Short Story of Indian Bride – Between Love and Despair
I slip the shakha pola into my hands. A few drops of water drip down from my still wet hair onto my fingers. As I brush them away, I feel a tug on my legs.
“Boudi, give me your feet” Tumpa maashi says with a hint of impatience. She is a full time maid, her relationship with the family dating as far back to the day when the first foundation stone of the house was laid out.
I thrust my legs out. Deftly she dips the cotton wad into a bowl of alta and starts applying it on the sides of my feet. The cold, wet touch of the liquid sends shivers down my hands and back, tickling me into a smile.
“O maa, you look so beautiful when you smile. You should do that more often instead of going around carrying that serious face of yours”
I smile a bigger smile in response and start to edge my way away from her. I have other chores to finish before the pushpanjali begins. The preparations are in full swing and I can hear the Dhakis playing the drums in the pandal.
I run into my room which has been my sanctuary from the day I moved into this house after marriage. It’s been one month since I first stepped into the periphery of this house – reborn again with a new set of maa, baba, didis and dadas and Avik – my husband. And as was drilled into me for many months before the marriage, I have dutifully followed the unwritten rules of a daughter-in-law with a servility and deference uncharacteristic to me, while I still grapple and try to unravel the mysteries of being a wife.
I pull a stool and drag it in front of the cupboard. I lift up my sari and tuck it within the strings of my petticoat so that it ends up several inches above my ankles. Gingerly I climb on to the stool. I stretch myself to the fullest and with my hands I reach out to the VIP suitcase that has come along with me into this house – An assimilation of all the frugal things that my mother had deemed necessary during my first few weeks in the new house while I planted my roots into unknown territory.
I tug at the handle and it inches forward. I try to get a firm grip of the suitcase but its heavy and for a minute I am worried that I may crack my spine.
“What are you doing?” A horrified voice speaks behind me.
I start. The sudden intrusion shocks and dislodges me. The stool wobbles on its rickety legs and for a brief moment I am inclined at a precarious angle. I feel the legs of the stool slip away and I close my eyes at the thought of an impending crash, a shriek forming in anticipation. But my fall is cut short.
A pair of strong arms grips me around my thighs and I find Avik’s torso pressed against my body as his face grazes my exposed stomach. I can feel his day old stubble prick into the skin, causing a burning sensation. I feel myself flush, red with embarrassment. I forget to breathe and when I do it comes out as a loud gasp – like I am having an asthmatic attack.
He places me down on the solid ground and takes the sight of me in – the anchol of my sari is creased up together and thrown carelessly over the shoulders – concealing more than hiding. The blouse has been rendered transparent because of the wet hair, my legs shamelessly displayed and my stomach all red after the stubble assault. I cringe and wish the earth opens up. I lower my eyes waiting for him to speak.
He clears his throat to say something but words fail him. He shuffles his feet, then moves around the room as if looking for something. I sneak in a look in his direction. His demeanour is agitated and for some reason it quickens my heartbeat and I find myself blushing. I discreetly rearrange my sari.
He looks at me, and then smiles uncertainly. I smile back shyly.
“Do you want that suitcase?” he says in a deep sonorous masculine voice that is soft and oddly comforting.
He climbs the stool and in one swift movement lays it down in front of me. I remain mute and a bundle of nervous energy.
“Next time you need something from up there” he points with his fingers “tell me. I will get it for you”
I bite on my lower lips and nod. For a minute he stands transfixed, looking at me and then just as abruptly as he had come, he leaves the room.
I flop down on the bed. My heart and pulse is racing. Beads of perspiration form on my forehead as I strive vainly to calm my breathing. I can smell him on me. His lingering aftershave fills the pores of my body, a reminder of a craving that has been gnawing at me since I had first seen him.
Seen him for the first time, clearly, on the first night of our marriage, lying, side by side on the bed, holding hands, and eager but unsure of the future that lay in front of us. And it was that night I realized what the birth of love feels like.
I burst into quiet giggles at the memory of the incident, but my mirth is short lived.
“You are not yet dressed!!”
A loud shriek makes me jump and come to an attention position. My mother-in-law looks at me; her face is contorted with irritation and anger.
I mumble an incoherent response and hurriedly open up the suitcase, and pull out a new taat sari. She leaves the room in a huff, muttering under her breath which in all probability was a comment on my irresponsibility. And from breathless gaiety I suddenly have the urge to cry. But I restrain myself and wrap the sari around myself. Fifteen minutes later, I join the waiting group of family members as we head down to the pandal.
We are greeted by gusts of smoke that are being emitted from the burning dhoop. I fill my lungs in with the smokiness around me, the familiarity of it transports me to my childhood and soothes my nerves and I take in the sight around me. The pandal is filled with throngs of people, all dressed in their best clothes. The women are wearing crisp cotton saris, their faces devoid of any makeup save for the big red bindi and a generous smearing of sindur.
I join the queue of women who are waiting for their turn for the pushpanjali.
“Ki re Piyali” I hear a sing song voice address me from behind.
I turn and look in the direction of the voice. Juxtaposed close to me is the heavy kohl smeared eyes of our neighbor Jayashree, a forty year old widow and mother of two daughters of marriageable age and the reigning gossip queen of our colony.
“Pishi ma” I bend and touch her feet in what is the standard and accepted way of greeting elderly folks in the town.
“So how are you? This is your first puja here isn’t it?”
The question has the answer so I merely acquiesce with a smile.
“So are you all set to leave for America?” She asks with a nasal twang in her voice.
I frown, not comprehending the question. She catches the puzzled look on my face and puts two and two together. Her expression is that of mock surprise.
“Oh! You don’t know!!” she says in a shocked voice. “..That Avik is going to America?”
I feel the ground shift underneath my feet. Things blur around me. I inhale a deep breath, a futile attempt to calm the storm that now rages in my mind.
A death like grip on my hands drags me away from her and into the crowd of hymn chanting people. My mother-in-law who avoids looking in my eyes, forces a few crushed flowers into my hands and closes her eyes, hands folded and head bowed in front of Durga’s idol. The tears that are stinging my eyes prevent me from closing them, and I stare into the large eyes of the goddess and the anger in her eyes transcends over to me. I am filled with a fury of being cheated, lied and kept in the dark.
I go through the motions of the ceremony, throwing the flowers at the right time, chanting the verses that merge into the surrounding echo as uncontrolled tears stream down my eyes. I recognize Avik standing in a row in front of me. His tall frame clothed in a silk kurta and dhoti, his curly mop of hair unruly and now sticking with sweat. He turns, his eyes find me in the crowd – tear stained and a pained expression on my face.
He knits his brows together, a questioning look, and then looks at the figure of his mother standing beside me. I can decipher her shake her head quietly, probably she mouths a few words and a look of understanding dawns on his face. It changes to guilt and for a brief moment, his face mirrors my love and my hurt. Then he turns away.
He leaves five days later. The house is a whirlwind of activity during those days. Clothes are bought, food prepared, sealed and packed so that he could adapt to the unfamiliar cuisines and country. I immerse myself in preparing the best treats for him, consoling myself with thoughts of unconditional love. Love that cannot be chained, threatened or bargained with.
And then the day of his departure arrives. The entire family wakes up at dawn; most of them are accompanying him to Kolkata from where his flight departs. I refuse to be part of that journey. The mere thought of waving Avik goodbye constricts my heart, choking me up.
The suitcases are piled into the back of the car and everyone squeezes into the front and back seats. Avik makes himself comfortable in the front seat, the doors close, the engine revs up and without so much as a glance at me Avik disappears. In a way its better as it saves both of us the grief of separation.
It’s a year since Avik left for the States. A year since the promises we made to each other lie strewn and withered. The phone calls were few and far between. The sentences reducing to mere words during the infrequent calls. It’s been a year since I walked into this house as a bride, brimming with new found love. And after a year, I still wonder what is expected from me as a wife.
The dhakis are playing once again in the pandal. The festivity is all around but the gaiety in the house seems subdued. Or perhaps it’s just me. I sit beside the phone for an hour, hoping and willing for Avik to call. It’s an important day that he couldn’t possibly forget. The hour becomes two and then three. I reluctantly leave my post beside the phone to get ready.
The calendar flutters the days, months, years. And I wait. I play the role of the dutiful bou. The definition of wife has erased completely. Avik is a stranger whose news I get from people who are scared to meet my eye.
We couldn’t have sent the boy to a foreign land without marrying….
I am told that Avik has friends there now – women too. Women, who are strong, educated and independent.
“Get ready for the pushapanjali” my mother-in-law’s words floats in.
I climb the stool and tug at the suitcase. This time I am careful as there is no Avik to help me. I pull out the same taat sari. There is a masculine smell in the layers of the sari or perhaps my mind is playing games. I feel Avik’s arms around me as I wrap the sari around myself and I loose myself in the past without restrain.
“Let’s go” my mother-in-law cuts through my thoughts.
“I will join you in sometime” I tell her, requesting the rest of the family go ahead. She leaves me alone with my thoughts of Avik.
The house is deserted and there is a strange calmness that descends into my soul. I peer outside through the windows and catch the sight of Jayashree pishi walk with a swaying gait towards the pandal. She is accosted by other women, all chirping enthusiastically. I realize that tonight she will have a big gossip to talk about.
I walk into the kitchen, closing the door behind me. The chicken is simmering in the gravy. I have prepared it the way Avik likes it. I wonder how Avik will react to the news later tonight. Will he feel the love I have for him over my despair?
I remove the utensil from the stove, I extinguish the flame. The gas is still turned on. It’s an offensive smell, but as I lie down on the cold kitchen floor I know that after a while, I won’t feel it anymore.