokchand Rai lost an election. After that Malini ensured, he never savoured electoral victory. In a few years, he was relegated to an honorary position in the party and gradually side-lined. Usurping the power bastion in the house had been far simpler for Malini. She used the uneasy and bitter equation between Prakash and her father to turn him against his father. Her father-in-law’s last days had been lonely, which were spent in the lonely confines of his luxurious room. As Malini heard Prakash’s words, she wondered would he realise, they applied equally to him as well. His father had been broken heated at his son’s bitterness in his last days. But she had no pity or remorse, it was battle he had waged and she fought valiantly to emerge victorious. She peeped into the room, to see her daughter lost in thought, would she have a change of heart? Would she get to savor the true joy of the victory someday soon, Malini wondered.
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