“I wandered lonely as a cloud,” she murmured to herself, with Wordsworth’s poems carefully cuddled between her hands bedewed with slight perspiration. The warm, suffocating air inside the coach collided with an intermittent whiff of fresh air banging against the half-open window. The mingling was welcome as the crowded train accommodated passengers more than its capacity due to the summer vacations. Then felt the breather as the train lightened her burden at every stop before Kolkata. The closed shutters of the heart and mind started unveiling and twirling the myriad stories. Stories or Memories?
Mohini was working as a freelance writer and social activist. Her parents hailed from Punjab but had settled in Kolkata. The rest of the family ran their family business of school uniform from Punjab. Subhash, Mohini’s father, had to move to Kolkata when Mohini was just one year old. Conservative, conventional, rigid, inflexible – all these epithets may be used to describe the Mehta family. They were strict vegetarians and any slight deviation was punitive. But Mohini was a rebellious child. Even as a child, Mohini refused to tag herself as Mehta. Probably the assertiveness had started building up from a tender age, and followed her during her salad days. A brief pause… and lo! It was to stay with her as an essential ingredient of the recipe of her life. She relished it.
A precocious child as she was, she was adamant on shifting to the prestigious Loreto Convent in Grade V. She had to pass a test which she did with utmost proficiency. Always considered a role model and epitome of perfection, Mohini brought laurels to her parents as well as all institutions where she studied and learnt. She wanted to study Liberal Arts in London but her parents assuming her determination to be a streak of audacity and lack of respect for their concern, cowed her down by prescribing a strict code of conduct (and covert moral implications attached along with).
“No girl in our family has dared move abroad for further studies. A girl… and on top of it, staying alone in a foreign country! Do you realize the potential hazards? We have given you enough space and freedom to pursue studies here. Give up this impractical idea once and for all. Dot,” said Subhash.
“But papa, how can you compromise with my career? Times have changed and you also have to come out of rigid social strictures. I want to fulfill my dreams…. Please listen to what I have to say,” cried Mohini.
Subhash had left the room with hurried steps. For the first time in her life, her arguments fell short of her parents’ concern for the safety of their only child. She was 24…. A ripe age for marriage.
As the train moved on, its windows that were ajar seemed to present before her a flashback of her kaleidoscopic spectrum of life – life lived, life wasted, life spent, life enjoyed – all of it rolled into a motion picture. But it is not easy to witness and relive the unwanted and unwelcome memory-guests, interspersed throughout one’s saga of life.
Vishnu had enthralled her with his charming smile, pinkish Kashmiri complexion, intellectual prowess and pleasing demeanour. He was working as a journalist with a leading business magazine and earning handsomely. She met him at a Professional Writing Seminar and then at a Writers’ Workshop. The occasional meetings became more frequent until they decided to spend lives together. The Café Barista Lavazza near Hooghly was the favourite joint for their meetings. As expected, Mohini’s parents were struck with a harsh blow when they came to know of Mohini’s decision to tie knot with a Kashmiri Pandit. The thought of their cuisine – Goshtaba, Rogan Josh, Meat pulao – repelled them since they had thrived on a strict plant diet through lives. The ‘ifs and buts’ comprised a long list. Life in Kolkata had turned them from staunch religious believers to moderate ones who would accommodate and accept multiculturalism to some extent, but of course, without compromising least on the food choices.
It was a catch-22 situation for Mohini. It took her months to convince her parents that Vishnu had turned vegetarian at her behest. She knew somehow that it was too dramatic a turn in her life, a change that was to transform her entire being forever. The first day in Vishnu’s home was uneventful since it lacked the fervor, zeal and boisterous laughter so much characteristic of Punjabi weddings. The road chosen was not going to be a cake-walk.
Mohini shut the window of her coach since the air now started bringing in dust mingled with smoke. The window of thoughts opened again as she was reminded of the pungent fume and smoke from the kitchen just the next day of her marriage. It was lamb being cooked and the smell was nauseating to her. Vishnu’s lie unfolded before her naked eyes. The first confrontation paved way for future discords. Mohini suddenly found herself to be lonesome and wailing in despair. As time passed on, she concentrated on getting accustomed to their way of life but this compliance only suppressed the disillusionment and dissatisfaction of her marital life. The chirpy, enthusiastic, and ambitious self of Mohini got dissolved into her own cocoon. Vishnu tried half-heartedly to lift her spirits but she felt cheated. The wings of love flew away to a distant, indifferent sky.
A middle-aged man with a limp in his leg shook Mohini out of her thoughts with his singing in the train. She had reached a junction where the past and the present fused together. The present moments dug up old memories… how she longed to learn music. She had started her music classes despite a mild protest by Vishnu. His loud-mouthed mother voiced her dissension too. She said to Vishnu, “You may leave me with your sister since this noise makes my heart sink. I am already an old woman suffering from all age-related maladies. And what is the use of studies if it makes one insensitive towards the concerns of old parents?” She had been throttling Mohini’s voice, making her hypochondria an ingenious defence mechanism. Little did she know of the volcanic lava raging inside Mohini which when erupted would be catastrophic.
Mohini had finished her post graduation in English Literature after she was denied overseas education. She had developed a fondness for creative writing as well as journalistic writing during her college time. Writing came naturally to her as mother’s love for her child. The initial stint at freelance writing soon became a passion. But this fervor offered only a brief shining moment of bloom because after marriage, the household demands took a toll on her creative as well as intellectual pursuits. The mundane wore the flagship of importance now. Mohini could perceive Vishnu’s double standards. A so-called modern and understanding husband ALLOWED her to work as had been settled upon before marriage but this was not to last long.
“Mohini, you know me well. I am not one of the husbands who want to subdue their wives’ identities. You can continue working as long as our household peace does not get disturbed,” Vishnu had remarked.
The riposte was nowhere in sight. Vishnu’s “as long as” condition was like giving a choice when, in reality, there was none. The decision of marriage was hers. The curt warning by her parents about the impending doom in an inter-caste wedlock had now looked gentle in the face of the bleak reality she was presently experiencing. She felt stifled and claustrophobic as if the walls of the house were closing in on her and she would choke to death.
The chai-wala asked her twice for masala tea and Mohini, who had been transported to her own memory-world, jolted herself out of it as if she pressed a button on a time machine which brought her back to this-world. She sipped the hot tea and her glance suddenly got fixed on a little girl flaunting her smile to her mother. Her eyes sparkled with enthusiasm and zeal to touch the skies. The blessings poured out spontaneously from Mohini’s quiet mouth. She tried to see her own reflection in the little girl and was reminded of a poem she wrote once:
Nestled in the crowded compartment
Of my whimpering heart
I glanced a little girl obliquely
Out of the closet.
The profile showed
A little sloppy look
Unkempt, carefree hair
And glistening wide eyes.
Did I know her?
She seemed to be the same girl whom Mohini had lost years before. The steps to find and reclaim the lost girl had already been taken… This journey was going to be a momentous one.
The constant tension between her and her mother-in-law widened the gulf and strained their relation beyond repair. Despite Mohini’s repeated requests, she did not stop short of accentuating her discomfort and started cooking non-vegetarian Kashmiri food all the more. Mohini’s music classes had to be discontinued because of her persistent complaints. Vishnu had chosen to stay out of the scene by staying out till late in the night. She would spend hours walking on the terrace without being able to write a single fruitful line. Her ideas seemed to have dried up. She yearned for a fresh shower of rain which would quench her burning-pain. Her inability to articulate the growing vacuum of her married life had created a wide fissure into which lay the stifling breaths, the unsaid words, the pent-up emotions. The words would climb up a steep rock and when about to be uttered, they unrolled themselves and the climb never reached the apex. Her mother understood the unspoken thoughts to some extent but chose to pretend ignorance. A blanket of complacency had enveloped Mohini and she had to shake it off now to see the bloom of spring.
She had been married for five years now but it seemed she had aged before time. Vishnu was not ready for the responsibility of bearing a child, nor was Mohini mentally prepared for it. She had kept a maid, Radha for helping her with household chores. Radha was a young Bihari woman with three children to take care of. However, the responsibilities did not seem to obfuscate her jovial temperament. She would keep singing film and folksongs while working. Her presence and singing brought to Mohini’s mind her own free spiritedness. Before marriage, she too was in the habit of humming some song or ghazal while working. One day, she unconsciously hummed a song Radha was singing. Radha was mesmerized by her mellifluous voice and would pester her day after day to continue singing. Mohini realized that it was actually the voice of her soul which she thought she had lost. She developed an emotional bond with Radha and started teaching her how to read and write too. Mohini’s life had found some purpose. The incoherence of her ideas and her disheveled being gave way to quiet confidence and compassion.
It was almost a week Radha had not turned up for work. Mohini’s anxiety and concern grew since Radha had not been taking her call too. After a little enquiry, Mohini was able to locate her shabby hut. There was no trace of Radha inside but her three famished children could be seen inside. Mohini asked the eldest daughter about Radha. When the girl started sobbing, Mohini’s heart, for a while, was in her mouth – suspecting some catastrophic event. She tried to console the girl, but Savita, Radha’s eldest daughter, said that her drunkard father did not stay with them anymore. He often used to beat up her mother and many a time, tried to molest Savita too. Savita stayed silent for a few months but eventually, mustered up courage to tell her mother about the misdeeds and the lusty nature of her father. Radha was flabbergasted and outraged at this revelation. Without a second thought, she kicked out her husband from the house but he threatened her with serious implications. All these days, Radha had kept coming for work despite her disturbed mental state. Mohini did not even realize that an event of such enormity might have taken place. Savita added that her father had come last week and forcibly taken their mother along with him. Since then, they had no news of their mother. There was a little ration in the house which did not last for more than a couple of days. The neighbours would give these children something to eat but none of them tried to locate the whereabouts of their mother. For the first time in her life, she realized that her own sorrows and dissatisfaction did not deserve much mention when women like Radha faced problems of such great magnitude.
Mohini took out a few hundred notes from her wallet and assured the children that they would be reunited with their mother soon. She had promised but there were so many whirling questions raging in her mind – a long list of hows, whens, and whys. She had to provide the answers too. So, she went to the nearby police station, filed a complaint against Radha’s husband of abducting and harassing her. Meanwhile, Vishnu had called her from his office to ask where she had been and that she should have been at home since his ailing mother needed her by her side. Mohini just disconnected the phone knowing well that her mother-in-law’s ailment was no more than a pretext of confining her to home. She had nothing else on her mind except Radha. Where would she be? Was she alive? What would he have done to her? How could a man be so hard-hearted as to leave his children without any custodian?
The policeman assured her of tracing Radha’s husband at the earliest. She went back home in a confounded state, with heavy steps and a pounding heart. At home, other voices seemed to add to the muddle inside her mind. She could hardly wait for the morning. She told Vishnu about missing Radha. His curt, indifferent reply shook her: “Why don’t you hire another maid? These are all excuses to shirk work. These people are not like us.” Mohini banged the door and stormed out, determined to find her out. The inspector seemed to have read her concern and immediately showed her the map of Bihar and Belchhi, near Patna, the native village of Radha’s husband. He told her that they had located his whereabouts from the local police in Patna and that they would have to nab him there. It was more than an eight-hour journey from Kolkata. She thought of accompanying them to Belchhi but on a second thought, the plight and loneliness of Radha’s children came to her mind. More than food, they needed emotional support since they were clueless about their mother. She headed to the slum where they lived. The police personnel left for Belchhi in search of Ramlal, Radha’s husband.
Later in the evening, Mohini got a call from inspector Kishore Naval that they had nabbed Ramlal and Radha was found in a badly bruised state from his house. He had chained her and confessed his crime which was driven by greed. Radha’s father had left a small plot of land which he was forcing her to transfer in his name. He also confessed that he had been regularly beating her and snatching money which she earned from working as a domestic help. There was no remorse on his face when he admitted molesting his own daughter. Radha was rescued and brought back to Kolkata, back to her children. Mohini felt inner peace and happiness after a long span. Tears started rolling down her cheeks when she saw the children clinging to their in a tight clasp. Radha’s eyes were filled with gratitude for Mohini but perhaps Mohini had realized that this action was much needed for strengthening her to reclaim her own self that she had lost long time back. Radha’s physical bruises were perhaps an outer manifestation of Mohini’s inner bruised self. After consoling Radha, Mohini visited a Women Rehabilitation Centre nearby to get Radha enrolled for some vocational course. The next couple of days were spent getting Radha’s children admitted to school. Mohini did not spend a fortune but definitely enough to give a fresh lease of life to four lives reeling under poverty and oppression. On her way back, she crossed the Kalighat Temple near the Hooghly. The Goddess Kali is an embodiment of ‘Shakti’ – of feminine energy, creativity and fecundity. She is a symbol of empowerment, liberation and assertion – qualities which Mohini needed the most at this point of her life.
As soon as she got back home that day, Vishnu and his mother confronted her with a barrage of questions. Mohini calmly replied that it was time for her to traverse a journey of exploration. She asked Vishnu about his contribution in keeping the relation of love alive. The seed of love was only planted but not nurtured by him. The promises were desecrated with least regard for Mohini’s wishes. Mohini needed her own space now to let her writing blossom into a fully-grown mature flower, where no one would trample the flowers of desire, where no one would instruct her with a list of do’s and don’ts. She packed her bags and left to experience life in its entirety.
Two years had passed since she said goodbye to Vishnu forever. Struggling, faltering and eventually, learning how to balance herself, Mohini had come a long way. Apart from writing, she had busied herself with the functioning of a Women Rehabilitation Centre. Recently, her collection of poems had earned appreciation from critics as well as readers. She had been invited to Santiniketan to take part in a three-day poetry fest, Sanskriti, organized by a local cultural organization and Visva-Bharati Teachers’ Association. She boarded Shaktipunj Express from Kolkata’s Howrah Junction to reach Bardhaman. The memory-guests departed and she had reached Bardhaman where a taxi was already waiting to take her to Santiniketan, a writer’s paradise. She lost and then found… her elusive Self.