Short story

The Irony

Shailya was born a few years after India gained her independence in the hilly town of Shimla. She spent her childhood roving among the Himalayan slopes covered in lush green. She loved to climb trees and sit on a branch and sing lustily. She was a gifted singer.

Home was a place where she ate,slept and did her homework. She had eight siblings. She was the fifth. Most of the time, she tried to keep out of trouble and avoid the abundant beatings meted out by her father to all the children. Her father, Benimadhav Mukherjee, was a rich man’s son. He grew up in the holy town of Benares and rode to school on an elephant. He was a brilliant scholar too. His passion was history. He was an idealist. He was from a zamindari family. They owned land and lived by exploiting the peasantry. Beni didnot like that. He fought with his family, and left his ancestral home for Shimla. He had a young wife, the beautiful and intelligent Parvati.

Though Benimadhav had ideals, he was not a very good breadwinner. So, after, eight living children and two in the grave, Beni was always short of cash. Other than working in a government office, he did tuitions at home. But, funds were always low. Parvati and the children had to make do without daily necessities. The milk in the house went to the youngest and to Beni, who couldnot do without his daily dose of sweetened, thickened milk, a habit that held on from his opulent past. Shailya had stopped drinking milk after the age of three. Not that she minded but when she realized as a middle schooler how nutritionally deprived that could make a child, she argued with her mother to let her younger siblings have milk.

Shailya studied hard, won a scholarship and went on to studying engineering. She moved to Delhi to study. She was beautiful. She had admirers in plenty. One day her eldest sister , who was a school teacher, asked her to visit some friend’s home . What Shailya realized was they were matchmaking for her. She had been invited so that the boy and his family could meet her.The boy, Shishir ,was handsome and kind but very shy. He didnot look at Shailya. Shailya was asked to sing a song. She obliged. They liked her. The boy’s father dropped her back to her hostel in a car. A car was a luxury that Shailya’s family couldnot afford.

Shailya was a free spirit. She loved the mountains. She loved the wilderness . She loved music and physics. When the boy’s family put forth the proposal for marriage, Shailya was urged by her family to accept. Shishir was from an affluent family. The money was very important to Beni’s family, not so much for Shailya though. Shailya accepted.

They were married during Shailya’s summer break. Shailya, who had never had too many possessions, was amazed at the number of gifts she received. She was fascinated with the number of sarees and jewellery she received. She wanted to hold them all. She had never had so much!

Shishir and Shailya left for their honeymoon to Ooty. Shishir was fascinated with his wife. She looked good in sarees and in slacks. She could sing all kinds of songs.

She was smart and could discuss engineering issues with Shishir. Shishir was an engineer too. He was working as he was four years older to Shailya.

When they returned from the honeymoon, realities caught up. Shishir went to work. Shailya still had a few days off. She had to stay at home with the Shishir’s two sisters and parents. Shailya was really upset when Rima, Shishir’s younger sister asked her for a saree from her trousseau. “Boudi (elder sister in law) , I really like this saree . Will you give it to me forever?”asked Rima.

Shailya,who had lived on mainly hand me downs till she married was really upset and threw a tantrum . She threw all her sarees out of the cupboard and shouted,”Take them. Take them all. ” She walked out of the house in anger.

Shishir was at work. His father,who had recently retired, drove behind his daughter-in-law and brought her home. Rima was weeping. Her elder sister, Seema, was furious, spouting venom against her new sister-in-law. Seema, though married, spent a large part of her life still in her parental home, complaining about her in-laws and the hard work she was put to in their home in Calcutta. She was not allowed to wear slacks. As it is, she was seething with fury and envy seeing their honeymoon pictures where Shailya was in slacks! Seema, who was very beautiful, married at eighteen because she didnot want to study further. Her husband doted on her for her looks but she was not fully happy with him because he had had a girl friend while he studied medicine in England. Her husband was ten years her senior. He had never looked at a girl after he married Seema but she found it hard to accept his past and look beyond to the future.It was an arranged marriage, like that of Shishir and Shailya.

Rima was as yet unmarried. She was very good at sports and not good looking. It was difficult to find a husband for her. She could neither sing nor dance, attributes Bengali families cherished in the 1960s. She was not gifted and was academically not very good. She was sitting at home after completing her BA, waiting to get married like a lot of her batchmates.Rima was also a little envious of her new sister-in-law. Shailya was so pretty and smart!

One day, a proposal came for Rima. The boy was handsome, rich and doing well as a doctor. The boy would come to their house and check out if Rima could be his bride! Everyone was excited. Shailya was asked to take good care of the family and serve refreshments. Seema dressed up Rima in an elaborate Benarasi saree and lot of jewellery. Elaborate snacks were prepared.

The boy arrived with his family. Rima was brought in by Seema dressed to the nines. Snacks were served by Shailya. And everyone tried to talk…turned out the boy could play the piano and loved music. Poor Rima sat in the corner,looking more and more dejected as she could see how ‘inferior’ she was to the boy with his brilliant attributes and achievements. At the end the family rose up to go. Shailya’s father-in-law asked what they thought. The parents replied,”It is upto our son and your daughter. We like the family.”

“Perhaps, they can meet and talk,” suggested Shishir.

The boy replied,”That will not be necessary. If your sister were as beautiful and talented as your wife, I would have said yes instantly. But, looking at her ,we have nothing in common. I am not going to marry her!”

Everyone  was stunned at his audacity and rudeness,except for his parents who said, “Then,it is off.” And went off in their motor car.

Rima was crying copiously. Seema started abusing Shailya,”It is all because of you, you unclean siren…first you ate up my brother and now, you eat up other men. See, how vile she is!”

Her father said,”Stop and apologise! The boy was too inhuman to be married into our home. That is not Shailya’s fault. I am sure we can get a better proposal for Rima.”

Shailya had walked away to her room. Shishir ran after her.

Rima and Seema stopped talking to Shailya. They were never too nice to her. Now, they were outright rude. It was lucky for Shailya that her classes had restarted. It was the last year of her engineering degree. She worked hard. On weekends, her husband picked her up and they went to her in-laws’ house. Seema returned to her husband. Rima still viewed her with a hostile eye. The cold war continued.

Shailya’s mother-in-law maintained a distance from Shailya as adored her daughters but she was not hostile. Her father-in-law doted on Shailya and her husband loved her very much.

Shailya completed her engineering degree and started teaching in the university. Rima had got herself a job as a teacher in a kindergarten at the insistence of her father. The kindergarten was walking distance from home and she walked back and forth to work. She had also found herself a sweetheart…a boy her father thoroughly disapproved. Aditya was good looking and a flirt. He had no steady job,acted in plays and chased women. Rima was rich and an easy prey. She loved him desperately. She confided in Shishir that she couldnot live without Aditya. Shishir persuaded his father to let them marry and they helped Aditya find a job in the newly started TV broadcast channel in New Delhi, Doordarshan. Rima and Aditya married and moved out to a small one bedroom apartment.

Seema had come for the wedding and stayed on as she was expecting her first child. She would have the child at her parent’s home and return after she was rested and strong. Seema continued her war against Shailya. Aditya was sympathetic to Seema and Rima. He was not too fond of Shailya as when he tried to flirt with her one day, he met with a cold shoulder.

Shailya herself was unhappy, not so much with Shishir but with environment at home. Her own family made it clear that they would do nothing more for her though they did love to criticize her in-laws and husband. They added to the distance already created by Seema. Shailya,the mountain sprite, now sat curled inside a stern faced woman with no sense of humor.

Shishir loved Shailya but he loved his family too.

When Shishir got a posting in Bombay, he was happy to take it up. Shailya and he moved to Bombay. Shailya conceived. She had to return to her in-laws in Delhi to have the baby as Shishir couldnot manage his job and her needs. She gave birth to a tiny little girl. Her mother- in-law and sisters-in-law criticized her for having the baby in her husband’s home at her husband’s expense. “This goes to show how less her family loves her. Everyone is terrified of her.” said the perceptive Rima. That Shailya’s parents were struggling to make ends meet went unnoticed by the two sisters.

The baby girl was named Sushila. Shishir came down to see her. Shailya had stopped working since her move to Bombay. She looked after the baby and put up with constant criticism about her own uncaring parents. One day, Shailya burst out in a fit of rage. She screamed and shouted. Shishir was still visiting. He was really angry with her. They had a huge fight. But Shailya was tied down to the hostile environment around her by the helpless little Sushila. Shishir returned to Bombay in a huff.

The only person who was kind to Shailya was her father-in-law. Six months went by. Six horrible months where Shailya was declared “abnormal” by her two sisters-in-law. Seema and Rima,despite being married, spent a lot of time in their parents home. They gave out that Shailya was abandoned by her parents and dumped on them because she was abnormal…

At last, Shishir came to take Shailya back to Bombay. He was hurt watching the bitter interactions between his sisters and wife. He noticed his wife had become very harsh verbally. Baby Sushila was also cranky, underfed and crying all the time. Seema advised her brother to divorce his wife and take custody of the child. Shishir said nothing. His father had advised him to stand by his wife all his life.

After they returned to Bombay, a month had barely passed before they heard that Shishir’s father passed away of a sudden heart attack. They rushed back to Delhi for the last rites. Shishir got himself transferred back to Delhi as someone needed to be with his mother.

Life jogged on unpleasantly for Shailya, who still stayed at home to look after her baby and mother-in-law. Her two sisters-in-law had children too now. Seema had a son and daughter and Rima had two sons and a daughter. Rima and Aditya were always hard up and looking for doles. They resented the way Sushila was pampered by Shishir’s mother, who doted on her son’s daughter.

Expenses went up when Sushila started going to a private school. Shailya went back to work as a physics teacher in high school. She started teaching in Sushila’s school. Things improved for her. She could step out of the conflicts in the home and put her being in her work. Shailya was very popular. Sushila saw such a positive aspect of her mother at school that the negative feedback she heard from her aunts had no impact on her.

Sushila grew up to be a beautiful and smart girl with a tremendous aptitude for mathematics. She finished her schooling and at the end of her graduation from university won a scholarship to pursue her passion for physics in Massachusets Institute of Technology. Her parents and grandmother adored her and were very proud of her.

The breach between Shailya and her mother-in-law had healed somewhat as the old woman saw her young granddaughter flourish. She felt Shailya was doing a good job by her daughter. However, Shailya’s relationship with her sisers-in-law worsened as they writhed with envy. Her husband’s ardor had cooled over time. He was a weak and confused man. Shailya was not very happy at home but, professionally,she became the head of the science department and was regarded as an excellent teacher. After Sushila left, she became a little lonely at home. She had no one to turn to. Her mother-in-law had been diagnosed with mild dementia.

Shailya had kept a maid to look after the old lady. One day,her mother-in-law accused the maid of stealing. The maid was very honest. She was saddened and offended. She wept and left the next day. Shishir took his mother to Rima’s house for a change of scene. However, he made up his mind that Shailya needed to stay at home to look after his mother.

He wanted Shailya to give up her job.

“I am going to retire in a few years from now. Why do you want to waste money and hire a maid? Why don’t you just quit,stay at home and look after ma. After all, Sushila is already out of our hands. There is no need for the extra money. ”

Shailya was very upset. She loved her job. With her salary,she could afford a very good nurse cum maid. She still had many years of work left. Shishir also was in his early fifties. He had still more than ten years to go before he retired. Shishir was asking her to give up her only source of enjoyment and relief!

Of course, Shailya argued against the decision. Shishir fought back. Both were adamant. Shishir wouldnot approve of a single nurse cum maid she brought in. Not that they were bad,he just wanted Shailya to be submissive. It had become a battle of wills. They fought everyday. Rima sided with Shishir as did Seema. The three were against Shailya working for different reasons. Shishir felt his mother needed personalized care that could only be given by the family. Rima and Seema wanted to punish their sister-in-law for being smarter than them. Rima was also sick of having to look after her mother. She wanted to pass back the ‘burden’ to Shishir and Shailya.

After a week, Shishir went off to Rima’s house to stay the night with his own family. Shailya continued alone at home. The next day,he returned home with his mother and said,”You need to stay at home and look after her from today. She will not go anywhere else.” Shailya took the day off,found a trained nurse cum maid and employed her. When Shishir returned home, he was furious. Shailya had disobeyed him and kept a help!

They had a raging row. Shailya was considering a divorce. Shishir wouldnot give a divorce. Shailya was ostracized by all her husband’s family and her husband. She continued teaching. Shishir and Shailya lived in the same house as strangers. Shailya paid the nurse cum maid, who learnt to ignore the taunts and rude behaviour of Shishir and his mother.

One day, as Shailya was crossing a busy traffic intersection on foot, she was hit by a car . Shailya died instantly.

Sushila came home for the funeral and went back to her studies feeling broken hearted. She saw that she could do nothing by staying on. Her father encouraged her to go back and live out her dreams, of which her parents had been so proud.The school, where Shailya taught till the last day of her life, published an obituary in newspapers praising her in glorious terms. Shishir received a lump sum of money from the school.

Shishir’s anger had evaporated after Shailya’s death. He was overcome with guilt for the treatment he had meted out to her in the last few years of her life. He spent sumptuously on the funeral and drifted away from his sisters. He paid the nurse cum maid as his sisters had refused to help look after their mother. They said they were too busy to take care of their mother.

He missed Shailya now and recalled the old days when he had eyes only for her. She became his idol. He could not stop doing enough for her after she died. He held all kinds of prayers and fed the poor in her memory every year . He was even thinking of starting a charitable trust in her memory with his retirement money.

In life, Shailya had been neglected, ostracized and criticized. In death,she was glorified!

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