Kumud stashed away the clean, folded clothes in the modest steel almirah. She arranged her pillows and the duvet on the single cot exactly the way she would want them for the night. Satisfied, she looked around – the spic and span 10×10 feet room in the Working Women’s Hostel was not exactly what she had been used to all her life. But now it had become her cocoon, her port in the face of all storm. She looked out of the single window of her room – cars zoomed past, motorbikes revved up to reach home faster that Friday evening. Somewhere in the distance, a baby’s wails droned on as the mother crooned an out-of-tune lullaby to pacify it. A cool breeze caressed her tired face, suffusing it with all the feel and smell of the bustling city life outside. A life she had willingly traded for a peaceful one, when she moved here two years back.
Sharp at nine, Kumud descended to the common dining area for dinner. Weekend dinners were a relaxed affair with no curfew, as the girls laughed and let their hair down. It was, as if, the accumulated angst and hustle of the entire week got washed away in their collective chortles and guffaws. The women there were an assorted and interesting lot. They were anything between 24 and 50 years of age – independent, self-sustaining women who knew their worth and valued themselves for what they were. Kumud had to try really hard to get there – her process of healing and repair was still in progress.
“Hey Juhi, did your lovestruck patron show up for lunch today? It’s Friday, after all!” Fatima, a bespectacled software engineer chuckled good-humouredly, addressing a young girl who was still in her formal skirt suit. “And did I notice Madam sporting some extra bright red lips in the morning?” Before Fatima could finish, the others joined in the banter. Juhi, the very attractive and efficient Floor Manager at an upscale fine dining destination, was the favourite target of their raillery because of her ever-increasing fan base at the hotel.
“Which reminds me, Swati, when is your on-site trip planned? I hope you’re joining this time,” asked Joji, a veteran Montessori educator to Swati, a 30-something HR consultant.
As the night wore on, the clink of cutlery complemented their peals of laughter. Kumud secretly admired these ladies – they were not apologetic or inhibited about their lifestyle, their partners, beliefs, or their beers. And Kumud found herself basking in their reflected mirth and happy vibes…they gave her a sense of liberation from the shackles of taunt and torment that she had faced these past few years. They somehow helped leaven her cheerless, banal existence and gave her the strength to soldier on, though her past never quite stopped clouding her present.
“Don’t you worry Shobha ji, Kumud will be showered with love and comfort in her sasural. She’ll never miss her old, crammed, two-room house,” Kumud’s mother-in-law had proudly assured her mother, while finalising her marriage proposal with Jiten, the only son and heir of the Bhojwani family. The Bhojwanis owned a couple of steel mills and had stakes in other businesses, too. Jiten was a good-looking young man holding impressive degrees from prestigious foreign universities.
“I still can’t believe our luck, Kumud…you’re soon to be Mrs Jiten Bhojwani, wife of the Bhojwani scion!” Kumud’s elated mother exclaimed, looking heavenward in a silent prayer. “Let’s hope he takes Nikhil under his wings after your marriage,” she sighed, thinking of her younger son who, at 23, had achieved nothing apart from whiling away his time with his gang of wasted friends.
Kumud, having been a fatherless elder child, had taken on the reins of her family right after completing her engineering studies. A good campus placement, coupled with the will to excel, soon placed her among the frontrunners of the company’s young brigade. That she had no intention of quitting after marriage, was the only point she had raised during their pre-nuptial tete-a-tete at a café or during that occasional long drive.
“Yes, of course,” Jiten had concurred, “I would always want my partner to carve her own career path, have her own identity. And you can continue to support your mom and brother….no issues there.” Kumud had stolen a glance at him, secretly thanking her guardian angels for their countless blessings.
After marriage, Kumud’s grounded, no-nonsense existence morphed into several heart-warming vignettes of romantic silliness and shenanigans. Kumud soon became popular within Jiten’s extended family, thanks to her affable disposition, pleasing looks and well-informed persona. Her mother-in-law never missed an opportunity to remind Kumud of her humble roots and her incredible stroke of luck which had planted her in the Bhojwani household. But Jiten more than made up for it. Together, their days were spent scaling new, unexplored peaks of pleasure while their nights exploded like molten lava, singeing them, yet, leaving them gasping for more! And after two years, when they first saw two tiny pink lines, their happiness knew no bounds!
“Nothing to worry, everything seems normal,” the doctor’s words spelt enormous relief for Kumud and the entire family. Their happiness, however, was short-lived. At nine weeks, the tiny glimmer of life lighting up Kumud’s halcyon days, was extinguished by destiny’s cruel blast. She sobbed like a child who had lost her most precious possession. And this trauma repeated itself over the next few years – Kumud was detected as suffering from severe uterine scarring. Medication helped but marginally, and finally the doctors pronounced the inevitable – Kumud wouldn’t be able to bear her own biological child.
Life did a volte-face for Kumud. At 34, when others were busy broadening their career paths and setting serious relationship goals, she suddenly realised she had nothing to look forward to. With each passing day, she seemed to plummet deeper into an abyss of despair and searing heartache. And strangely, she found herself alone there; Jiten seemed to be a chance bystander. He became distant, withdrawn, and built an impregnable wall of indifference around himself. Lying on the same bed, side by side, Kumud felt she was sharing space with a stranger. Her female colleagues were sympathetic towards her but she seemed unable to osmose their warmth.
Comments like “Kumud, why don’t you quit your job…who do you want to leave all this money for?” or “Kumud, why are you so reluctant to visit Baba Brahmdev – he is known to perform miracles on childless couples!” from her mother-in-law became de rigueur every evening when she returned after a harrowing day at work. The disappointed sextagenarian started viewing Kumud as a liability, an unprofitable investment with no commensurate dividends. Especially when seemingly well-meaning relatives and friends started sharing updates of their grandchildren, her MIL took it as a personal slight and regarded Kumud as the catalyst.
“Jiten, I’m so tired of hearing the same barbs from Mummyji everyday…it’s been years now, when will this stop? And why don’t YOU say something?” Kumud finally confronted her evasive husband one day. “I’m trying my best to put all this behind me and start afresh. But Mummyji just won’t let that happen. Such an unending tirade every day, 24×7! Do you think I don’t miss being a mother? Being able to nurture a tiny life and see it grow?” Kumud felt like her heart would snap as the tears flowed copiously down her face, “Oh Jiten, I can’t take this anymore…..” Kumud broke down bitterly and crumpled on the floor, burying her face between her knees.
“So, what do you suggest I tell Ma? That she should give up all hopes of having grandchildren? That you had failed to take care of yourself and insisted on going to work daily, and now we all have to bear the consequences?” Jiten’s tone was dripping with disdain as he spoke. He slammed the door and walked out of the room. For Kumud, this was the proverbial last straw. She knew it was time to take a call, to stand up for herself and wrangle her life out of this wasteful Sisyphean nightmare.
Moving out of the hallowed Bhojwani household into a one-room tenement at a ladies’ hostel was not an easy transition. Resistance came in the form of denial, angry refusal, damage controlling entreaties and emotional blackmail, sometimes by her own mother and brother.
“Have you ever thought of what people would say? You have everything you need and more. And yet, you’re not happy?” Nikhil, Kumud’s younger brother, shouted over the phone, “And tell me, how do you plan to safeguard yourself? A single woman staying alone is never safe…you’ll realise your folly very soon. And come whimpering back. I hope Jijaji takes you back then.” Nikhil’s caustic, patriarchal rant further strengthened Kumud’s resolve to move out.
Life in Kumud’s new abode had a certain freshness and novelty about it. There were fixed meal timings, weekly menus, discipline rules, and new dynamics with so many fellow boarders. But, it gave her some much-needed space, peace of mind, and dignity. She gradually got to know the other residents better, maintained an amicable equation with everybody, and forged some special friendships. Eventually, she filed for divorce. Her colleagues at work proved to be a huge source of guidance, comfort and support during these trying times, as she painstakingly went about architecting a new trajectory in her life. Talk of Amor Fati, she would often smile to herself.
The divorce proceedings stretched on for months. Jiten tried his best to nix it and get her back home – not out of love, but to salve his dented image in society. Kumud pursued it with an equally dogged determination and waited for the verdict.
Midway through the Friday dinner, the hostel attendant approached Kumud.
“Ma’am, Mr Bhojwani is waiting for you at the reception.”
So much for a relaxed weekend, Kumud thought, as she rose from the dining table.
“Kumud, I’ve come here one last time. In fact, Ma sent me. Please come back home. We’re willing to forgive you and start afresh.” Jiten spoke in his usual patronising tone that belied his intent. “Look around you – such shabby, middle class arrangements. Does this suit your stature? And these cheap women, roaming around in shorts and skirts! They smoke and drink and what not….what company are you keeping Kumud, for heaven’s sake?!” Jiten here looked genuinely distressed, as if he felt embarrassed to be seen in such a setting.
“Mr Jiten Bhojwani, stop right there!” Kumud sprang like a wounded lioness, fighting to protect her pride. “Home? Which home are talking about? The one where I lost my self-esteem….where people trampled over me…where I was treated like dirt for a medical condition which I had no control over?” By now, Kumud was past caring; she was determined to cross this last hurdle and recalibrate her tattered life. “Home was perhaps just this body I inhabited and this too was alien to me at times, its folds and creases, its pains and needs. Home was everywhere and nowhere. Home, I realised now, was anywhere the heart slept in peace. Home was where one unpacked one’s cares and settled them into the wardrobe with one’s clothes. It was where one was complete. And your opulent brick-and-mortar house had long ceased to be my home, Mr Jiten.” Kumud continued through tears of anger and humiliation, “This is my home now, where I’m loved and respected. The women here may not grace the covers of your glossy tabloids but they are real people, empathetic people, who’ve struggled in life and emerged stronger. And now, please excuse me!” With this, Kumud turned around and left, leaving Jiten dumbstruck.
Back in her room, Kumud once again stood by the window. The snaking traffic had thinned considerably. She breathed in a lungful of cool, fresh air as the lilting tunes of her favourite number wafted in from afar- I have a dream, a song to sing.
Amor Fati – A phrase in Latin which means to love and accept one’s fate, including suffering and loss, as necessary components of living.
I have a dream, a song to sing – An iconic song by the popular Swedish pop group ABBA, released in December, 1979.
First published as a shortlisted entry on Women’s Web in June 2021.
P.C. Eric Ward on Unsplash