The Stepmother

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Shweta washed her hands repeatedly. Yet, she could not rinse off the stench of death. She had helped straighten the body, the body no one seemed to want to touch…the body of her great grandmother, Shamaboti…

Shamaboti had in her own way loved Shweta very much. She always encouraged Shweta to be an independent and free entity… ready to launch out on her own at any point. And that is exactly what Shweta had done. She had just started working as a journalist and did not want to marry or have a boy friend. She had big dreams, encouraged most of all by Shamaboti. Her dreams included walking on the Great Wall and writing a book on it! Perhaps, she would do a book on many ancient wonders of the world… go to Easter Island, check out the pyramids in Egypt, maybe also Macchu Pichhu… travel to the Arctic… And all the time she would write.

Shweta loved her great grandmother but not enough to weep broken-heartedly. Probably, out of all the great grandchildren, she loved Shamaboti the most. What most amazed her was Shamaboti’s life! Perhaps she could research and write about it eventually…

Shamaboti Devi was born just before the turn of the twentieth century into a Kulin Brahmin family, the creme-de-la- creme of the chosen ones, the most prized of all castes. Her father was a Kulin Brahmin. He had had more than a dozen wives and made a living by marrying as many women as were willing with a fees. Shamaboti saw her father once every two years, when he came to visit her mother, one of his umpteen wives. His job as a high caste Kulin Brahmin was to impregnate as many women as he could marry with seeds of high caste Brahminism to further propagate his clan and collect money from his in-laws for saving their daughters from the misfortune of spinsterhood. Her father never bought his wife or daughter a present but was always given presents by his in-laws, who maintained his wife and daughter for him.

There were many like him that progressives, such as Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the Tagore family and others, among them some belonging to Kulin clans too, were trying their best to oppose and reform. What had started as a mechanism to retain cultural integrity had been reduced to a corrupt ritual where a sixty-year-old man could be paid to marry a six-year-old girl!

Shamaboti’s mother was married a little late…when she was already past puberty and she had her daughter about four years later. Her father was of an undefined age, which was accepted, as he was a man.

Shamaboti was considered a pretty young girl. She was plump and fair. Youth had loaned her a supple grace.

Shamaboti didnot know her exact age or birthdate, which is why no one knew what her age was when she died. They estimated it was over ninety.

Shamaboti told her great (step) grandchildren stories of her childhood. Most of her stories were centered around how she had fun climbing trees but got scolded for ruining her sarees in the process. She also spoke of hiding raw mangoes in the folds of her saree and eating them on the sly.

When she related these stories, all her great grand children, with the exception of Shweta, reacted with giggles! They could not dream of climbing trees in sarees as such wear was old fashioned and cumbersome. It was the age of hot pants!

Shweta, always a dreamer, wondered what life was like then…a century ago…

Shamaboti played with her cousins till she reached the ripe old age of five or six. Then she was channeled to learn household chores and to work like a spare maid in her uncle’s home. She did wander off to climb trees and pluck a fruit or read a Bengali book hidden behind some furniture, when she had time. She used to read on the sly because it was given out by her aunts that if you read, you would lose your feminity and no man wanted a clever wife!

Shamaboti loved to hear or read a good story… She had learnt to read and write from her cousin and playmate, Dulal.

Life jogged on till one day she heard she was getting married. She thought it was a wonderful thing because at last she would leave her uncle’s home to go to that of her husband! She was so much luckier than her mother as her husband would be only hers and no other woman’s! She had never gone out of the village… now, she would live in Calcutta, the big city…

Oh what dreams the young girl had! She heard Anirvan was handsome and dashing.

At last, she would be a queen in her own home. How delighted was Shamaboti!

Anirvan married Shamaboti and brought her home. On the boat that took them away from her village, Anirvan told her that she had two step sons to care for and he expected her to be a good mother. Shamaboti merely inclined her head and accepted… She said nothing.

When they alighted at his home, he showed her a painting of a woman on a horse and said , “ That is your elder sister Ambalika. She had two sons. The boys lost their mother at a young age.”

Then he said, “Come I will show you the kitchen and your sons.”

He took her to an adjoining room where two young boys were playing with toy soldiers. “Come here boys,”said the father. “This is your new mother. And this is Rajkrishna and this is Shyamol. Look after them well.”Rajkrishna being the elder of the two came forward and paid his respects by touching her feet. Shyamol followed. But they did not smile at her once! She smiled but there was no response…

Anirvan turned to her and said, “I will stay in my room and pray. My prayers should not be disturbed. You can sleep with the children.”

Shamaboti was stunned. But she said nothing. She just accepted. It was a woman’s job to adapt to every situation, she had been taught well by her mother. She spent her wedding night with her two step sons. The boys were not too friendly. She spread a mat on the floor and slept.

What Shamaboti had not been told was Anirvan had a past and that is what he lived by…

His past was the delightful Ambalika, his first wife. Ambalika was a beautiful, talented woman who at the turn of the century rode horses and spoke, read and wrote in seven languages.

Anirvan was besotted by the clever Ambalika the first day he saw her riding with her father. Her father was a well-known intellectual who had leanings towards Brahmoism, a Hindu reformist movement started by Rammohan Roy in the eighteenth century. Ambalika played the piano and sang like a lark. She knew English ballads taught by her British governess.

Anirvan, an orphan but still a rich father’s son, had no difficulty in marrying the woman of his dreams. Ambalika’s father was liberal enough to overlook the fact that Anirvan was not a Brahmo. And Anirvan didnot care what the Hindu pundits said about marrying a Brahmo. Their married life was idyllic. The social ostracism they faced from the more conventional Brahmos and Hindus drew them closer to each other. They had more than enough to live like kings and have a wonderful life. Money rubbed away the edges of social criticism. After two idyllic years, Ambalika gave birth to a son, Rajkrishna.

Rajkrishna was Shweta’s grandfather. He had an affluent start in life but when he was four-years-old, not only was his mother expecting a new baby but his father’s fortunes collapsed. The two ships owned by him sank at sea with expensive cargo on board. He had to repay the traders. He lost a lot of money and had a tough time running his home. He had to sell off his horses and the expensive paintings from his walls. Lot of his staff who ran his home had to go. They were left with only an old man and the woman who looked after Rajkrishna. No one knows if it was the shock of becoming penurious or the travails of childbirth that took Ambalika to her heavenly abode two days after the birth of her younger son.

Anirvan was stunned with grief. He took to locking himself up in his room and praying all the time. He turned to religious rituals and the Almighty in his sorrow and forgot he had two little children to rear. For sometime, the two servants took care of the household and children but when money wore itself thin, they started finding it difficult to manage. The woman left. Anirvan hired a new man.

Anirvan’s distant cousin who saw his state of finances and inability to make ends meet or bring up children, recommended he rent out rooms to tenants to have enough to put food on the table and the children, through schooling. He also recommended a second marriage as a last resort. The wife could run the house, supervise the servants, cook and look after the children. Then, he could stay with his prayers all the time. For sometime, Anirvan refused to think of marriage. He just rented out some rooms to three families in his enormous family mansion. He found it trying to associate with these families, to collect rentals and to keep an eye on the children. Finally, irritated by having to interact with tenants, children and the needs of the new inefficient manservant, he realized the house needed managing. He agreed to marry.

He had not even seen Shamaboti once before the marriage. He was not interested in having a wife. He only needed someone to keep the house in order and to bring up his children.

Shamaboti’s husband hardly spoke to her. Eventually, after a few years, he faded to death. Shamaboti, in her twenties, wore the garb of a widow, managed the finances of the house, looked after the two boys and had a passion for books and cards. She played cards with the tenants’ wives every afternoon and bought a few books. She was there for the boys, though they resented the fact that she was their stepmother. Eventually, the boys completed their university, started working and got married.

Rajkrishna did well and had four children, two daughter and two sons. He sold his ancestral mansion and split the money with his brother and built a beautiful house in New Delhi, where he worked as a senior director in The Reserve Bank. His brother worked and built a house in Bombay.

Rajkrishna’s eldest son was Shweta’s father.

Rajkrishna took charge of looking after his stepmother though he did not like her much. Shyamol did not want to take charge as his wife hated the old woman. Everytime Shamaboti visited Bombay, her younger daughter-in-law would be rude and she returned early to Rajkrishna. Rajkrishna’s wife, Preeti, was loving and kind and felt sorry for the old woman, who for no fault of hers was criticised by others for being a stepmother… Preeti loved her husband very much and understood his obligations to his stepmother. But, for most others, Shamaboti remained quintessentially the stepmother, who was never loved by her husband or stepsons. She was criticised for being unloved!

That was the part Shweta could not figure out, had she been given a chance to be anything else other than an unwanted stepmother? Would anyone in the current day ever accept the role as placidly as Shamaboti had?

Shamaboti Devi grew old and started withering in front of Shweta’s eyes after her stepsons died of cancer and heart attack, respectively. She did not weep for her stepsons but just started shrinking… She lay on her bed, had to be fed and bathed. A nurse was maintained for her by Shweta’s father. Shamaboti did not want to die. She could still read. She was in the middle of an exciting new thriller and there were more to come… She hung on. She grew frailer and wheezed while breathing. She found it difficult to read. The nurse, Shweta and her mother took turns to read to her.

One day, she died while listening to a story.

Shweta helped straighten her corpse and could not forget the sensation. It was cold and rigid. The smell of death haunted her nostrils for days.

Her relatives had no time for the funeral.

Her father, grandmother, mother and Shweta conducted the rituals for the dead. It was all rather muted. No one had the time to mourn.

After a fortnight, Shweta was told by the family lawyer that Shamaboti had left behind a will of which she was the sole beneficiary. Everyone was amazed, except Preeti who had helped call in the lawyer and witnessed the will that was made. In it, Shamaboti had left behind all her jewellery and a diary that she maintained when she got married and while she was bringing up the boys for Shweta! Her heavy gold jewellery was worth more than twenty lakhs… Shweta had no use for it but she kept it in a locker in the bank for sentimental reasons…

The diary was a real gem for her. She sat and read the diary of the woman who was mourned by none… In it she found a woman of passions who, despite all her docile training, yearned to explore the world outside as much as her step great grand daughter…Here was a woman who had fallen in love , even if the love was never requited, a woman who did her best for her step sons and a woman who married her elder step son to an educated girl… one who had finished higher secondary in days when girls were married, having passed just grade eight. Preeti confirmed she finished school before she married and her mother-in-law had insisted on that!

Shweta, the inheritor of the diary, wrote a book and published it with the help of her editor. It became a prize winning best seller.

As Shweta stepped down from the dias after receiving the Sahitya Akademi award, she pondered over the strange life of her great grandmother…

She wondered if she would have got this award or would she herself  have existed if Shamaboti did not come into her great grandfather’s life…Was it a life wasted, thrown away or lived to the full? Did anyone ever love her? Did she ever feel the lack of love in her life?

A tear formed at the edge of Shweta’s eyes.

 

 

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