Ringa Ringa Roses

Maithreyi Karnoor

2022

Introduction

Analysts of literature can’t avoid representing narratives in geometric shapes. A story told in linear time is a curvy or jagged line. One that comes back to a semblance of its original situation is a circle. Maithreyi Karnoor’s Ringa Ringa Roses has a sense of circularity. But we don’t return where we began, for the circularity here is achieved through a carousel of characters, all of them women. The narrative moves from one to the next, and we learn of their desires and discoveries in turn. Nobody returns to the emotional or circumstantial states they have passed. We start with the woman whose husband leaves her for another, and we end with the woman who ‘stole’ the husband—but between start and end, there is a wide embrace of sorts, a generous eye that pays attention wherever it falls.

— Tanuj Solanki
The Bombay Literary Magazine

Ringa Ringa Roses

Vighna harta sign the Magna Carta
Separate the church from the state
Of our minds – give us this day our daily roti
With peanut chutney and baingan bharta

 

‘Maria, go, Maria!’ Aruna called out to her neighbour from across the short laterite wall that marked the boundary between their houses. She hadn’t learnt the language despite spending more than a dozen years in this village that was a short drive away from Gooday Nagar, but she knew how to pepper her English with stray words and the occasional address of familiarity or respect to make it sound like she wasn’t an outsider.

‘Maria! Are you there, m’go?’

After being away for two months, Aruna had returned to the village a fortnight ago. But she had spent nearly all her time indoors, sitting in silence. The house alternately comforted and haunted her.

This is the house she had lived in with her artist husband since the early days of their marriage. She was an artist herself. They had met at design school as twenty-somethings with big dreams – hers articulated aloud and his held silently like a colourful nebula in his brown eyes. She spoke happily and he was the quiet brooder. He had been a gifted child but found praise unnerving despite having had it all his life; she worked hard and aimed to please. They had made an unlikely pair. It all started with that nickname he had given her. She was the resident animal-lover on campus and fed and cared for the stray dogs there. When she wasn’t in class or the studio, she would be seen walking around with a varying number of dogs following her with wagging tails. ‘Dogma!’ someone had shouted at her, and she had caught the hapless guy by his collar and shook him so hard, he apologized profusely. She had let him go only after he had disclosed the name of the person who had coined the term. Sameer? Soft-spoken, contemplative Sameer who painted like a god? He had smiled shyly from under thick eyebrows when she confronted him and did not deny the charge. Romance had blossomed between them like in a typical Hindi film.

They were inseparable: they sat together in class, ate their erratic meals together, and drew and painted the rest of the time. They lived in a state where sisters and daughters were safe on the streets at night – only not if they were found with a lover. But the duo threw caution to the wind and roamed the streets hand-in-hand; she talking away nineteen to the dozen and he listening keenly until exhaustion caught up with them and they returned to catch a few winks of sleep in their respective hostel rooms before beginning another day of the exact same routine. Five years of this and their love was a legend at the university. Their graduation party doubled up as their wedding and the whole university had joined in the revelry.

After spending the first 5 years of their marriage doing well in corporate careers, it was her idea that they move to a village on the outskirts of Gooday Nagar and live in an old bungalow like a power couple of the art world. There would be pastoral quaintness in the shades of green surrounding them and urban comforts an arm’s reach away.

He painted and drank endless cups of tea that she made for him. He did art for art’s sake and exhibited in galleries all over the world while she worked for money. She did book cover designs, took landscape commissions from big hotels and portraits from the rich and the beautiful. She brought in cash, he the accolades. There was bread and brain, heart and hearth, pleasantness and plenty.

‘What would you say to youngsters wanting to pursue art?’ an interviewer from a national newspaper had once asked Sameer, to which he had replied ‘I would ask them to leave me alone.’

There was laughter and cleverness in their lives. They lived happily ever after. But unlike what is implied in fairytales ever after is a finite time. Princes grow bald, glass shoes break, castles grow mold, plumbing needs maintenance, and kings are no longer born to other kings.

For Aruna and Sameer ever after ended with the arrival of 22-year-old Rituparna. She had just finished studying in the old art school, and her teacher who had been their classmate had spoken endlessly about Sameer’s genius to her. She came with her portfolio – large sketchbooks covered in watercolours, tubes of oils on canvasses, acrylics, pencil sketches, a hard disk full of graphic designs — and wondered with great earnestness if she might intern with him.

‘Please, sir, I really, really want to learn from you. Please ma’am, would you convince sir?’

Sameer wasn’t sure, but Aruna had thought it a good idea. They had decided not to have children and this was a way of giving back to the world. Since public transport to Gooday Nagar was unreliable and getting anywhere was impossible during the monsoons, Aruna had invited Rituparna to stay with them. It was a big house and they had a spare room she could have. Rituparna had accepted with such an overt show of gratitude that Sameer had been too awkward to talk with her for days afterwards.

Rituparna had been an ideal student. She hung on to Sameer’s every word and spent long hours with him in the studio. She was also a good guest – she not only helped with the chores but took on some of the household responsibilities upon herself and was always thanking Aruna for allowing her to stay. ‘This is not an internship, this is the continuation of the guru-shishya tradition,’ she would say and jokingly call Aruna her ‘guru-ma.’ After this, there was no way Aruna could have been threatened by the proximity of her husband to this sultry, curly-haired woman nearly 15 years their junior. Moreover, Aruna was herself every bit the shade of monsoon clouds with a cascade of ringlets like the falling of nights that held the promise of laughter in them. She had turned many a head in her time and though slightly heavier under the chin now and with some grey peeking out at the temples, she was aware of her charm. That’s why she noticed nothing when a month later, stylishly unkempt Sameer began paying special attention to his grooming. And that’s why she noticed nothing when guru and disciple began going on long walks into the hills to discuss art history. She was just happy to have the house to herself and enjoy the peace of solitude. She noticed nothing when something furtive crept into Sameer’s behaviour and Rituparna began avoiding eye contact. That’s why it took her a couple of hours before realizing something was amiss when one day she came home from shopping for supplies to find them both missing and his car gone. There was an email from him.

‘I’m sorry we left like this. This was the only way we could do it without unnecessary drama. You know I hate scenes and cannot handle confrontations. I’m in love with Ritu. It’s not about you. I still have great respect for you. Hope you can forgive me.’

She sat in stunned silence for a long time. Then, she walked over like a zombie to the table on which was a small wooden idol of Ganesh. It had been left behind by the previous occupants of their house, and as ardent atheists, they had no use for it. When they had first moved in, she wanted to throw it away, but he had stopped her and made up a funny verse about the vighna harta, the remover of obstacles.

‘Where would art be without idolatry?’ he had said in his usual quiet way, and she had kept it.

But now, she picked it up and tossed it out of the window. She went on as if nothing had happened. Her income and savings were sufficient. She saw that he had not touched their joint account. She lacked for no material comfort. It was only after weeks of living alone that one day her neighbour Maria casually asked her if Sameer was travelling.

‘No. He left me,’ Aruna said simply.

‘Wha— with that girl? What a little whore! Aruna why you allowed her in your house, man?’ Maria’s passionate outburst was in deep contrast with Aruna’s lack of outward emotions.

‘It’s ok, go. You cannot force someone to love you.’

‘You should have had a child. Then he would think twice before doing like this. Men are bastards only but as a father they think little more.’ Maria herself had four children with her sailor husband who was away on ship six months every year. Maria stitched dresses for the village women to keep herself busy although she didn’t lack for money — her husband’s pay was ample owing to the risks his job involved. Her children were born a year apart, each conceived on her husband’s annual visit. ‘She’s a tailor on chore leave,’ Sameer had remarked one day when they heard rhythmic creaking and heavy grunting from their neighbours house – regular music whenever he was home.

Aruna had refused to change anything in her life simply because her husband had run away with a young woman. But two years after they left, there was a phone call from an unknown number. It rang twice and was cut on its own. It rang again after a minute.

‘Hello?’

There was a moment’s hesitation on the other end.

‘Er… ma’am, this is Rituparna.’

Aruna felt like she had been punched in the solar plexus .

‘What do you want?’ she asked through gritted teeth after she had recovered her breath. The coldness in her voice could freeze blood.

‘Ma’am… please don’t hang up. I know you are very angry with me… you have every right to be. This is not about me, ma’am. It is…. er… Sameer. He has covid. It looks bad. In his feverish deliriums he keeps asking for you. Would you please come see him once? I beg you… he may not make it. Just once… please ma’am…’ Rituparna’s voice cracked.

Aruna sat in silence.

‘Hello? Ma’am? Are you there?’

‘Go to hell, both of you.’

She cried for the first time in two years. Her body convulsed with sobs. She sat on the floor until the tremors receded. Then she packed up and went to visit her mother. Her mother, more wise than wizened, knew that time must be allowed a free hand to heal. She never offered solutions or hope. Instead, she gave the comfort of routine. Cook, eat, clean, water the plants, go for walks, read, sleep. There had never been a TV in her house and there never would be.

‘Don’t you want to find out if he made it?’ she had asked once, however.

‘Dead men don’t die,’ Aruna had said and that was that.

She had returned a fortnight ago to a silent house. She barely stepped out of it. But that day, she was looking out the window at a pair of racket-tailed drongos frolicking in her bougainvillea when she spotted Maria’s pigs eating the parboiled rice laid out to dry by the little chapel. She tried chasing them away herself but the large sow was rather aggressive and taking her for a threat to her brood had grunted menacingly at her. So Aruna had gone to warn Maria instead.

‘Maria, go, Maria! Your pigs are eating your rice, man!’

Maria came running out ‘Ayyyyy when you came? Heeeeeeeeey!’ The last scream was aimed at her pigs but she continued her neighbourly prattle in the same breath ‘You went to mummy’s house-huh? Mummy is well, m’go?’

‘She’s fine… Maria, your rice!’

‘Heyyyyyyyy!’ Maria hurled a rock at the sow which fell off its back like water off a duck’s. ‘She is very sad or what? Hard at her age to see her daughter’s life destroyed like this.’

‘She is fine, Maria. And my life isn’t destroyed.’

‘It’s ok to cry m’go. I’m here for you.’

‘Thanks, Maria. But I’m fine, really. Look, your pigs have eaten almost half your rice.’

They drained the lakes and grew one crop of paddy on its bed every monsoon. And after the harvest, the lake was filled again and fish were spawned in it. Its maintenance and profits were by rotation for each family in the community . It was Maria’s family’s responsibility that year but with four children to raise and a husband at sea, she was too drained of energy and will to do much. The paddy had been soaked and steamed in its husk. Drying it was the last step in the process but Maria’s patience had only lasted that long and she wanted to stop and gossip rather than salvage her flora from her fauna.

‘It’s ok ya. The sorpotel will be more’ she giggled. ‘Both also, I will only eat no?’

Aruna couldn’t help laughing too. It was the first time in ages that she had expressed any joy or mirth – even if thinly.

‘So sad to see you like this, dear.’ Maria smiled kindly at Aruna before dropping her voice: ‘Listen… you want to give it to that bitch? I know a man near Sonarvaddo… he’s very secret… full secret, but most effective. Only thousand rupees, one chicken, one bottle—’ Maria’s enthusiastic attempt to convince Aruna to destroy her nemesis with sorcery was interrupted by the honking of a car. A shiny blue hatchback with chrome fittings drew up beside them. The registration plate was unpainted and a temporary number was stenciled on it with a black marker. The windows lowered and Rency stuck her head out, pushed her aviators back onto her head and flashed Maria a toothy smile.

‘Hey Maria! Come, look at Docky’s new car!’

Maria rushed to her and examined the nail-varnish-like shine of the brand new car.

‘Haaaaaaa! So nice, m’go!’ Maria’s expressed her admiration loudly, ‘Must be costly, no? Your Docky is a rich man, girl!’

‘Hop in. Let’s go for a drive.’

Maria didn’t need any convincing. She got in on the passenger side all the while complimenting Rency for her fine boyfriend with a fine car. She looked at Aruna who stood taking the whole sight in with no comment.

‘Aruna, you take care. I will talk to you later. I have perfect idea. Just look in on the kids huh? My older girl will look after younger ones, but they may fight… I’ll be back soon.’ They zoomed off leaving a cloud of dust behind.

Aruna bent down and picked up a rock and threw it half-heartedly at the pigs. The piglets scattered but their mother grunted and gathered them back up and they continued to convert rice into ham. Aruna walked back to her house.

#

Rency Varghese was a nurse at the big multi-specialty hospital in Gooday Nagar. She was also Docky’s girlfriend. ‘Docky’: the Head of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. She had met Maria in his office where she had gone to consult him for a contraceptive procedure. Maria wanted to stop having babies, but the doctor had advised her to discuss it with her husband first and come back with him the next time.

‘The process is simple enough but I don’t want any trouble on my hands later if the husband rejects your decision,’ he had said.

‘Nonsense!’ Rency who had stood by listening to the exchange cut in. ‘Why does she need her husband’s permission to decide what she wants to do with her own body? She had four children already! How many more would he want anyway?’

Maria had looked up at her gratefully from the examining table where she lay splayed as Rency’s boyfriend stretched her cervix with an instrument that looked like a duck’s head. They exchanged a smile that laid the foundation for their friendship.

‘He says children are god’s gift and we don’t have right to stop it’ she explained.

‘Rubbish! Give her a tubectomy, Docky. She can blame her infertility on covid. He goes on a ship anyway. He won’t be back for many months. Enough time for her to get fixed and healed and to ‘recover’ from covid. A laparoscopic procedure will be quick and the scars will barely show. Just dim the lights when he wants to get on top of you the next time.’ S he winked at Maria.

‘I always do that,’ Maria said and blushed.

Docky had given Rency a fond smile and agreed to tie Maria’s tubes.

It was evident that cheerful, gregarious Rency had the male gynaecologist wrapped firmly around her little finger.

‘Your boyfriend is looking at other ladies…er… privates. You don’t feel strange, m’go? Maria had asked her one day as they sat with a by-two cup of coffee in the hospital cafeteria. Their friendship had developed quickly and guilelessly. Both were the same age and although they came from very different backgrounds, they were both happy with their respective lot. Where there is no envy, goodwill sets in easily.

‘No! On the contrary, I am glad I can keep an eye on him when he pokes around the genitals of other women.’ Rency laughed so loudly that the people at other tables turned to stare at them.

‘Shhh… you have no shame only ya!’ Maria giggled covering her mouth.

‘But seriously… think of how bored he must be of what he sees all day. After that, he cannot help be faithful… it’s like a professional hazard.’ Rency continued laughing.

The code of conduct required a male doctor to have a female assistant present as he examined a female patient. Rency was young and beautiful and an efficient nurse. Many a times she reminded the doctor of medical nuances that he had forgotten as trivialities owing to the great demand his profession put on his memory. And she did it in a way that did not challenge his authority but looked like she was assisting him in his intellectual labour by holding up a trayful of shiny and sharp pieces of information for him to pick from – a very familiar transaction. Her general demeanour was jovial like a ray of black sunshine that he found irresistible and they had become lovers within weeks of working together. Affairs between doctors and nurses weren’t uncommon but rumour had it that Docky—as her nickname for him had caught up—was devoted to her and that he had cared for her lovingly when she had come down with a bout of covid.

‘This car is very smooth, ya. My husband keeps saying learn driving, learn driving, but I’m very afraid. He tried to teach me last time he came… I was so scared I confused break and accelerator. Almost had accident with scooty fellow. Afterwards he also stopped asking me to learn. Now car is sitting in garage. I wash it every week otherwise it will look like scrap metal when he comes home,’ Maria narrated her driving woes as Rency smoothly eased the car into top gear after hitting the highway.

‘The only way to get over your fear of driving is to learn to drive. You mustn’t let friends teach you – they will transfer all their mistakes to you. Join a driving school. They will train you on a simulator first. That will get you used to the controls and you will be more confident when you get on the road.’ Rency didn’t take her eyes of the road as she spoke.

‘Hmmm… I can try. But where I will go in car anyways? Dropping children to school, going to fish market, going to shop – everything I am doing on scooter. And church is here only… walking distance.’

Rency drove in silence for a while before turning into a side road that led to the river.

‘It was so muddy during the rains. It must be nice now… let’s go make rocks bounce in the backwater pool. How is your stomach? Scars reduced?’

‘It’s fine. Very light… my husband will not notice. Thank god no more babies,’ she giggled. ‘But what about you? When you will have babies m’go? When you will marry your Docky?’

Rency turned around to look at Maria.

‘Don’t be such an aunty now! I don’t like children.’

‘Arre now you will say like this… later when it is too late, you will regret see…’

Rency screeched the car to a halt. ‘Get out of my car!’

‘Oh my god, you are mad! I was only making observation…’

‘Well then observe in silence or I’ll observe a minute’s silence for you.’

‘Ok, ok… baba…. You scared me only.’

Rency flashed Maria a bright smile to show that she was only feigning anger. Maria laughed in relief.

‘See the bakulas are in full bloom. Such a lovely fragrance…’ Maria changed the subject.

‘Who’s that walking ahead of us… is that Imambaunty? Hi, Imambaunty!’

The lady walking on briskly with the loose end of her sari covering her head stopped and turned upon hearing her name. She peered into the car and smiled when she recognized Rency.

‘Where are you going in this heat Imambaunty? Can I give you a lift?’

‘Oh me? I was going to jump in the river and die.’

‘Die? Why?’

‘My daughter-in-law, our Latif’s wife is bad,’ Imambu stopped to catch her breath. ‘She is not good,’ she explained.

‘Oh come on, Imambaunty. You must not let these small things affect you. You are a mother. Mothers have big stomachs so they can swallow the mistakes of their children. Come, get in. I’ll take you home.’

Imambu wiped a tear from her eye and got onto the backseat without the need for coaxing. Once inside, she cheered up quickly enough.

‘Let’s stop for chai on the way back,’ she said.

Imambu—Imambaunty to most people—was in her fifties. She had been widowed in her twenties when one day her porter husband, having finished the palm toddy in his pot and with no money to buy more, had decided to climb the tree to tap some himself and fell to his death from a height of three feet. He had suffered a heart attack as he was scampering up the teak tree. Imambu had raised the two sons he had left her– with a combination of her cleaning others’ homes and the general tendency of children to grow up in spite of deprivation.

Asif had remained in the same town and become a porter like his father while Latif moved a hundred or so kilometres to the north and a little to the right (as all that was left of there was the sea). In Gooday Nagar, he had found work as a Ward Boy at the big multi-specialty hospital. Imambu had remained with Asif until a year ago when he died of covid after which she had moved in with Latif whose wife was unhappy about the extra mouth to feed. Rency had met her at the hospital when she brought her son his lunch in the afternoons and with her usual sociable nature had befriended her. And now, having abandoned her plans to end it all, Imambu was looking forward to a cup of sugary ginger tea.

A gentle drizzle came down, rendering a shade darker the greenery around them. The grey tar of the road before them turned black and everything suddenly felt more defined and fresh. The three women felt lighter and happier. They found a small teashop with a coconut-frond roof by the side of the road. They got down and despite the shop-owner’s insistence that they sit inside as there were no men in there, they chose to stand outside and enjoy the gentle rain. . Although Rency was a common friend, Maria and Imambu were mutual strangers and hence shy in each other’s presence. But a sip of the cutting-chai brought smiles to their faces.

‘Nice colour,’ Maria pointed to Imambu’s sari as she blew into her tea .

‘Haan… our Asif bought it for me two years ago. Your dress is also nice.’

‘I only stitched it.’

‘You stitch sari blouse also?’

‘No aunty. Only dresses I know.’

Imambu insisted that Rency not drive her all the way to her house in the shanty-town that had developed as migrant labourers thronged together on the little hill just outside the city. She didn’t want her daughter-in-law seeing her getting out of a car and hurl some snide remark at her.

‘Don’t worry about your daughter-in-law. If she is mean to you, tell her you will tell me. I will have Docky talk to your son,’ Rency assured Imambu.

‘Come home sometime when you are feeling bored. I am alone only. Children are also there. Rency knows where I live. Ask her…’ Maria called out to her as she waved goodbye.

#

Imambu didn’t feel like going home just yet. She walked over to one of the pakka houses on the hill set apart from the shanty-town and knocked on the door.

‘Savitrakka… it’s me Imambu!’

The door was opened by a smiling woman.

‘Ay… Imambu come, come…’

‘What were you doing?’

‘Oh me? What would I do? Simply sitting. As passive as a stone used to break a lump of sugar,’ Savirti laughed.

‘You are no sugar-breaking stone. You are a stone used to pound tamarind chutney –with extra spice,’ Imambu laughed.

‘Haha… I wish my husband would hear you say that. He’s at work now. Come, sit. You are right in time for tea,’ Savitri smiled as she ushered her in. Although older than Savitri by a few years, Imambu addressed Savitri as akka—elder sister—as a mark of respect owing to their unequal stations in life.

When Imambu had arrived in Gooday Nagar, she had run into Savitri Naik at the fish market and heard her speak her language on the phone. For Imambu who had never ventured out of her own state before, this reminded her of home and she had gone up to her and introduced herself in the regular way.

‘Which town, ri?’ she had said when she had caught the younger woman’s attention.

Savitri was happy to see someone address her in her language too. They had found out that they both came from neighbouring coastal towns of the southern state. Savitri had been a teacher of literature back home before marrying her bank manager husband who plucked her out of her small town and took her around the country with his transferrable job in states that had no use for her knowledge of the written word in her language. They had settled in Gooday Nagar a few years ago for their daughter Shweta’s education, and had decided to stay back for the bracing breeze and lower price of fuel even after Shweta graduated from college and left Gooday Nagar for a job in a big city.

After exchanging basic information, Savitri had invited Imambu home. Since then Imambu had been visiting her regularly for a cup of tea and nostalgic gossip about their home state – and how everything here was not as good it was there.

Savitri brought out two cups of tea and a plate of samosas.

‘Oh… there’s no need for this. I just had some in a teashop when I went out for a walk,’ Imambu modestly refused the tea as per tradition.

‘One more cup won’t kill you,’ Savitri pressed it on her as per the same tradition.

Imambu took a sip and nodded appreciatively ‘Very nice. Only your home has good cardamom tea in all of Gooday Nagar.’

‘Have another samosa. Shweta doesn’t want any. She is visiting for her wedding shopping. She wants to lose weight for it. I said why bother since it’s only a registration but you know girls these days want to look good all the time…’

‘Ah little Shweta is getting married? Where are you giving her?’

‘She is giving herself. She met her fiancé at work. Debashish Mitra.’

‘Mitra? What kind of name is that?’

‘They are Bengali.’

‘Bengali? I thought Bengalis are called Chatterjee.’

‘Not all of them, Imambu! Haha… anyway now she will have to cook river fish for him. I simply cannot stand it. Too many thorns and they smell of mud!’

‘I know. I cannot eat anything but bangdi…’

Just then Shweta came out dressed in a rather low-necked red evening gown and paraded it for the benefit of the older women.

‘Oh hi, Imambaunty. When did you come? How is my dress?’

‘It’s so nice,’ she said to Shweta and turned to Savitri, ‘You are book-read people. You can allow love marriage and such things. If we do it, we will be ostracized from our community.’

‘It was different in my generation. Children these days don’t listen to their parents. It’s better for parents to go along with their children’s wishes if they want to remain relevant. They will go ahead and do as they please anyway. Shweta, isn’t that neck a little too low?’

‘No it isn’t,’ Shweta said marching back inside.

‘She is wearing a dress at the wedding? No sari?’ Imambu asked.

‘There will only be a reception in the evening following a registration in the morning. We decided not to have a religious ceremony as the groom’s mother has boycotted the wedding.’

‘What? Why?’

‘God only knows. She’s mad. Shweta tells me she has been very rude to her since the time Debashish took her to meet her. At first she told Shweta that she was very modern and would not demand a dowry of her to which our Shweta replied that we, her parents, weren’t offering one anyway. Since then she has been acting like a cat with a burnt tail. She told Shweta that girls had lined up for her precious boy and that Shweta was lucky to have his attention—’

‘Our Shweta? She is so beautiful! So light skinned! Anyone would be lucky to have her for a daughter-in-law. Look at mine! She is my own brother’s daughter and see how she— ’

‘She even blames Shweta for Debashish’ father’s death last year of covid. She thinks it’s her jinxed aura that brought this misfortune upon their house. The man had been a heavy smoker. Covid was just an excuse he needed to die,’ Savitri didn’t want to let Imambu take over the conversation and make it a never-ending rant about her own daughter-in-law.

‘Our girl is too good for this fiend. You must forbid this marriage,’ Imambu’s said with hot indignation at a woman she had never met.

‘I cannot forbid her. She does exactly as she pleases. But I have told her that we are always there for her if that crazy woman tries to make trouble in her marriage – which she will. She’s already going around telling everyone within earshot that Shweta is after her son’s money. Haha… she earns much more than him. But I have great experience handling a difficult mother-in-law myself.’

‘Oh yes. Mine was a chudail. She beat me until welts stood on my back – and all for that drunk lout of a son of hers. In the end, I was the one who bathed and fed her in her old age. Mothers-in-law are monsters,’ Imambu chimed in forgetting that she had since rolled into the exact role she was deriding.

‘Apparently Debashish has a sister who ran off with a man much older than her couple of years ago. A married man too. She has been estranged from the family since then. Apparently her own mother won’t talk to her – but she doesn’t admit to it. She has been comparing Shweta with her and telling her she is no patch on her daughter when in fact she herself won’t talk to her. It’s all so complicated… I worry what kind of family my girl is getting mixed up with…’

Shweta walked out again holding two earrings – a pearl chandelier and an American diamond stud.

‘Which one?’ she asked her mother holding them up to her ears.

‘The stud. Listen, Shweta, I’m going to invite your grandmother. She is the most senior person in the family. You must have her blessings,’ Savitri grinned mischievously.

‘That old hag? She treated you so badly! She is on her deathbed now besides,’ Shweta said of her paternal grandmother who lived with her uncle back in the village.

‘Oh, I’ll have her brought one way or the other. I’ll put her in an ambulance and tell the driver maduvego masanako bekenda kadegodu…’ she laughed quoting the famous lines by her favourite poet.

‘What?’ For Shweta, the mother tongue had been no more than a medium for tongue lashing by her mother.

‘Life is a carriage/ Destiny, its driver/ Whether a wedding or a funeral/ You, the horse must go where he takes you/ If you slip, the earth will hold you,’ Savitri translated the verse into English for her daughter’s benefit. ‘Will load the old witch onto an ambulance and let the driver decide where he ferries her,’ she continued savouring the implication of her words. Shweta rolled her eyes.

‘Imambaunty, come for my wedding,’ she said knowing very well that she wouldn’t.

‘Of course! Would I miss our little girl’s special day?’ Imambu said knowing equally well that she wasn’t really wanted there.

‘Oh, but we are going to our town the day after tomorrow for the bangle ceremony. Just when you think she is too modern, Shweta springs this demand on us. She wants a dozen green glass bangles put on her wrist by Ilahi the bangle seller back home. Ever since I told her that he had adorned the wrists of women of three generations in our family, she wants it for herself. Before that, it was his father who sent off our brides to their matrimonial homes tinkling with auspiciousness. Ilahi is a decrepit old man now. His son does most of the work while he just sits in his shop looking out of the window, smiling at passersby. Imagine a bangle ceremony before a court wedding… haha! We are leaving in the morning and hope to be back by nightfall the same day. We don’t plan to stay. There’s room in the car. Come with us?’ Savitri said to Imambu.

This, unlike the last one was a real invitation and Imambu perked up at the prospect of travel.

‘I will…I will…ope it is not too much trouble for you…’

Just then Sheweta’s phone rang.

‘Who is it?’ Savitri asked her.

‘A friend’ Shweta said simply and walked inside with her phone.

#

‘Hey! All ok?’

‘I don’t know man. But I called to see how your preparations are coming along… done shopping?’

‘Almost. Need to hem in the gown a little. My mother is going to do it herself. We are going to our home town for the bangle ceremony…’

‘I cannot believe you are doing all that jazz. What does Debashis say about it?’

‘He laughed and called me mad. But he thinks I’m being cute. Listen, you better come. I’m not taking no for an answer…’

‘I’m not sure re… ma will make it worse for you… and I don’t know how Debashish will react.’

‘Your mother is not coming. And even if she finds out later, she won’t hurt me. She can rave and rant all she likes behind my back. She is already doing it. And don’t worry about your little brother. I am not going to let him be a mama’s boy for long. Remember, you and I are on the same team…’

‘That’s sweet of you. I want to come… but everything is so strange.’

‘You said your boyfriend has recovered from covid…’

‘He has. But he has been acting weird since then. He has stopped painting. He doesn’t talk to me… hardly even acknowledges my presence. He has brought home a small wooden Ganesh from god-knows-where. I have caught him standing before it with folded hands—’

‘Ganesh? But isn’t he—’

‘Yes,’ she preempted her friend’s reference to the uncouth matter of religion. ‘It’s like I don’t know him anymore. I feel like I am living with a stranger. I’m beginning to think it was all a mistake. I did a terrible thing falling for a married man…’

‘Ritu… stop the self-flagellation. You did nothing wrong. It was his responsibility to stay faithful to his wife. He must have his reasons for not doing it. Love has no rules… you can’t help developing feelings for someone…’

‘He couldn’t be true to his wife… and I want him to be true to me now. I’m being punished…’

‘Shut up ya! Umm… but… do you think he wants to go back to her?’

‘She won’t take him back. She’s too proud.’

‘Er… Ritu… you think it’s over between you?’

There is silence on the other end.

‘Ritu…?’

‘I don’t know’.

Contributor

Maithreyi Karnoor

Maithreyi Karnoor is the author of the novel Sylvia: Distant Avuncular Ends. She is the recipient of the Charles Wallace fellowship for translation and creative writing 2022. Her poems have been shortlisted for The Montreal International Poetry Prize. She was shortlisted for the Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize and was awarded the Kuvempu Bhasha Bharati Prize for translation.
https://www.lit-across-frontiers.org/charles-wallace-india-trust-fellowship-2021-22-awarded-to-maithreyi-karnoor/

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