Tuesday 10 August 2021

Anju Bandopadhyay, ShortStory 2021 Magazine

My Many Names

“Ma get ready, I’ll take you for a drive. You must be getting bored, sitting alone at home,” blasted Nitai, my first born, excitedly.

Nitai is all grown up now. Cherubic and a talkative young fellow, he holds a lucrative job profile in Gurugram. He makes me feel proud- truly proud. As my glance falls on his fair face, I invariably forget my broken past.

“How amazing!” I shriek. Pushing my face slightly out of the window I feel the wind gently caressing my wrinkled face. “Look at the girls, Nitai. How confidently they drive. Are they not afraid of accidents?”

“Ma, it’s different now. Women are progressive and fast. They are not afraid of anything anymore.”

“Good to observe this change, Nitai” I retort happily, my eyes sparking and my grey hair flying freely in the air.

● ● ●

I was born in a sprawling two-storeyed “bari” (house) amidst many cheerful faces. The morning sunlight poured in from the big windows that had flexible wooden panes. Ma stood silently at the headstand of the bed caressing my long silky hair.

“Get up Moni. You have to go to school,” she cooed softly into my ears.

“Five minutes more ma,” I responded languidly, holding her fingers. They were so coarse from continuous housework. I pressed them gently against my soft cheek and felt so safe, protected, loved and wanted.

My teachers in school called me Monimala. At home ma, dadabhai( I had two elder brothers), my kakas’( uncles), kakis’( aunts), four cousins and thamma( granny) shrieked Moni, Moni day and night. The name still reverberates in my ears. Thamma once remarked that my name implied “a string of pearls.” I was considered a precious pearl in the household. But the pearl lost its sparkle and drowned in the deep sea of misery and pain too soon.

● ● ●

I walked to school with my elder brothers and four cousins daily. At the age of ten, they made me wear a sari to school. It was a plain white sari with a deep red border. Initially, I was shocked. How to walk to school with a cloth around my legs? But I dare not protest. A typical reply from thamma would be,

“When everybody is wearing it, why won’t you?”

The two-storeyed bari (house) had innumerable rooms. Grand and regal in appearance, it was symbolic of ancient Bengali architecture. I remained upstairs with thamma, my brothers and cousins after returning from school. We did our homework, rehearsed classical music and Rabindra Sangeet in the evenings. Madhavi kakaima came to teach me music thrice a week. She thought I possessed a voice of great quality. How I wished she disappeared from my life forever. Instead, the tabla and the sitar interested me more. My brothers and two cousins took lessons in tabla every day. The girls learnt to pluck the strings of the sitar. Music floated effortlessly in the entire house. Their nimble fingers created magic as twilight descended quietly. The house pulsated with melody and life. Once the practice sessions were over, a game of luka- chuppi (hide and seek) soared our adrenalin levels to the maximum zenith. There were so many places to hide; under the rosewood table or the big armchair in the balcony or the large double-bed in thamma’s room. We crouched inside the almirah, behind the creaking wooden doors or bookshelves. At times, I hid my thin frame behind the smooth, polished bulbous marble pillars. No one knew. Happiness and abundance illuminated my life.

I slept downstairs with ma. My brothers shared another bed in the same room. Ma was not at all stern with us. Her sons were her strength and all her affections were showered on me. Our bedroom was close to the kitchen. Ma often sneaked in surplus helpings of nimki (salted snack) and narkel nadoo (coconut dumplings), stuffed them in a canister and hid them in her cupboard. Thamma was not always cordial with ma. We satiated our cravings whenever we felt like. Oh! Ma was so sweet and patient with us. Since our bedroom was close to the rannaghar (kitchen), tempting aromas of mutton curry, shorshe machh (fish cooked in mustard sauce), hot luchhi wafted into the room every day. I was a frugal eater but I enjoyed the rich aroma of cooked delicacies trailing into the room.

The Sarkar’s were a foodie family. They devoured on lavish breakfast, lunch and dinner. My uncles sat crossed legged on an aason (mattress) to savour home-cooked meals. Ma sat before them with her head covered and served food to the male members silently. She hardly spoke to my uncles. Why? I fail to understand even now. Thamma supervised the entire procedure with alert vigilance. The uncles feasted on rice, dal, fish and tomato chutney like hungry wolves. Once over, she never failed to ask her sons authoritatively, “kee rey! Was the cooking bhalo (nice)?

“Yes ma, it was perfect. Now an afternoon nap would do the trick.”

It appears cooking, serving, eating, cleaning and then again returning to the same chores were the singular reason to live by the womenfolk of the household.

● ● ●

I called my father Baba. He was out in the seas for several months at a stretch annually. Once home, he showered me with gifts purchased from far off countries. A doll Baba gave me was from Russia. It was so unique and spectacular. My cousins, my friends at school were all jealous of me. It was a wooden doll with a series of similar dolls placed one inside the other. It had to be split into half to hold the next smallest figure. The doll remained with me even after my ill-fated marriage to that man. My whole life was confined to one or two places but Baba managed to visit so many countries. Ma was so proud of him. She never accompanied him in any of his historic expeditions and she never complained. Strange! It appears ma had reconciled to her identity as a dutiful housewife.

Dad divulged once that Russia stands distinctive and majestic. The women are liberated and assertive. They have families and they go to the office. Some of them have full-time jobs. Customs and conventions are there but it is not used as a tool to make life oppressive. My paternal home and my marital home need centuries to unbridle their chained lives.

I wish I was like them. Suppose I was named Alyona....... the precious.

● ● ●

As a girl, I observed intently ma walking to the family pukoor (pond) to take her bath. Clad in a cotton sari, she would press her nose and duck in swiftly under the rippling pond water. Suddenly, she vanished before my eyes with no warning. Seconds stretched to minutes and when she failed to reappear, I would scream and wail, “ma......ma” on top of my voice.

“What’s the matter, Moni? Why are you crying?” said kaki

“Ma is not coming up,” I wailed, pointing my finger towards the pond. Tears streamed down my face constantly.

“Oh! She is an expert swimmer. She will never drown. Stop crying now,” said kaki kindly.

But, I did lose her very quickly. I was just thirteen. Something happened in her breast, they say. A safe sanctuary of warmth and care collapsed forever. I found myself under the surrogate care of my kakas’, kakis’, thamma, cousins and my protective brothers. Baba was out in the seas. With time I grew restless and wild, continuously hunting for something. What thing, I still do not know. Books, school, music had little meaning to me. My grades deteriorated and when I failed High School the family decided to marry me off. I was sixteen.

“It’s time,” they said.

● ● ●

My first train journey was an unforgettable experience. For two days I travelled with him and his family. Few of his close friends were part of the marriage party too. The train chugged tardily and stopped at every quaint station. Soon I realised that the arrival of a new station meant, moving far away from my old family. Strong pangs of pain stifled my chest. I took a deep breath and started smiling at everyone again. Later, it became a habit with me- hiding my real feelings.

The train took me to an unknown destination. I began a new life with a man whom I barely knew.

“Your husband goes to the office. He earns an income. He will keep you as his queen,” bragged kaki.

“Though you’ll live far away, I know you’ll be happy,” said kaka.

My marital life in an unfamiliar land was no less than a jolt from the blue. People spoke a different dialect and women draped their sari differently. I had no friends to chat with. Initially, the school and college going brothers-in-law and their sharp-tongued mother were very friendly to me. I did my best to keep them happy. It was a massive responsibility thrust on my young shoulders to satisfy them all.

In the afternoons, I sat on the balcony steps with my gaze transfixed on the road. The postman came riding on a bicycle. A letter every fortnight pumped some life into me. That familiar hand of my brothers and aunts thrilled me to no extent. In one such exchange, I was informed of Baba’s demise. The ship had sunk and the sea had embraced him for eternity. The Russian doll lying secure in my trunk served as a reminder of happier times. I had learnt to cope with separation, pain and agony at seventeen. The process of silent suffering became a routine with me. Gradually I realised, whether I was happy or sad hardly meant anything to my protector. He and his mother were allies in operation. I was sidelined, overlooked and easily crushed to a thousand pieces daily.

I still, remember that traditional clay oven. I used cow dung, coal and dry twigs are used to light it up. My eyes watered as circles of smoke rose into the air. The black coal burnt and turned to red hot embers. I carried it indoors to cook for the entire family. The lavish spread my kakis’ dished out at home had tasted divine. I had no clue how they managed it. Here, I made mistakes every day and that heartless lady taunted me day and night. My protector did not have a spine. He chose to remain mute. If only a benevolent hand had pulled me out of that hell.

● ● ●

“Thuja nav kay ahe?”(What’s your name?)

A pretty face with almond-shaped eyes stood smiling at me from the other side of the leafy fence.

“Mi, Ratna,” she said.

“I am Monimala.”

“What... Monimala? It’s a strange name. But a sweet one,” said Ratna pleasingly. “Why don’t you come to my house anytime? We can talk.”

It was a kind invitation. Besides, it was a great opportunity to befriend someone. I walked to her place one day. Ratna lived with her husband Tanoj and son Dev. Unlike my quarter which was forever shambolic, a sense of order prevailed in Ratna’s quarter. A sofa set with green covers looked grand in the drawing room. There were fresh flowers in the ceramic vase.

“Sit down, Monimala.. Does your name mean anything?” asked Ratna eagerly.

“It means a precious pearl. My thamma named me so”

“Pearl! You look like one,” giggled Ratna.

She served me hot milky tea complemented by delicacies such as chakli, mysore pak and besan ladoo. I had never heard nor tasted such food items before. It was a welcome change in my otherwise dull life.

“When do you get the time to prepare all this?”

“I cook in a gas stove. It’s so easy and convenient” blurted Ratna excitedly.

She led me to the kitchen. There, on the kitchen table lay a steel coloured gas stove with two knobs. It was fitted with a pipe to a cylinder.

I stood perplexed and blank for some time.

“How come life is so easy for some, whereas I slog day and night over a mud oven for the entire family?”

“Pester your husband. He will get you one,” sang Ratna into my ears.

● ● ●

The best gift out of my marriage was Nitai and Tatai, my two boys. My life was for them and I wanted to give them an excellent upbringing. The gas stove never arrived and I cooked for everyone come summer, winter, spring or autumn. A busy street ran overlooking the suffocating kitchen. I stood up several times between my cooking, just to watch the cacophonous street. The overcrowded buses and the honking trucks; a yawning rickshaw puller and a rash auto-driver; children prancing to school and housewives bargaining furiously with a toothless vegetable vendor. Life throbbed on the streets and I longed to be one among them. But I had turned into a caged bird seven years back.

When my boys were ten and eight respectively, a strange sensation gripped my nipples. I ignored it outright. I thought it would fade away with time. Never for once, I mentioned it to my negligent husband. He and his mother expected me to be healthy forever. All hell broke loose when I fainted in the kitchen. My brothers were informed. They fought furiously with my in-laws and took me and my sons away. My parents had left behind two guiding lights to rekindle my life again. I underwent rigorous treatment, till fully cured of cancer. They did not once mention to send me and my boys back again. Blessed to be born again!

While I dwelled in the house, I was addressed by many names.

My mother-in-law called me bouma (daughter-in-law)

My brothers-in-law called me boudi (elder brother’s wife)

My sisters- in- law (brother-in-law’s wife) called me didibhai.

My sons called me ma (mother).

My nephew and nieces called me jethima( eldest aunt)

My husband never had any special name for me. Isn’t it wierd? My many names.

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