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RUMA CHAKRAVARTI

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 3/10/2015 |




As she wiped down the table after eating her lunch, Asheema thought about the visitor she was going to receive in the evening. It was her sister-in-law Sree - the only member left from her late husband’s immediate family. She remembered how their last visit had gone, with Sree whom Asheema called Didibhai, raising her voice and reminding her in no uncertain terms about the foolishness of one old woman rattling about on her own in a house three stories high. She had eaten none of the snacks bought for her till half an hour before she left and then remarked on how cold and oily everything was. Asheema could not say that she was greatly looking forward to the evening.

Asheema knew it was foolish, possibly even unsafe, for her to be on her own. Every day the newspapers had one or two pieces on thefts and robberies in houses where the occupant was a lone elderly woman. Sometimes valuables were not the only things lost. It was just lucky that the house had never been robbed in all the years she had lived here. Sree seemed to delight in finding these reports and never failed to call her and ask if she too had read that day’s paper.

But she also knew that her sister-in-law was not being entirely unselfish and wholly concerned with her welfare when she raised the subject of the Circular Road house being too big for her. The house had been built in the forties by her father-in-law. He had been a junior minister in the first state government and a barrister who had lived and studied in England during the period of the freedom struggle. He was jailed in England for his nationalistic sympathies. When he returned to India, he brought a taste in the finer things in life with him. His wife, Asheema’s mother-in-law, had been one of the famous beauties of her time, schooled at a boarding school in the hills run by a Parsi widow. She had been more than a little influential, in both his meteoric rise and in his buying of the huge treed plot of land in South Calcutta away from the gaggle of relatives in his ancestral house in the countryside.

As their fortunes flourished, so did the house. It grew to become a kind of magnet for the politicians, artists, musicians and writers of the time. They were seen as a couple who were appreciative of effort and intelligence. The truth was that they were very careful in the people they chose to associate with. Thus at Sunday lunch with the family, you might find yourself seated between a very young actress who had newly returned from a stint at a finishing school in Geneva paid for by a studio owner and a polo playing politician with links to one of the minor princely families of Gujarat. Whatever it was, they were generally successful at gathering the beautiful people of the day around them.

They were blessed with a beautiful baby daughter soon after building the house and for a while they seemed to have it all. This baby was Sree. She was once mistaken as an English baby and her ayah who had been taking her for a walk by the Lakes was nearly arrested by an overzealous constable. As she grew older she became a copy of her mother in every way, down to the imperious manner of looking at things solely from her point of view.

This period of being the apple of her parents’ eye and the terror of each nanny appointed to take care of her came to an end when she was eight with the arrival of a brother, Neelkanth, Neelu for short. Now the Minister’s family could be said to be complete. A beautiful wife, a pretty daughter and now a son, the very essential factor in a Hindu man’s life for eternal bliss; he had it all. Without a son, one was doomed for eternity to wander about in Punnag, the hell reserved for those without male offspring. There was now nothing that he could not do. As his wife dazzled at social gatherings, he went about the business of helping to create a new system of government while his son and daughter grew up into the heirs for this glorious dynasty.

But unfortunately all good things have a peculiar way of ending, even for people seemingly touched by the hand of God. When the first elections were held, his party did well but his fortunes changed. His patron who had been an important minister in the first four years suddenly lost face and trust when it emerged that he had been engaged in a few instances of profiteering. His junior minister despite having been in the know and also doing well out of these events, managed to emerge relatively unscathed from the allegations. This was due in no small measure to his erudite speech giving and the intense damage control measures both he and his wife undertook.

His Oxbridge accent was now frequently heard denouncing the racketeer Raj and praising Gandhi for the austerity in which the leader had lived his life. His wife moved her Parsi chiffons and ivory buttoned silk purses into storage and adopted the delicate cottons of Shantipur and Benares. Their children were dressed in simple gingham knickerbockers and the number of servants at home was reduced to a more acceptable three instead of the seven they had once had. Surely things would change, they told themselves as they greeted a new crowd into their home on the weekends. These people were still selected from the cream of society, but like the fortunes of the former junior minister, the society he frequented was changing too.

Now you might find yourself sandwiched between an American journalist visiting Calcutta to write about a newly independent India finding its feet with Russian help for Time magazine and a migrant Marwari businessman who had plans of opening schools for girls in all the cities across the country. Sure, the actresses and the politicians were still there, but they were subdued and less glittering than before. They were seated further from the host and hostess than the earlier days. On occasion, he even invited a fellow barrister who was newly returned from England and was fast emerging as one of the leaders of the Communists in Bengal.

Sadly, the early days of glory were never to return. Asheema had heard that her father-in-law’s political career never recovered from the scandals of his patron. Soon after, when his son Neelu was about eight, the boy was taken ill with a fever that lasted for a month. The English doctors who had helped in his birth and all their former illnesses were now long gone, safely retired on the seaside at Brighton and other places back in Blighty. The Indian doctors said it was either malaria or typhoid. After a month of struggling between man and the god of death Yama, as the more rustic among their servants described it, the boy lived. He was a shadow of his former self and seemed to have forgotten how to talk or even walk. The doctors prescribed various tonics which seemed to do little to restore him although he was given these religiously for weeks.

One day when his mother came in to say goodnight to him, she noticed that their man servant seemed to be drinking something out of a battered aluminium cup that he tried to hide as soon as she entered the room. It was soon revealed that the tonics had been restoring the spirits of the servants entrusted with looking after the boy rather than the convalescent as they were almost pure alcohol with some vague extracts of iron and artificial raspberry flavor thrown in as an afterthought. The servant who had been caught red-handed was of course sent packing back to his village after he received a verbal drubbing. The tonics were also discontinued soon after as his mother found that he would fall asleep as soon as he was given a cupful. The convalescence continued in true Swadeshi style with rice at every meal, spoonfuls cooked to a gruel accompanied by a light soup of chicken drumsticks or magur, the Gangetic catfish. This time his health improved much faster.

Soon he was able to sit up and even walk to the rounded balcony that fronted the house. He was far less talkative than before and when he did speak, he spoke in a strange high nasal voice, his words rushed and his sentences half finished. He did not go back to school till the next year. By the end of the following year, it was evident that the fever had affected his brain. This was what Asheema had later gathered from the conversations of various people. She was already married to him then and there was little she could have done any way, even if she had found out about all this earlier. Those were not the days when women were expected to have views on who they were willing to marry and as a daughter of a man whose large family did not match his means, she was considered to have made a very good match when she was selected as the bride for the only son of a former minister and wealthy barrister.

And yet today, Asheema found herself today rattling around alone like a ghost in the house on the treed plot, as her sister-in-law Sree had put it. Sree was never short of words when it came to other people. Asheema had been a quiet new wife, disappointed in her husband but reassured that her father at least had one less worry in life. She was in awe of her sophisticated mother-in-law and Sree, who both took every opportunity to teach her the ways of the society she found herself in. Her long curly hair was styled with lacquer and teased till her mother could no longer recognize it.

Her eye brows were plucked into Marlene Dietrich like arches that made her look permanently surprised. Most of the cotton saris in her trousseau were looked at and judged unsuitable for the party circuit. She found these changes bewildering but was unable to say much as they were quick to remind her that she was luckier than all the other girls they had scrutinized before picking her. As time had gone by, she found that her husband was equally in awe of his family.

His father ignored him studiedly, choosing to eat his meals at a marble topped table in his own room. His sister and mother treated him with the sort of affectionate disregard one reserves for a lesser family pet. They spoke to her when there was something important to be communicated to him as neither had the patience to listen to his monosyllabic responses and occasional high girlish laughter. She also found him to be a good man at heart although he was more like a boy in his understanding of the world around him and the people in it. When at home, he moulded himself along the lines of his family and could be unnecessarily proud and supercilious. But on their rare holidays away from the family, she came to see a different side to him.

It was during one of these holidays that their daughter was conceived. Asheema herself was the most surprised when she found out that the lack of appetite she was suffering from was a result of pregnancy. Their relationship was based more on companionship than the pull of the flesh from the earliest days. When her husband informed his mother, she was shocked into silence. Asheema still remembered how she swung her thin neck around at Asheema and asked her whether it was true and whether a doctor had verified it. Once it was certain that the baby was a reality, she was given the best of care she could have asked for. Her own mother who came to visit her during her confinement remarked on how kindly she was being treated when she saw the fine cotton lawn chemises that had been ordered for her and the oil massages she was given daily. Asheema glowed through the pregnancy with good health and happiness. Even her father-in-law seemed to be excited about the imminent birth. She was given a heavy necklace that had belonged to his mother at her swadh ceremony, the ritual feast given to all pregnant women to celebrate their coming days of motherhood.

Asheema still remembered how Sree had looked at her father when he blessed her sister-in-law with the ornament, bringing it out of a velvet pouch so that her mother could clasp it around Asheema’s neck. She knew then how much Sree had wanted to be the first one to have a baby. Moments later she heard Sree saying to someone, ‘These feasts started in the old days because women were rarely expected to be able to survive childbirth.’ She then looked at Asheema very deliberately until she dropped her gaze, but not before her heart filled with foreboding at the venom in the older woman’s eyes. She could not talk to anyone of her fears but when she gave birth to a baby daughter with severe birth defects who died two days later, she truly knew and believed in her heart that it was caused by Sree’s hatred. She grieved for months after this, starting at every sound and looking at young children with such undisguised hunger that relatives became reluctant to visit them.

At the end of four months she woke up one morning and knew what she had to do. That day marked the birth of a new Asheema. She called for the family car and went to her sister-in-law’s home by herself. In her handbag was a velvet pouch. Sree was very surprised to see Asheema, alone and unannounced. After Asheema had greeted Sree’s mother-in-law and made the customary polite enquiries after the health of various family members, she looked at Sree and asked to speak to her in her room privately. Sree was taken aback but took her without any further words to her own room. As they walked in, Asheema took the velvet pouch out and waited for Sree to ask her to sit down. Seeing that Sree was still wondering about the need for privacy, she gave the pouch to her and said, ‘You have always wanted to own this. Now I gift it to you.’

All these things had happened over thirty years ago. Yet, lately Asheema found herself thinking about them. Her father-in-law had passed away about fifteen years ago. Her mother-in-law had outlived him by ten years. She had been imperious and vain till the end, pulling a jet black wig bought from Hong Kong over her bony skull even when she was being given dialysis in the final weeks of her life.

Asheema, who by all rights should have been pleased when she finally found herself sharing the house with no one else but her husband, was bereft when her mother-in-law died. Despite all their early differences, they had grown to be friends. ‘No one cooks potato and poppy seed curry like my daughter-in-law’- the old woman declared when people came to see her. When Sree asked her mother to visit during the festivals, she would refuse, stating Asheema was much better at looking after her. Sree would mumble that it was easier for Asheema to do so seeing that she had no children to look after, but she never dared to say this aloud and risk one of Asheema’s open and direct looks.

Last year Asheema lost her husband. Neelkanth had become her friend too, over the years they had been together, but it was more in the way one grows close to a child. She did things for him, like reminding him to take his medication and she put out his clothes for him every day. He relied on her to deal with the complex grown up world around them, where servants, now just two in number had to be paid and family relationships had to be maintained with phone calls, visits and counter invitations. He had held the same position in a mercantile firm that he had started in thirty years ago. The firm had belonged to a friend of the family and he was kept on as a favour to his father who had helped the man in settling some ancient dispute with his brothers. When he died, people from his work visited their house surprising Asheema who had never heard him mention anyone outside the family circle and making her acutely aware of how inept he had been at retaining any lasting impressions about people.

Since his death, Sree had slowly begun to ask her what she intended to do with the house. Asheema was happy to live there as she had done all her married life. She knew that Sree was part owner of the house with her, now that Neelkanth was dead. But she had not expected that Sree would be keen to sell the house as she said they should.
‘Where will I live?’ she quietly asked Sree.
‘Speak up, Bou, you are not living with in-laws anymore!’ Sree complained, choosing to blame Asheema for her inability to hear rather than admit to a growing deafness in both ears.
‘I am asking where I will live if the house is sold,’ Asheema said, a little louder this time.
‘You can move in with one of your siblings surely, you have so many of them!’ came Sree’s answer.

‘I did have quite a few, but three of my brothers are now dead. The one that is alive has to depend on his sons for his own food and board. Where will I fit into that picture? My sisters are both living with their daughters already. They cannot ask them to make space for me as well!’

‘Okay, then! There is another way; my son was saying that these days promoters who develop properties are keen to get their hands on places like this. Instead of one family using up this much space they can build flats and house thirty families, may be more. Even better, they give flats to the people they buy the land from, so you will be able to come back here after a short while. There will easily be thirty three bed-roomed flats of a good size here, may be more if they are a mix of three and two bed-roomed apartments. That should suit you fine, shouldn’t it?’

Asheema suddenly realised that Sree and her son, possibly even her son-in-law had been discussing this for a long time; perhaps even while their grandmother had been alive. Her eyes stung as she thought of how helpless she was now that she was a widow. How could Sree do this to her now? She blinked rapidly and looked at Sree’s profile as she decided that she would have to fight Sree with everything she had if she wished to remain living in her home. Not for the first time, she wondered at the vulture-like hooked nose and the heavy lidded eyes that gave Sree a vaguely ominous look at all times. Sree looked at her and asked curiously, ‘What are you thinking now? It will suit you! I know it will!’ Asheema smiled gently and answered, ‘Yes, I will have to think of something.’ Sree wondered whether Asheema was going to be difficult but was reassured when she remembered how easily she had given in to everything that had come her way. It was going to be easy to get Asheema to give up the house, this much she was certain of.

After a short while, Sree got up to leave. As she reached the door after repeatedly saying how sad she felt about Asheema being left alone in the world, she suddenly seemed to recall something and clucked her tongue loudly. ‘See, I almost forgot, I was going to ask you if I could have my mother’s statue of Krishna from Brindaban. The Lord’s birthday is coming up and I have long wished to celebrate it with my Krishna and my mother’s Krishna together. They will look divine together, with flowers and all.’

Asheema kept her hand resting lightly on Sree’s back as she digested the request. She then said calmly, ‘I will have to have a bath before I can go into the puja room Didibhai, you know that surely. But I will get the Krishna for you; you have been waiting for it for such a long time. Why do you not go into the puja room and see what you want from your mother’s ceremonial utensils? I will quickly go and have a bath in the mean time.’

Sree turned her head from side to side, almost about to say that she would return to get the things when she had more time on hand. But then she thought the better of it and decided to take advantage of the moment. ‘Yes, well, there is not that much room on my altar for new statues but I will take a few of the utensils if you do not want them,’ she said as they both stood on the landing in front of the door. They made their way slowly to the third floor where there was a prayer room and a large open terrace that stayed locked all the time these days. On the way, Sree ran her hand in the corners of the handrail and showed Asheema the dust with a loud clicking of her tongue. Asheema opened the door to the puja room, standing aside to let Sree enter the space where the family gods were arranged in all their glory. Inside the small space the air was still and there lingered a hint of the sandalwood incense she had burned early in the morning.

‘Pull out the mat and sit on the floor, all the silver plates and bowls are in the box under the wooden platform.’ Asheema said as she flicked the light switch on, ‘I will quickly go and have a shower, before I touch the statues.’

‘Yes, go and bathe, I will have a look for myself in the meantime, Bou,’ came Sree’s answer, her voice almost softened by her greed and the unexpected bonus of getting her hands on the silver utensils her mother had bought over many years.

Asheema stood at the door, watching the silver haired woman on the floor in her sanctuary, in her house, pulling on the box full of the silver and brass ceremonial items. She would have to have a bath, she thought. After that she would go and buy some sweets for the next day’s puja. But there was one thing she had to do first in her room.

When she came back, Sree had gathered a sizable amount of the silverware. There was the silver bed for Krishna, the tall brass lamp, the silver sandals and flywhisk. As Asheema came closer to the door, her fingers tightened through her sari around the Krishna statue that Sree had asked for. She stood behind her sister-in-law for a second before bringing it down with all her might on the silver hair again and again. Sree let out a sudden gasp of surprise before slumping down awkwardly on one side. Blood trickled from a deep cut at the top of her head. Asheema stood there just long enough to check to see that she was unconscious. She then put the statue down on the floor on its side.

The crowd at the neighbourhood snack shop was just gathering in anticipation of the fried potato cakes and onion rings. She stood at the side until the shopkeeper asked her with a smile what she wanted. ‘My sister-in-law is visiting; quickly give me four of the potato cakes and four of the battered eggplant fritters.’ After collecting the newspaper wrapped snacks she crossed the road to the sweet shop and bought six pieces of Sree’s favourite fried sweets, sharpuriyas. At the sweet shop she talked to a neighbour about the uncertain weather they had been having lately. She then walked back home slowly.

As she walked up the staircase and took her sandals off at the entrance, she paused to run her hands lightly on the rounded terrazzo banister.  She really would have to have a talk with the maid about cleaning around the house. She put the packets of food on the kitchen counter and took down two of the cups hanging from the steel dish rack. She filled the electric kettle and turned it on. She then walked upstairs to find Sree and help her pack the things she had selected. As she stood before the door to the puja room, she started at the sight of Sree on the floor. The only sign that there was anything wrong was the pool of congealing blood around her head. Some of it had run towards a corner of the room. Asheema stood there for a few minutes before she turned and began screaming. She screamed and screamed till the live-in caretaker heard her from the garage where he lived with his wife and came running. She only stopped when he led her away and called the police. The police came within the hour and said it was pure luck that she had been out buying refreshments for her guest as she would have certainly met the same fate at the hands of the people who had obviously been surprised in the act of stealing the silver by the victim. They looked at the various silver and brass items strewn on the floor and asked the frail old woman whether there was anyone who could come and stay with her that night. It was lucky that she had been away, as it seemed that the robbers would have killed her too if they had to. They asked her to take her time and think about what might have been taken. She promised them she would. As she left, they heard her ask one of her neighbours tearfully to take the Krishna statue away, as far as possible. She would not have that murder weapon in the house. Her voice cracked as she wept silently. The policemen looked at each other and shook their heads in sympathy. What was the world coming to if an old woman was not safe in her prayer room? Dugga, Dugga, said the older man, as he looked at the multitude of rings he wore to guard against calamities of every kind.

[RUMA CHAKRAVARTI]








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