The Sunshine Girl

Ruhu 1If you can call it in a conventional, crude term, my daughter could easily pass off as ‘unlucky’. She was conceived when her Dad had just resigned from a job, without having a job in hand. During my pregnancy term and after her birth I had massive health problems. My grandmother died just a month after she was conceived. So it was pretty natural that she was an ‘unwanted child’ – even by her mother!

And life being a game of see-saw, it was pretty obvious that her birth was totally different than her brother’s.  During her brother’s  time, my husband was at the peak of his career. So, life was different.  I had a grand pre-delivery ceremony – both from my in-law’s house as well as at my mother’s place. I got to gorge on whatever I wanted during my pregnancy period.  I got to travel wherever I wanted to, as per my mood swings. I got a single cabin to myself during delivery in a pretty good nursing home. His birth was heralded with the distribution of sweets from one of the best shops in the city. And for a week into his birth, there would be visitors galore. Each of them would bring lovely gifts and bless him in abandon.

It was a diagonally opposite picture when my daughter was born. My pregnancy was punctuated with hunger, anxiety, depression and uncertainty. I would hungrily stare at hot gulab jamuns and wish they were mine. I would drink lots of water, just to wish my hunger away.

Unpredictable as her life was, instead of her due date on Sunday, she chose to be born on a Saturday – the day my cousin sister would have her wedding reception! She began her journey to this world on a wrong note – upsetting the plan of my family to attend the reception! Unlike her brother’s birth, this time it was a small, nook of a nursing home with just two rooms. Just three people – my parents and my husband stood outside. The night was dark and cold. And I was worried about my hungry son back home. As I surrendered to the anesthesia I wondered if I would see my son again.

When I regained consciousness, I heard my mother saying, “It is a girl. She has such thick hair, you won’t believe”.  Somehow it didn’t stir me from within. It didn’t feel the way I felt the first time. But I knew my husband would be happy. He always wanted a baby girl.

There were no celebrations. No cheer. And my husband had to leave for his night duty. His was a one week old job and he couldn’t afford to miss a single day. He bought the necessary medicines and rushed back.

I couldn’t sleep that night. The pain from the stitches, the wild shout of fighting dogs outside, the immense November cold. I just shivered the entire night.

I saw her for the first time next morning.

“Here’s she. Feed her”, the nurse smiled.

A small entity wrapped in white sheet stared at me with her small eyes. She blinked at me. A white dot of baby powder adorned her forehead. She smelt of antiseptic. She smelt of baby powder. She smelt of blood – my blood.

She had none of my son’s features – she wasn’t as fair, her eyes were small and her nose was oh-so blunt.  Unlike my son she didn’t smile in abandon. The only thing she had was thick, black tufts of hair.

I pushed my finger into her folded palm. Unlike my son, she didn’t curl her fingers around mine. She pulled away hers.

The nurse smiled.

“One independent girl she will be. Strong willed”.

I shared my room with another woman. She had given birth to a baby boy – her first child.  The room would be filled with her relatives and friends. Twice a day, during the visiting hours, the room would be filled to the brim. So much so that some of them would even tactfully seat themselves on my bed.

And all this while, I would eagerly wait for ‘my visitors’. One day my in-laws came to visit; an uncle of mine who worked in a college nearby came to see me another day; a friend of my husband came for a short while….I would train my ears for familiar voices, look out for familiar smiles. But no one would come. My mother would manage to send home-cooked food. My husband would sneak in a visit. But there would be no one to talk about my baby.

On the fourth day I returned home. My son ran out to embrace me. His genuine happiness wiped away my hurt.

“We need to give sweets. Don’t we?”, my husband was worried. Being nine months out of job, our resources were limited.

He finally managed – small packets of six sweets each from a local shop. The metanil yellow of the sweets hurt my eyes. Unnecessary drops of tears rushed down my cheeks.

“ I am sorry”, my husband whispered.

“Ah, don’t worry. It is just a bout of my post-pregnancy blues!’, I tried to console him. Within ourselves, however, we knew the truth.

Night after night, I would look at her limited dresses and cry alone. My mother would be unfailing in support. Good food, baby dresses, baby oil – her supply of love would be unlimited. But I would be unforgiving in my thoughts about the ways of the world. I am ashamed that such thoughts crossed my mind. But I am glad it did. I got to re-evaluate life and people. I became mature.

But my optimistic soul wouldn’t give up. I waited patiently for little dots of happiness.

That Christmas my aunt, my Mejo pishi, presented a sweater to my daughter. She knit it herself. I cried that night. My husband brought home a crooked-nosed rubber teddy with his first salary. I cried that night. My son gave a beautiful, hand-painted card for her sister. I cried that night. My father built a special collapsible door for the church as a thanksgiving. I cried that night.

And amidst all these snippets of emotions, my daughter smiled and grew up.

As the nurse had predicted, she is perhaps the most strong-willed person I’ve seen –other than my grandmother. She is headstrong but tremendously independent. She is hardly emotional but would go an extra mile just to help someone.

But to me, she is my Sunshine Girl! My daughter- who has made me a stronger person and a bit more forgiving perhaps. And has tumbled oodles of sunshine.

As she turns yet another year tomorrow, I feel happy that God had chosen ME to be her mother! It is worth all the blood, sweat and tears.

 

 

 

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Scent of Love

flowers-200602_1920The lane outside the crematorium offers a strange view – life and death co-exist in antagonistic compromise. The tea stalls, the kachori shops, the flower kiosks continue their own business, occasionally interspersed by the arrival of dead bodies and mourning relatives. There is a brief hustle-bustle, but only very briefly – till the dead body goes inside the gate of the crematorium. And then everything is back in its own pace – tea vendors carefully measuring out tea in glasses, just-mourners fixing deal with the crematorium staff, also-mourners waiting to take leave from grieving relatives….

Shinjini smiled to herself as she observed this. Technically she shouldn’t have. Only a few hours ago she was pushed into the status of being an orphan. But perhaps she was too used to mourning now. Twelve years ago when she had lost her mother she felt she wouldn’t be able to survive any more. She didn’t have a proper meal for three months. Her father stayed away from his work at Phuldungri and spent days with her –trying to comfort her as much as he could. And then, slowly, life became normal. She herself offered to stay in a hostel because she knew it would be difficult for her father to hop between Kolkata and Phuldungri every now and then. So by the time she actually grew up she had learnt to live on her own.

“Guriya, what do you plan to do now?”. Shinjini turned to look. Her uncle waited for her answer expectantly. She looked around. Almost all the other mourners had left except her uncle and Abhi.

“What would I do ? What would I do now…..May be go with you Mamu….for the time being.”, she replied, almost incoherently.

“That is fine Guriya. My question is about the follow-up rituals. During Didi’s time your Dad refused to undergo the follow-up rituals……”

“And you all had to bear the brunt of the unkind remarks by our so-called relatives”, she completed his sentence a tad sarcastically.

“ Hmm….That is true but then I had no control over your Dad”

And what makes you think you have control over me? Shinjini wanted to ask this question in return but restrained herself. She did not want any dispute right then. “ Whatever you say Mamu”, she replied instead.

Her uncle looked visible happy. He suddenly seemed to relish his position of importance. “So then, I will have a talk with the priest and finalise. Then we will have to inform the relatives for the common ceremony”.

Common ceremony ! Which would mean hordes of relatives gorging in on sumptuous meal in exchange of a few words of sympathy! Shinjini shuddered and closed her eyes. Images of her father’s final days hovered in front of her eyes – battered with throat cancer, his final days of feeding meant liquid diet through tubes!

“Can we not leave out that part ?”, she suggested.

“But that is important Guriya. Without that, the rituals are incomplete”.

She felt a surge of bitterness travel through every bit of her body. She battled with herself for a second and then resigned to the situation. “ Okay then….I will follow….every single bit of the rituals, but on the fourteenth day I will go”.

“Where to ?”

“Phuldungri”

“You mean you will take up your father’s NGO work?”

“Development work!”, she interjected emphatically.

“ And do you think you can do all this alone ? Who will go with you ?”. He sounded vexed.

“ I will give a try atleast. And Abhi will go with me”, she replied, though she felt too tired of this question and answer session. She turned to look at Abhi. She knew he wouldn’t object. They had planned it during the long hours of wait at the hospital corridor. Though, she knew well that he wouldn’t have objected even if they hadn’t planned. She could trust him that much atleast!

*** *** ***

Thankfully, Sadhuram Tudu was there at the station, otherwise they would have never been able to squeeze themselves inside the Tata Magic which would pass through Phuldungri. The vehicle was already half-full by the time they had reached the spot.

“Hey look out! Make way, make way for Didi and Sir. They are coming all the way from Kolkata”, Sadhuram had alerted the co-travellers while hopping in; raising his voice to the highest pitch possible.

The poor villagers had been so deeply alarmed by his warning that most of them were ready to sit on each other, offering empty space to the guests from the city. Some had even offered to get down till Shinjini intervened and stopped them from doing so. But in no time, the vehicle was filled to the brim and bursting.

The road from Pahargunj station to Phuldungri was dusty, arduous and long. But Shinjini enjoyed it somehow. The red, dry road lined with trees of Saal, Mahua, Simul ushered in many memories of her childhood. The scent of dry leaves, dust and mountain flowers reminded her of the days with her father and mother. Autumn had just arrived and a cool breeze touched her forehead now and then – playing with her curls. She looked at Abhi. Sandwiched between a sleepy villager and a crying child, he looked every bit a picture of distressed soul.

“ Difficult, isn’t it ?”, she laughed.

Abhi looked embarrassed. He was always a soft person. “No, no, it is fine. Quite perfect”, he tried to sound cheerful.

“Aah….this is why I had told Sristidhar to book a car for you. That moron is useless!”, Sadhuram grumbled from the front seat.

“ It is okay Sadhu. Perfectly okay. Infact, I am quite enjoying the journey”, Shinjini tried to comfort him.

Sadhuram was about to give some more explanation when the vehicle suddenly gave a violent jolt – having made way to a huge pothole. The passengers were all tossed high up and flung down again.

“Ouchhhh”, Shinjini cried out in pain.

“ Welcome to rural India Ma’am”, Abhi smiled and winked at her. She felt like killing him!

*** *** *** ***

They sat in a circle – Sadhuram Tudu, Sristidhar Soren, Malati Soren, Bahamoni Kora….’Compatriots’ – that is how her father used to address them as. Today, standing in front of them, Shinjini fought with an overpowering sense of grief, threatening to rupture the guard that had so long prevented her tears from spilling out.

She cleared her throat and then began to speak. “I…I am new to this field. The last time I had visited Phuldungri was when I was of eleven years…..lots of memories are attached to this place….of my father. Though mom and I were his official family, his real family were the people of Phuldungri. I want to take up from where he had left. It won’t be easy I know but with support from you all I ….we will. “

“ We are with you Guriya didi. We will not let Babasaheb’s dream go waste.”, Malati spoke in a soft voice. Her eyes were red already.

Shinjini changed her topic. She did not want the atmosphere to be heavy or sad. Her brief travel through the area in the afternoon had given her a basic idea about what was needed to be done. She shared her thoughts with the team.

“We need to have a village meet first. That gives an opportunity to share the ideas with the villagers and get their opinion on the issues”, Sristidhar suggested. Shinjini smiled. Within herself she appreciated the democratic way by which her father had brought up his comrades. She also felt the need to clarify Abhi’s role in her life and in the organization. She could already sense the brimming curiosity among the local people about him.

“ Well, this is all for today. But before we disperse I would like to introduce you to Abhi – Abhinav….He is my childhood friend. He is here to support our work. We thank him on behalf of the organization for volunteering to work with us”, she tried to keep her tone as formal as possible. She did not know of any other way to introduce him. Abhi stood up and folded his hands in a namaskar. The others greeted him in return.

*** *** *** ***

The crowd that had gathered to listen, enthused Shinjini to no end. The entire stretch of the Banyan shade was teeming with people. What encouraged her more was the overwhelming number of women who had gathered at the meet. Some had come in groups, some with their wailing toddlers but they looked eager nevertheless.

“Guriya didi, you may start now”, Malati whispered into her ears. The words sent a shiver down her spine. She glanced once at the overcrowded venue. Till yesterday she was her Dad’s Guriya and now she had to step into his shoes. She clasped her diary and began to speak.

“ I…I am Guriya….”, she fumbled. Bad Start! She thought of her father for a second and then began to speak again. “ You have known my father and his work. He lived for you all. And now that he is no longer with you all, I am here to be beside you all. It won’t be a giant leap perhaps….a small step at a time but there will be positive changes happening in and around Phuldungri. To my mind, the first thing that needs to be addressed is the issue of livelihood. Since agriculture is the prime source of livelihood, little changes in the way and method of agriculture can bring in dramatic changes”. She knew by now that floor was all hers. Eloquently she spoke in detail about modern farming techniques – how the usage proper fertilizers, pesticides and high quality, hybrid seeds can bring in vast differences in farm produce. She was about explain the virtues of modern agricultural tools when a booming voice interrupted from amidst the crowd.

“Excuse me Ma’am. You do speak well. And you mean well too. But don’t you think these ideas actually are a dent on the tribal life – their indigenous way of living ? “

Shinjini looked at the faces in the crowd and then identified the speaker. A tall, dark, young man clad in half shirt and jeans looked at her amusingly. Anger – that was the only thing that wanted to overpower her senses. She glanced once at Abhi. He shook his head slowly. She understood what he meant. She knew it too – she had to keep her cool.

“ So, you mean to say that the only way these people can progress is by clinging on to traditional system?”, she asked sarcastically.

“ Yes, perhaps…..that is one way our people can progress”, he replied seriously, stressing on the word ‘our’.

“ Then they should have reached the zenith of progress by now!”, she counter- argued.

“ Yes, we could have…..only if we hadn’t succumbed to the pressure of modernization. Rampant usage of chemical fertilizers in the recent years is only damaging the soil fertility. The ideas you are suggesting ma’am are already being practiced by our people, at the cost of their future. And this is one thing that your father was against”.

The mention of her father jolted Shinjini a bit. Was her father really against these modern systems? Then why hadn’t Sristidhar, Sadhu or Malati spoken about it ? She looked at Abhi helplessly. By now he had come and stood next to her. “Are you through? Have you finished your speech Mr…..whoever”, Abhi hissed unnaturally. He too appeared perplexed by now.

“Rajat Mahato. You can call me Rajat”. The young man came forward nonchalantly. He hardly looked perturbed.

Ofcourse, his purpose was served. The entire crowd by now was divided into two groups- one who were curiously witnessing the verbal face-off and the others who had thronged near the area where Khichdi was being cooked for the participants. Most among the second group had even sat down with their Saal leaf plates, waiting for their share of steaming hot khichdi.

“Your intention is very good Ma’am…..and your purpose is also clear but your approach should be different”, Rajat Mahato continued to speak.

“ We’ve had enough of your discourse Mr.Mahato. We are not interested in your approach theory. Some other day may be”, Abhi dismissed him.

This too did not agitate him. He returned a smile instead. And Shinjini noticed that every time he smiled he left traces of dimples on his cheeks. It looked unusual for a man to be blessed with dimples but somehow he looked curiously cute with those.

Having been cut short he walked to his motorbike parked under the guava tree.

“ There is a special fair after four days. Attend it. You will surely like it!”, he spoke even while starting his motorbike.

“Ugh! How much he speaks!”, Shinjini couldn’t help remarking.

“Leave him! At every place you would find such rots!”, Abhi concluded.

Shinjini felt disappointed at this unusual turn of events but the villagers seemed hardly bothered. They were happy to attend the feast and having discovered a successor to their Babasaheb they were all the more happy.

*** **** *** ***

All the villages in and around Phuldungri appeared to have assembled at the fair venue. Giggling young girls tried out glass bangles – red, green and golden; married women toyed with the usual red and white combination. A few of them who had managed to save some extra money bargained for some gold coloured earrings as well. The children fought on about each and every issue – from sharing coloured sweets to deciding on which clay doll looked less distorted. The men concentrated on the local brew of rice liquor. Strangely, most of the liquor sellers were women. They would causally find a corner and sit with their alluminium pots and in no time men would dot around them, waiting for their glass of the liquor.

Shinjini walked around the fair ground with Abhi, Malati and Sristidhar. By now she was a known face in the area. The last four days had been hectic – organizing small, village-level meets; arranging for door-to-door interactions. Though her focus was still on livelihood, she somehow steered clear of the issue of modernization. It wasn’t that Rajat had influenced her much but he was true on one account – that her father too had been an advocate of indigenous life practices. His writings, his diary – which she had chanced to lay her hands upon, had convinced her of this atleast. Abhi wasn’t much convinced though.

In the meanwhile she had information in bits and pieces about Rajat too. Contrary to what Abhi and she believed, he was not a political leader or even an associate. On the contrary, he was a city-bred, well-educated young man till his father- an ASP of the region was killed by a terrorist bomb very close to Phuldungri. Rajat, rather than being adverse to the people of the region, took it upon himself to counter the conflicts in the area with positivity. These were local versions of his story. “ Rural people normally love to idolize city-bred people and brand them as messiahs”, Abhi had laughed heartily. “ Does that hold true for us too ?”, Shinjini had unnaturally reacted to this argument. It had resulted in a’ no-speak for half-a-day’ among both of them.

A group of youngsters, dressed in football jerseys in various hues trooped past. “Rajat dada has been organizing football matches for young people during every mela. He says this way the young people won’t throng around the liquor stalls.”, Malati whispered. Before she could say further, Rajat Mahato walked past, wearing a jersey himself – with a whistle secured with a chord, hanging about his neck. He paused to smile at Shinjini and her team. Ah, his killer dimples! There was a slight, very slight murmur in her heart. Hell, why!

“ I thought you do support indigenous practices Mr.Mahato….and local liquor is a part of the tribal life-style, isn’t it ?”, she couldn’t resist taking a dig at him

“ It is…Ms.Roy, only thing, with liquor you never know when you are actually crossing your limit. After a glass more, the thin line between culture and habit sadly gets lost. And with young people, it doesn’t take long for the habit to become an addiction. What do you say Ms.Roy? ”, he volleyed the question back to her and smiled. Ah, why does he need to smile unnecessarily? Shinjini turned away her face briefly. Rajat didn’t wait for her answer; instead he ran fast to catch up with his group of players.

Shinjini shifted her focus to a bangle-seller.

‘Ah, red bangles!”, she exclaimed like a child. Abhi laughed at her childishness though Shinjini did not miss the faint hint of tension in his face that he was carrying since afternoon.

*** *** *** ***

Why wouldn’t the heaviness go away? She didn’t expect Abhi to stay on forever, did she ? Abhi was never her boy-friend; he was her best friend. Infact, though he was the only person in the world she would ever rely on, she was never comfortable with the fact that she would ever settle down with him eventually. Though friends and relatives and even her father had hoped that the friendship would culminate into marriage, she had never entertained such thoughts herself. Then why on earth was she feeling so lonely all of a sudden? Wasn’t it enough that he had accompanied her to this God-forsaken place and spent some really hard months with her? Infact when he had announced that he might be leaving she was quite upbeat about it, though he himself seemed pretty upset.

“ I really, really, really don’t want to leave you like this Jini. Infact, I feel like a betrayer myself. But father is very sick and mother says that unless I go back, our business would be ruined. I really wish I can settle things there and come back here one day”.

She had laughed away his hesitation, though she did notice that he had used the word “back here one day” instead of “back here soon”. “Silly boy! Ofourse you need to rush back! That you have been with me for more than two months is a bonus in itself dude! And you know I am more than thankful to you for this.”, she had chuckled. In fact she hadn’t even felt bad standing on the platform, next to his window-seat. Rather, he did look terribly upset.

“I will miss you Jini. And this place too.”, he told her. And she knew his words were sincere. Then why was she suddenly feeling so abandoned after seeing him off at the railway station ? Sristidhar had hired a jeep this time because she wanted to return alone. But now she wished she had travelled back in a public vehicle; atleast the humdrum around would have diverted her mind forsometime. The earthy breeze, the setting sun, the crawling darkness were only adding to her misery. And she hated the radio that played on inside the jeep. She wanted to be alone.

“Stop the jeep Balaram!”

“But didi, Phuldungri is still far away and I have been hired to drop you till Phuldungri”, Balaram sounded puzzled.

“I insist Balaram….please….don’t make me talk.”

“But they will scold me”.

“I will call them up and explain”, she insisted.

Hesitantly Balaram brought his vehicle to halt.

*** *** ***

Shinjini had no idea how long she had been walking. Aimless, directionless, purposeless…she had just walked on and on till she realized she was too close for comfort to the vast tracts of forest area. The sun had begun to set and a shroud of orange-tinted darkness was descending all around. Thankfully the tail end of the main road was still visible. Shinjini turned back to walk up to the main road when she noticed them. A pair of eyes staring at her! Yes, those eyes were only looking at her. Wild elephant! She felt numb and breathless. Originally moving in herds, she knew by now that a lone elephant- abandoned or in search of her herd -would definitely mean danger. The mammoth looked at her with alarming coldness; blocking her reach to the main road. Her only option was to willingly walk towards the unknowns of the deep forest. Moments passed like centuries, as she thought of ways to escape the steely look of the elephant. All of a sudden, even before she realized, a motorbike zoomed past , scooping her along. In the next moment she found herself seated on the back-seat of a motorbike. She did not know who the rider was or where she was heading to; right then, she wasn’t even interested in knowing. She was too tired to think rationally!

“ Hold me tight! We will have to make a ride uphill. There is no other option. And keep your eyes tightly shut! Going uphill is no joke.”, the voice commanded.

Rajat Mahato! A lightning made a touch and go through Shinjini. What was he doing here? She had many questions to ask but there was something in his voice that made her want to depend on him- for the time being atleast. She held him tight. His khadi kurta made a brush against her nose. He smelt of red soil.

*** **** ***

When she finally opened her eyes she was shocked by what she saw. They were right at the top of a hill. Amidst the pitch black darkness, little dots of light illuminated the base of the hill – giving proof of a sleepy town below. Right in front of their eyes three Sadhus sat in front of burning fire singing songs in praise of God and intermittently raising their hands in unison. They sang in colloquial Hindi. Contrary to what one would normally expect, they hardly seemed shocked by the presence of two mortal souls. They casually glanced as Rajat precariously parked his motorbike, balancing it between rocky crevices.

“Joru ?”, the oldest among the three asked him.

He smiled and shook his head in affirmative. Shinjini had limited knowledge about colloquial Hindi but could somehow decipher the meaning of the word. Wife ? How could he ?

“How dare you call me your wife ?”, she demanded.

“Just shook my head. Didn’t give much thought to it.”, he replied casually. He then cleaned a space near a boulder and called her. She kept standing. Why would she listen to him ?

“Sit here”, he insisted.

“Why did you have to come here?”

“ We had a choice between an angry elephant, wild animals and three men on a hill-top. I thought the third would be safer. Atleast I can reason with them”, he laughed heartily.

Shinjini looked at him. The golden glow from the burning fire gave him kind of an aura – his dark skin glowed like molten bronze. In the past two and half months Shinjini had come across Rajat several times and in different avatars as well – talking about kitchen garden among women, teaching seed preservation technique to farmers, organsing health camps for children….. And every time she had come to the same conclusion – that he was talkative, overwhelmingly assertive and eccentric as well but there was something in his simplicity that made her heart miss a beat every time she saw him.

Either it was her thoughts or the nip in the air, she did feel kind of a shiver. Reluctantly she sat down on the cleaned spot.

“Wait, I’ll get something”. He walked towards the singing men and spoke in hushed tones till one of them vanished behind a cave like structure. The man resurfaced with a torn and tattered blanket and handed it to Rajat. He walked back like a winner – smiling and exhibiting the hardly-there blanket.
He carefully seated himself beside her and put one end of the blanket over himself, casually throwing the other end over her. Then with absolute casualness he caught one of her arms tightly and pulled her closer.

“Excuse me!”, Shinjini sprang up from her seat.

He looked slightly taken aback and then grinned. “Awh! Don’t mistake my intentions…..This is a hill-top with very small surface area. Unless we secure ourselves, there is a chance that we might slip off while sleeping! Forget the gender part ma’am, we are friends-in-distress here.”.

Friends? Shinjini gave up. How could she possibly argue with a person who was beyond logical reasoning? She chose to smile instead – atleast she could do that as a thank you gesture.

He stared at her for a brief while and then gave a return-smile in abundance.

“ Forgive me, but frankly, you do look kind of good when you smile”, he remarked.

Shinjini felt exasperated. Was this supposed to be a compliment?

*** *** ***
Shinjini could not believe her eyes. She had not realized when she had actually slept off but what she woke up to was beyond imagination. The entire hill was covered with shrubs and in those bloomed little white flowers with a heady, intoxicating fragrance. Touched by the nascent morning sun and veiled with a misty morning fog the hill looked speckled with snow-flakes. She stared in awe at the beauty that nature had to offer. She felt divine.

The three men were probably asleep behind one of the boulders. Only the ashes from the cinders remained a lone witness to last night’s soiree.

Tip-toeing from behind, Rajat came and stood next to her.

“Beautiful, aren’t they?”, she exclaimed.

“They are Ma’am!”

“Not Ma’am – Shinjini or Guriya…whatever. We are friends-in-distress, remember?”, she teased him.

He shook his head.

“ And thank you – for saving me and for staying awake the entire night while I dozed off”

He looked visibly embarrassed. “Do you know the name of these flowers?”, he tried to divert the topic.

“No. But they are so beautiful….and their smell…..beyond words”. Shinjini closed her eyes to let the fragrance overpower her senses.

“They are called Jhumni. They bloom only for two weeks and only from mid-night to early morning. When they bloom their perfume intoxicates even the wild animals. The locals call it ‘scent of love’.”

She opened her eyes and caught him staring at her. Their eyes met briefly. Then he walked down a few steps and grasped a handful of the white beauties.

“You know, during this time the local tribals have a festival of love to coincide with the blooming of these flowers. If a boy likes a girl he gives her a handful of these flowers”. Saying this he stood in front of her with a palm full of the flowers. It took a few seconds for her to realize what he intended.

“Only like ?”, she smiled.

“Only like…..The men are permitted only this much. It depends on the girl to accept it or not”.

“What if a girl likes the boy too?”

“She accepts the flower”.

“And what if she likes him a bit beyond…..I mean a little nearer love ?”

“Then she accepts the flower and encloses them within her palm”

“Like this?”, she said and took the flowers from his hands and clutched them tightly within her palms.

“Precisely Ma’am”

“Call me Guriya”.

“Can I re-christen ? How about Jhumni ?”

“That would be fine”.

“Then Jhumni it is!”. He clasped his hands over hers.

They looked at each other in silence. She let her eyes do the talking, he let his dimples do the rest. The scent of love had already enwrapped them in its magic spell.

(Originally published at: yourstoryclub.com)

Picture Courtesy: Pixabay

Ever After…

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Every girl dreams of a fairytale wedding. Being fed with Cinderella and Rapunzel from childhood, I was no exception. My prince charming  was a banjo strumming, chest-nut haired, boom-voiced gorgeous hunk. I was not too keen on the horse though. But, well, as they say…dreams are dreams afterall.

So, what I got in the bargain was a hardly-into-music, black-haired, seriously-South-Indian moustached life partner who loved reading newspaper and serious English novels. The only saving grace was his looks and voice…that somehow came close to my standard of ‘prince charming’.

But I was sure, pretty damn sure that I wouldn’t ever have a fairytale wedding! A Bengali, Christian girl marrying a Tamil Hindu Brahmin boy was the worse combination that could ever happen! And so, the doubt about having a flawless wedding was always there. But, as I have harped time and again, ‘disaster’ was and is my nickname. So, my duel with disaster began much before the wedding day. It began with my to-be-husband appearing at our door step four days before the wedding with a slight itch in his eyes.

“No, no..I don’t want to enter. Just came to tell you about the arrangements. My eyes are itching and I am not sure if it is conjunctivitis”.

In normal circumstances I would have been too glad to have a conjunctivitis-infected person on the other side of the door, but drunk in love that I was, I insisted that he came in.

The result was disastrous. It began with me and caught on with the entire wedding team – my mother, brother, grandfather, grandmother, cousins, aunts…to the extent of my pet dog Mij!

And when we ultimately reached the venue on the wedding day we discovered that the groom’s side out-numbered us in terms of Rajnikants, Lalita Pawars and Pirates of the Caribbean. Majority of the wedding invitees had either donned dark glasses or were blinking in their single-eyed vision!

Out of so many years, why Calcutta chose to have a conjunctivitis epidemic that year is beyond my comprehension!

Ours was a sandwich wedding – a thoroughly south Indian wedding in the morning and a Christian wedding blessing cum registration in the evening!

When I arrived at the venue, I was greeted with a glass of hot milk. My hot drinks normally precede my visits to the loo! And here I was, handed a tumbler full of bubbling, hot milk. I stared at the milk for seconds and then looked at the keen eyes of my would be mother-in-law. I gulped the entire liquid in a go. From then on I had a hard time convincing my stomach that it was a out-of-routine procedure – nothing to be bothered about. Every two minutes my stomach would growl – shall we?

To top my agony the fire-wood used for the ceremony was not dry enough. Thick smoke billowed from the hawan making most of the relatives sit outside the hall. Most of the guests having red, infected eyes it was extremely difficult to battle coughing spree as well. Water streamed down my eyes with gusto.

In the second set of the ceremony I was required to wear a 9 yard saree that is normally longer than the usual saree and worn almost in the form of a dhoti. My sisters-in-law helped me put on the saree and gave instructions on how to handle it as well. But being just a student I hardly had the experience of wearing a saree ! So with the saree swirling above my knees I resembled a farmer having tucked his dhoti high up during sowing!

Having somehow managed the first half, I rushed back home to have a change of dress for the evening look. A parlour was booked for fixing my hair. Midway through the curls, the power went off and the curlers wouldn’t work without electricity.

The owner was perplexed. “This is an emergency area, power never goes off”.

“Tadaaaa…It did today, because I am here”, I had a good mind to exclaim.

And this was not all. This was just the beginning.

The marriage officer arrived one and half hours late because of all days, Calcutta had one of the worst traffic snarls that day!

Hold on, there is more to it! Mid way through the reception my mother-in-law’s broken foot and damaged back began to ache so badly that the poor lady had to almost howl for many moments before she was carried back home with the assistance of my sisters-in-law!

Having battled all the infections and circus, most of the cousins were too petrified to stay on. So by the time my husband and I reached our house there were only three people to welcome us other than my parents and grand-parents.

My imaginative soul wouldn’t give up!

‘May be tomorrow – at my in-laws place…The movies show so many gorgeous games that the couple play with the sisters and brothers. May be such surprises are waiting for me?”, I convinced my sinking confidence.

The next day when I arrive at the door step of my in-laws there are four people waiting to welcome us! My in-laws and one elderly aunt and uncle of my husband.

“All the young ones have gone for an outing. Tomorrow is their train and they wouldn’t have time for shopping after this”, my mother-in-law explained.

My dreams of having a bollywood wedding crashed to umpteen pieces. I spent the rest of the day unpacking my goods and folding the clothes of my sisters-in-law and their families that were strewn around!

When night came and I was left alone, I stood in the balcony and saw the stars. I missed my Ma, the smell of her hands as she force fed me, my brother, my Dad, my grandparents and the warm touch of my doggy. I felt caged all of a sudden.

Discovering no one around I held my husabnd’s hands and sobbed inconsolably.

‘I want to go home. Take me to Daddy…please.”, I cried.

“You are still a baby”, my husband laughed.

***      ****       ****     ***    ****

Disasters have never left me alone – not even after marriage. But my quest for a perfect wedding day has ended in a beautiful story of togetherness. Now that there is so much of hullaboo and tweets and trolls about religious intolerance, we read the newspaper together and laugh out loud when people make insensitive remarks about religion and cultural differences. For so many years that we are together, we have happily blended our individual identities as one. There has been adjustments – from our parents, neighbours, children and it was never easy initially. But  we are convinced that what stands the test of time is human bonding! Our children are one lucky bunch – having the privilege of getting new dresses for Diwali and Christmas, getting the opportunity to savour sweets and cakes equally….

And after all these years I’ve come to believe that it isn’t about how grand a wedding it is, it is about a beautiful togetherness thereafter. Like they say in the fairytales:….And they lived happily ever after!

Mehul & I

FRIENDS1
Mehul and I were best friends since nursery. I knew her from the first day of my school life when the tap of my nose and eyes were flowing with equal fervor, punctuated with loud cries of mourning. My teacher held on to my arm and led me to sit beside a small, quiet-looking girl. While the rest of the class resembled a battle-field-in-mourning with a symphony of cries in different scales and tempo – she was the odd one out. She was quiet but there was a welcoming grin taped to her lips. But what immensely attracted me to her was her earrings – that had a tiny golden ball dangling from each. I was amused. I took possession of her ear-lobes and began playing with the tiny ball of her ear-rings. She grimaced a little, having her earlobes being in control of a total stranger, but did not let go of her smile nevertheless. And from that moment onwards we became inseparable.

It was in our second standard that we realized that we were not just best friends in school but we also lived two lanes apart. That only helped us bond with each other better. We made total use of our vacations in the small attic room of our house, pouring over film-magazines that were ‘strictly forbidden for young people’ and drooling over the likes of Govinda and Rishi Kapoor. The fact that they were aging heroes and were gradually resembling oil-barrels over time didn’t disturb us one bit till one Akshay Kumar caught our attention.

We were also crazy fans of Pete Sampras and though “Love All” was the only sane tennis related word to us, his cute boyish grin just made our hearts skip a beat.

The attic-room was also our store-house of stolen items – grandma’s green mango-pickle, Mehul’s Aunt’s home-made Chawanprash and variety of biscuits and chocolates….When we were in eleventh class a stolen cigarette too made its way to our treasure-trove. We spent seventeen minutes trying to light it up with a matchstick and when it did light up it let out such a horrible fume that we spent the rest of our time trying to ‘ shoo away ’ the smell.

I adored and loved Mehul, more than any of my cousins or sisters but there was one thing that always bothered me – her beauty ! Mehul was not fair – more on the wheatish side but she had a strange kind of beauty that made people turn around and take a second look. She was perhaps one of the most beautiful girls in our peer group though she hardly ever bothered to take special care of herself. And though I was proud to have her as my friend I was secretly jealous of her. I hate to admit it but it is the truth that her looks were an annoying twitch that my heart faced every now and then. And that was one reason why I took special care of myself –taking time to match myself to the level of her beauty. But irrespective of the buried feeling in my heart I loved her too much to let go of her.

But it was not to be. We had just completed our twelfth class board exams when she brought in the news that her father was getting a transfer to Raniganj. It was the saddest day of my seventeen year old life.

There were still two weeks remaining for the transfer and we spent almost all of those fourteen days crying in each other’s arms. We promised eternal friendship to each other, vowed to write a letter every alternate day and call each other every alternate week. Though secretly we were not quite sure about the telephone call part because in those days when Pagers were the only modern gadgets and mobile phones were a luxury item even for the industrialists, phone calls were definitely expensive and way beyond the reach of teenagers like us.

The final moment came and we sobbed like children, not willing to let go of each other. Just before the Taxi zoomed away I pushed in a few jasmine flowers from our garden into her palm. “Keep these safely Mehul. Our friendship is like the fragrance of these flowers – eternal! Whenever you see these you would remember me.”, I told her. Two crystals of warm tears streamed down her cheeks…..

2

It always happens this way – the promises that we make as young people seldom stand the test of time – they melt away into the maze of our responsibilities and responses to life’s needs…And obviously the promise that Mehul and I made to each other couldn’t withstand the pressures of ‘growing up’. Letters became irregular and phone calls became rarer till it boiled down to sending only greeting cards on special occasions. That too stopped altogether when I went abroad to complete my education. Mehul became a part of my childhood-parcel of dolls, clips and memorabilia…..And she would have perhaps remained tucked away in an unknown corner of my heart had I not met one of my ex-classmates during my first shopping-spree after having landed back to my homeland after fifteen long years.

“ Nandita, aren’t you ?”. A pat and a strange squeaky voice had startled me from my bargaining marathon.
I took some time to place a name to the powdered face and kohl-rimmed eyes.

“ Vandana ? You are Vanadana, right ?”, I asked her, secretly hoping that my memory wasn’t failing me.

“Ofcourse yaar ! Where were you all these days ? And what are you doing now ? Married or not ?”…..her barrage of questions just wouldn’t stop.

“ Too many of them aren’t they ? So it is better we sit at a place and do this question-answer session”, I winked at her.

“ Yeah why not…”, She laughed out loud.

We headed to the nearest coffee shop and spoke for over an hour – starting from our school days to our career, family life – we covered almost every topic.

And just as I was paying the bill she mentioned about Mehul.
“ Hey, do you remember Mehul ? That best friend of yours?”

My heart skipped a beat. Did I hear Mehul ? But before I could ask she spoke again.
“ I met her about a month ago…At first I couldn’t even recognize her….Infact I wouldn’t have know it was Mehul had she not come forward to introduce herself….She can’t be recognized at all…To be honest, she actually looks horrific…..”.
Vandana must have read the puzzled look on my face; she toned down her voice and said, “ Vitiligo…she is suffering from Vitiligo. Shouldn’t be rude yaar but frankly with all those patchy look she did look kind of scary…”.

Something went amiss within me…I couldn’t believe my ears…Mehul ? The most beautiful looking girl of our group ? Could this really happen to her? Dazed, I somehow managed to note down Mehul’s phone number from Vandana before I bid her good bye.

I knew I had to call up Mehul….That broken cord of friendship had to be retied…..

3

The bus stopped at Chandanpara. “ Not very far away from Kolkata, yaar….just an hour’s journey”, Mehul had told me over the telephone, after her excitement had finally managed to ebb down a little. “ And when you get down at Chandanpara just take the road opposite to the bus-stand….walk straight, straight, straight…right through the gate ….into my arms”, she had giggled aloud like a child.

Chandanpara looked exactly the way she had described me – lush green trees, lazy cyclists and women washing utensils near every pond.

I re-adjusted my saree and patted my face with my handkerchief to lightly dust away the tiredness. Don’t know why but I had taken an extra hour to prepare myself today – compact, a light coat of blush-on, eye-liner….I didn’t forget to even add a dash of mascara to add volume to my eye-lashes. I felt guilty, angry and annoyed at myself for this cruelty but couldn’t resist myself nevertheless. Was I taking a sweet revenge ? For what ? Why ? Just because she was once more beautiful than I? I had no answers. But the selfish giant in me harped on the fact constantly that somehow I had to look good.

4

For a few seconds I blinked my eyes….I just couldn’t believe that the strangely uneven complexioned being, standing on the other side of the gate was actually Mehul. And as Vandana had said, she did look kind of scary. She screamed her lungs out for near about twenty seconds before embracing me tight.

“Oh Nandu, Nandu, Nandu I can’t believe it’s you ! Can God be so kind ? Oh Lord….I am the happiest today”, she shrieked in delight. Warm in her embrace, somehow I couldn’t reciprocate her delight with equal mirth. I somehow didn’t dare look into her eyes.

“Come in yaar…please, please come in”. She held my hand and led me into the hall of her pink colored house. There, inside the hall, more surprises seemed to wait for me. Six children ranging from about five to fourteen years sat on a sofa watching a cartoon programme on the television. Taking a break from their recreation they giggled as they watched Mehul behave like a kid herself.

“Yours ?”, I asked, staring at them in disbelief. “Yeah, mine”, she answered. I could sense the pride in her voice. I would have asked some more questions but I was startled by the appearance of a middle-aged man. He seemed to emerged out of nowhere – just like a genie – a perforated ladle in his hand and a towel thrown causally about his left shoulder. He looked handsome and had a childish twinkle in his eyes.

“ Ma’am just shove your bag anywhere around and sit down with my army. The potato curry is ready and hot puris are on their way….Hot puris and aloo subzi – that is a dream combo anyday and my speciality too !” His tornado-like appearance knocked me off my wits and before I could gather myself and re-organise my thoughts he spoke again.

“I am sure Mehul didn’t bother to mention about me so I am taking the responsibility of introducing myself – I am the caretaker, cook, driver cum manager of this small family. Incidentally I am also the husband of your best friend. “. Saying this he instantly broke into a thunderous laughter. ‘Belly Laughter’ – my French husband would have remarked, had he been around.
5

A hearty meal and loads of laughter later we sat at the banks of the large pond – Mehul and I. She had spread a mat under the shade of the mango tree just near the edge of the pond. Finally we were both left alone. An uneasy silence enveloped us – we really didn’t know where to start from. A heady smell of raw mangoes tinted with the smell of water wafted all around. A mild breeze played with the surface of the water – creating mild ripples and shattered shadows.

To my relief she spoke first. “ I discovered the first patch of white on my nineteenth birthday”, she said, not bothering to add an introduction. She continued. “ That birthday Ma gave me a saree – for the first time – a red one. I didn’t get to wear it that day. I showed the patch to my father. He took me to the doctor…..Ayurveda, Homeopathy…nothing seemed to work for me. I was upset but that didn’t bother me much. But what killed me was the reaction of my close-ones – my friends, my relatives, my neighbours. From sympathy to horror to unfounded fear of the disease being contagious – I had seen almost every kind of expression and response in those two years.

By that time I had completed my degree in nursing. I couldn’t bear it anymore. I applied and purposely took a job at a small hospital specializing in Leprosy treatment far away from my family and friends. There among the branded ‘untouchables’ and ‘outcastes’ of the society I finally felt at home….not having to bother about my disease or my appearance’. She paused a little.

“ And where did you meet your husband ?”, I asked her, trying to tie up all the lose ends at one go. She smiled. “You haven’t changed Nandu….the same impatient one! Yeah, that is where I met him. Amit was a doctor there. One day after duty hours as I was getting ready to go to my quarters he came rushing in – just like he did today….He seemed to be in a hurry. He scratched his nose a little and then said , “Will you marry me Miss Mehul ? I am already late for my duty hours and if you can just give a fast answer I would be grateful’ “.

I couldn’t believe my ears. “ Don’t tell me he actually did THAT ? Was that a proposal or an instruction ? “ .

Mehul laughed out loud. “ That was supposed to be a proposal”.

“And you said yes ?”

“ No, I actually said no !”

I was puzzled. “ No ? But why ?”

She took some time to answer and then said, “ Because I had a feeling that he was just being sympathetic towards me….just like the rest of the world”.

“ And what was his response ?”

“Would you believe it ? He scratched his nose again and then added, ‘Hmm…but I thought you would make a perfect partner for me ! But anyway, would you mind being a volunteer with me atleast ? I am planning to start a short stay home for the children of some of the leprosy patients – the ones who have been shunned by their own families. If you can join as a volunteer there….’ I understood that he was hardly bothered about my looks.”

“And you did what ? Refuse him yet again ?”

“ I too scratched my nose and said , ‘In that case Dr.Amit I would rather be your wife and a volunteer too!’ ”, Mehul enacted the piece and laughed out loud. I too joined her.

“So these children are the children of leprosy patients?”, I asked .

“Yes, except the youngest of them – that is my own contribution. The kids stay with us till their parents get a complete cure and are rehabilitated. The hospital has a facility for the spouses of the patients on a temporary basis. Amit goes to the hospital thrice a week and the rest of the days he is the caretaker here.”

I took hold of her hands . “What a wonderful work you both are doing Mehul! What a beautiful effort!”

“ It is ! My work has helped me wipe off all the ill feelings and hatred that I had harboured towards the world. I feel tamed. I feel complete. I feel beautiful once again”, she spoke in a soft hush.

For many moments we didn’t speak anything. A cuckoo somewhere sang her song. A fish raised its tiny head from the water and dipped back again. We remained silent.

Then as if remembering something she got up and rushed inside her home. She came back with a tiny brown envelop. She handed it to me. “ Open it”. I opened it. Four jasmine flowers – brittle, brown and almost-non-existent, tumbled out from within.

“ The jasmines ? The ones I gave you ?”, I asked her , bewildered. I could not believe my eyes.
“ Yes baba, those very flowers – a remembrance of our friendship…you know Nandu, I make it a ritual to take them out and inhale the fragrance whenever I find an opportunity”.

“ They are brown and old , how can they have a fragrance Mehul ?”, I objected.

“ To the world they are brown, old, brittle but I can smell their fragrance everyday Nandu….because to me they are still fresh, beautiful – they are a part of my childhood. Their beauty is embedded in my heart. I look at them through the eyes of my soul“

While she spoke I simply stared at her. She looked so content, it reflected on her face. I felt ashamed of the compact, lip-stick, eye-liner that I was carrying with myself.

The sun was about to set. A hue of the salmon pink sky was touching her face – it was as if the sun was adding colors to blend the unevenness of her complexion. She looked stunning. It was that kind beauty which I had never seen before. I guess, for the first time I was looking at the world with the ‘eyes of my soul’.

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