Khulna (modern Bangladesh), 1949
Ulu-ulu-ulu-lu-lu. . . the shrill, rapturous cries of the women dissipated in the night air as did the smoke from the holy matrimonial fire. Peering through her netted veil, Minati tried to catch a glimpse of her groom’s face. The fiery vermillion blazed on her glabella and hair part; the conch shells blew hard; yet, some faintly disturbing thought peeked out in her mind. Was it the guarded whispers and sniggers she had heard among the ladies…was it the fidgety movements of the groom…or was it because he faltered twice during the garland exchange ceremony…Minati couldn’t decide. Not that she tried too hard either – there were certain things where her say amounted to zilch. Her urge to pursue academics, for instance. The diligent daughter of a poor weaver, she had passed her Matriculation examination with flying colours from the village school. Women’s education and upliftment had gathered steam in pre-independent India which facilitated Minati’s schooling. The Partition, however, dealt a huge blow to her dreams. In the wake of the socio-political and economic mayhem in East Pakistan that followed, her father thought it best to get the motherless girl married.
“Minooo…Minooo…will you play with me,” Uttam Mandal, Minati’s husband, chuckled innocently as he tugged at her benarasi pallu and fiddled with her gold bangles. His child-like demeanour and puckish mannerisms repulsed Minati. Here was a man, all of 27, with the mind of a five-year-old, conveniently married off, to silence the naysayers and also in the hope that things would get better with spousal love and care. The fact that a merchant family had offered to embrace Minati without any dowry, made this proposal a veritable godsend for her pauperised father.
Sitting on the flower-decked nuptial bed, Minati buried her face between her knees, her body racked with sobs that refused to die down.
Why, Baba, why? Had I become such a huge burden that you passed me on to this man? A man who is not capable of looking after himself, how will he take care of me? Do I remain Uttam’s caregiver and governess all my life? Oh Baba, did I deserve this?
For the first six months, the days and nights panned out for Minati with an uncanny predictability and tedium. Uttam was delighted to have her as his new play mate, one who would cater to all his demands with unwavering dedication and a detached affection – not the nagging, cloying, disciplining care that his mother showered on him. The basic household chores coupled with Uttam’s never-ending pranks and juvenile stubbornness made sure that Minati was suitably engaged through the entire day. But it was the nights that agitated her the most. As she lay on the floor, tossing and turning, staring at the obsidian sky outside the window, she often ruminated on what the future held for her. Her eyes felt heavy and dry with her forced effort to stay awake. Minati was afraid to sleep – in her dreams she was transported to her happy, carefree, maiden life when she would gently caress the reeds of kaash (hard, long grass), let the fragrant breeze play with her tresses, listen to the cuckoo bird warbling in the thickets – and wake up with a jolt, ruthlessly reminded of her wasted present. She had long accepted her fate with equanimity and hence, did not feel threatened by any onslaught of tears. And as the moon climbed higher and her procrastination reached its zenith, she would reluctantly crumble and drift into a short, fitful sleep. Luckily for her, Uttam had still not developed any libidinous urges.
“Ma, why did you get your son married? You were very well aware of his condition.” Minati once mustered enough courage to confront her mother-in-law in the kitchen. “Marriage was never the solution to his issue!”
Ashalata Debi was initially flabbergasted and at a loss for words. Then she spoke slowly and cautiously, “Minati, we are womenfolk, always at the mercy of men…we are destined to endure a lot. I had tried to reason with Uttam’s father but you know how it is here…he preferred to listen to his astrologer’s advice. What could I do…” her voice trailed off as she turned away to shield her look of helplessness. Minati suddenly felt sorry for her mother-in-law – Ashalata was a kind, affectionate soul riddled with an autocratic husband and a mentally challenged child. They were two kindred souls thrust into a hostile universe, floating around aimlessly, looking for an anchor to gain a toehold.
About a year into their marriage, things started changing a little for Minati. Kedarnath Mandal, her 55-year-old father-in-law, suddenly seemed to become slightly more concerned for her than usual. Kedarnath, known for his fiercely overbearing temperament, usually distanced himself from the women of the house. But things appeared different, of late.
“Tell Bouma (daughter-in-law), she needn’t cover her head inside the house – we are family, after all,” Kedar directed Ashalata one day, much to the latter’s alarm.
As for Minati, as she went about her daily movements, she could sense his sharp eyes following her, gazing unabashedly at her shapely frame, boring into her curves, desire writ large on his time-worn, lined face. In fact, a couple of times she felt his hand casually brushing past her hips or waist while she would put the clothes out on the terrace or serve him food.
Did the hand linger just a little longer than it should have? Is he looking for excuses to come into the kitchen frequently? These were questions that increasingly started crossing her mind but she dismissed them with a dogged determination – partially out of embarrassment, but more because of some age-old conditioning. Hadn’t she been taught to not react to the actions of her in-laws, to never doubt their intentions?
Gradually, this became a pattern. No matter how assiduously Minati tried to evade her father-in-law, he would find ways and means of crossing her path. And touching her inappropriately – sometimes with his calloused, wrinkled hands, and at others, with his salacious gaze which threatened to pierce right through her layers of clothing and singe her nubile, virgin body. Ashalata Debi saw it all, yet the rusted fetters of family honour and spousal loyalty prevented her from chastening her husband. With no reprieve forthcoming and nobody to turn to, life for Minati was fast becoming a living hell!
Things came to a head when the entire family visited a relative to attend a Durga Puja celebration, leaving Minati at home with Uttam. Kedarnath backed out at the final moment citing an upset stomach. Making the most of this opportunity post dinner, he tried to force himself on Minati, yanking away her saree and pinning her down on the floor, while she desperately flailed her arms to break free. As she tried to bite into Kedarnath’s palms that were cupping over her mouth to stifle her screams, a chance intervention by Uttam saved the day – he had come looking for his cricket ball and was left standing there agape! Seizing the moment, Minati quickly gathered her saree, and her wits, and fled, leaving Kedarnath fuming and frustrated!
When Ashalata and the others returned two days later, Minati was all packed and ready to leave. In the dark pre-dawn hours, while the entire household lay swathed in a blissful slumber, Minati quietly headed towards the door with a bag. Ashalata met her at the door; she pressed into Minati’s palm a velvet pouch containing some heirloom jewellery and a wad of cash. Then, in an unprecedented move, she gave her two plain, white sarees with a narrow blue border. Her lips continued to remain sealed but her eyes, brimming with tears of remorse and mortification, spoke volumes.
Today, I absolve you of all marital obligations. . . go on and start a fresh life.
Minati was astonished beyond words but she accepted it in all humility, touched her feet one last time, and left. The inky stillness aided her escape and as the first rose-gold hues of a new dawn spilled over the onyx curtain, she emerged in pristine white, her new avatar – a woman on a mission to reclaim and rebuild her life! Walking briskly with the pallu covering her face, she reached the river bank. The sound of frenzied drum beats and devout cries of Joy Ma Durga rent the air, as idols of the goddess were ceremoniously immersed mid-river, to mark Vijaya Dashami. They strengthened Minati’s steely resolve to cross the Rubicon, as she boarded an overcrowded steamer across the swollen Padma to cross over to India – the land of revived opportunities and new beginnings.
In the wake of a hard-earned independence, a flurry of philanthropic and socio-economic reforms was sweeping through India. Minati found shelter at a refugee camp in Howrah, Bengal, set up for the Hindu families fleeing East Pakistan. With her high school education and a keen eye for the woven thread, she managed to find work in the factory of a handloom co-operative society, thriving largely on its women workforce. She stayed with hundreds of others in their overcrowded staff quarters. The salary was meagre; the labour, herculean; the living conditions, dismal. However, Minati never complained even once – thrust amidst a sea of unfamiliar faces, she felt much more secure and satisfied than she ever did in her one year of stay at her marital home.
As a young Matric-qualified widow, things seemed to work out a little more favourably for Minati. She was a fast learner and a diligent worker who had grown up watching her father toil away at the loom. The familiar click-clack of the shaft and the shuttle moving up and down…the soft, colourful yarn offering a visual feast…the warp and weft of the fabric interlacing and weaving an intricate pattern – these were elements she was familiar with. A few weeks of training and a budding camaraderie with her hardworking colleagues gave the much-needed fillip to her confidence, and soon Minati became a valued employee.
Days metamorphosed to months, and months to years – Minati now lived in a small rented accommodation. Through her sheer hard work, exemplary honesty and innate creativity, she rose steadily to become a Design Supervisor. Her forte lay in creating sarees with innovative patterns and unusual colour schemes, and she soon became a much sought-after name among the noveau riche of Calcutta.
In 1965, a prestigious assignment required Minati to travel to Khulna, her birthplace. She took it up with a pinch of salt. She met the local weavers there and inked a lucrative deal. Thereafter, on a sudden impulse, Minati set off for her ancestral village. As she alighted from the rickshaw and looked around, she was surprised to find that it looked pretty much the same as it did fifteen years ago…only, her father was no more. The sweeping winds of change had somehow blown past the village without actually touching it. Clearing the cobwebs of resentment from her mind, Minati rushed to the open fields on the riverbank, her favourite haunt. They stood there, timeless and resilient, overgrown with the slender, white, autumnal kaash. The breeze bullied the reeds forcing them to swish and sway to its vagaries, forwards and backwards, this way and that. Everything was as it had been yesterday and the day before. The cuckoo bird continued its ‘coo-coo-once-is-not-enough-here’s-another’, coo-coo call, pleased with its own poetics, its rhythm unfaltering. So much had transpired, yet nothing had changed!
Minati inhaled deeply. She had travelled way too far now; the bridges leading to her past lay broken; and she had no intention of mending them. She was glad she made this trip – it quietened her inner demons and gave her closure. As she boarded the waiting rickshaw and started back, she heard the faint ululating of women and reverberating drumbeats at a distance, as a bridal procession weaved its way into the village.
New beginnings, yet again, Minati smiled to herself.
First published as a winning entry in September 2021 on Women’s Web
P.C. Aditya Wardhana on Unsplash