Pages

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

MY STORY SERIES - 9


Conjugal Vignette   
Sarojini Sahoo

(The original story was written in 90’s and is included in author’s Odia anthology Deshantari (ISBN: 81-7412-147-0) under the title ‘Dampatya’ and so far has not been translated in to any other language. The story may provide a self-assessment test to help readers to determine psyche of a woman after her menopause.)


Mrs. Chowdhury reminded me of my mother. It was not that her face had the resemblance of my mother’s but it was her wild uncombed hair, the loose knot, the smeared sindoor, the vermilion spot which gave the colour of the sunseton the forehead, and the saree which she had on for the whole night. All these things reminded me of my mother. This is all about her appearance. Actually, I am not really focusing on the outside appearance. I want to talk about those things which stirred my delicate sentiments as soon as I saw her.
When I looked at her, she appeared as if she had been weeded-out like an unwanted plant of the garden or perhaps like a waste paper shredded into pieces and thrown away.She appeared as if she would be blown away or swept away if no one held her hands tightly. I had seen my mother like this about twelve to fourteen years back. My mother, like her, also would have been around fifty years old at that time.
I had never seen her before. We had only known each other over the phone. She used to call me at home to enquire about her husband. Her husband had gotten transferred but sadly, she was stuck at the old place because her son was in his final year of school in the science stream and her daughter had paid a donation to get into a management course. But she often worried about her husband. Was he getting his bed tea in the morning? Was he boiling his drinking water? Would he suffer from chest pain if he became too stressed? All these things worried her and she would talk about them when she would call. I tried to console her over the phone.
She would call up and would let me know when her daughter had fever, or when her son was bitten by a dog, or when her neighbour fought with her, or when the car was sent to the garage to be repaired. If her husband did not call her for a long time or did not go home on holiday, she used to cry and complain to me over the phone. Once or twice, she would even ask me, “What is the attraction there that Mr.Chowdhury does not come home?” Sometimes I would take her husband’s side and argue, “Maybe he is busy with work. Why do you worry so much? All right, I will let him know that you were worried.”
I was not very close to her husband; on the other hand, being a colleague there was a feeling of intolerance between us. He was not my nearest neighbour. His living quarters werefour or maybe five quarters away from me. Everyone had the inter connected phone given by the company but no one else had taken the line for an outside connection except for me. So people from the seven to eight quarters surrounding my quarters had expectedto use my telephone to keep in touch with the outside world.Mrs. Ram Murthi was an extrovert so no one went to her house. And Mrs. Ansari was so proud of her status that no one dared to enterher gates either.
The newlywed Binay Panda’sfather-in-law, employed with the police department, called up every other day to enquire about his daughter’s well being. He used to send messages asking whether the washing machine was working or the microwave oven would be sent within a few days. Sometimes he would call up to consult with his son-in-law aboutbuying something or getting him transferred. He would say, “I have urgent business. Could you please call him?”
I had to attend to these phone calls because I used to be at home. I would send my maid to people’s houses to inform them their phone call would come after ten minutes. As mobile phones were not commonly used at that time, I would let them know by calling them on the company phone.Sometimes, someone or the other had to wait for the phone in the drawing room. Samiran, my husband, would ask me to tell those calling, “No, I can’t inform them” or just tell them there is no one at home or their house was locked. Even though I was fed up attending to the neighbours’ phone calls, I could not betray their trust or lie to them.
Within the last one-and-half years, there must have been at least more than two hundred phone calls for Mr.Chowdhury. And every time, Mrs.Chowdhury, the caller, would express her apologies for troubling us. She maintained the formality of asking about my children’s well being and about my visits to my parents’ place. Over time, we had gotten to know each other probably better than other callers. Moreover, Mr.Chowdhury was also treated to a cup of tea or coffee while waiting for the phone calls from his wife. Perhaps to mitigate our irritation, he used to bring chocolates or toffees for the children. Samiran kept the conversation with Mr. Chowdhury to a minimum. I only sat and chatted with Mr. Chowdhury out of courtesy. I tried to imagine his wife by listening to his conversations.But perhaps that imaginary person had no resemblance with the real Mrs.Chowdhury.
As I had never seen her before, I would have never guessed she was the real Mrs. Chowdhury and that she too was in a distressed state.Even though I never asked her, she must have seen the amazement and the questioning look on my face, so she introduced herself. “I am Mrs.Chowdhury.” After introducing herself, she nervously looked behind her and said, “He must be following me.” And before I could understand and say anything else, she said, “Please tell me, what I should do.”
“About what?” I asked, even though I knew a bit about the possible answers. During these few months there had beengossip about her husband. Even I had to come to know about an affair between her husband and Mrs.Gomej. Maybe she wanted to ask me,“All these things happened and yet you never informed it to me, even though I called you so many times over the phone?” I had decided to tell her it is better to think twice before commenting on anyone’s character.
I looked at her face. I felt as if my mother was sitting in front of me and asking “Can you tell me my dear daughter, will your father really be able to leave her?” 
Mrs. Chowdhury showed me both her hands and said “Can you see how he has hit me?” The skin had been cut by the glass from broken bangles and some places had stains of blood. “See, he was pressing my neck to kill me.” She showed me her neck. There were marks of fingers on top of the necklace mangalsutra.Once he brought cold water from the refrigerator and poured it into my ears.” As she was describing her physical agony, she was trembling with fear like a scared deer. She would get up in between her monologue and look around, checking to see if Mr. Chowdhury was coming there. She said, “He has no decency. Who knows, he may come here and create trouble.”
“He will not come here. You can be sure of that,” I consoled her. I ordered my maid to get some water and a cup of tea for her and told her, “In the meantime, Mr.Chowdhury and my husband Samiran have had a big fight in the office. Their relation is so bitter that even in the club they had thrown glasses at each other over an argument. So don’t worry, Mr.Chowdhury will not come to our place.”
After she felt a bit more at ease, she opened up to me. “What should I do? He is saying that he will divorce me and marry her. Our daughter is twenty-two years old. Instead of thinking of getting her married, he is thinking about his own marriage. He is not giving a single penny to the household. I heard that he was riding around with Mrs. Gomej in his car. He has even givenhera saree worth 1,600 rupees. And Mrs. Das saw them both in a jewelry shop. And you know what is most pathetic of all? The other day he took me to hotel called ‘The Dream Bar’ just to placate me. But really, the love is not there anymore. You know when he had gone out for a few minutes, the hotel boy came up to me and asked me about my relationship with him. I enquired why he was asking me and I told him that I was his wife. He replied that another lady came regularly with him. Does that mean he has two wives?I immediately asked Mr. Chowdhury about this when he came back. After that, he created so much trouble in the hotel. He almost thrashed that boy.” After a pause, she continued. “Tell me the truth, haven’t you seen them together?”
I did not know how to answer this direct question from her so I said, “See? I have not seen anything; I have only heard about it.”
“You are trying to cover up for him”, she smiled and said, “Many incidents have happened in the office. Your husband did not tell you anything?”
“My husband belongs to another section. He has not seen anything either. The real truth is no one has seen anything. We have just heard things. However, my husband had seen them once going out in the car together. Everyone also knows about the photos he took during the picnic. Everyone talks about their disappearance during the moonlit night picnic.”
She started crying when she heard these things from me. I was repenting like a criminal. I hated myself for it. I should not have said them. But the fact was she confronted me and I could not help myself. Perhaps it would have been better to avoid this by resorting to a little lie.
It was fifteen days since she had come to this place and sinceshe had come to my house and narrated her own sad story and took out all information from me. When she arrived there was a lot of gossip going on about her husband but who dared to inform her about her husband?
As if she could read my mind, she wiped her tears and said, “He said, ‘the womenfolk here are really bad. They are instigating me.’ But I could imagine that something like this must have happened here.”
“When he came home during the holidays as soon as he put his bags down, he started talking to his daughter praising the woman.  And then later, my daughter came up and excitedly told me, ‘Mama, thataunty is really nice. She has good looks as well as a very good nature. She has sent this orange cake for you. You cannot forget the taste of her Chilli chicken and Gobi kebab.’
“And he used to tell me, ‘She has saved my life. But for her, I would have lost my life during that heart attack.’ Then he would ask our daughter, ‘My dear, please write a letter to Aunty.’ He even forced our daughter to write a letter.”
“One time, when he stayed with us for a month, I got hold of a letter from that woman. She had written a love letter saying she was missing him. As if the whole department was going to collapse without Mr. Chowdhury, as soon as he got the letter, he left, even though our son’s final examinations were coming up. What magic she has! What has she got in her flesh that I don’t have?”
“Your children are grown up. Why don’t they talk to their father?” I tried to reason.
“What will they say? She responded.“If they say anything, he gets angry and attempts to hit them. He tells them, ‘I will just feed you like I feed the dog.’And that’s it.”
She was perturbed when she heard our gate opening. I immediately got up and saw that the milkman had come. I came back with two packets of milk. She regained her calm after she saw me return with the milk. Gradually she became comfortable with me. She got up from the sofa and came over to me and held my hands and said “You are like my younger sister; that’s why I am telling you all this. Please, can you advise me on what I need to do?” Sheappeared as if she had found some hope even though her face still looked pale and helpless. In fact, I could not understand what kind of help she was expecting from me.
Her helplessness took me back to a time when I was about nineteen or twenty years old. The fights between my parents had been increasing then. I was in my final year of my B.A. degree and there was the pressure of the honours syllabus. There had been a similar incident between my parents over domestic help. Initially, I was very cross with my mother. Sometimes they would fight over dinner; sometimes there would be fights in the middle of the night and my father would leave the house. These things had become a regular occurrence. As the eldest in the family, I had to take care of my younger siblings. Two of my youngest siblings could not understand what was going on and would look at me with shock. ‘Extramarital affair’ did not exist in their vocabularies. I could understand but never believed; I never wanted to believe. My mother had become anemic after giving birth to six children. Her veins appeared like blues rivers and canals under her bright fair skin. She had gone through menopause.
I had come to know about menopause from a book. This event happens after forty-five to fifty years old in the lives of women and it makes them feel worthless for their husbands and they suffered from a complex. So I used to think that my mother was just being suspicious of my father without any reason.
My mother didn’t want the maid servant working for us anymore. But we were not ready to get rid of her. In fact, we all had become so dependent on her we thought we could not manage without her. There was no pump in the well and the cooking was done by burning wood. The maid would cook and fill up about fifty buckets of water in the tanks in the bathroom, kitchen, and even for the dishwashing. She would wash the clothes and the dishes, fry rice, and even comb our hair. She would massage our bodies with mustard oil. She would stitch buttons and quilts. She would water the plants in the garden. She would sometimes cut wood into small pieces to be burnt for cooking. She was like a machine ready to work as soon as you switched it on.  Yet my mother didn’t see her in that light.
My mother knew the reason behind our desire not to throw her out. She knew her children would not agree with her. Sometimes, she would fight with our father and leave the house and go to her sister’s who lived in the other corner of the town. She would stay at her sister’s place for the whole morning or sometimes the whole afternoon and then her sister and her husband, my uncle and aunt, would console her and bring her back to our house. Once she locked herself in a room. My father was so angry that he punched the door hard enough for the nails to come out and half of the door was hanging out. I was not at home when that incident happened but my younger brother, who was in seventh grade during that time,who could not ride a bicycle properly, pedaled it to my college that day. He waited for a full forty minutes until my class finished. I was scared to see him because my mother was always threatening she would take poison. My younger brother told me about my mother’s brooding and my father breaking the door. I immediately took a rickshaw and came home. When I came home, my mother was eating her wet rice in a corner and my father was reading the newspaper on his bed.
After that, many unpleasant incidents took place. Once I was awoken by the sound of glass bangles. At three in the morning my mother was filling up the tanks in the bathroom and the tank for dishwashing with the water from the well.
“What are you doing?” I had asked her.  “Why are you filling up the tanks at three in the morning? Are you mad? Who wants you to do this?” I took away the bucket and the jug from her hand. She would not give them to me. She did not lose her temper; neither did she cry. On the other hand, she told me, “None of you really listens to me because you have to fill up the tanks, wash the dishes, and mop the house.”There was a strange wetness in her voice; more than the tears in her eyes. I sat down with my hands on my head. I could not understand what had to be done.
My mother would talk about her misery to all our neighbours just like Mrs.Chowdhury did. She could never understand she should not be talking about her private life in public. She could not understand everyone was laughing at her.
Once, she was shouting at my father at the top of her voice. I could not tolerate anymore and tried to put my hand in front of her mouth and stop her. She pushed my hand from her mouth and saidto my father, “Go ahead. You can hit me.” My father’s image was slowly and steadily getting tarnished and we could not do anything about it.
One day, I realized why should there be so much fuss over a maid. Someone else can be employed in her place. I called the maid and told her to go back to her village. We would pay you all that we owed her and on top of that, we would give hera hundred rupees more.
“Aunty is just creating a mountain out of a mole hill,” she said and started crying out loud.
“No one wants you to worry about that,” I said.
It was my final year before Igraduated from graduate school. My younger sister was doing her undergraduate workand my younger brother was doing his secondary school finals.I asked myself then, why do such strange incidents take place? Why does a smooth simple life suddenly become complicated? Why does it all get changed in a span of a few seconds? Why does trust,built over years, suddenly dissolve? Why does a person who was so dear suddenlybecomes a stranger? These questions came back tohaunt me when I thought of my mother and saw Mrs.Chowdhury in front of me.
I freed my hands from Mrs.Chowdhury’s grip and said, “I am connecting you to the General Manager. You tell him everything. He is your husband’s superior so he can drive some sense into your husband.”
She agreed to my proposal. It appeared as if she had become impatient to share her children’s problems over the dinner table; to enjoy the timeless pleasures of bed like the autumn rain; or maybe to live again the conjugal life that had started some twenty-five years back.
As soon as the phone rang on the other side, I handed her the receiver. She narrated her misery from beginning to end. When she put the receiver back, her face appeared clear like the sky without a single cloud. I asked her, “What did the General Manager say?” She stood up intending to leave. “He told me that he will talk to Mr.Chowdhury today.” I consoled her not to worry and everything would be all right.

Later on, we realized it did not benefit Mrs.Chowdhuryby asking for the General Manager’s help. That evening, she came to meet me secretly. She told me talking to the GM over the phone did not serve any purpose. On the other hand, he called me up in the internal line and explained to me, “Don’t irritate your husband. Don’t fight with him all the time. It is not good to suspect your husband. He may have lost his temper and said something. In real life, how can one divorce one’s wife?” She appeared very tired and helpless. She asked me, “Could you please tell me, is it possible, that the GM does not know about his affairs? Everyone knows yet why doesn’t anyone want to admit it? Why is everyone taking it so casually? Don’t they find it indecent?”
“I got paid back by complaining to the GM. ‘How will I describe his atrocities?’ He questioned me. ‘You have gone to the GM and complained about me, isn’t it? I will marry her. I will see what you will do. If you want to stay here, just keep quiet and live. Otherwise leave this place.’”
“Tell me, is it possible to remove this woman from this place?” she asked me.
I replied, “MrsGomej has been here for a long time. Her father was an old hand in this company. She was born here. Not only Mr. Chowdhurybut many people pine for her even today,” I smiled.
She spread her lips and said, “She indulges in style; we don’t otherwise...”
I replied, “No, it’s not really that. Her genes have made her different from us. Her golden hair, blue eyes, and bright complexion do not belong to this place.”
“She can be transferred. Tell me, who should I ask?”
I tried to make her understand. “Everyone has a boss. Why are you so worried?”I could not help her much that day. I could only promise her I would give her the necessary telephone numbers.
This was my first experience in fighting for someone. Let alone fighting, I did not even participate in the college strike because my father had a very bad temper. Whenever there was a strike in the college, Iwould stay at home and enjoy my meals. I did not get to see the effigy being burnt nor did I see the buses set on fire. I just heard about the stories of black flags on top of the court buildings. Again, when the schools and college came back to normal, I would listen to the stories of bravery and their stories of food in jail. I felt as if they had participated in the struggle for independence. From that point of view, my life was really colourless.
The next day also she came to our place without the knowledge of her husband. As soon as she came, she was eager to go back. “He knows that I’m visiting you. Did you get the director’s number?”
I had written the number on a small piece of paper. After looking around for a while, I found it and gave it to her. She was nervous to phone the director; in fact, I was a bit nervous as well. She asked me to connect and I did so. As soon as there was the ring from the other side I quickly gave the phone to her. She asked me, “What should I say?” In the meantime she had to talk to the director. She was repeatedly narrating her misery to him. She had exhausted herself painting herself as helpless as she could. She asked whether Mrs.Gomej could be transferred and when she put the receiver down she was almost in the verge of crying.
Like a person who has lost confidence, she had lost her capability to gather herself and said “Nothingelse can be done.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“He told me, ‘Why are you washing dirty linen in public? Try to explain everything to your husband and help him get back to track.’”
“What did he say about the transfer?”
“He said, ‘a transfer is not as easy as you think. It cannot be done according to your whims and fancies. Try to adjust to your family.’”
“What does he mean by ‘adjust?’” I inquired.
“I don’t really understand what he meant by ‘adjust’ either. He asked me what evidence did I haveabout my husband’s relations with her. Is this a movie or a detective novel? Is it a court that I will have to provide evidence? I have seen lipstick marks on his chest, arms and thighs. These marks don’t stay for long time where I could show them? But they were there; I’ve seen them.”
“Don’t lose your confidence. Have faith in God. He is the mightiest of all,” I said.
In fact, I had lost my own confidence. I had never been addicted to sports. During my school days, I used to sit in one corner of the school field offering one excuse after another. I was never affected by winning or losing a game. But now, this was the first time I experienced the pain of losing.
As soon as she heard God’s name, she took out atabeez , a talismanic locket she had been wearing under her blouse. “Someone has given this tome. If I put on this one, I will get him back.” I tried to remember if my mother had also put on some kind of magical tabeez to get back my father.
Suddenly she asked me, “Do you know who his enemies are?”
“Enemies?” I asked with surprise.
“I will ask help from his enemies,” she said.
Even though I did not approve of her plan, I couldn’t help but appreciate her intelligence.
Then she asked me, “Who is Avidutt? Did he ever have a fight with Avidutt?”
I was surprised to hear Avidutt’s name.I knew Avidutt but he never comes to our place. I had never spoken to him.
I explained, “He had had a fight with MrChowdhury a long time back. He is from a famous mafia gang. At that time, he had threatened to defame Mr.Chowdhury and Mrs.Gomej by writing their names on the walls.”
Hearing this information, she was very pleased and asked me, “Do you have his phone number?”
“I can look in the directory.”
 “Please can you find it and keep it for me, I will come by tomorrow.” And with that she left.
For sometime there had not been a normal routine in my house. The first day when Mrs. Chowdhury came to my house and shared her sorrows with me, I could not give my children breakfast; seeing the stranger in the house they quietly took their chairs to the garden and sat there. By the time she left, it was time for school. Most of the days she would arrive around the time the children would be coming from school. I could not help the children in taking off their school uniforms. I could not put jam on their toasts or give them their afternoon milk. They took their food as they could. I could not water the plants in the garden nor could I finish my novel. All my chores were getting delayed as well, yet I could not say no to her.
The next day, she came back to plead with Avidutt about her misery. Avidutt was not at home. I was thinking there was still time to keep her out of that. But she started talking about Mrs.Gomej and the discussion took another turn. She said, “I am insulting her in streets wherever I encounter her. I shouted at her in the club by calling her a whore.”
“And Mrs. Gomej did not say anything back to you?” I asked. “When did you say that? Where was I?” I felt as if she was just imagining saying it. Can anyone really say such things to a woman’s face? Has she started fighting and shouting in her imagination?The next day, she came to phone Avidutt.
“Is Mr.Chowdhury not at home? How could you come?” I asked politely.
She replied, “The old man was going out for a walk. I thought he was going to her place and followed him for sometime.Half way through, I realized he was going towards the stadium so I returned. I will make the call and leave quickly.”
After her conversation with Avidutt that day, I saw her smile for the first time. She was very happy and commented, “We call these people hooligans but when it comes to helping someone, these people will give their lives.”
Somehow I felt whatever she was saying could be true. The well-placed people are very selfish. Really, she had narrated her misery to everyone but no one had come forward to help her thus far.
After speaking to Avidutt, she did not come to our place for a few days. I thought maybe the man threatened someone and set things straight. But I was wrong. She came again to me and said, “I am really troubling you.”
“Not really”, I said trying to conceal my feelings.
“Do you know what MrChowdhury is up to? He has been taking that wicked Avidutt to drink for the last three days. He is coming home at midnight. I was thinking he had been going to Mrs.Gomej’s place. Gradually I came to know the truth during our quarreling. The other day he hit me and said, ‘You have employed hooligans to come after me. The hooligan whom you had approached is drinking with me for the last three days.’”
“There is another way,” I offered.
“What, are you referring to? The union? The old fellow has also got them all on his side” she said with a sense of hopelessness in her voice.
I replied, “No, I know a journalist. We will talk to him. You will see he will be back on track.”
“Strange”, she said. “Everyone knows they have a close relationship. Yet how could everyone pretend as if there is nothing going on?Everyone is blaming me that I am suspicious; that I am trying to defame him. What kind of wife will defame her husband unless she feels insecure?Am I mad? Don’t I have a daughter to give in marriage? Don’t I love my family? No one is coming forward to solve the problem. On the other hand, everyone is arguing that there can be no breakdown in such a strong household. Is anyone able to understand why I am having sleepless nights?”
As I pondered the situation, I then realized my mother must not have gotten up at three in the morning too, as I had thought. She must not have been sleeping at all at night. It is not easy for one person to seal the cracks in any household.
Mrs. Chowdhury left our house very unhappy that day but I tried to put my ideas into action. I spoke by phone with the journalist whom I knew. I asked him what could be done about such cases. The journalist listened with great attention to everything very sympathetically. He also did not fail to condemn Mr. Chowdhury.
Then he asked “Do you have any proof? Any letters or pictures? We cannot publish anything without proof. A defamation suit could be filed against us.”
I promised the journalist I will discuss these things with Mrs. Chowdhury and inform him at another time, even though I knew it was not possible to get those things.
Mrs. Chowdhury never came back to our house after that day when she had left our house so very unhappy. In the meantime, a week had passed. One day I was sitting on a chair outside when I saw her going past our house avoiding looking towards the house. I had this desire to run and ask her, “Do you have any letters or pictures?” The next moment it occurred to me, she had walked past our house smiling; she had not even bothered to look towards our house.
As days passed, I started getting more and more interested in her. Yet I never went to her place to find out what was going on. How could this person who came to my house everyday suddenly become so quiet and ignore me? I had helped her without any motive. Isn’t it proper on her part to at least let me know what happened?
I asked her nieghbours about her just out of curiosity. I heard these days she was going out with her husband. She was going out from evening until midnight all decked out with kajaal in her eyes, big earrings, lipstick, sleeveless blouses, and dark nail polish. Still people did hear her shouting from their respective quarters at night.
I was trying to remember what had happened in my house, how had peace come back.I could not remember anything clearly now. For a few days, the maid had sat down as if she had lost her sense. Our maid had blamed my mother. We were fed up with all that was happening and had lost interest. How the maid got out of our lives we did not even realize.  One day, she just wasn’t there anymore, either physically or in our minds.
Somehow I came to realize that life does not end like a fiction story where the culprit gets punishment and the innocent goes to heaven. Perhaps life is always like this. I was assured, after all, everything would become all right in time.But would it be?

(Translated by Gopa Naik
Edited by Paul McKenna)