Monday, May 20, 2013



Sarojini Sahoo

(In her book Women’s Madness: Misogyny or Mental illness?, physiologist Jane Ussher argues: “Psychology has developed as a singularly male enterprise…thus it is time to redress the balance…I shall focus on women, with no apology!”

Here is my effort to paint feminine psychology which shows how the connection between patriarchal oppression and women’s psychic melancholy is complex and  alienation is an inevitable outcome for women suffering under patriarchal constraints. 

The original story  ‘Bikalpa’ was written in 90’s and is included in my Odia anthology Srujani Sarojini and so far has not been translated in to any other language.) “

It was almost 7 a.m. by the time Suparna got up from her sleep. Although light from the window was trying to conquer her sleep, she was not able to free herself from the grip of slumber. Jaydev’s thighs were resting on her and she could feel the pain the weight was causing her. Slowly she moved his thighs away from her. She wished she could get a cup of tea! This was one of her longings. How she wished she could be greeted by a hot cup of tea in the morning! After all, her mother used to do that. But that was twenty years ago. Her mother was no more. Now she had her own life. Now she had her own role of mother to play with her own family.

It had been quite late by the time they went to bed the night before. There was the dandia dance programme in the club throughout the night. Of course she was back by midnight but she was not at all used to this kind of culture since her childhood. However, in this patent age, culture does not have anything patent. She could not get sleep for a long time after her trip to the club. Whatever little was left of the night was spent under the collage of dreams. Within no time it was dawn and the sun had come out in full force. All the routine went topsy-turvy.

As the sweet cool breeze of the winter entered her lungs she was reminded that it was Dussehra that day. “Oh my God, it’s Dussehra and I am still in bed?” The sun had come out since a long time. She got up in a scurry.

Jaydev still half asleep said, “What happened? Let us sleep.”

“No. I have been sleeping for too long and you are asking me to go to sleep some more? It’s Dussehra today.”

“So what?” Jaydev muttered, still half asleep.

Slowly, Suparna’s past was coming back to her... We would get up early in the morning. We did not want to get up that early but we had to. It was a town in the princely state of India surrounded by hills and mountains from all sides and engulfed in fog. All of us brothers and sisters would sleep under two blankets clinging to each other like puppies of a litter.

Mother would shake us up from bed shouting, “Get up, you have to see the inception. Get up.” I did not want to get up. Who would like to get up that early in the morning in the cold month of November anyway? Mother shook each of us by our hands and legs to wake us up. It would still be dark. No one knows what time it would be nor did we care. We would come out to the outside door still half asleep. Parama, an old man would be sitting with his new basket.

There would be a clean towel covering the basket. He would take off the towel and tell us “Children, see the fish?” Live fish would be swimming inside a glass jar. There would a jewellery box next to the jar. He would open the box and show us gold jewellery and other gold trinkets. Next to it in small containers would be bright paddy, yoghurt, and a small water-filled vessel with mango leaves on top as kalash. He would show us everything one by one. 

Sleep vanished as we saw the fish but still we would come back to cover ourselves under the blanket as it was still before sunrise. Father would give him tips. Parama’s words would strike our ears, “I have come here straight after the royal household. How can you give only ten rupees?” Like this, one after another would come to show us the auspicious inception early in the morning. We would get up to see each of them and again go back under the warmth of the blanket.

Mother used to say if Dussehra went off well then the whole year would go well. We would finish our bath early in the morning. There would be gun salutes from the royal household around ten in the morning. Mother would say, “The gun salutes can be heard, let’s put the saja.”

“You’ve only talked about saja once. What is it? Jaydev inquired.

“Wait. I will explain. Let me put water on for tea.” She then left the place with those words.

Suparna came back to the present for a moment and explained, “Saja means the measuring weights, the balancing, and the other things. Actually the soldiers put their swords for two days near the goddess Durga and participated in the worshipping ceremony. After the Dussehra pooja was over, they would take their swords and kept away from the site. But we didn’t have swords; business was the main activity in our household. So we put our business-related things and decorated them near the goddess. This was how Dussehra was celebrated in our town. Whatever you say, the days of our childhood were the best.”

 “Do you realize that the past is always pleasant?” commented Jaydev. The children had not yet gotten up from their beds and both Suparna and Jaydev sat in the garden taking their morning tea.

”We used to have a feast on Dussehra day” said Suparna.

“Why haven’t I ever been treated to such a feast?” complained Jaydev, trying to make fun of her.

“Have you ever been to our house during Dussehra? I have no idea if there’s still a feast nowadays. The situation is not the same as before” She became sad as she spoke those words. Just then, the hawker threw the newspaper near the gate. While Jaydev engrossed himself into the newspaper, Suparna drifted back into her past again. There became a distance where none of them could communicate with each other.   

There were often a thousand errands to run in the mornings. However, Suparna was unable to get out of the world of fish in a jar, the gold in the box, and paddy in the small bowl. Were those days really that good, not dull like now?  Her mother’s face flashed in front of the images Suparna saw from time to time. She remembered her mother had some similarity with Singhali, the cow her mother got from her parents’ house when it was only a calf. Like mother, Singhali was also very short tempered and we were scared of entering the cowshed. When mother used to get angry, she would throw and break everything that she could put her hands on. Both of them also had glances which were quite similar, innocent yet full of complaints. Singhali was also thin like my mother.  There was also some similarity between mother’s hanging breasts and the breasts of Singhali. Both of them appeared as if sweet motherhood was dripping from them.

What happened to Singhali? Did she die a normal death? Did they sell her or was she lost? Suparna did not remember. However, she still remembered the angry and innocent faces of both her mother and Singhali.

There had been one of those Dussehras like the present one. Mother had been so angry she caused a storm and it became very difficult to handle the situation that day. What class had I been in then? Was I still in school? No, maybe I had already joined college. Preparations for Dussehra had begun the night before. The cleaning, the washing, the shopping; everything was underway.

Father used to get new clothes for all his workers and servants during Dussehra. There would be dhoti kurta for those who wore them and shirts and trousers for those who wore those kinds of clothing. Father would buy everyone’s clothes from the shop of Biranchi Seth. After everyone got their choice of clothes, a saree would be bought.

For many years that had become a tradition from the time when father had started his shop with very little capital. That was apparently Dussehra when he had started his life as a shopkeeper. After the priest had performed all the prayers and rituals, the first customer who came to the shop was a woman. She was from the community of pot makers. What did she buy? Dal? Rice? Salt? Tea leaves? Suparna didn’t know. However, the shop made a profit after that. Father’s shop had actually been the forerunner to the modern-day department store. He had gradually become a wholesaler. Every year before the Dussehra, someone would go and give the message to the lady from the pots to do the first shopping on Dussehra day. What did she buy on Dussehra day? Soap? Notebooks? Perfume? Ajinomoto? Hair oil? A pressure cooker? A bone china set? A kilo of rice? A half-kilo of sugar? A quarter-kilo of pulses? What did she buy? The pot lady must be very happy to receive her gift of the saree that used to be bought for her.

That was what had been going on for many years.  There was nothing bad behind father’s intention of giving this woman a saree. It was not even a secret matter. However, mother was not aware of it. Maybe she would have never been aware of it. Then there was the time where there was the new servant -- Suparna thought his name was Nakula -- arranging everything for the occasion on the verandah inside the house. He had to get mango leaves, flowers, grass, and leaves of the winter berry tree. Mother was taking out the big utensils from the store for the big feast and she asked him, “Nakula, what kind of shirt and pants did your master give you?”  Nakula was about sixteen or seventeen years old and mother was very fond of him because he used to run errands for her. He answered in a complaining tone, “I asked for a pair of trousers but Babu, the master, didn’t give me any; I didn’t get what I wanted. Babu must have asked the shopkeeper to show him clothes within a limited budget. Why would the shop keeper show him the good clothes?” Then mother asked Nakula, “Show me what kind of pants and shirt you have brought.”

Nakula took out all the clothes, one by one, from the bag. The piece of saree peeped through the other clothes. The saree was blue with a red border. Mother pulled out the saree from the lot and asked him, “Did your master buy this saree for me? But what kind of saree is this? This is a very old-fashioned saree. He should have bought a printed saree instead!”

Nakul started laughing aloud when he heard the master’s wife. “Ma, do you think this saree is for you?”

Mother was very irritated and asked, “Then for whom?”

“Ma, you do not know the woman who takes a saree every year?”

“Takes every year? Whom does your master dress up in a saree every year?”

“She is the potter woman, indeed!”

“Which potter woman?” my mother asked, becoming upset.

“I don’t know her but how is it that you don’t know?  Everyone else does” Nakula commented.

After that, anger and suspicion had accumulated inside mother. As soon as father reached home, she made him restless, attacking him with her shooting questions. Not only that, she created chaos that day as well, throwing and breaking things. “Who is that potter woman? Why do you give her sarees? Is she an epitome of Laxmi, the goddess of wealth and I am Alaxmi, the rival goddess of her? Never have you given me a saree for Dussehra. Look at the audacity of the woman, every year she wears a saree on Dussehra for no reason. Why don’t you live with the potter woman? Why have you kept me?” Gradually the situation turned from bad to worse that day.

Not only did Suparna’s mother not approve of this tradition but Suparna did not approve of it either. She sympathized with her mother but could not support her openly. She felt, ‘What is the point in giving a saree to a person who was in no way related to them?’     

Father never found a suitable answer to calm mother down that day either. He became very helpless. He went to the shop and returned with a few sarees for mother. No one could make out whether she did not like the sarees or she did not want them out of anger. She did not even look at the sarees. At last Suparna went herself to the shop and selected a beautiful saree and got it for her mother. However, her mother did not put on the saree that day. As a result, Suparna also felt sad for her father.

No one was happy because such an incident happened on Dussehra. Indeed there was a feast in the evening but neither her mother nor her father was happy. Mother’s jealousy for the potter woman started increasing gradually from that day forward. Whenever she wanted to hurt my father, she used this potter woman as a weapon.

Suparna felt very sad. She could never understand why her mother was so angry. Her father had no relation with the potter woman; he only had a blind belief based on a folktale.

Suparna was making breakfast as her thoughts traveled in her past. Suddenly the telephone rang, rousing her from her thoughts. Suparna thought maybe Jaydev would answer the phone call. However, Jaydev did not want to give up reading the newspaper and the children were still sleeping. So she put the gas burner on slow and ran to pick up the phone.    

“Hello.” There was no sound only complete silence from the other side.

“Hello, Hello, Hello,” Suparna made her presence felt but there was still no response from the other side as if someone was trying to test her patience. Finally she could hear the sound of the receiver being put back.

In the meantime the paratha, the hand-made butter-fried bread, had turned hard on the pan. Suparna turned it to the other side and got involved in her chores. After ten minutes, the telephone rang again. Suparna was walking through and answered the call.

“Hello.” Even this time the receiver was kept away. Suparna got irritated. Where were those blank calls coming from anyway? Suparna kept the receiver back. Jaydev who was reading his newspaper asked, “Who is there?”

“How would I know?” Suparna replied quite irritated. She quietly kept the receiver back without saying a word.

“It must have gotten cut. Maybe it was one-sided and that could be reason why nothing could be heard,” Jaydev said.

“No,” said Suparna with certainty. “I can understand when it gets cut. I have heard the sound of the receiver being kept.”

“Why do you bother? It could be some wrong number,” Jaydev replied.

Suparna returned to the kitchen. In the meantime, the seeds in the pan had already burnt into smoke after spluttering.  Now she was very irritated. She washed the pan under the running water from the tap and started muttering to herself, “I am the only one in this house who does everything. I have to cook, clean the showcase, answer the phone, and serve tea a number of times each day. No one wants to get up from their seats.”

Jaydev was used to these complaints. He did not pay any heed to the words or maybe the words did not reach him. There was a phone call maybe a blank call. Why was she so disturbed and irritated about that? Was she becoming like her mother?

She knew a few things about Jaydev too. She had read some of his mails without his knowledge.  She had read all the stuff Jaydev wrote to that girl. Jaydev chatted on the net after everyone went to bed. She was aware of that too. Sometimes he drafted the letters and kept them in a secret file to send them when he got a chance. She hoped it was not that girl who was calling. Jaydev had once written to her, “My dearest Sephali darling, your boobs are……..your…… your …..”


Jaydev and the children were sitting around the dining table then and Suparna kept the breakfast for everyone on the table. Jaydev enquired, “Why didn’t you have any for yourself?”

 “I’ll have it afterwards. I have to take a bath and do my pooja, my prayers. I will have it after that.”

 “Do you think God will not listen to your pooja if you eat your breakfast first and then offer Him prayers second?”

“How could you say such a thing?” said Suparna quite irritated. “First of all, I got up late on Dussehra day and on top of that, I will have my food without taking my bath and without offering my prayers?”

“All right then. You finish your pooja. We will have our breakfast together.” Jaydev got up from the dining table and went into the other room.

 A short while later, Suparna suggested to Jaydev, “It will take a long time. Why don’t you go ahead and eat?”

 “How long can you take? It’s a holiday today. I’m going to wait.”

Suparna could not think of any response. She did not want to get into an argument on Dussehra day, afraid of picking a fight. She entered the bathroom in a hurry. She finished her bath as soon as possible under the shower putting oil but without any soap. Until that day, they had always had their breakfast together. There was no exception to that unless there was any real inconvenience. They shared the curry, the fries and the pickles; everything was shared. Jaydev would quickly finish his food intentionally, leaving behind the best bits like pieces of liver or cheese. He would eat a single piece of fish and leave three pieces for Suparna. He would never listen to her even if she shouted at him.

When Suparna came out of the bathroom, the children had finished their breakfast and Jaydev was on the sofa reading the newspaper. On the shelf, Suparna had kept all the idols of the gods and goddesses. Some were in the form of pictures and some were in the form of sculptures; some were made of terracotta and some were made from china clay; some were in silver and some were made of aluminum. She put a flower on every one of them as they were all different from each other. She put chandan and sindoor, the sandal paste and vermillion spots. She chanted different mantras for each of them.

When Suparna went to collect water for the pooja she saw that Jaydev had thrown away the newspaper and switched on the TV. On the table, the food was still lying in the same way as she had served them. Suparna was feeling uneasy because Jaydev had got up from the breakfast table. Then she thought, ‘was Jaydev trying to placate her? Was he able to understand why Suparna was so upset early in the morning? Or maybe that was not the case at all. The phone call may have been a wrong number. There was the possibility of a one-sided call as well. A mere phone call should not shake her confidence. And the incident about the incident, it could be ignored. Who does anything serious on the ‘net anyway? That’s just play. How would anyone know whether it was really a man or a woman; young or old? Whether it was a Sephali or Deepali? What guarantee was there that a person with that name really existed?’

During pooja, Suparna fell into a different prayer that day. “Do you realize, my Lord, how my mind is getting filled with stupid things?” Suparna prayed as if trying to make HIM a witness as she offered oblation in the brass plate. “I am also a human being like Jaydev, no? Please let this life pass through without any calamity! Otherwise like mother, I will never be able to understand the love Jaydev has for me.” Suparna uttered these words as a soliloquy.  

Suparna thought back after mother’s funeral, on the tenth day sraddha ceremony, the priest who had performed the rites told Suparna, “Dear, there was tremendous love between your parents.”

“How would you know that?” Suparna had asked him in a sad voice.

“Would the fire burn so bright in the pot if there was no love?” he had responded, looking at the fire.

Suparna was not aware of the relation between fire and love. However, she could imagine her mother was always anxious to get the love of her father throughout her life. Was it also possible her mother could never understand the love of her husband either?

No, Suparna would never let that happen to herself. She and Jaydev would belong to each other throughout their entire lives, during happiness and sorrow; when they were in the midst of emotions and imagination; and in all adversity. Suparna smiled to herself and thought, “Oh my God! Am I praying or indulging in something else?” She started ringing the bell vigorously while performing pooja and prayed as if trying to control her feelings. She realised it was already ten o’clock. By now in her parents’ town, the guns must have been fired in the royal household. There must have been shows of the soldiers fighting. Suparna said “Did you know that during the Dussehra festival, the Kanaka Durga deity, the golden idol of mother goddess from the royal household, is taken around the town and then the statue is installed in the temple. After that, the guns are fired and soldiers fight with their rusted swords jumping around and instigating fights.”

 “I have heard these things almost three hundred times now,” Jaydev laughed.

“I still listen to your stories even after hearing them a thousand times,” Suparna responded in kind.

The clouds which had hovered over her in the morning had now disappeared from her mind. Suparna said, “We should go and get some sweets. It is Dussehra. Someone may come over.”

Jaydev replied “Let’s go to a restaurant for dinner this evening.”

“That’s not a bad idea. We have not been able to go out for a long time.”

As Jaydev was going out, the phone rang loudly. It was not Suparna but Jaydev who picked up the call this time.

“Hello?” he asked and became quiet for a while. His back was towards Suparna so he could not notice the way she was looking at him. She could only hear Jaydev saying, “I’m busy now. I will call you back.” And he replaced the receiver hurriedly.

Suparna now realized, like her mother with her father, it was totally impossible to understand the love Jaydev had possessed for her. She imagined, after their deaths, people would say they were made for each other just as they had said about her own parents.

(Translated by Gopa Nayak
Edited by Paul McKenna)