The Mona Lisa Smile

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Sanjana was like a sunflower that bloomed in the light of love and approval. She could do so much more if he only approved. But all she heard was criticism from her spouse.

“Sanjana, you spend too much on useless things.”

“Perhaps you should do something more than just socializing. There are things called books and reading, you know…”

“You should work.”

“You should cook yourself and not keep a full time maid. You are growing fat doing nothing.”

“What do you do the whole day in the house?”

Sanjana had been married for more than two decades. She had been an accomplished dancer. But, her mother-in-law did not want her to perform on stage. At 22, when she married, she had wept to give up her bells. Her heart had split into two. But her mother explained, “You will now have to shift your focus to your home and family. Dancing may ruin your chances of having a child.”

“But that has been my life, Ma,” wept Sanjana.

“It cannot be helped. At least, they agreed to the marriage. The boy is back from USA with a degree in law. They do not want a dowry. The last match broke. That boy had a girl friend in New York. We cannot turn down this one.”

Sanjana’s heart was breaking with sorrow, fear and apprehension. She did not want to marry the boy. She loved another, but her parents refused to listen. “Abhishek is not worthy of you,” her father said.

And Abhishek’s mother said, “The beggars! They have set that witch on my Abhishek… they are of a lower caste. How dare they set their eyes on my son?”

Abhishek had proposed to Sanjana.

“Let us elope,” he said. Abhishek was a young doctor with a bright future. Sanjana was not sure what to do. She refused.

She had thought Abhishek would propose again with an eye to winning her parents approval. Instead, he eloped with a minister’s daughter who was willing…

Sanjana was left in the cold.

Her parents really mattered to her. She had wanted to keep them happy. She gave up her dancing bells for a lawyer who married her under duress from his family. He did not love her either.

After twenty-one years of marriage and a child, Sanjana sat in front of a sheaf of papers and, with trembling hands, signed on them. Suresh, her husband, was leaving her. He had had enough! He was going to marry his secretary who understood law and was smart and pretty.

Sanjana had started to put on weight after she stopped dancing. A few more kilos were added on after childbirth. Her legs and back ached as she walked. Often, she needed pain killers. Her son was in hostel in Berkley.

Suresh was what they called ‘a stud’ when he married Sanjana. He wanted a docile bride but not an unsmart one. Sanjana did not quiet make the cut. Her English was not that great. She did not read much. It was an embarrassment to take her for his client’s parties. She did not drink and sat quietly in a corner.

Suresh had married her at his mother’s insistence. Now, his mother was no more. He did not need her. He had never taken her out on his own. She was always curled and quiet. Sonia, his secretary understood his every need and loved him passionately. Suresh did the decent thing in his opinion and promised to pay for her upkeep and that of his son. Sanjana could continue to stay in their old home. Suresh and Sonia would move into a new condominium with fantastic club facilities.

Sanjana nodded quietly. She accepted everything that came her way as a docile and a good wife should…even the shame she experienced at being rejected.

But what would she do in a huge home alone with a gardener, maid and driver?

A month after Suresh left, she invited her old school friend Romila to spend the day with her.

Romila had married and gone off to USA with her husband. She returned a widow with no children after five years. Her husband, a high-end tycoon, had succumbed to a massive heart attack. Romila was initially very sad and depressed. Over time, she picked up the pieces and built a life for herself. Money was not an issue for her either. She established herself as a trainer and image builder with a chain of beauty stores. Sanjana and she met accidentally at the Shiva temple one day. Sanjana recognized her and called out. Romila took a while to recognize her.

“What have you done to yourself?” Romila asked. “You were so pretty and such a great dancer. What happened to you?”

“Aging,” responded Sanjana.

“That even I have aged. But you are looking old and sad. What’s up sweetheart?”

“Nothing.”

“I thought you were happily married…”

“No more. My husband left me.”

“What?!”

“He divorced me last month… I live alone and my son is in hostel in USA!” And Sanjana broke down and cried. With her pallu stuffed into her mouth she wept as if her heart would burst.

Romila put her arms around her shoulder and said, “Calm down… I am sorry I asked… I remember your wedding. It was so grand! Calm down… I am really so sorry… come with me to my house and we will sit and talk. I am alone too… Have been alone for long… Come…come.”

Romila led a weeping Sanjana into her car, gave her address to the driver and asked him to drive to her home, which was nearby. Romila had walked to the temple as she did every morning. Sanjana had come to seek spiritual solace in what she felt was her hour of shame and rejection.

She had not been able to eat and sleep properly from the day her husband left her. She thought it was all her fault… she was not good enough for him. He was in the right and had been decent, he had said.

Her son was twenty and studying engineering in Berkley. He was the result of the carnal pleasures of her wedding night. She was so lovely that Suresh had no hesitation asserting his conjugal rights. Sanjana was in a state of shock! But, like a docile bride, she had complied. He continued asserting his conjugal rights every night till her pregnancy was confirmed. During the day, he treated her with disdain. He did not even talk to her properly.

Her mother-in-law, Lata, was pleased with the state of things.

“You are a good daughter-in-law. A woman’s relationship is always best maintained with her husband behind the closed doors of the bedroom at night. And now you will give us an heir.”

And that is exactly what happened. Sanjana had a son. Her mother-in-law named him Sourabh. She had no say in choosing the name of her son. She did not mind.

Her husband had grown even more detached towards her as during her pregnancy as the doctor had warned him not to assert his conjugal rights till after the birth of the child. It could endanger the life of the child he had been warned. He started working late and often came home after dinner as he said he was busy. Sometimes, he came home reeking of alcohol because he had to drink in parties, he said.

He never took Sanjana with him after the first time. She had proven that she could not fit in into a party right after their marriage. He had taken her for a party organized by his friends for the newly weds. She wore a saree, sat in a corner and refused to drink or dance with his friends to western music. He found her behavior unacceptable.

His mother was very sympathetic towards Suresh.

She told Sanjana, “You must look after all his needs. Remember, he is your lord and master and women are but servants of their husbands.”

Sanjana kept her head covered with the pallu of her saree and complied with all these injunctions. Lata praised her to her neighbors and friends.

“My daughter-in-law is truly a Lakshmi and Sita. She is so docile and good. She follows all the rules, does all the work and never disturbs my son. His income has also gone up. Sometimes, he even goes to London on work.”

Suresh and his secretary had gone to London for two weeks. Suresh told them he was going on tour to London, but omitted the fact that Sonia would accompany him.

Saurabh grew up, nurtured by his grandmother and mother. He loved both very much, maybe Sanjana a little more. Sanjana helped him with his schoolwork. She had a good head for maths and science. He excelled in both. When he came in the merit list in his grade twelve exam, his father was very proud of him. “He is just like me,” he declared. “I will send him to USA for further studies.”

No one asked the women who brought him up or the boy what he wanted.

The boy had learnt compliance to his father’s wishes was the accepted way of life. He was a good boy. He complied.

That his mother and grandmother missed him and were heartbroken when he left for Berkley with his dad to settle him in was not a major issue. Sonia flew down after a few days because she needed to ‘help’ Suresh attend a lawyer’s conference in Los Angeles. When he came back, he found his mother sick. She was sore for missing her grandson.

Saurabh came home the next year in June. His grandmother was bed ridden and he was sad to see her as such. After he returned in September, she became more sick. At last, she left Sanjana all alone. Lata had departed for her heavenly abode. Suresh could not fathom the emptiness in Sanjana’s life. She had become fatter, quieter and greyer. With his mother dead and his son in university, Suresh felt the time had come to assert his freedom. He was ready for the next step… divorce.

It came as a shock to Sanjana. Saurabh was not informed. Suresh had told Sanjana to refrain from expressing their separation to him. “It might disturb him,” he reasoned. “ And in any case, he calls you up at home. You are going to continue here. Only I will move out. I will pay all your and his bills. But I think since we have nothing in common, it will be best this way.”

Sanjana had accepted her sad luck with a guilty, downcast face.

She could not figure out what went wrong, why she had to face such dishonor? She did not even tell her sister who lived in London. Her brother had moved to Cape Town in South Africa and her parents went with him. She did not tell them either.

Then, why this sudden breakdown before a friend?

Romila was very kind and sympathetic. She had heard Sanjana’s story and shared her own saga. “My husband was kind and caring and I was heartbroken. I also knew he would hate to see me sad and broken. So, I pulled myself together and made a life for myself back home. The love he cherished on me and his memories has sustained me for the rest of my journey in life,” she concluded with a sad smile.

Sanjana said, “You were lucky to have his love.”

“You are lucky to have had a son and your child’s love. And you must pull yourself together for your son’s sake,” retorted Romila. “ I will come over to your house tomorrow. And we will spend the day together, mapping out a new start for you.”

When Sanjana returned home, her heart felt lighter and she could even watch a dance performance on television without crying once…something she had not been able to do since Suresh announced his decision to leave her.

The next day Romila came in her jogging suit with a gift for Sanjana. When Santana unwrapped the gift, she found a jogging suit and sneakers! Romila had remembered that they could fit into each other’s shoes and slippers.

“ I cannot jog! I am too old and fat. I have a backache!” said Santana.

“It is triple XL. You can fit in. We will not jog. We will walk, “said Romila.

“What is the use of losing weight now?”

“ Why not? We are still not old… get back to dancing!”

“ I can’t anymore.”

“Why not? You are only in 43… you can open a dance school. I will help you. Actually, it would help my trade too!”

Sanjana was still not convinced.

“Please you could be the big story in my career. I have nothing else except that to live by… you know that,” asserted Romila.

Romila went on till Sanjana agreed to walk with her twice a day.

Three months passed by. Every morning Romila took Sanjana out. They had started jogging now. Sanjana was regaining her shape and her aches and pains had reduced. Romila had put her on a low carb diet, taken her to a beautician and had her hair cut and colored. Sanjana had started dancing a little now. She sought out her guru again, acquired a pair of bells and went for regular classes in kathak.

All this while, Suresh had paid her bills and talked on phone when absolutely necessary. He and Sonia had gone on a tour of Europe to celebrate the start of their life together. He had never been on a honeymoon with Sanjana. They had always stayed at home. Suresh travelled alone or with Sonia while he was married to Sanjana. Sanjana had never lived anywhere else except for her mother-in-law’s home for all the twenty-one years of her married life… and now she continued in the same place. Suresh went to USA on a business meet with Sonia and met Suarabh. He had still not told Saurabh about his divorce. Saurabh wanted to do a summer internship in Berkley during the holidays. Suresh encouraged him and promised to visit him with his mother.

Back in India, he called up Sanjana, “Saurabh will not come to India this year. We will visit him. I have not yet told him about our divorce. There is no need to disturb him. We will get your passport made and visit him in August.”

Sanjana complied as always.

By now, the fruits of Romila’s and her hardwork had started blossoming. Sanjana was looking good and younger than her age. She had started helping her old guru teach dancing. She was happier than she had ever been in the last two decades.

Suresh told her to get her passport photograph taken. He wanted her to send it to his office with the driver. She complied. The completed form was sent to her and she signed. The efficient Sonia had overseen all the details. Suresh was not bothered by such small details.

Her passport was ready.

July… Sanjana went shopping with Romila. She was looking very good now. Sanjana was more confident than she had ever been in her life. She was dancing, even though not on stage.

Finally, Sanjana was in the car on the way to the airport. The car stopped in front of Suresh’s house. Sonia was not coming this time.

Suresh stepped into the car and closed the door. He had not turned to look at Sanjana, who was seated in the corner in the dark.

Then he saw her.

“Sanjana?!” Suresh exclaimed with surprise.

He looked at her spell bound.

Sanjana smiled at him and said, “Yes?”

“You are looking good! What have you done to yourself?”

“Nothing.”

“You cut your hair.”

“Yes.”

“You look good. You are wearing pants…I have never seen you in anything except sarees!”

“Jeans. They are convenient for travel. You have never taken me anywhere with you till now.”

Suresh stared at her open-mouthed.

Earlier she would keep quiet and nod shyly. Now she spoke.

In the brightly lit airport, he could see she had make up on and looked very good. Young men turned to look at her as she pushed her trolley.

Suresh was stunned!

She had got her figure back.

“You have lost weight and your hair is brown!” Suresh stuttered.

“Yes. I am dancing and I color my hair,” smiled Sanjana.

When they went to the counter, Suresh asked for two seats together.

He kept looking at her as if to make sure everything was all right. When Sanjana took out a Dan Brown to read, Suresh blurted out, “So, you are reading too…”

“Yes. I never figured out how much fun it is to read thrillers. A friend introduced me to Dan Brown and I cannot stop reading his books!”

Suresh watched her asleep. How beautiful she looked, prettier than when he had married her. He would have loved to touch her, to have her as his wife again. He had been a bit peeved with Sonia of late…She was always nagging him for things the way Sanjana never had… maybe they could get back together. He had never married Sonia… Sonia wanted him to formalize their relationship with a wedding ring. He had pleaded Saurabh’s reaction… Sonia still nagged…

Maybe, he could ask her when she woke up… meanwhile, he gazed at her and then tried to read.

Sanjana’s eyes fluttered and she sat up.

Suresh looked at her and smiled. She had always been putty in his hands. Maybe, he would ask her soon…

She would surely agree! She had always agreed to anything he said… even the divorce…

Suresh waited for Sanjana to be fully awake.

Then, he smiled at her.

She smiled back.

“Feeling refreshed?” he asked.

Sanjana nodded.

“I have been thinking things through while you slept. Saurabh does not know we have separated. If we get back together, he will never know of the rift.”

“What do you mean?” asked Sanjana.

“I mean we can terminate our divorce and stay married forever.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Sanjana we could go back to being together and, if you want, we can remarry when we return.”

“Why?”

Suresh could not believe his ears.

“What are you saying? You do not want to stay married to me?”

“I am not married to you any more. I am having too good a time now to think of tying a knot.”

“Are you saying you do not want me?”

Sanjana looked at him and gave an enigmatic smile in the tradition of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lost!

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Ashima was inside a machine that hurtled through the space-time fabric, slicing it with the silence of vacuum that filled the empty spaces in the Milky Way. Around her at a distance were nebulae with their vividly colored stars. She could see sparkling stars dot the space outside and blue, red and yellow clouds creating swirls that breathed warmth into the cold, unsympathetic blackness.

Ashima looked out of her speeding vehicle. She was sitting curled, as if in a womb and she had no control over her own situation. Fifty and with knees that hurt, this was an uncalled for adventure… she would love to be out of it. Ashima had a bad left knee. Her kneecap had got displaced for some reason, which she herself had not been able to figure out. After two years of physiotherapy, she was able to walk. But, she could not run, jump, dance or crawl…

As Ashima tried to move her mind away from the pain in her knees, a blinding light seemed to tear the space-time continuum and she landed with a thud on a solid surface. The capsule in which she had been hurtling opened and the seat almost ejected her out. She was back where she had been last week…in the grasslands of South Africa.

“Is it in Maropeng again?”Ashima wondered.

Around her was a clear blue sky, the kinds of which can only be seen in South Africa. She had been a bit intimidated by her adventure into the cave of Mrs Ples, the Taung child and the Little Foot, the home to two to three million-year-old fossils that had been discovered from the 1940s to the 2013 if she recalled right.

The cave had been dark. She had gone with her family and a guide. They were in a group, which was being given a conducted tour of the cave. The cave had been fascinating though intimidating too. The guide had shown them minerals on the walls of the cave and fifteen meter long stalactites… evidently lot of South Africa had subterranean caves… they were even explored in King Solomon’s Mines. And the lake in this cave had reminded her of the lake seen by Allan Quatermain and his cronies. She had just re-read the book before coming to South Africa. The huge lake with it’s blind worms squiggling in the corners brought to her mind the blind fishes in another cave of subterranean Africa on the edges of Kalahari. The blind fishes had been colorful, almost like bits of flame. They were part of a TV documentary by Richard Attenborough. They had watched it just before they caught their flight to South Africa from Singapore… only here the worms were tiny and colorless, almost white.

The guide had clearly stated that the group was not allowed to wander as the cave systems were enormous and if one wandered away, one could be completely lost and eventually die of starvation… It had been difficult for Ashima to keep pace but she had come all the way to see this… see it she must… so she had trudged along till she almost collapsed from exhaustion. They had to crawl or slide along parts of the cave. As Ashima could not put her weight on her knees or crawl on the hard surface for fear of injuring her kneecap again, she had to bend double and walk. It was really tough, even though the stretch was short. She felt breathless and on the brink of collapse! Finally, when her heart beat till she felt exhausted with it’s pace, she told her family she could not survive the ordeal! Her twenty-year-old son had called the guide, who had been very kind to her. She helped Ashima take off her woolens which she had needed in the cold wind outside but was not needed inside the cave with its constant perennial temperature of 18 degrees Celsius. The group stopped as she rested and she went slowly the rest of the way. In any case they had been close to the exit. Despite the terror of the situation, Ashima had a tremendous sense of achievement and she had decided that she would make herself physically fit to see more of the subterranean world! But, definitely not this soon… and also she needed the time to improve her fitness level…maybe in a few years…not just yet…

The guide had also said that no one knew exactly how far these caves could stretch… Such caves were made of limestone and they formed a receptacle for varieties of fossils over the last three million years. They believed that the hominids fell into sudden sinkholes that appeared in these sites… what if she too fell into something similar, thought Ashima… Just as she feared, like Alice in Wonderland, Ashima was plunged into a hole that seemed to stretch out endlessly… she was falling, falling into a sinkhole… all alone like the millions of years old Little Foot they found… Ashima passed out.

When she came to, Ashima found herself surrounded by strange monkey like creatures almost as tall as her. They were looking at her and making funny noises. They looked like the pictures of hominids she had seen. Ashima was terrified! She was lying on some kind of soft fern. It was a pale colored world… the vegetation around was more brown and white, actually sepia toned, and there was a strange kind of light that emanated from the walls that surrounded the group. Was it some kind of phosphorescence?

Where was she? As she regained her consciousness, she could hear the trickle of water… her throat felt incredibly parched… These creatures were touching her with their furry hands… she fainted again…this time from fear.

Ashima came to her senses again as some kind of a soft receptacle was being pushed into her mouth and she felt a trickle of water flow down her throat…she was too scared to open her eyes. Reluctantly, she looked up and she found a pair of kind eyes looking down at her. The face was that of a hominid. As soon as she opened her eyes, more of these creatures came running to see her…

“Where am I?” wondered Ashima, “In some subterranean world? Who are these creatures and what has happened?”

From a distance, she heard a voice say, “I was lost too and I landed in their world… I have seen eyeless monstrosities. I have battled sightless dinosaurs. These creatures are very kind compared to those…”

Ashima turned to the source of the voice. A man dressed in ragged khaki and with a long beard stood at a little distance. His beard was of an indeterminate brown…Ashima’s whole body felt cold and hurt… she felt all her bones were broken.

“ There was no speech a few million years ago… we have both travelled back in time to a time lock,” the reedy voice drifted to her as the man came forward to her line of vision.

He had a frayed unkempt wispy beard and an uncouth look about him. His clothes were in tatters. His feet had the remnants of boots on them. She looked at him from the side of her eyes in surprise. He saw her look and started speaking again.

“I am Professor Nowiki from Poland… I made a time machine, which I hoped would help me travel back in time to meet Prof Lidenbrock, the one who went into the Icelandic Snaefellsjokull volcano and came out of Strombolii… I wanted to join his expedition. I was living in the early twentieth century… The first trial took me to a world, which was filled with sightless monstrosities. When I managed to escape back to my machine, the time knob malfunctioned and brought me here. As I stepped out of the machine, it collapsed into a sinkhole and disappeared… I cannot access it any more… I have been in this time lock for almost a century now… I think…”

As his voice faded, Ashima felt terrified. She was surrounded by curious furry hominids. They occasionally touched her. Some of them touched the professor and then her, perhaps to sense the difference. She wanted to get up and run away. She wanted to be securely back with her family… Her whole adventure had landed her in a nightmarish situation. Would she ever see her family again… her two sons and husband…She was desperate to see them, to find them…As tears trickled down her terrified eyes, she heard her husband’s voice calling out to her, “Ashima, Ashima…. what happened? Why are you shivering and weeping?”

And Ashima opened her eyes. Thank God she was on her own bed, by her husband, Sharad. What she had witnessed was, in reality, a nightmare… it was still night…

She sat up and told Sharad the story… “Well it is a good story… you could write it down at some point… maybe an impact of visiting the cave and watching too many adventure movies, Star Trek…”

Ashima took a sip of water from the bottle by her bedside and laughed and said, “You are right you know… except, maybe, the bearded guy was perhaps a figment contributed by my love for Journey to the Centre of the Earth… And I really want to see more wonderful things like that cave, maybe go down the Snaefellsjokull volcano…”

“ It is 3 am! Night still. Go to sleep now… crazy woman,” said Sharad half asleep. Ashima lay down, cuddled close to Sharad and closed her eyes again.

 

Beyond Abhinav Imroz…

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Abhinav Imroz was an established figure in media by the time I met him in the 1990s. I was a student in Delhi University… and he was a celebrity…tall, lanky, hair streaked with grey and with a tremendous stage presence…

He had just been hailed as the man of the year by the Time magazine and had got an award for his autobiography. We had seen his picture on posters that lined the university but had not managed to get our hands on the magazine or his book. So, the curiosity remained… we wanted to know more…

He was an actor, an entrepreneur and a writer! All very impressive… he had been invited to talk to us on his life and experiences by the Film Club in the university. I was a member of the Film Club… I sat in the front row and waited for him to start.

He started to talk in a deep resonating voice, the kind that dreams are made of…

“I was born in what is known as Pakistan now, in the 1940s, prior to Partition. My earliest memories are of my parents in Lahore. I remember flying a kite with my father on the rooftop. I remember singing a song with my mother on the piano… I remember playing with our old help, a thin devout man who carried me in his heart and lap… I went around in a phaeton that my father maintained… but I have forgotten what my father was called and where I lived exactly… I have forgotten what my faith was… I have forgotten what my own real name was…”

“For, I was only three years old when my parents left their ancestral home, as far as I have been told…and made a run for India with me… I remember still the haunting fear when I heard the shout of the mob that attacked our home… The little man, who took care of me and prayed ever so often sitting on a mat, was pushed and thrown aside when he tried to shut the door on the mob. My parents and I watched from behind a bush outside in the garden and made a run for India with what we had on us. I remember my mother crying as the house was set aflame…”

“The next thing I remember was the stench in the refugee camp and then, I heard, my parents died. I was put in a bus and sent to an orphanage in India, where I was so unhappy that I ran away… I slipped out of the gate one morning and no one noticed… maybe, they looked for me… The security guard was sleeping in his chair when I ran out. I was a little fellow and there were so many on the street like me that I could lose myself completely… And, then I found myself… I have polished shoes, carried loads and I managed to survive. But, I wanted more from life. When I was probably ten, I enrolled myself in a night school and learnt to read and write…Everyone called me Bittoo then…”

“In 1965, when I registered for my higher secondary exam, I gave my name as Abhinav Imroz. I had decided that I would carve out a new future for myself. I worked and studied till I finished my graduation. It was a hard existence. Then I went and joined the film industry… when I made enough money as an actor, I bought a press and started printing a magazine, then a daily… I started writing… most of my writing talks of a world beyond borders… a new day where we will not lose ourselves in petty violence over borders drawn by politicians… I call myself Abhinav, which means new in Hindi, the national language of India. And Imroz, which means today in Urdu, the national language of Pakistan. I see myself as someone who believes in God, in all faiths, all religions, all cultures…. which are all but colours of a rainbow… and yet we fight, and yet we strive for borders that kill… my parents were killed as were and are millions like them…”

“Pakistan evolved when prior to what is called our Independence, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a British lawyer, drew a line through the homes and hearts of families in the Indian subcontinent. Divide and rule, a colonial weapon to maintain supremacy of the ruler had at last struck the hearts and hearths of millions, who were killed crossing borders. Radcliffe justified the casual division by saying that no matter what he did, people would suffer. He also admitted he fell sick in India and was eager to leave the country. The line that was drawn by Radcliffe was a need for the ‘leaders’ who took over the reigns of the governments from the departing colonial power, not for the common man.”

I still remember as he paused to take a sip of water, the resounding claps that filled the auditorium. I still have his speech in my college album. The editor of our college magazine recorded the words and then wrote it down for all of us to read….

He continued with his speech… He spoke of his successes in the film industry and as a newspaper magnate. He spoke of the role of arts and literature in the current day world. He spoke of the needs of our times and how his book reflected on all the things that had made him. Oh, he was fabulous! He rose before us like a giant of our times…

Most of us were fascinated by his life… We were so inspired that I wanted to do project with street children… there could be more like him, with his potential … who knows? Suresh, an economics major student and the president of the Film Club, thought it was a great idea. But, the others from the club said that we should do something that had something to do with filmmaking. They wanted to try make a short movie about his life…not a documentary but a story based on his life…We had all completed our final year and were awaiting our results. We had the time to fiddle around with something new. Suresh said we could take up my idea later but it would be fun to make the film together as we would soon part ways.

Everyone agreed, especially as Pran, a postgraduate student of media studies, said, he had an uncle in Doordarshan, the national channel, and he would check if they could help us.

Some of us made an appointment with Abhinav Imroz and went to meet him after our final exams. I was one of the lucky people to be included… we wanted more details… He had asked us to go to his office. The building was a skyscraper owned by him. He told us to read his Memoirs to get a more detailed account… that was the book that got him his Booker prize…

To say I read the book would be an understatement…I gorged it… he was kind enough to give us an autographed copy which we all shared.

I wanted to hold on to the book but finally Pran got to keep it.

Pran’s uncle, Mr. Das, was fascinated by the story… He asked us if we had made anything of it…

Suresh had already started trying to dramatise it. I was helping him. We had bought another copy of the book and partly written our own script. But, I still wanted the original copy with the dedication to the film club. I do not know why but I was desperate for it…

Suresh and I were working day and night on the script together. Mr. Das approved it and allowed us to continue helping. He even paid us for our story. He took the book from his nephew, read it and returned it to him. Pran thought he was entitled to hold on to the copy as he had helped the film society gain experience with professionals! He refused to exchange it with me. He said, “You can get your copy autographed again.”

“It is not the same thing,” I said. “That is dedicated originally by Abhinav Imroz himself to the Film Club. This would be only to me.”

“We are all part of the Film Club. Why would you have more right to the book than me?” responded Pran.

I had no answer.

The time had come for auditions for the teleplay and then, in walked Ambar. Ambar was cast as Abhinav Imroz in the teleplay. He was tall, curly haired, fair with grey eyes and a red mouth. He reminded me of Michelangelo’s David… His delivery was amazing. For me, he brought to life the great Abhinav Imroz… Wow! I loved the voice… it sounded the same as that of the man he portrayed, the man whose ideas on harmony and a borderless world won me over for life…

I hung on Ambar’s words. When he was around, I had eyes only for him. I was hoping he would notice me. I had a minor role, as there were very few major roles for women. Abhinav Imroz had never married… He said in his Memoirs that there were enough children in the world, who needed homes, and he had created such a home for five or six of them. They were orphans like him of unknown faith and parentage. As they grew up and launched into the world on their own, he would take in new comers. They lived with him in a palatial home and were put through good schooling and university. The children in return loved him like a father. No one knew any scandals about him.

To me, he was perfection… and Ambar portrayed that perfection!

Everytime Ambar walked into the room, my heart beat fast and I felt the blood rush into my head if he turned or spoke to me. Pran teased me about it.

“You have a crush on Ambar, Sheila!” he said as he watched me blush and stammer when Ambar spoke to me. Suresh had been asking me out after we finished out exams. I avoided him and stared at and dreamt of Ambar.

Geeta, who played a grown up Muslim girl brought up by Abhinav Imroz warned me, “Sheila, Ambar and Abhinav are different… Ambar is a rich man’s son who is aiming to make it big in the glamorous movie world… you are socially aware person who wants to make things better in this world. You think about others’ welfare and a better future for the world… Do you think the two can meet?”

I was angry and irritated by the warning. “You know nothing about me or Ambar. Then why do you say bad things about him?”

Geeta looked shocked at my outburst and said, “I am sorry I meant no offence.”

Suresh looked dejected, “I do not know where we are headed with this film,” he mused. “But after this is over, I have to apply to the law school for my masters. Maybe, we should not have attempted this… it is eating into our time…” Like me, he had a minor role.

I was defensive about the film. “It will be a great film that promotes racial harmony, maybe something like Amrita Pritam’s book, Pinjar.”

Suresh shrugged and tried his luck, “Want to go for coffee after the shoot?” he asked me.

“Let’s all go,” I said and called out, “Ambar, do you want to go for coffee after the shoot?”

Ambar shrugged his shoulders and agreed.

As we all went into the cafe, a little child in rags came and asked for money to buy food. Just as I was taking out a ten rupees note, Ambar shooed off the child, “Bloody beggar! They just have nothing better to do!” I was a bit surprised but still he was Ambar, the great actor who understood Abhinav Imroz and played him to perfection.

I dreamt of dating him… but he never asked…

I found a seat next to him in the cafe and tried to start a conversation. I asked him what he thought of Abhinav Imroz, “Great guy!” he said. “Self-made and all that… Has made a lot of money… I want that too…money… my father has lots… He has promised to let me try my luck at Bollywood. He can fund me all my life. But one needs more… you know… and I like the idea of being a famous star! Abhinav, of course, great guy too! Is loaded…!”

He finished his coffee and said, “I am off… have a babe to meet at the bar across the street…Bye guys.”

Everybody said his or her goodbyes to him.

Suresh walked me to the bus stop. He asked me, “Should I drop you home? It is starting to get dark.”

“No. I can manage,” was my irritated response.

The day the film was being screened on television, we asked Abhinav Imroz to a little party we had organized in a hotel for the cast and crew… The party was in the evening, after the screening. We watched the telefilm in the ballroom of the hotel on a large television screen. Mr Imroz was aked to give a little speech. He thanked all of us for the great job we did and especially Ambar. Ambar was elated! He was on cloud nine. He drank glass after glass of champagne. Abhinav Imroz was a teetotaler.

After quite a few drinks, when Ambar seemed to head for the dance floor, I ran after him and asked him to dance with me. He agreed. It was a slow number. I felt uncomfortable as he held me tight. He smelt of alcohol and cigarette smoke. I discovered I did not like that much. He started groping… I tried to move away… I was embarrassed… No. This was not the way it should go, I thought. He was supposed to be respectful and decent. He was like Abhinav Imroz… Ambar moved closer and tried to press his body against mine!

Suddenly, I found myself facing Suresh. Suresh had tapped Ambar on the shoulder and Ambar was dancing with another girl, who he was holding close and groping now… looked like it did not matter who was at the receiving end, as long as the body was that of a female!

I felt sick at the pit of my stomach… I think it showed for Suresh asked me if he should take me home. I nodded.

On the way he told me that Abhinav Imroz had left after the speech, pleading a prior appointment.

I was sorely disappointed with the actor who portrayed him. Ambar was definitely not like Abhinav Imroz! Maybe Geeta was right…

Suresh was very kind and did not speak about it. He just dropped me home and left.

The next week, Suresh called up and told me he had made an appointment with Mr Imroz to thank him and to propose the project we had discussed earlier to help street children, the one that I proposed to the Film Club before we started on the film venture. My short-lived adulation for Ambar had distracted me from it through the movie making period… I was amazed that Suresh had remembered and pushed it through! Pran and the others had started working and had no time for the project, so only Suresh and I went to meet him.

We went by an auto rickshaw to his house. It was a huge house. We entered. I felt intimidated by the sheer size, though I must say the decor was tasteful and not opulent. A man in a white uniform showed us into the drawing room. Suresh settled down on the sofa with the newspaper. We were still a little awkward with each other after he rescued me from Ambar. I looked around. There were books lining a wall. I walked to the shelf and was looking at the titles when again that voice rang out,

“Hello, both of you… I am afraid I have forgotten your names again.”

We reintroduced ourselves and started thanking him for allowing us to make the film and being there for the telecast, when he said, “You do not need to thank me. You did a good job with the script and the film. I should be thanking you. But I have another appointment in a little while. So, I would really like to hear your proposal for helping the street children.”

Suresh told him our ideas. I joined them in the discussion. He promised to fund us if we turned up with a written project proposal.

Suresh and I were again at work together. I had to do most of the work as Suresh was preparing for his entrance exam in law. We were together very often. I noticed how kind Suresh was to me. He formed a contrast to Ambar. He was good for my ego…

We completed the proposal. The idea was I would start with the project with some more friends from my sociology class (who were willing to volunteer) and Suresh would help us whenever he could spare time. We were planning a shelter, where we would try to help children get back with their families (if they still had them) and we would make sure they got a good education in different schools. We were also hoping to have a little theatre group which would educate not just children but also disadvantaged adults… we wanted to educate them about the need for schooling and for standing up to bullying and crime…for all this we needed funding. Abhinav Imroz was happy to help. By this time, I was used to the voice of Abhinav Imroz.

He said, “You both are like my own children. I love your optimism and hope. Together, we can make changes. God bless you both.”

I was very happy.

As our proposal started materializing, Suresh and I drew closer. It was our baby… the project, I mean… delivered by the funding from Abhinav Imroz.

Suresh completed his studies and started practicing with a law firm. He had lesser time for my work and me. I missed his contribution as he always had a solution to every problem that we faced…

I missed his voice more than that of Abhinav Imroz.

That day, we were meeting to celebrate that he did well and had a great job and the success our project. Our project had  been written about in a major daily and Abhinav Imroz had run a feature in his magazine about our work.

I was raving about how well we functioned as a team.

Suddenly, Suresh asked me over chocolate ice cream, “Will you team up for life with me?”

I felt very shy and looked down.

“What do you mean?” I mumbled.

“Will you marry me?” he asked.

I agreed.

Wedding cards went out.

Abhinav Imroz was a guest as was Pran. We were of course thrilled to have Abhinav Imroz at our wedding…

When we unwrapped the gifts, we found Pran(who had started working for Doordarshan) had given us the book autographed for the Film Club and a tape of the movie on Abhinav Imroz as our wedding gift.

With it, he wrote a note,

 

“No one deserves this more than the two of you.”

 

Now, I had the answer to Pran’s question…because, then, I had not understood why I was so desperate for the book…the book, the movie and the project tied Suresh and me together in a way nothing else could! I knew that earlier in my sub-conscious but did not acknowledge it to myself… perhaps I had to grow up…

Abhinav Imroz had been the catalyst that inspired me to act and Suresh to admire and provide support for my idealism and dreams. But the bond that drove us to make everything happen lay deeper within our hearts.

When we ran the movie, I was surprised that I had found Ambar so like Abhinav Imroz at that time and attractive. He was nothing like Abhinav Imroz! Ambar’s face lacked character and intelligence…

However, the book, Memoirs, that Pran gifted us is the pride of our home and rests on our bookshelf in the hall at last!

 

 

The Inner Chamber

 

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View of Fort William  by anonymous British artist, 1849

Shikha was a travel writer. She loved her job and enjoyed both travel and writing. Off late, she had been doing a series on ancient palaces converted to hotels. She had an invitation to a new hotel that had opened in an ancient palace near Calcutta. Bhanga Bari, translated the Broken Home, had been renamed The Rangmahal. It was located in Chinsura. Shikha decided to drive down from Calcutta one weekend. She pre-informed the management of the hotel so that they would be ready for her.

The date she started was 22nd June. She planned to spend the day and night and drive back on 23rd morning. It was sweltering hot. Shikha drove out early in the air-conditioned comfort of her car. She liked early morning drives as there was less traffic on the road and the only interruptions were meandering cows and traffic lights. She reached the little township within a couple of hours. She was met by the eager manager of the hotel, Mr Bono Behari Das.

Mr Das folded his hands in welcome, “Namaskar, welcome to our humble abode. I am the manager of the hotel. The owner will come down to meet you around 11am. I will take you to your room and you can freshen up and have some breakfast … is that fine with you…?”

“Sounds good,” responded Shikha.

Her room was ample and big with an old-fashioned four poster bed and a mosquito net. The attached bathroom was huge with modern fittings. The balcony had a swing where she could sit and read under a ceiling fan. It overlooked the garden and a lotus pond. The view was idyllic and beautiful.

Shikha went down to a breakfast of loochi-tarkari by the swimming pool. As she sipped some Darjeeling tea, Mr Das announced the owner of the Rangmahal. Shikha had expected someone from the Bandopadhayay family (the title the family took on after they dropped the raja and the rai from their names) that had originally built Bhanga Bari but she was faced by a short marwari called Mr Gowerdhan Lal.

Mr Lal informed her he bought the house from the original owner and had it renovated with all modern fittings to make it into an exclusive hotel. What was most interesting was he not only had a room full of antiques recording the history of the family from before the battle of Plassey in 1757, but had also found some diaries written in the nineteenth century by the lady of the house. That diary could also be found in The Galleria, the name he gave the little museum housed in the Bhanga Bari.

“The history of the family spans the rise and fall of the British Raj in Bengal and the start of Independent India,” he said. “Before I take you for a tour of The Galleria and the hotel, let me give you a brief background of this house”

“A year before the battle of Plassey in 1757, the battle where the British gained suzerainty of Bengal, Bhanga Bari was bought by Krishna Ballabh Rai, the son of Raja Raj Ballabh Rai. He escaped from the clutches of Nawab Siraj Ud Daulah of Bengal. The Nawab put Raj Ballabh under surveillence for supporting Ghasiti Begum, the richest woman of Bengal and Siraj’s aunt, in a plot to dethrone him. Siraj Ud Daulah was known for his bad behavior, rudeness and lascivious life style. When Siraj took to harassing Raj Ballabh Rai , Krishna Ballabh’s wife was expecting a baby. The Nawab was known to be ruthless to his enemies. To save the baby and his son’s family, Raj Ballabh requested Mr Drake, the British representative who he interacted with, to give them a letter of safe conduct to the white colony in Calcutta. Seth Omichund, a banker and trader, arranged for their housing in this house in the Dutch colony in Chinsura. He had a number of houses in the white colonies. Also, it was considered safer for them to stay away from the British stronghold as Siraj Ud Daulah was angry with the British for raising ramparts in the fort at Calcutta. At that point, Calcutta was truly multinational. They had the British, French and Dutch zones. They also had Armenian and Portuguese traders. The French had also raised their ramparts to defend themselves but their representative did a better job of convincing Siraj Ud Daulah than Mr Drake.”

“Krishna Ballabh escaped with his pregnant wife and plenty of wealth to Chinsura. He paid Seth Omichund for the house. On 21st of June, 1856… Krishna Ballabh went to Fort William in Calcutta to thank Mr Drake in person for his help. That was the day Siraj Ud Daulah  struck with his army and took captive the white population and their supporters. Krishna Ballabh was rounded up with the supporters and jailed. More than a hundred ‘prisoners’ were stuffed into an airless room, which we know of now as the infamous Black Hole. At that time, it was occasionally used to confine soldiers  for short periods. Siraj Ud Daulah slept as his prisoners suffocated and died. His soldiers were too scared to wake him up and tell him that the prisoners were dying. The Nawab was capable of killing the guards too if he lost his temper. The next morning only 23 prisoners were pulled out living. The rest were given a mass burial. Krishna Ballabh was one of the victims. When he did not return, his terrified wife consumed poison and took her own life. The child, who was barely a few months old, survived. One of Krishna Ballabh’s cousins who had come as part of the entourage was kind enough to see he got his education and brought him up along with his own child as the heir apparent to all the wealth. The grandfather, Raja Raj Ballabh, drowned a year later when the boat that was bearing Ghasiti Begum and her supporters capsized.”

“The child grew up like majority of zamindar‘s sons. He drowned himself in wine, women and song. This went on for a few generations till their wealth was squandered off and the scion of the family dropped his title and started working.”

“Any questions so far?” asked Mr Lal.

“None as yet,” said Shikha. “It is all so interesting… hard to digest… like living through history…”

“There is more,” responded Mr Lal. “Let us now go to The Galleria.”

They walked from the poolside into the house. There were many rooms and coridoors.

“Were all these rooms part of the old structure?” asked Shikha.

“Some we added on. The swimming pool is an addition. But your room is part of the original structure. It is the largest bedroom in the old house. Mr Bandhopadhyay had told me that the rooms that side were probably the antarmahal ( inner quarters)where the ladies lived. They had been locked up for as long as he could remember. They used only a small portion of the house in front. The paintings you see on the walls were stacked in the antarmahal under a dirty tarpaulin… some of them are very valuable. I have a feeling Mr Bandhopadhyay never knew much about them. He regarded the antiques as junk. I have kept the portraits mainly in The Galleria. The Galleria is where the stables used to be…”

The Galleria turned out to be a longish hall full of odds and ends, which Mr Lal had found lying around the house. There were two men standing at the doors in security uniform. The stables had been converted into a gallery full of curios from the house. There were coins from different periods, an old gramophone with a horn, old tablas, harmoniums and even a sitar. There were huge portraits hanging on the walls and some fine antique furniture. Some of the paintings had dates and names of the people they represented. Mr Lal said he did not know the names of all the people and Mr Bandhopadhyay had forgotten most of them. The artists who painted them were not the best known. There were some kitchen utensils, some family statues of Gods and other small knickknacks. At the other end of the room were books and diaries. There was a newspaper from the turn of the century.

“Perhaps, one day I will have someone from a museum look over all the things I have unearthed in this house and see if I can make some profit from a museum or had them over to the government against money…I am sure some of the stuff will be very valuable.”

Shikha asked if she could take photographs and clicked away.

Mr Lal picked up a diary and told Shikha, “This is the diary I mentioned earlier. The diary was kept by the former owner’s great grand mother at the turn of the century. This was given to me by Mr Bandhopadhyay when he saw the galleria. He told me it belonged to his great grandmother and it deserved a place in the Galleria rather than his cupboard. It seems she rode horses, spoke seven languages and could discuss scriptures. Her father was a friend of the famous Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay. She married the scion of this family for love…”

“Can I read it? ” asked Shikha.

Mr Lal told her that he was afraid the pages would crumble and the ink was faded as it was over a hundred years old…however, he let her handle it. Shikha found entries in Bengali, Urdu and English. She even found a page in what looked like French… this was surely an erudite lady!

After Shikha took her fill of pictures, she stepped back into sunshine. The two security men saluted her. “I have posted some security at the door of The Galleria as I do not want anyone to manhandle, touch or steal any of the objects. Later, if it proves profitable, I will get special casings made.”

“So have visitors started coming?” asked Shikha.

“I have had a few groups stay overnight and number of individual bookings… mostly tourists who want to take a look at the ancient homes or the Dutch cemetry in Chinsura. Things are picking up now that Chinsura has been declared a Dutch heritage site… but I could do with more guests. What really gets me my revenue is my restaurant. It is considered one of the best in Chinsura. I also charge day visitors for the use of the swimming pool,” said Mr Lal.

Mr Lal walked her over the whole house, pointing out the views and the older structures from the new improvements he made.

Shikha had sumptuous and grand meals at the restaurant, spent the whole evening at the pool and then ambled off to bed, hoping for an early start the next morning.

The hotel thankfully had wi-fi. Shikha googled the family history, Siraj ud Daulah and the Black Hole in the history of Bengal. She was so tired that she fell asleep with the light on and her head near her i pad.

Suddenly, she awoke… the lights were off and the furniture seemed different… strange and shadowy. She could hear a voice howling… the weeping drew closer. The door of the room screeched open. In the dark, she could see a shadowy figure of the woman head for a strange looking almirah. She opened the door and drawers… all the while the figure wept… slowly the figure sat on the bed where she lay. Shikha was terrified and covered her eyes with a sheet. Suddenly, she felt the figure fall on the bed by her. Footsteps were running up. She peered out of curiosity and could see more shadows of more weeping women… she was terrified. She could here a voice declare the body next to her as dead…. what was happening? Shikha passed out…

The next morning, Shikha woke up to urgent knocking at the door.

“Madam, is everything all right?”a voice was asking.

The lights were on and her i pad was under her arm…and she had been sleeping…My god! It was past ten in the morning…She had said she would leave by nine thirty…

The furniture was back to normal. She was still in one piece. What had happened? She had surely overslept…Had she had a bad dream… a result of sleeping in an odd posture and reading about the dark incident of the Black Hole? She had been browsing dark annals of history … from archive.org… ancient archived stuff that gave vivid descriptions of the incident…

When she finished breakfast, she told a sympathetic Mr Das of her strange dream. Mr Das merely smiled and said,  “Actually, yesterday was the 250 th anniversary of the death of Krishnaballabh’s wife, the 22nd night of June…”

 

 

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.

 

 

Wanderlust

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New Delhi… the magical city of dreams… New Delhi the maker or breaker of dreams…

Into New Delhi, came a young man with a bundle of dreams under his arms, literally.

He had a manuscript, a book and a laptop in a bag that he held under his arms. He hoped to make it big and become a reputed writer. On his back was a rucksack with some of his belongings. He got off the train from Dhanbad, a small town in Bihar blackened by soot from coalmines…

It was not that he was without contacts or was visiting the city for the first time… No, he had friends and family with who he could stay and the invitation to meet a television director who had said he was interested in staging his story.

Dinesh and Manish had met in Calcutta at Dinesh’s friend’s sister’s wedding. Dinesh was a dreamer who a few years earlier had dreamt of marrying the bride and then, when he found, the young girl preferred her fiancé, he started writing poetry, dipping a fountain pen in his own blood, which he spilt from a cut he made on his arm. The girl rejected the blood drenched poetry… and the poet. Dinesh started writing a story… a sad story of rejection, this time on his laptop, not with blood. Then he wrote another story and then another till he started having fun with stories in his head.

Dinesh went for the wedding not only because he was the bride’s brother’s best friend but to prove to the world and himself that he had completely got over his puppy love.

In the process of getting over his first crush, he had found another love… this time, it was not a woman but the sound of words. He wrote his heart out, poetry and prose. He started carrying his life in a few files in his laptop. At the wedding, when this affluent but jobless youth met Manish, a young dynamic director from New Delhi, who wrote and produced plays on television, he showed him some of his own stories. Manish saw potential for teleplays and asked him if he could come to Delhi with his work in three months time, when he would start looking for a new story. At that point, he had a serial going on on national television that was a hit all over India.

Now, Dinesh had started to dream of becoming a playwright. He had already started to dramatise his stories when he landed in Delhi. He got off the train in the New Delhi Railway Station and started looking for an auto rickshaw that would take him to his aunt’s house in Greater Kailash.

Dinesh’s aunt, Mallika, lived in a huge ancestral home all alone. She had never married because for her, career came before all else. She was very happy to have Dinesh over. He was close family…her nephew (her elder sister’s youngest).

Dinesh liked his aunt. She had always been always kind to him.

Dinesh reached her home on Sunday afternoon and on Monday, he went to Manish’s office with his manuscript and his laptop.

Manish asked him to summarize his stories and tell them to him. He selected one of the summaries and asked for the manuscript of the story. Dinesh sent the story and the script that he had written of the play to Manish. Manish of course had the script and story modified by the professional scriptwriter.

Dinesh’s job was done and he was given a cheque. Dinesh was a bit disappointed. He had dreamt of becoming the Shakespeare of India. When the opportunity slid out of his reach, he started grasping around for a new dream, for here was a young dreamer… New Delhi was the perfect city for this young man, a city where dreams can be broken, altered or made… Without his dreams, Dinesh felt like an empty egg shell!

He moved around the house listlessly. Mallika was the editor-in- chief of a newspaper. She knew things had not worked out the way Dinesh dreamt. Dinesh was just a average student from Calcutta University. He had done a management course in a private institute. He could not find a job anywhere, Delhi or Calcutta… yet, he needed his dreams. Was he an unusual young man in as much as what mattered most to him were his dreams, not the realization of them? Perhaps, he did not have the stamina to work for them or struggle for them. Yet, he could not do what his family wanted him to do… join in their family business…

Mallika asked him if he wanted to try his hand at journalism… he was not sure… All he knew was that he wanted to get away from it all… he decided he wanted to travel. His father refused to pay for his adventures and told him to expect no support from him if he did not join the prosperous family business.

One morning, Dinesh woke up, packed his rucksack and left the house… no one knew where he had gone…

Dinesh left home, cashed his cheque and caught the first train to Haridwar. He sent a message to his aunt telling him he was safe. He got into a cheap third class compartment. This was the time of the Kumbh Mela, a festival that collects millions in the holy cities of Haridwar, Varanasi and Nasik. Each city hosts the festival by turns, every three years. Mendicants, swamis, believers and viewers gather in throngs to bathe in the Ganges and wash away their sins.

On the train, Dinesh sat next to a young man, Hari. During the journey, Hari told him his sad story… he had married the ravishing Kalyani, chosen by his parents from a pure vegetarian family. He himself was a pure vegetarian, who could not stand the stench of eggs, meat and fish. Kalyani had lived in a hostel in New Delhi for five years, through her graduation and post graduation. There she had developed a taste for non-vegetarian cuisine. Hari saw her eat non-vegetarian for the first time during his honeymoon. He was horrified when she ordered mutton. They had not been allowed to talk before they married. Now, Hari felt cheated… he was in a dilemma. He could not tolerate non- vegetarian food and his wife loved her meats and eggs. She did not cook it at home but could not give up on these foods… he had asked her to choose between chicken and goat meat and his heart, home and hearth… She had not responded. After a few months, she went to visit her parents in Haridwar and had continued staying there for more than a month. She also informed him that she wanted to pursue her PhD on her return to Delhi. Hari was very confused and sad. Would his wife choose goat and chicken meat over him? Would she look for a career outside the home?

Hari felt lost and did not know what to do… his family, who lived in Roorkee, of course knew none of this.

Dinesh found Hari’s concerns a trifle amusing and petty as he believed in tolerance and his aunt had chosen career over marriage a couple of decades ago… So, Hari’s concerns seemed a bit weird… there was more to life than just family, marriage and home and that is what he had set out to discover!

When they reached Haridwar, Dinesh found his own way… he went to a dharmashala and got himself boarding. Then he went down to the Kumbh Mela on the banks of the Ganges.

The Ganges flowed down from the Himalayas in all her glory…swirling and beating against the shores, contained in it’s bed by the cemented ghats. There were chains and poles built into the shallow reaches of the river to help the devotees hold and bathe as otherwise, the swift current could sweep away the swimmer far beyond the reaches of helping hands.

Dinesh watched the river fascinated…

A group of ash smeared Naga sadhus walked past him. Dinesh took a picture with his mobile. Touts for helping him offer prayers and bathe surrounded him. Dinesh made a break and ran away from the growing circle of middlemen who offered various services. He saw beggars lined along the walls that led to the shore…

At last, Dinesh found a spot free of touts. There were Naga sadhus praying… Dinesh sat in peace and watched them. He took pictures. When one of the sadhus got up, Dinesh bowed down to him. He blessed him and went off into the river for his ritualistic bath. Dinesh went back to the same spot daily till he could get some stories of the naga sadhus. They were a rare sight and came down from the Himalayas only for the Kumbh Mela. He interviewed some of them and wrote a piece. Then he emailed his story to his aunt. His aunt was excited and printed the story. From Haridwar, when Dinesh returned to his Aunt’s home, she showed him the story in print and promised him a handsome cheque. She suggested he do a column for them, travelling to remote places in India and writing for her newspaper. His interview with the Nagas caused quite a stir and a couple of other newspapers approached him too.

Dinesh had got his break. He travelled and wrote till he became a very well known travel writer. He went to the northeast, visited tribes in Nagaland, saw the borderless existence people led between Burma and India, to Bengal where the haunting rhythms and the simplicity of the Santhals brought tears to his eyes. He travelled to the central India and met Gonds in their natural habitat, to the south and to the west of India… He also found time to do a couple of degrees in Anthropology as it aided him in his work. From the confines of his country’s borders, he moved to rarer tribes in the jungles of Africa, Amazon and, even, Eskimos in the frozen Arctic.

Though his family harangued him to settle down on his occasional visits home, he never found time to marry… He said he was married to his work!

After almost three decades, the young man who wrote poetry in blood and came to Delhi with a rucksack in search of his dreams stood on the podium before the President of the country receiving an award for his outstanding contribution in bringing home to the city dwellers stories about worlds beyond laptops, electricity and roadways, where people lived out their dreams in their own way… their dreams were different from those of a city dwellers just like his had been different from that of his parents or many other men who had not been struck by wanderlust!

 

 

 

 

The Story of a Doe-eyed Jinn

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Thousands of years ago, when mankind was still young and believed in magic, there was a tiny green island peopled by simple, god-fearing fisher folk. In the little village by the seaside, there lived a beautiful girl with pale white skin, pomegranate red lips, jet-black hair. She flit from home to home through the day, bringing happiness with her good nature and helpful attitude. She would play with the children and do little tricks that kept their tears at bay. She would climb tall trees and pluck fruit for the little ones. She would help mothers and wives with household chores and she would listen to the old folks’ tales of glory till they were filled with blessings for her kind heart. She was a winsome little soul and everyone agreed that the man who won her heart would be a lucky one.

One day, a great magician came to the village in a fabulous flying carpet made of gold and silver. He glowed with a magical aura and no one could touch him. He wore a strange robe made of glistening orange and black. He had a long beard and long hair and spoke in a deep, drowning voice. He was like a king from heaven. No one in the village had seen anyone like him. No one knew why he had come to their village and no one asked. He went to the village elder and demanded shelter. The village elder fell under his spell and gave him what he wanted without any questions. In fact, the whole village fell under his spell.

They were stunned by the magic he performed for them. He could stop the rain from wetting the village. It would fall all around but not into the village. It seemed like he had built a dome to keep off the thunder and lightening. He could extend night and day for the village.

The young doe-eyed girl watched him with fascination. The magician saw her from the corner of his eyes and followed her with interest. It would be nice for him to have someone like her around, he thought to himself. In any case, he was tiring off the village and the time had come for him to move on…

The magician came from beyond the stars and the moon. He had travelled around the world in quest of a special magic that would make him more powerful than the men who ruled his home. He wanted to be a king. He was a man who loved power and lived for only his own needs. This young girl could ward away his loneliness and help him find the magic. The magician approached the village elder and asked for the girl’s hand. The village elder was totally under the magician’s mind spell. He would do whatever the magician asked. He agreed. The young girl agreed. Only her mother worried. But the magician put a spell on her mouth so that she could not utter her protests.

The girl went off with the magician on his flying carpet…

For the first few days, the girl lived as if in a dream. They soared among the stars and the moon. From the carpet, which turned invisible and became like a big home, she could see the aurora borealis, fabulous sunrises and sunsets, even the whole Earth as she flew further towards the moon with her magician. Oh! How the girl loved the magician as she saw the wonders of the universe soar past her…the fabulous nebulae, the distant suns, the stars with their swirls of gas and fire…oh! She was fascinated!

At last, they landed on the snowbound ice-cap of the polar region. The magician said, “Now, I will train you and then will begin our real work.”

First, he created a home for them under a warm glowing dome where the temperature was as warm as that of the doe-eyed damsel’s island. It was like a little oasis of warmth in the cold desert of ice and snow. There, he started training her. Sometimes, they would step out into the cold and create a fire with a powder. Sometimes, they would create illusory landscapes, like a volcano or a flower garden. The magician taught the maiden how to keep her body temperature constant in cold and warm weather. He taught her to change into a bird and soar the skies. He taught her how to control her and others’ minds, how to move objects from a distance. She learned fast.

After six months of intensive training, the magician told her it was time to start work…to look for a new magic…

They set sail on the magic carpet and soared the world, visiting deep caverns, river and sea-beds for ancient magic. And the doe-eyed winsome girl became an expert magician. She could turn to dust a predator lurking in the deeps of the sea, swim like a mermaid into underwater caverns, create light and darkness…just like her magician. In addition she had a pure heart, a necessity that the bearded magician for all his charm lacked. It was with the echoes of her heart that she would be able to feel the pure magic. Unfortunately for the magician, his heart was tainted by personal ambition and greed. It could not sense the echoes of magic that needed a pure heart. He had searched everywhere on Earth for the magic but it was lost to him.

Another six months passed. The magic was still concealed from them. Then, one day as they delved deep into a dark cave on a mountainside, they found the magic in a rock. It echoed in the doe eyed girl’s heart. She heard the echoes and told her magician. The magician took out a ring and put a halo around the rock. It floated up, became tiny and swept into an empty socket of the ring. It was strange magic. The magician was very happy. He said, “I know this is the right magic because it responded to the call of the ring.” That day they went to a nearby village and partied with the villagers. They had visited the village earlier and the villagers knew them as a devoted couple. They had fireworks and fancy food. They sang and danced late into he night.

That night they all went to bed late.

The sun caressed the doe-eyed damsel with its morning rays. The doe-eyed damsel woke up to an empty bed. Her magician had left with the ancient magic, ring and carpet. He left a note bidding her farewell forever. The doe-eyed damsel wept till her eyes were swollen and red.

When the villagers heard of her plight, they condemned her as an abandoned woman. Her husband left her because she was flawed, they said. The doe-eyed girl cried and cried and then decided to return home. She took to the skies like a swallow, alighted at her village and returned to her original form. When she returned without the magician and wept out her tale, people turned their faces away. Her mother hung her head in shame for an abandoned wife was considered a valueless and shameless commodity in the world of men. Her mother could not take in the shame and died of a broken heart. The doe-eyed one no longer brought smiles to the villagers but, in their opinion, only bad luck.

She lived in the outskirts of the village and perfected her magic. One day, embittered by a sense of rejection, she took the form of a black crane and flew all the way to the desert sands. There she haunted caravanserais for a few years hoping her magician would return at some point and find her. When the bearded one did not return and men jeered at her and wounded her self-respect, she started turning them into lizards and cockroaches. People began to regard her as a woman with a black heart. Only the wicked came to her for magical help and she obliged. She was a woman who had lost her senses in a battle to survive with honour.

Sometimes, she would turn herself into a whirlwind and baffle men who had jeered at her. Sometimes, she descended like black smoke on unsuspecting wayfarers and frightened them with ugly faces.

One day when she descended on a group of travellers as a whirlwind and started making frightening faces at them, a clever trader outwitted her. He said, he did not believe that she was a powerful magician. The doe-eyed one wanted to convince him. She asked, “What can I do to convince you? Should I turn you into a worm?”

He replied,“ I will believe you are a really powerful magician if you can get into this tiny jar” and he waved an empty wine bottle under her nose.

“Oh that is easy,” she replied and turned into black smoke and entered the jar. The trader promptly closed the jar. However much she shouted, he would not let her out. He took the jar to the next caravanserai and threw it among all the empty bottles that littered the garbage area.

The doe-eyed one waited patiently for someone to open the bottle. She turned herself invisible and made a home in the old wine jar, waiting for more than ten centuries to be let out…