THE TALE OF TWO WOMEN

She rubbed her toe over the stain at the base of the bathtub. Her eyes, of a will of its own, fixed themselves on the odd mark shaped out like a blossom; the colour could be anything with a hint of mucky green. She had rushed to the toilet at the very first wave of nausea, in desperate need to throw up the disagreeable stuff that was tormenting her stomach. She knew it was only her nervous reaction to the prospect of a dreadful interview she was certain was doomed to failure. She emptied herself inside out while staring at the blotch as if it had conspired with the hostile forces of nature to add to her misery.

 

Shanti fought the sinking feeling by repeating all the self-help mantras she had read at times when she had nothing better to do. It calmed her simply to hear herself chanting the familiar lines to herself in the solitude of the bathroom. The image she saw in the mirror was far from reassuring, she found herself staring back with those dilated, luminous eyes framed in a face that looked younger and snatchingly vulnerable and struggled to steady herself.

 

“Maa, I am not hungry, don’t wait on me. I’ll be out in half an hour and will be back early,” Shanti threw these words at the space her mother occupied, intently averting any contact and scuttled past towards her room.

 

“Why? What’s eating you? I know, no wonder you look so green! I can clearly see that trademark look of horror, of forced martyrdom! Trouble at the office, you can’t take it anymore and all that, na?”

 

The elderly woman who wore an aura of superiority around herself like a shawl knew she was speaking into the resented void that no longer held the person of her daughter. She tried to re-focus her mind on the story of the violent murder of a house-wife, but in vain. Her mind was once again given to the disturbing thoughts that cast a gloom over her otherwise peaceful morning ritual of browsing the newspaper. Soon her dark emotions escalated, brimmed over and spilled in bitter tears over her furrowed cheeks. Alas! Wasn’t she selfishly happy when this girl time and again had proved herself a slacker? Buried beneath her affected annoyance she felt no qualms in showing, wasn’t there a guilty desire that Shanti should under-achieve yet one more time so that she could be kept from applying to the foreign universities following in the footsteps of her siblings? Shanti was the baby of the house and she, Mira wanted to keep hold of the last vestige of her progeny.

 

Long since had she begun to feel like a post-card mother. There is a shoebox hidden in the heart of her shoe closet emblazoned with the name of her once favourite and still cherished brand. It has also been quite a while since she has stopped stooping down to retrieve the box from its resting place due to the bone-cracking pain it cost her. Carefully stacked inside lie the numerous cards and post-cards her only son and beloved daughter had sent her on various stock occasions of the calendar year. The tears had dried up, and her contempt eased itself into a bearable mood. She searched her heart for the old glowing pride she used to feel while flourishing the photos and post-cards before a motley crew of ladies who would gather in her living room to discuss books. She could occasionally feel their exasperation and also understood when the group began to dwindle away. But how can one stop herself from basking in the glory of a globe-trotting daughter who smiled down at them from against the backdrop of famous destinations like the goddess of fortune?

 

Her daughter’s last visit was a disaster. She swore not to return after her harrowing flip-flops between two doctors who suggested two different diagnosis for an unusual stomach-ache that turned her two-year-old blue every time it struck him down. What was her fault in it all? Towards the end Mira began to visibly cringe when her daughter kept throwing accusing glances at her, vibrant with mute charges. Both of them almost simultaneously decided: enough is enough. And she has never seen her since. She was the kind of mother who fawned more on the daughter than the son. And after he was married outside his religion to the blonde bimbo, all communications came to a complete stop.

 

She started at the sudden whirring of the generator that had juddered into its automatic life. She pulled herself painstakingly up from the chair to turn the fan switch off which she was told consumed considerable energy. She had to be frugal to cut the utility bills down. Hence, she smugly ignored Shanti’s comments along the lines that it made little sense to have an alternative power source and not to utilize it. Ah! Shanti! The tension between them seemed to have increased over the last few months. She positively had sensed some kind of strained restlessness in her daughter of late. That made her edgy too. She knew she still wielded a firm control over her daughter which she had cunningly kept in place across the years more out of a suspicion than a concern about her daughter straying wayward. Isn’t it every mother’s solemn responsibility? She grinned bitterly at the cruel joke the name ‘Shanti’ suggested. It was two days after the baby was born and after she had recovered enough strength and the will to find out the name of the midwife, who had delivered her from her long and agonizing labour that she figured out a name to call the small, squirming bundle in her arms; Shanti, after the woman she would never see again. The Shanti at the nursing home was stout, shiny dark, with a no-nonsense attitude that made her look almost fierce. Her own daughter, on the contrary, turned out to be  a frail, timid girl whose translucent skin mapped the tributaries of her veins so clearly that it proved a nifty job on the part of the lab assistants to draw her blood for the occasional medical tests.

 

She jerked her head to drive away these idle thoughts, and inadvertently, her eyes caught sight of the mound of fat fruit-flies violently buzzing around yet another unsightly mound lying around the rim of an over-turned bucket. “Must be the tom cat on his prowl” was the thought that swept into her mind. Reluctantly, and swearing aloud she staggered her steps towards the glass door that opens onto the patio outside. She opened the door to a revolting stench that floated past her and quickly spread inside the room.  Her olfactory memory told her this was the discarded remains of the jackfruit she had eaten and had also distributed amongst her household helps yesterday. This ill-omened fruit found its way into her house through an eroded channel that somewhat though precariously, still linked her to her in-laws. She turned her face away in disgust. Her arthritis would not allow her to clean up the mess; it will have to wait till the maid came in late in the evening to make her her dinner-time chapattis. She tottered back to the newspaper to resume the sensational story from where she left off. Something about the way Shanti looked this morning had set off an unsettling flutter in her heart. Two paragraphs into the spicy reportage her mind once again stubbornly drifted off to thoughts that were more hurtful than her stiff joints.

 

She had always felt uneasy around Shanti. She was the most attractive of all her children. But then slowly but steadily the beautiful butterfly began to weave a cocoon of a steely quietness around herself at some point in time that Mira could no longer assign in retrospect . Her father was deeply fond of this taciturn girl. He would confess his anticipation of the girl’s hidden talents at night when they turned off the lights and when the comforting hum of their hushed conversation rose like vapour from the bed and engulfed them in a blanket of domestic compliance. Then more often than not his groping caresses would become urgent and impatient and would threaten to demolish her in its all-consuming need. Yet she cocked her ears to catch the soft breathing of the darkness around the bed that quivered with the quite poise of a presence brought to life by the unsuspecting words that were spoken.  The room seemed to fill with the musky smell of the child her husband adored and she despite herself, sometimes despised. She had often felt the stupendous urge to confide her ungodly sufferings to her friends but no sooner had the thought taken form than she would abolish it as she knew this would only lead to fake sympathy and lurid gossip.

 

“Oh!”

Shanti quickly picked herself up from the faltering step that had caught her off-guard as the strap of her sandal snapped. At that moment she realized why instead of heading directly for the office she found herself sidling awkwardly towards the nearby tea-stall that served hot and savoury samosas at this hour. She was convinced it was her hunger that led her this way, but now she read portentous omens in all these signs. She stifled the shudder that threatened to jolt her very core as soon as she recognized the impulse that had steered her in the wrong direction. She realized she did not want to suffer another futile interview.

 

She juggled the samosa from one hand to the other in the initial surprise of its hotness. She took a careful bite and eyed the thin spiral of the steam as it hissed upwards.

 

Maa… what about Maa… was I ever good enough for her? Unexpectedly, she found the thought amusing. A faint smile lingered at the corner of her mouth before dying off like the flimsy coil that had escaped from the heart of the samosa. A mist swelled before her eyes and a lump of ache blocked her throat. A throbbing lull had settled itself all about her. As if from behind an invisible but impenetrable screen, she watched the early morning slothful life of the business district unfold for a while. It suddenly struck home to Shanti; she never belonged here, or anywhere else for that matter! For a moment she stood stock-still, gripped with a paralyzing fear. The boy who had served Shanti her samosa reappeared in her field of vision, he was looking quizzically at her. Shanti lowered her eyes, she found her hands trembling. On cue to escape, she frantically looked around for a rickshaw to take her home.

 

While the rickshaw rattled every single bone in her body, her mind fumbled through a scanty list of places she could run to for refuge. Yet, she could not bring herself to act on the impulse. The last thing she wished was to provoke gossip. Her mind absently took in the squalor of the alley she passed through. The mango season has its seedy side, it leaves its mark everywhere in the form of discarded rotting stones and withering skins. A dog lapped up one such sample and visibly recoiled in disgust, or this was what Shanti read in the dog’s movement as it suddenly curled its body around as if to catch its tail. The air was heavy with vapid moisture. The rickshaw had slowed down; she looked at the streaming bare back of the puller and observed the lean muscles moving like the strings on a harp being pulled at by invisible fingers.

 

She handed in her fare, but the rickshaw-wallah fingered the notes with an unuttered expectation which soon found voice: “ Apa, give me some more, I’ll send a sari to my mother who lives in the village.” Her brows automatically knotted up into a frown, then she recognized the earnestness in the plea, and in reply could just manage a pained smile as she extended a hundred taka note to the hand that was cupped above the other in a sign of humility.

 

She carried herself listlessly towards the front door like a sagging body weighed down by its ancient bones.

 

Mira had habitually stolen into her daughter’s room after finishing her morning ritual of turning the soil and watering the plants which she dutifully performed as part of her exercise regimen, ignoring the pain accompanying such endevours. She calculated that she would need about an hour to fry the boiled spinach, cook the fish, boil the rice and heat up the lentil from the previous night. When it comes to everyday cooking she prefers austere measures. She used to put up her best culinary skills only when she invited her own clan to meals. On such occasions the table groaned and shifted under the weight of the numerous dishes she prepared and even the curtains wore the smells of rich spices long afterwards. These feasts had become few and far between with the number of guests shrinking steadily.

 

Her face was set like a mask. Her limbs moved like mechanical clockwork as she advanced towards the closet. She ran her fingers cautiously over the sleeve of a kamiz in a manner as though she was feeling the fragile wings of a stuffed butterfly. In fact, she tried consciously to avert her reflection in the full-length mirror fixed on the adjoining wall. She inhaled thirstily the musty smell that seemed to radiate like a magnetic force from inside the closet. She raised a flouncy sleeve aloft and let it fall brushing against her face. Now, she picked up an orna and rubbed her nose delicately against its soft texture. There was a stirring in her nerves she had no name for that unwittingly reminded her of her recent arthritic bout. She muffled a gasp against the folds of a silk dressing gown.

 

Shanti knew Mira was busy tending to her fruit bearing plants in the back yard. A habit she persevered to maintain under the notion that gardening helps keep the body in shape. Sometimes her mother’s foolhardy dedication to this means of exercise irked her no end. Especially the sight of the body in the aftermath that bore the evidence of the futility of the practice in its contours of a bulging vulgarity brought out in relief by the clinging sheath of a sweat-soaked maxi.

 

Shanti turned the keys to the front door with slightly unsteady fingers, a physical expression of her inconsolable guilt. Out of the blue, her mind was flooded with the memory of the mysterious stain on the bathroom floor which she resolved to fight into extinction before she took her shower to rid her skin of the smoggy stickiness that wrapped itself around her body with a gritty determination every time she returned home after her tryst with the summer humidity. Where is Maa? At the name, the old feeling of forlorn, something that almost carried the bearing of an alter ego, invaded her senses. They said she was the ‘quiet’ one, but she never had been alone. She had never explained to them why she refused to go to the ‘dawaat’s. As soon as the family left the house (not without volleying angry admonitions at her) she would begin to sense the onset of the magic. Everything around her seemed to take on a life of its own, notwithstanding the furniture; and they conferred and conspired and almost certainly cursed every individual resident in their silent yet vibrant communion. The feeling that belonged to a long-gone childhood came back to her. Something was cooking.  It has been years since she had felt this way. Yet it restored her flustered mind to some semblance of calm. Should I call out for Maa? She thought of holding out till later when she had freshened up and retrieved enough sense of self to confront and tackle her mother’s scorns.

 

She brushed aside the unsavoury reasoning as another symptom of her jangled nerves and quietly proceeded towards her bedroom. She opened the door in her usual quiet manner, then she almost jumped at the sight of the apparition. When her eyes had accustomed themselves to the truth she stood frozen by the doorframe.

 

With one foot inside the room she stood rooted in shocked silence, her mind rushing to take stock of the situation and making sense of it all at the same time. There, her mother, Mira stood facing the closet, her body periodically jerking in a barely contained convulsion of tears, swathed in a flowy, undersized white dress that failed to cover her back entirely. The yawning zipper at the back exposed a fair amount of blotchy brown skin which seemed to mock Shanti with its withered vulnerability. Once again she laboured to drag herself towards this tear-wracked figure, slowly but firmly and with the assurance of knowing hands she turned her mother around, and with wise fingers trained in an ancient language she gently wiped the streaming tears from a face gone purple and swollen from emotions that tugged at each other and shredded their victim to pieces: lost pride, regret, indignity, inadequacy and above all a loss of self- could their be a greater torment in hell? Shanti’s eyes shone with her own emotions, she dare not pity this wretched soul before her, because in her eyes she had seen an ancient fear that she knew pulsated in her own veins as well. A primordial fear that passed down through generations, the fear of being supplanted, the fear of redundancy. Her fingers did not flinch, neither did they tremble anymore in contact with her mother’s body. Now she was on familiar grounds, she soothed and cajoled her distraught mother and quietly drew her into a longing embrace.

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