Eight: Part 1
October and Kolkata is steaming. The skies are washed blue. White clouds appear to have been brushed on as an afterthought. Everyone, everywhere is enveloped in a frenzy of shopping. The streets are heaving and roads can barely contain the cars that trundle up and down, plying the same old streets day and night. There is a feverish madness in the air, a sense of breathless anticipation.
She has sought a red jamdani for years now. She can see it in her mind’s eye. It is red wrought with gold. It has an air of genteel sophistication. It is not showy, it is gently resplendent as she hopes to one day be, herself. But, as it turns out, it is expensive. Much more expensive than she has bargained for.
They simply cannot afford it.
Today, her friend snapped one up, right in front of her, in the blink of an eye. Without thinking. It was magic.
You shouldn’t think so much, her friend had said.
It’s not that, after paying everything else, I don’t have much left over, she replied.
He should pay, na? Is he giving you anything for Puja this year?
We are saving for a flat.
Well, that’s something isn’t it? Mine would never even allow me to think of leaving his parents.
No no, we won’t leave. It’s just a small thing, for investment purposes.
It’s just a sari.
Maybe next year.
After the boutique, they went their separate ways. Time is measured and mapped out for them. Their moments of freedom are earned on account of good behaviour. They must hurry back on time. Punctuality. Discipline. These are their buzzwords. As daughters-in-laws, as mothers and as wives they are told that they must set the example. A recent study has shown that intelligence is inherited from the mother. That study has not helped them one bit. Rather than give credit where it is due, it has simply raised the platform of that unattainable pedestal higher, the pedestal that they know they must strive for.
She falls into the taxi. Bright yellow, it shines in the sun like a polished lozenge. It moves slickly through the traffic. She is hot, it is sweltering. Every year the heat takes her by surprise, it’s unseasonable or at least it ought to be. She wishes there was someone to complain to. Crescent moons have appeared beneath her armpits, a full moon has waxed onto her back. Her back. It reminds her, she needs to check back with the tailor. The taxi leaps over a speed bump and she’s thrown back onto the frayed and tattered faux leather seats. It’s surprisingly comfortable. She would usually make this journey in an auto. Indeed, she should make this journey in an auto. Cut your coat to match your cloth. Her son is learning idioms in English at the school which is supposed to be a springboard to a better life, launching him beyond the city, beyond India even. Ever since Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella burst onto his consciousness, her husband can talk of little else. Their daughter- if they ever have one- will be Indira Nooyi. In the meantime her husband has taken the liberty of dropping textbook idioms into everyday conversation. Perfection is expected of her, indeed it is demanded of her. She is the wife and the mother after all.
But today she has money in her wallet. Not enough for the sari of her dreams but enough to fritter away on a taxi. She might even – depending on the time and if there is time enough to conceal it- buy an egg roll, a Cola and a Dairy Milk Silk. She can wolf the latter down in the secret of the night. It will give her something to look forward to but the other two demand her attention now.
In the quiet bubble of the taxi juddering over potholes and makeshift speed bumps, there is a bubble of peace, a thin film of privacy. The stars have aligned in her favor today, the driver has actually agreed to take her where she wants to go. She hasn’t had to beg, to plead, he hasn’t demanded an extra 100 rupee note. She fishes for her phone in her handbag. Her husband doesn’t like her to look at her phone at home. It will set a bad example, he says.
So, she looks now. She turns to Facebook like a woman starved. Her most recent photo, a selfie in the sari shop has garnered fifty likes already.
Quintessential bong beauty.
She can almost hear the chorus of the comments. She can feel the gust and blow of her friends’ enthusiastic, breathy voices. The screen speaks to her, it reaches up, out of itself to keep her company. It is a place where she can finally feel free. No one is trying to make a better version of her. The version of her that they see has already been honed to perfection. The perfect marriage filtered through carefully worded tributes, the perfect child framed by milestone cards and already sufficiently garlanded by accomplishments, the range of perfect holidays from Goa to Phuket, a sojourn in Switzerland by way of a Shah Rukh Khan standee. If she is a sum of her socially visible parts then she is perfectly enviable.
The sacrifices and compromises, the never-ending, suffocating saga of adjustments don’t find room here. The half abandoned meals, the time she stormed out of the car at a busy junction, the nights he did not return home, the all consuming sadness that enveloped her after the child was born, the fact that amidst a house filled to the brim with people, she still felt alone, the school gates that she stood outside of, waiting for her moon-faced child after each and every test. Test after endless test. The constant threat of a transfer certificate hanging over their heads like the sword of Damocles (she knew about the sword of Damocles and this was the life she was leading? Well, more fool her), the holidays on which they survived on kebaps from Turkish takeaways and Pot Noodles because after the ticket and the hotels, there wasn’t much money left for more, his anger over her swimsuit, his anger over gazes held too long, his anger, his frustration, his fundamental petulance over a life that wasn’t going right (his anger followed them from the gullies of Gulmohar Park before chasing them up and down Gornergratt) – all of this was cropped out and filtered away. While these were the meat and bone of hushed conversations held in the middle of the night, tapped out against the dying light of this very phone, these very same friends would never give lie to the image that she was building.
She sighs. She thinks of the life she has built in place of the life that she had worked hard for. Both overqualified and under qualified at the same time, they tell her that this is normal. Everyone goes through this. The first few years were teething pains, she was told. His possession was a sign of his love. He didn’t want her to work? Well she was lucky. If was she to insist on it then good for her but make no mistake, everyone handed over their salaries to their husbands. After all, he would manage it better. She has always been one to fritter it all away on useless junk and fripperies. It would be okay, they said, after a child. The child came and it did not make things better. The child only added to all the roles she was failing to perform to the expected standards of perfection. Now they told her that she should plan for another, give her son the greatest gift of all by giving him a brother. But some said girl. She should try for a girl – as if it were so easy – because raising two boys would be too hard while girls were easy, malleable, lenient, easy to mould, like water they took on the shape of the container they were held in. Like her. Hadn’t she done it well? Why complain, this was life after all.
The taxi pulled into her street. She saw that the windows to their home were all flung open wide. In spite of that, the air inside was stagnating. She knew a malaise, a lethargy would descend on her as soon as she entered. The anonymity of the taxi gave her an independence, a freedom that she was not otherwise privy to. She decided to get off.
Ekhane daran, dada.
She did not want them to see that she had arrived home in a taxi. Not when they were supposed to be saving. He pulled up next to the tubewell. Small mercies, at least she was not expected to use that. That had been her mother-in-law’s life. No wonder the latter thought that she had it easy.
She could hear all the televisions in all the houses in all the lane boom together, coming together in a solid, wailing, mass of sound. All crescendos reached together. When she was a child, balconies had been full at this time of the day, early evening giving away to twilight. Now everyone had retreated indoors, watching imaginary lives unfold on increasingly intelligent boxes. She longed for that time. Had she known then what she knew now, she would have done better. She would not have yearned to be such a good girl. She would not have blushed at the thought of marriage, she would not have glowed warm at the prospect of her parents saving up to buy her gold, she would not have listened to them when they asked her to wait for marriage and told her that everything she wanted would be hers if only she would wait for marriage. She would never have tried to learn all the things that made her a good daughter-in- law. She would never have saved up to buy Fair and Lovely, bleach her back, wax herself hairless like a little girl, thread her eyebrows into submission, scald her hand learning how to make the perfect consistency of rice all the while working to get good grades, go to college, go to university, pass government exams but after all that, what for? Good girls, she was fast realizing, has decidedly stifling lives.
The city churns itself up for a festival, celebrating the goddess within, they bring her home and they put her on a pedestal never realizing that all she wants is to put her feet on the ground.