by Snigdha Banerjee Agrawal
“Have I become such a huge liability to you?” she asks him. But he doesn’t hear, focused on going through the newspaper matrimonial advertisements, searching for a suitable groom for her, his eldest daughter, turning twenty-four in a few months. Way over the prescribed marriageable age for girls in her community.
With an MSc in Chemistry, followed by a B.Ed, Puja had secured a teaching job in the city’s prestigious college for women. A decent salary, augmented with earnings from private tuition, gave her economic independence. And to throw this up for the sake of complying with societal requirements, was abominable. But no one cares about her views. Remaining unmarried is not an option, considered as bringing shame on the family and upon oneself. Choosing her own life partner is preposterous. Caught between a rock and a hard place best describes her situation.
“Puja..we have chosen a suitable boy for you. He runs the family sweetmeat business along with his father and brothers. They are impressed with your face photo and qualifications. This weekend, the boy and his parents will be visiting to finalize the arrangements. Here..have a look at the boy’s photo”. Sliding the photograph from the envelope, he hands it over to her. She shows no interest. For she knows very well, her opinion will not matter. Marriage will overnight erase her identity, smash her independent spirit into smithereens. Her fate will be sealed forever, her womb treated like a baby-making machine for continuing the family lineage. Just that! No…she was going to change that.
Peering from beneath her headscarf, pulled down to her chin, she checks out if the coast is clear. Finding no one, she steps on the street, opening her umbrella with a click. Thankful the rain has made pedestrians scurry back to their homes, some taking refuge under tin sheds near the bus stops; reducing chances of meeting known faces. Her flip-flops go slosh..slosh..slosh..through the puddles of rainwater.
Whenever it rains with such intensity, she is reminded of a similar night and the events that lead up to her taking refuge, not under the shade of a tin roof like the pedestrians, but to a different place altogether and for entirely different reasons. Her leaving had impacted the lives of many. A decision that evokes mixed feelings of regret and elation and that had manifold ramifications for her and her family. For her, it was either flow with the norms and get drowned in the process or break free. She had chosen the latter. And here she was, living with a new identity, respected, held in high esteem by her colleagues, having hurdled over the highest bar imposed by an archaic society. Her sepia world turned to technicolor.
Soaking wet, she reaches home. Her home for the last thirty years. Wiping her feet on the doormat, unlocking the door, and pushing it inwards, gives her the feeling of returning to her comfort zone. The photo on the wall facing the living room, greets her, as usual, with a smile. The faraway look in the eyes, ominous of what was to come, she had overlooked at that time.
Standing on her doorstep, memories come rushing back of her packing her bags and leaving, walking out through the front door, of another home far away when pushed against the wall, some three decades ago. In the wake of that memory, a tsunami of happier memories makes her smile back at the photo on the wall.
Her father’s dismissal of her earnest pleas to call off the marraige makes her more adamant to take the bold step that fateful night. Taking one last look at her sleeping parents, Puja ventures out into the dark night, pulling the stroller packed with clothes, jewellery, and her cheque book. Her savings so far had been untouched. No matter how much she tried persuading them to accept a portion of her salary towards household expenses, they flatly refused. “Not done in our society” put a close to any further conversation. Bemused, she wanted to answer back…”When will you break free from the fortresses built by warped minds”?
The rickshaw puller is fast asleep on the passenger seat, curled up in a fetal position, her regular guy, ferrying her back and forth from college. “Shiv bhaiya…I need you to take me to the railway station right away. The last train to Pathankot leaves in another twenty minutes..please hurry”. The confused old man, looks enquiringly at his favourite customer, as though to say … have you gone mad? Why are you out on the street at this time of the night…but the words remain unspoken. Puja has already seated herself, hoisting the stroller after her, balancing it between her legs. Only streets dogs are awake as they make progress on the deserted road. Even before reaching the station entrance gate, Puja jumps off the rickshaw and races towards platform no.6, weaving her way through passengers sleeping on the platform. The railway guard is unfolding the green flag to wave off the train. Without a second thought, she jumps into a first-class coach, without a ticket or seat reservation. She would deal with that later. More important was to increase the distance from the smouldering fire that would have consumed her totally.
For a single woman, relocating to a new city had its inherent problems. Questions asked, eyebrows raised, critical looks were given, whenever and wherever she approached homeowners looking for tenants. How long could she continue living in a hotel? She needed an address to apply for a job. An elderly couple finally accepts her as a tenant with very clear house rules…”no parties…no loud music…no visitors…no late nights…entry gate padlocked at 10pm. She accepts all the rules gratefully, not that she has any plans on indulging in any of these activities. Being an introvert by nature, none of these hold any interest.
A day after signing the lease agreement, Puja moves into her new home, just right for the new lifestyle she would be embarking upon.
A small living room furnished with a three-seater run-down sofa and a wobbly center table, perhaps to remain merely as showpieces. Most of her time would be spent in the small bedroom on the double four-poster bed pushed against the wall. The window looking out into the neatly kept backyard, with tall poplar trees, wearing silver leggings, her exclusive view to a sight so different from Bareilly, her home town, the urban jungle, she had escaped from. Yes, she would have to cook her own meals in the cubby hole kitchen equipped with a gas stove, and overhead cabinets. Not a problem. She was used to helping her mother in the kitchen, back home. On her own, would there be any need to cook? Not likely.
The interview letter from the Girls College arrives a week after mailing it. R.R.K.M. Aryan,Mahavidyalaya
Women’s college in Pathankot, Punjab, one of the well-known women’s colleges has a vacancy in the Chemistry department. Puja is overwhelmed receiving the offer, two days after the interview call. The pay is better than expected. For once, the tormenting past recedes from her mind, replaced with the euphoria of an unknown kind. Freedom at last from the yoke of the past.
The Gupta household is up at the crack of dawn, with the sound of the mooing of the cow, right outside their door. The milkman washes the cow’s large teats with water kept in a bucket. That done, he proceeds to milk the cow, after getting Mr Ramlal Gupta’s nod of approval. The aluminium bucket has to be stone dry, wiped clean and udders pointed inside the bucket to catch the jettisoned milk flow. White froth keeps rising as the bucket fills up. Mrs. Gupta always keeps a handful of jaggery to offer to the cow, once the milking is over. The cow and milkman are sent off with appreciative pats. Mornings begin with a glass of fresh milk and hot ‘jalebis’ for every member of the Gupta family.
The maid leaves Puja’s glass on the table in her room shouting out “Madam…drink up, before the cat beats you to it”. Returning after an hour, she finds the glass untouched. Suddenly the household is on a search mode that stops abruptly after they find her sealed letter on her pillow. Gone! No address. No apologies. Just two lines scribbled in a hurry. “Don’t waste time looking for me. I cannot be married to just anyone you choose for me”. The vein in Mr. Gupta’s forehead juts out like a fattened worm, about to burst. Something else bursts simultaneously…anger followed by a bout of screaming as the family patriarch collapses like a bag of potatoes. He is rushed to the closest hospital and declared brought dead. A pall of gloom descends on the family. Overnight the house loses not one, but two family members. Mrs. Gupta catapulting to the head of a formerly patriarchal run home. No…she will never forgive her daughter for this tragedy in her life.
Her days are pretty much the same round the week, except Saturdays and Sundays when college is closed. The old couple is more sociable towards her having observed her comings and goings without so much as even bending the house rules. The Bagaria’s invite her to join them for meals during the weekends. She too looks forward to their company, cooking a dish, to add to the elaborate spread. Over meals and conversation, she comes to know a lot more about the family and of their losing two sons in the Kargil war. Garlanded photos of the heroes, hanging on the wall opposite the dining table, serve as a constant source of inspiration and pride, comforting the old couple that their sons had laid down their lives in protecting the country.
Four months since her arrival, tenant and owners settle down into an amicable relationship. Puja happily runs errands for them, filling up their prescriptions from the pharmacy, picking up groceries on her way back from college. It is not surprising, therefore, one day when they ask…”Puja is there anything you would like to tell us, or need any personal help”?
OMG! Had they noticed the baby bump? Her well-guarded secret was now out in the open. No point in hiding anymore. Puja narrates to them why and how she landed up in Pathankot. Head lowered she confesses to them “I had to flee my hometown not only because of being pushed into an undesirable marriage. I just didn’t have the courage to tell my parents of the illicit affair I had with one of the teachers, teaching in the same College. He walked me up the garden path, promising marriage and a rosy future thereafter. All hogwash. The moment he got to know I was pregnant with his child, he left and a took transfer to another city. Subsequently, I got to know he was already married with three kids. That’s the long and short of serious gaffes I committed. And now I have to deal with curious stares and questions from all and sundry”.
Stunned with the disclosure, the elderly couple takes time to regain their composure. “Puja we have a solution to your predicament. As you know, we have no daughter to call our own. With your coming, that void now seems filled. Would you consider being our widowed daughter returning back home, pregnant? That way, there will be no need to change your name or records. Your unborn child will be welcomed into the world as our grandchild. Nobody will raise any questions on your marital status or your child’s progeny. Think about it. Your acceptance would also bring back happiness into our barren home.’ The offer is too good to turn down. Puja bows down, touching Mr. and Mrs. Bagaria’s feet in humility and gratitude.
Six months later Puja gives birth to a beautiful daughter. Mr. and Mrs. Bagaria cannot contain their excitement at becoming first-time grandparents for Akanksha, meaning “desire” or “ambition”. A befitting name fulfilling the old couple’s unfulfilled desires. Akanksha grows up in the loving care of her adopted grandparents, her true lineage kept a secret. Puja thanks her lucky stars, what would have been a nightmare for her and her child, turns into a rosy world for all of them.
Puja ages gracefully, Akanksha grows into beauty with brains, topping her exams. She wishes to pursue medicine. Puja’s saving cannot support her medical tuition fees. But she can fall back on the Trust created for Akanksha to meet the expenses. Mr. and Mrs. Bagaria had the foresight to move all their assets into the trust as a gift for their adopted daughter and granddaughter. The house and all immovable property bequeathed to Puja. The couple had been astute in preparing their will before departing for their heavenly abode, mentioning some caveats in the will to prevent any more drama in Puja’s life. One of them being educational funding solely if pursued in India.
That put a spoke in the wheels of Akanksha’s plans. She had already got admission to several European Medical Colleges, EU Georgia her preferred choice, not only because of the affordable fees but also due to good teaching norms, standardized MBBS courses, and world-class quality education. Founded in the year 1995, European Teaching University had become the most favored destination for Indian students, aspiring for a foreign MBBS degree.
Hesitatingly she discloses her plans to Puja without letting her into the primary reason for choosing this University. That can come later, once there is agreement on her studying in a foreign country. Puja spells out the terms of the will without mincing words.
Rajat and Ravi, Puja’s twin brothers take over the family business, soon after graduating from Engineering College. Mrs. Gupta after two decades of holding the reins of the company is happy to hand over the baton to her now grown-up sons. The boys have fond memories of their elder sister Puja despite the ugly aftermath of her departure, consequent to losing their father. Stony silences follow, whenever the brothers enquire about her whereabouts. As grown-ups, they are determined to find her, refusing to believe she had died in a train accident, as was told to them by Mrs. Gupta. “Don’t ever mention her name in this household. She died in our hearts long ago” made it all the more difficult for the boys to accept the verdict ‘dead’ for their only sister, more like a mother to them.
Unknown to Mrs. Gupta, the brothers employ the services of a detective to trace their missing sister. Several leads all reach dead ends. Two decades and now arrives a young girl at their doorstep, bearing an uncanny resemblance to their supposedly dead sister. A mirror image of Puja, with those large eyes, fringed with long lashes, high cheekbones with dimples, and that lopsided smile on her face. She asks “is this where Puja lived as a young girl?” The boys are taken aback? Going by her looks, she couldn’t be Puja. Must be an imposter, claiming partnership to the business, they now hold.
They say blood is thicker than water. And blood ties are bound by invisible ropes. Rajat and Ravi invite Akanksha inside. They have a hunch she is the missing link to their long-lost sister Puja. Slowly the mystery unfolds as she tells them of her mother, and foster grandparents. The Uncles ask about her father. She confesses to not having seen him, supposedly ex-Army Captain, killed in the war, two months before her birth. Nothing else is discussed. The photos she shows them are ample proof she is Puja’s daughter. Akanksha is accepted as the niece and next in kin as heir to the Gupta group of companies. On being pressed, she gives Puja’s Pathankot address, on condition, they don’t contact her till she has left. “Where and why are you leaving?” they ask. It is then Akanksha tells them of her plans of leaving the country to pursue medical studies in Georgia. Both Uncles are elated and offer to fund her education. Enthused they apply for her passport and visa and sign on the dotted line, as financial Guarantors. They see her off at Delhi airport with their blessings.
What goes around comes around couldn’t be more true. The letter left on the mantelpiece by Akanksha is proof enough! Hadn’t she done the same? Refused to accept her parent’s decision. Akanksha’s leaving nailed it down. At least Akanksha hadn’t hidden her pregnancy as she had, nor confessed to her relationship with Rishikesh, her school classmate. They were leaving to avoid any scandal on home ground. “Ma…we had a court marriage, six months back”. Puja smiles to herself. Akanksha got a better deal than herself.
About the Author:
Snigdha Agrawal is a published author of two books of poetry and has contributed to several anthologies. Her writings include all genres of poetry, prose, short stories, travelogues, restaurant reviews, and book reviews. She is widely traveled and shares her travel experiences in her blog : randomramblings52.wordpress.com. She lives with her husband in Bangalore, India.