It was her 25th marriage anniversary. They had decided to throw a party in the evening. However, instead of being ecstatic she was in a reflective mood. Thinking, wondering, pondering…a whole series of events and images came to her mind. Not all of them were pleasant but definitely memorable. Sitting with a cup of tea in her hand in the small yet cosy balcony she mused about her marriage to a stranger whom she had eventually befriended.
They had spent twenty-five years with each other. This was unbelievable keeping in mind the first impression she had of him. Their parents had fixed up their marriage. He was thirty-seven years old. She had freaked out when she heard this. How could she marry a man ten years older to her? Her mother consoled her by saying that he was a rich and a self-made man. And although he was not good-looking by normal standard, everyone thought well of him. They were no longer wealthy enough to spend lavishly on her marriage as they did during her sisters’ marriage. Therefore, it is especially advantageous to them since his family had no demands. They were strictly against any form of dowry.
She was not consoled but resigned to her fate. At five feet and one inch she definitely was not tall. And she was pretty in an uncommon sort of way. Her features were not as sharp as a classic Indian beauty’s should be, but she possessed a complexion lighter than wheatish but darker than fair and an innocent face which appealed to most people she met. She had another asset – her keen sense of perception.
She had to go to Jamshedpur to meet him. Her relatives wanted her to see the groom once before marriage. She wondered why she was asked to do so since she did not exercise the right to deny him. Perhaps, it did not matter whether she met him or liked him after meeting but that he wanted to see her. This very thought filled her with distaste. Moreover, she did not like the idea of living in a small city after being in Calcutta all her life. She would have to begin her life afresh in a new city, with new people. The very thought terrified her. She would have to resign from her job in the Bengali medium school she was teaching. There were no Bengali schools in Jamshedpur. ‘How would she ever be able to adjust’ was the question of the hour.
She met him in the evening. Her initial sense of repulsion, doubt and fear came back. She tried to fight back the feeling of being commodified; something that she always felt when any man came to see her with the intent of marriage.
He was pitch dark. About two inches taller than her, his appearance was a far cry from all the good-looking men she had met and who had rejected her on the basis of being too thin or too short. She refused to look at him, partly because she was shy and partly because she was horrified to see her future glaring at her. Through the formal conversation which carried on for about two hours, in which her future was decided for her by her elders, but in which her opinion was not asked, she gauged that this man had a good sense of humour. He smiled quite a lot and made others laugh around him a lot more. Though she would have liked to be an audience to some of his jokes, this would have been unthinkable. So she continued her conversation with her prospective sister-in-law.
The date of their marriage was fixed on 24th April, 1983.
The days after that passed in a daze. With all the clothes and jewellery shopping, distribution of cards, meeting the bridegroom’s relatives who could not contain their curiosity to see the new bride, she hardly had any time for herself.
On the day of her marriage, she observed the customary fasting ritual. She did not care much for it but with vigilant elders around her, she had no choice. She did not feel the pangs of hunger until late in the afternoon but on complaining she was reminded that she would have to go through it for her and her husband’s well-being since starvation on the big day would guarantee a lifetime of happiness. On inquiring whether her husband would also do the same she was told that it was not incumbent on men to perform these rites. Again the injustice of it all struck her. Everyone seemed to be implying that the welfare of her marital life would solely depend on her actions and her fate. But what about the person she was marrying? Was he not going to share her responsibilities? She helplessly accepted this contention too.
Her aunts tried to force her to go to the beauty parlour in order to look beautiful for her husband-to-be and the guests. She noted that it was not for herself but for others that she was supposed to look beautiful. Immensely irritated by everything that had been happening to her for the first time she vehemently refused to comply. She was never fond of artificial colours. People not so good-looking required make-up, she reminded herself. Her husband would have to accept her the way she was, she thought with some pride.
But she did look enchanting. The lack of makeup heightened the quality of innocence in her face and everyone praised her. Some neighbours and distant relatives congratulated the bridegroom’s family for having coveted such a prize. A prize, indeed, she was and she hoped that they would prize her even after her marriage. Although the stories she had heard from her married sisters about their married life was in no way consoling.
Vermillion was applied on her forehead at 12:00 a.m. By the time the marriage ended it was well past midnight. Everyone, including she, was exhausted and in no mood of celebrating. But she had to continue smiling, looking interested and shy, as was expected of her. Next day the journey back to her new home was a tearful one.
A long time would elapse before she could start considering her husband’s home to be her own. Nor did he make any special efforts to make her feel at home. He was too busy with his newly set up business and did not spend much time with her. They did go on a honeymoon which was short but pleasant. She found her husband quite weird. Although he did not give her any reason to complain, she had no reason to praise him either. He never stood up for her in front of his family. He did not even try to know her better. In other words, he never bothered himself with her and left her to fend for herself all the time. He did not restrict her movements but being a newcomer to the city she did not know where to go and was inevitably left to the mercy of her in-laws to entertain her.
She would escape to Calcutta every now and then. Although her husband did not object to it her in-laws would harangue her about the necessity to serve and care for her husband and her sister-in-law would sarcastically remark that her home in Jamshedpur was more luxurious than her mother’s place. She felt like telling them that the size of the house did not matter to her but the amount of love she found in that place. She felt like telling them that she felt suffocated in this huge house where no one cared for her but where everyone kept reminding her of her duties towards her husband, although none educated her husband of his duties towards his newly wedded wife, which he neglected most of the time. But this would have been blasphemous. So she told them that she was lonely here without friends. This merest self-defence elicited a grunt from her eldest sister-in-law who told her that she had to be friendly person herself to make friends. However, her younger sister-in-law approached and told her that she would have to adjust despite all odds. This was the fate of all women. Perhaps, she detected a note of empathy in her words which warmed her to this otherwise stoic woman. She was the only person who empathised with her in the new household; but she did not get to know her well since she died at childbirth five months later.
She found it extremely annoying that it was her conduct that was always kept under tight scrutiny. No one bothered about her husband’s code of conduct. What was his office like? Why did he not come home last night? Why did he travel so frequently? Why did he not take her along in these long tours? What did he do there? Such behaviour which would normally be considered abominable in a woman remained unnoticed in a man. This irked her. If she came later than usual from the market her sister-in-law questioned her on her whereabouts under the guise of being concerned. If she visited her friend, her mother-in-law would insist that her brother-in-law drop her to that friend’s house. She was self sufficient. She did not need a protector. All she had desired was for a companion; instead she found tutors, guides and protectors.
However, she was one of the few lucky ones. She realised this on speaking to her neighbours. Finding her a reserved but comfortable companion, some of them confided in her. They told her about the problems in their households. Some of them were regularly beaten up by drunken husbands. Some had mother-in-laws who made them work whole day despite the presence of servants. Some said that their husbands had extramarital affairs. Initially, the husbands would maintain a level of secrecy about their affairs, but on realising the helplessness of their wives, they sometimes brought their girlfriends home under the guise of friends or business partners. There was no way to retaliate against such humiliation.
She felt mad with rage on hearing all this. Sometimes alone at home she would contemplate on such occurrences. Her mind would be clouded by doubt regarding her status in her husband’s life. Even he did not stay at home most of the time. Did he too engage in similar clandestine affairs? And even if he did what would she do to maintain her self-respect? ‘Nothing’ was the answer. She could do nothing except for raving and ranting in front of him and even that would not help because he was hardly at home.
She decided to look for a job to save herself from such ignominy. She informed her husband about this and was a little surprised to see that he encouraged her wholeheartedly. She had not expected such cooperation. In fact she was banking on a lukewarm acceptance in a slightly disapproving tone since men these days did not like to present them as orthodox, yet preserved and nurtured the centuries old chauvinist instincts within themselves. His enthusiastic response filled her with joy, moreover so, since her brother-in-law opposed this decision. Her brother-in-law took her decision to work as an affront to the supposedly hard working men of the family. Why should womenfolk take it upon themselves to earn a living when the men of the house are equipped to do so? Very uncharacteristically and for the first time, her husband opposed to his brother’s viewpoint. It is time for men to stop thinking from their egos and blindly follow customs, he said. As a head of the household, it is their responsibility to encourage women to be economically independent, for the sake of the family, for society, and most importantly, for their own selves, he announced loud and clear. After all, without economic independence all other forms of independence are farcical. None dared to contradict him. Nor did they oppose her decision in the future.
Very soon she had to face a disappointment. Bengali, her mother-tongue and also the language in which she had been educated, proved a drawback. She had to know English or at least Hindi if she wanted a job as a school teacher in Jamshedpur. There was no scope for Bengali and even the Hindi-medium schools were fast disappearing. On hearing this, her brother-in-law gave a triumphant smirk, her sister-in-law made a sardonic remark about the more luxury people get the more demanding they become and her mother-in-law refrained from getting into this whole discussion.
But one thing was clear to her by now – that her husband was not as apathetic a human being as she had assumed. He was a workaholic and also seemed to be a bit insensitive since he never bothered about her needs. Yet he was more humane and broad-minded than any of his family members. Since she could not meet the professional requirements, she considered requesting her husband to take her along on his innumerable tours. Emboldened by the fact that he supported her once, yet fearful that she was transgressing her boundaries, she put this proposal before her husband. Although hopeful, she was not entirely sure of a positive response. She was in for a surprise again. He readily agreed to the proposal.
In fact she had second thoughts after speaking out her mind. She was not sure whether she would be able to converse with his business partners or mingle with the people he socialised with. Her self-confidence received a setback with her rejection in schools. But he husband pacified her saying that the people he socialised with were down-to-earth , in the midst of whom she would not feel out of place. He had thought of asking her to accompany him long back but was not sure about her reaction since she seemed so conservative and introvert…a nomadic lifestyle would not suit her, or so he thought. Coward, she thought to herself. Or plain disinterested. How can one ever decide about another person’s choice and taste without even trying to know her?
Despite her anticipation, she did accompany him on all the tours. It was in during these tours that she discovered the person she got married. She had only seen the serious side of him. Away from home, she saw the romantic side too. He remained busy most of the time. He did have a streak of insensitivity in him. Or maybe his business demanded such dedication from him. But the ogre had assumed a more acceptable and human form for her. He had his own flaws. He was extremely stubborn; always refusing to listen to any suggestions she gave. In spite of all his broad-mindedness, he felt that since she did not have a profession, she should concentrate on the duties of the house and not instruct him about the ways of the world. She thought this was unjustified since she had a strong sense of perception which he lacked and which he should exploit to his best advantage than refute it. Sometimes he would even taunt her for not doing anything and would refuse to understand that household chores were also difficult and deserved to be praised.
It took some years for the stranger to become her friend. And their friendship consolidated with a birth of a daughter after two years. She had wished for a girl who would grow up to be her friend and companion. Her husband, laconic as usual, did not voice his opinion. So all her prayers would be for a girl child, which was indeed granted to her in December of the very same year. This gave a complete new turn to her life and filled the void that was created due to a very busy husband and lack of profession. Some of her neighbours expressed their sorrow on the birth to a daughter, but she was euphoric. Her ecstasy was doubled when her husband’s reproof quietened the crowd who came to see the child and expressed grief in return. She had decided to live her life through the child, to give her every opportunity that she lacked in her life, to make her self-sufficient and in a way, make up for the shortcomings in her own personality. Many a time she had thought of breaking all the bonds that her marriage had imposed on her but she lacked the courage and even the financial means to do so. She was determined that her daughter would not go through the same trouble that she ad faced. And even if she would, she would also have the means to escape. She had reconciled to the fate that her elders had chosen for her but her daughter would decide her own fate. She was sure about that.
Twenty-five years seemed a long time ago but she still felt as young as before. She had not just adjusted but also adopted the culture of the place. Jamshedpur became her home. She never worked henceforth in spite of all the coaxing that her husband employed on her so that she would tutor students at home, at least. She decided that her profession and vocation would be to bring up her child. In spite of occasional bickering with her husband and the verbal clashes with her in-laws, she rated her marriage as reasonably successful although she was not sure if she was completely happy. Perhaps, she would have been if she could convince her husband to move out of a joint family and live separately and peacefully because the family never forgave her touring round the country with her husband. But her husband’s stubborn nature stood in the way of her happiness.
Twenty-five years later she was dressed up and still waiting for her husband, not for him to return from his business trip but from the other room where he was on the phone conversing with the organisers about the evening party. She was tired of waiting. After all she had waited all her life…for everyone and everything. At the moment she was eagerly waiting for the arrival of their beloved daughter from Delhi. They would have to go to the airport to receive her. So instead of waiting any longer she decided to call on her husband.