What happens when a woman still has not reached menopause after 60? Anyone may relate this condition to the role of excessive sex hormones or may find out all sorts of funny conclusions but for some women, it's real and a source of pain, shame, and distress - both physically and emotionally.
My main character in this story is one such woman. Come and journey with her as she gives us a better idea of what goes through her mind and tells us her experiences in relation to the world in which she lives.
The original story was written in the nineties and was included in my Odia anthology Dukha Apramita (ISBN: ISBN: 978- 81-7411-483-1) under the title "Aparanha" and so far has not been translated in to any other language besides English. The story may provide a self-assessment test to help my readers to determine psyche of a woman after her menopause.
‘For shame,’ she thought. Shame overcame her. Inhibition swept over her. Her face blushed. Tears welled up in her eyes. She felt as if she had committed a crime. She sat with her head down -- in shame. But she couldn’t express her helplessness to anyone. When her daughters-in-law would come to know about it, they would surely laugh at her. The youngest daughter-in-law, in particular, was very upfront with her views and thoughts. If she did not care for others, she laughed in their faces. It was really shameful. She pondered why it happened to her. All her friends and contemporaries had been bereft of this responsibility, but not her. But she was entangled in all these things just like a newlywed bride. Sometimes she accepted it as her destiny and sometimes she consoled herself as if it were the law of nature. She felt hurt with the jokes of her daughters-in-law but she wouldn’t say anything. As the mother-in-law, she had never used her implied authority to stop them, as if it was her weakness.
Even when her husband was alive, she would keep these things to herself and never discuss them with him. The old man was a different kind of person. He didn’t even like being addressed as ‘old man.’ She wondered if he would have been able to tolerate the ridicule of his daughters-in-law. Even at an old age, he would become romantic when the dew drops appear. He would sometimes ask his son to book a room for himself and his wife in the forest guesthouse, so they could stay there for three or four days. He would say to his son, “Please make packets of oil, ghee and basmati rice. I can get good chicken in the village there. There is no need to worry about that.”
The youngest daughter-in-law would smile and say, “Dad, are you planning to go on a honeymoon?”
“Why? Are honeymoons meant only for you folks alone?” he would respond in kind.
The daughter-in-law never said another word after that. Their ridicule and taunt was indeed disappearing in the air but they could not understand someone was being terribly hurt. How could they?
Once, her scalp was aching and she rubbed the juice of the aloe vera plant into it. The eldest daughter-in-law asked, “Maa, does this help to keep your hair black? Here, my hairs near my ears have started graying. You don’t even have a single grey hair. How old are you anyway? You must be nearing sixty, 'na?'
What could she reply to the daughter-in-law? She was not aware whether rubbing the plant helped in keeping one’s hair black but she had read once in Laxman Mishra’s book that it kept the head cool. She was having a terrible headache so for a little respite; she got a piece of stem from the neighbour’s garden and was rubbing it on her scalp.
The youngest daughter-in-law asked, “How could you think the cells can be kept fresh by applying or rubbing something onto them? These things are all in the mind. It indeed depends on how the mind can be kept fresh and young and on how you can live for love. The other day there was an essay about it in the newspaper. Didn’t you read it? It said that in America, people there get old later in life and the reason behind it is they are sexually active until seventy years old and beyond.”
While talking to her sons, daughters-in-laws, and grandchildren she could understand the meaning of English words by guessing. However, she could never understand these references to sex and she dare not ask the daughters-in-law as it would give them cause to laugh at her either behind her back or directly in front of her. They never realised how much it hurt -- much like a knife cutting into sensitive skin. Even then, she never brought these things to the old man’s attention.
Seeing their mother in law being shaky, the elder daughter-in-law stopped the younger one but both of them laughed. Their laughter cut her inside like a saw yet she remained powerless to do anything about it. Even then she did not bring these things to the attention of the old man. Just like an important paper is tied unto a wire she kept the words tied onto her heart. Is love really a bad thing? Who should one love if not one’s husband? How could they ever defame the love of husband and wife?
Her husband worked as a clerk in a foreign fertilizer company. Even though his status was that of a clerk, he had the responsibility of taking care of the club and the guesthouse as well. In fact, as he was the favorite of the officers, he was always in charge of the dining and entertainment, and in due course, he left the office work completely and became involved only in the concierge duties at the club and guesthouse.
During that time, he became close to many local and foreign delegates. Every day, he used to talk about the dance and drama as well as many scandals which took place at the club. The description often centered on picnics and boating events on moonlit nights where some couples disappeared with each other for hours. All these secrets of the families of the officers were known to him as they held him in their confidence. These incidents also influenced the old man’s thinking for he also wanted to live in style like the officers lived. That is why even though he belonged to the middle class, he had led a fashionable life. That was also the reason why their quarters stood out among all the other quarters around them. In addition, his employer always motivated their employees to lead a fashionable life.
There was the time Sen Saheb saw him in front of the Durga Pooja Pandal. They did not talk to each other; both went on their own way. The next day Sen Saheb called him to his office in the excuse of some work and told the old man, “Das Babu, does the value of the diamond lie in being hidden inside the house? You should display it outside sometimes.”
The old man could not understand what Sen Saheb really meant and responded, “I am a middle-class man. Where will I get diamonds from? Those things look good only on people like you.”
“I was talking about your Mrs. You know, your wife is really beautiful.” Saheb responded, a bit taken back by the old man’s ignorance. That day,the old man had been very proud but on the other hand, he was a bit scared as well for Saheb’s attention was indeed a matter of which to be afraid. After that incident he loved her more as if he had a possession with him, as if she was a trophy or prize. After that day, he never met Sen Saheb again but he never forgot his words. Sometimes when he remembered those words, he felt a strange kind of happiness.
The daughters-in-law would never understand why the manager of the fertilizer company had named her as a diamond. Yet everything had its own time; the law of this world was to change with time. It was also an eternal truth beauty also disintegrated with age. However, with her, the change had come at a very slow pace, an embarrassingly slow pace. But was she responsible for that? The thing that was once her pride had gradually become a burden for her. Everyone had so many questions about her but she did not have an answer to any of them. On the other hand, when there was any reference to womanhood or motherhood, she would go back to her childhood and adolescent days.
She remembered her mother’s lips were bright red from the juice of the paan. She remembered she had round and fat arms. She remembered how her mother roamed around in the kitchen, or in the courtyard, or sometimes in the room for the family deity, or in the place where rice was pounded. She had twelve children who hovered around her like chicks following their mother in gardens, fields and even in drains and streams. But she had no idea of how long her mother’s womanhood stayed alive as she had left her parents’ place a long time ago.
The other day she could not sleep because it was very humid, but her husband was sleeping soundly. She got up and sat on the verandah. Her son and daughter-in-law perhaps had not fallen asleep either as she could hear her daughter-in-law laughing and talking in a low voice. They were talking about many things. Her daughter-in-law laughed and said, “Do you think that I am like your mother and I will be a fruit bearing tree till sixty years? Don’t you think your mother’s condition is a bit abnormal? I had never heard a thing like that before. At best some people get it till they are fifty but she is crossing all bridges and moving farther than anybody I’ve ever known. Why doesn’t she consult the lady doctor?”
In very low voice, her son replied irately, “Are you mad? Could you let me know how you are affected by it? Why are you getting so intolerant? Have you tried to see her within herself? Moreover, as a son, how can I take her to the doctor for such a thing?”
She could not listen to any more of their conversation so she got up from the verandah and went back inside. She felt bitter about her life. She could not understand. Even though she did not harm anyone, why did people make her life so miserable? The rules of the world were really strange. All this love, all this affection, all this attraction; are these all pretensions? Otherwise, why would people become intolerant if the daughter did not get a suitable husband at the right time? Or if the son does not earn his living at the right time? Or if a woman does not become a mother at the right age? How could people wish someone’s death when someone didn’t die at the right time?
Why didn’t the right time ever come for her? Unlike her husband, her blood sugar and blood pressure never increased. She never had the need to visit the doctor. She never ever suffered from indigestion. She never felt tired. From dawn to dusk she tended her garden. Everything, including papaya and cabbage, grew with her care. She would make small flower beds with different kinds of local and foreign species in the garden in front of the house. She would dig the ground herself and put fertilizer and chemicals to protect the plants from insects. She would put support for the tendrils to grow. Yet she was never tired. She would make sweaters for her granddaughter, would make dry snacks for her daughter-in-law, and even manage to do a few household chores. She had the habit of bathing twice everyday throughout the year, irrespective of whether it was summer, rainy, or winter season yet she never suffered from cold or fever. She was herself surprised at this.
What kind of an afternoon did she have? She had not lost her brightness in the sunlight nor was she getting ready to progress towards setting down. Once while giving a speech on TV, a spiritual leader mentioned that no one had come into this world without a purpose and that everything in this world had a purpose. If that was true, then what could be the reason behind her present state? Why was she still flowering like a teenage girl at her age?
She remembered her mother when her mother was pregnant during her mother’s marriage. Even though no one said a word to her mother, she always felt as if the whole village was talking behind her back. Her mother had stopped going to the village pond to take her bath. If someone ever asked her about her unborn child she would be in tears. Sometime she would secretly rub something on her lower abdomen. Perhaps she was getting some home remedy to destroy the child in her womb. She had asked the laborer from the farm to get the stem of the lotus from the pond. When the laborer asked the purpose she became irritated with him and said, “You just have to get it. Why do you want to know anything else?” Somehow it felt as if her mother was at times very affectionate toward her unborn child and yet at other times, she appeared very cruel to it. When she was getting married her elder sister and her husband had come with their two daughters. She remembered clearly her mother never used to go in front of her brother-in-law; it was as if she was a criminal.
She felt very sad for her mother then. She wanted to console her by being next to her but she had gotten married and had gone to her in-law’s place to live. Whenever she wrote to her mother, she felt like asking her mother about the unborn child. Is the child growing steadily or had the child died? Yet she could never ask for fear of hurting her mother. After a few months, her mother-in-law questioned her, laughing while she asked her, “Do you know your mother has a son?” She was burning with rage when she heard her mother-in-law’s words. She was shivering all over. Had she not sat down she would have lost her balance. She could not look at her mother-in-law. Was there ridicule in her mother-in-law’slaughter? She could not ask how her mother-in-law got the news. She felt shame, but shame for what? She felt ashamed. She felt as if she could not stand it. Even though nobody ever told her anything, she still felt very ashamed.
The other day, her twelve-year-old granddaughter clung to her crying, thinking that her grandmother had an accident. Her daughter-in-law came out to enquire as to what happened and was overwhelmed with both joy and sorrow. Before she could put her hand on her granddaughter’s head and explain her that these things are natural in a girl’s life, her younger daughter-in-law laughed and commented, “Really wonderful! We have young women from three generations in this household.” She was shocked; the elder daughter-in-law was also shocked and the younger daughter-in-law was shocked too by her own words. The elder daughter-in-law gave the younger daughter-in-law an angry look and left with her daughter. The younger daughter-in-law made an excuse she had work to do and snuck out.
The words ‘young women’ hurt her but she could not give a fitting reply. She could have complained to her husband but she did not. She could have told her son to ask his wife to be more careful with her words but she could not. She was offended and engulfed with shame.
When her husband was alive he used to always think his wife was as young as ever. He treasured the words of Sen Saheb when the boss had heaped praise about her beauty. It was not that others did not appreciate her beauty, but Sen Saheb was unique. The old man always wanted her to be dressed up like a doll. Since the time when the children were young, a glass of milk had been arranged for her every day. Many times she had asked, “What is the need for me to drink milk? It feels like I am taking a share from the children.” The old man would get irritated and say, “How is it taking the children’s share? The children are drinking their share. I asked you to have milk so just have it.” When the old man bought books and stationary for the children, he would get cream, powder, and other fashionable things for her.
As the children got older, those life styles somehow changed. She did not require the dressing table anymore to tie her hair knot. The children got involved with their own jobs and business. The daughters-in-law would come to the household. The house was full of grandchildren. With the change of the ruler, it felt as if the rules also changed. She did not visit the kitchen frequently anymore. Also, no one bothered to give her a glass of milk. Yet the old man never forgot to get a box of cream or powder for her. Sometimes she would put cream on her face. When she had to go out, she would conservatively put on some powder. Yet most times, the things the old man bought for her would lie on the self; dust would gather on them. If the old man noticed, he would get upset and would say, “Did I get them to keep on the selves? I should not get anything for you.” She would laugh at his words. She would feel proud. She would consider herself lucky to think that she had gotten so much love which few women ever got, even in their younger days.
She would not accept the fact her husband was not in her life anymore. She felt as if he had gone for his morning walk and would come back with his cap on and with his walking stick in hand. Sometimes she felt he would come back with fish from the market and she should grind the spices and get everything ready for cooking. Other times she would think he must be in Goswami’s shop at the road crossing and would come back at nine o’clock, coughing his way home. But her husband never returned.
The biggest room in the house had belonged to the old man and her. There were windows in front of each other. Light and wind swept through the room. Next to the window on the other side, there was the Juhi creeper. In the middle of the room was the double bed with clean sheets and pillows. Every day, she would keep fresh flowers in the vase on the shelf. After retirement, they spent most of their time in that room than during their pre-retirement years. Suddenly he had died and she was left in the room -- alone.
The most miserable incident in her life had also taken place in that big room. It had happened all of a sudden. Her husband had taken a peg or two of wine and had his dinner with bread and cheese. Before going to sleep, both of them had talked about many things, just like they did every day. She was not aware what time it was but she had felt the old man pulling her. She was used to the old man’s habits so she turned to her side and tried to sleep. She could hear the sound of mumblings as if someone was suffering. She turned around and saw that the old man was out of control. She got up and had asked him what was going on.
“Severe pain in my chest,” he moaned as he rubbed his chest.
“Why do you take all these things at this age?” she remembered asking him.
“Give me water.” he got the glass of water and had attempted to drink it but the water came out from his mouth instead of going down.
“Press my chest,” he had urged. She took him to her lap and pressed his chest. However, after some time, she had realized that the old man had died. She could not believe one could die so suddenly. She thought it was all a big lie. But the old man’s death was not a lie!
After the old man’s death, she had left the big room and moved into the small room next to the kitchen out of her own will. If anyone asked her the reason she would reply, “I am alone now. Why do I need a big room?” She would spend her afternoons in that small room. In front of the window of the small room was the old wood apple tree.
The tree had been there since the time they had bought the land. They had eaten the fruits of the tree for several years. She did not notice that in the meantime, the tree had become old with its branches looking lackluster and dilapidated. There were still a few leaves here and there but the tree appeared like an old woman awaiting her death, all naked. Had she not shifted into that room, she would not have noticed the tree. She felt as if the tree was telling her, “You have spent a longtime under the illusion of the Juhi creeper; now turn your glance towards the real truth of life.
After she had shifted rooms, the elder son occupied the big room and the younger son took over the room of the elder son. Their household had taken the joys and sorrows in their stride. However, she had become lonely. She changed her style and habits. She now wore pale sarees instead of colourful ones. Her mother-in-law’s religious books, in which never showed interest before, were now taken out. The books had been hiding inside a colourless box for a long time, bereft of all colour and shape. Since they had not been touched for a long, as soon as she tried to touch them they fell into pieces. Was this yet another symbol or sign? When the old man was alive, he had never even opened the box for a single day; what was the point in opening the box now? Was it a change of role? The books shattered into small pieces as if they were smirking at her.
Once she told her younger daughter-in-law, “When you go to college, get me some good books. I am bored at home sitting alone.”
The younger daughter-in-law replied, “Father-in-law is not there anymore but aren’t we all here?”
Why couldn’t she see anyone? There were some very pleasant memories about her sons yet she could not see anything beyond the old man. His memory seemed to rule her life. The younger daughter-in-law brought her a book after all. She turned over the pages. She read through a paragraph and felt as if she had read a lot. She could not get any pleasure from the book. She was surprised at her own attitude and read only a few pages every day.
When the old man was alive, she could never keep track of time; it just flew. The daughters-in-law would comment, “Our father-in-law goes crazy if he does not see her every moment of his life. We take care of his food, bath and everything so why does he need our mother-in-law?” The daughters-in-laws would conclude the old man was hen-pecked, always dancing to his wife’s tune.
In fact, she was not aware if the old man really danced to her tune or not but he had definitely left behind a huge void in her life and that void could never be filled by anyone else, not even by her sons, daughters-in-law, and even grandchildren put together. She felt very lonely and very scared now. It was not that way when the old man had been alive. He would take her side and would fight for her then; his presence like a shield.
The new moon was approaching. Two or three days after the new moon, that day would again be there. She felt helpless; yet again she would have to face an unpleasant situation. A fear was slowly and steadily building within her. Again that inhibition. Again that shame. Again she would have to listen to someone’s painful words. When the telenga washerwoman would come to take the clothes, she would give her a look of surprise and ask her, “Aunty, are you still getting stronger?”
No one said, “How much does she have to suffer at this age? What kind of atrocities is God inflicting upon her?” No one ever tried to understand the physical and emotional pain. On the other hand, they hurt her feelings. She realized the daughters-in-law did not appreciate her, as if there was a secret indecency behind that. Their imaginations would go wild. She took in a lot of insults and ridicule. The younger daughter-in-law said, “There is a tradition in our mother-in-law’s family. Watch out, in case a thing like that happens in this family. If it does, we will not be able to face anyone.” They talked about worse things.
She had yet to understand how she had harmed anyone. Even though she was the mother-in-law, she had never shown her authority, even for a day; and this weakness made her so vulnerable. She did not remember when she had started treating that as her weakness and felt inhibited about it but it was clear now everyone had taken advantage of her weakness. She should have held her head high and walked around like a lively woman. Instead, why had it all turned upside down?
Almost twenty days had passed since the death of the old man. All the relatives who had come to attend the funeral had gone back. Her sons and daughters-in-law had resumed their own lives and schedules. She should have become like the discarded wood apple tree yet she was becoming aware the day was approaching. All her nerves from her toes to her thighs were being pulled. The pain around her waist was like the sting of the scorpion. It was if a storm was brewing in her lower abdomen. She could not concentrate anymore on “enlightenment.” She was not attracted to her children’s lives. She was seeking help from the wood apple tree which stood on the other side of the window but the lackluster and lifeless tree had dozed off.
She folded her arms and touched her forehead in pain. “Oh Lord, I don’t need it anymore. Why are you dragging me into the illusion? Am I that big a sinner? Can I not get freedom? The old man is not here anymore. Why are you chaining me to this illusion? How will I face my sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren? Make me disabled, Oh Lord! I don’t want my womanhood.” Tears rolled down her cheeks. At that very moment, she realized her prayers had not reached the Lord.
In the meantime, her granddaughter came to her, “Grandma, are you crying? What happened? Are you missing grandpa? Are you not feeling well?”
She could not find words so she just embraced her. The young girl had just stepped into the illusory world as well but how could she understand the pain of a human heart and destiny? The human being is nothing but a toy in the hands of the Creator. She wiped her tears and said, “Why should I cry? I have become old so my eyes and nose water. Don’t go and tell your father about it. He will become unnecessarily worried.” She reproached her, “Why are you running around in this hot afternoon? Go and take a nap.”
After her granddaughter left, she took her clothes from the clothes rack, quietly opened the door, and picked up some cow dung lying outside the gate. She needed some oil and turmeric paste. But she did not want to let anyone know about her from her yellow face tainted from the turmeric so she quietly entered the bathroom. She did everything without a sound. No one should come to know about what she had done. She did not leave her clothes in a corner. Instead, she washed them and put them on the clothes line to dry. All her rites and her habits had paled out. She got rid of her sense of sin based on impurity with her menstrual period. God was now relegated to the background. She now felt that living was the most important thing in this world.
(Translated by Gopa Nayak and edited by Paul McKenna)