The Matriarch

Hema’s feet swelled up a lot these days, like hot pooris. The doctors told her she needed to drink more water but she could not manage more than a few sips. A habit of a lifetime. Don’t drink too much water. You don’t have to visit public toilets. Not in the condition they had been, anyway. Holding it in was better. You always paid a price for holding it all in. In her case a dysfunctional bladder and tired kidneys.

There was a familiar banging of pots and pans from the kitchen. ‘Maadevi, you are late today!’ she called out and an insolent grunt was all she heard. Maadevi was scrubbing hard, at the sink. ‘How many times have I told you not to leave the water running?’ Maadevi’s song could now be heard as the waterfall over the mountains of vessels was temporarily turned off. A ridiculous song about a milkmaid being waylaid by an amorous lad. The audacity of it all! Would the help have behaved this way, even a few years ago? People certainly spoke their mind these day. Bristling at Maadevi’s arrogance, Hema hobbled to the fridge and pulled out a couple of packets of vegetables. The greengrocer had sent her a lot of mint, so she decided she could make mint chutney for lunch. She decided on dal tadka, tempered lentils, that would go well with her potol and potato fry. The others could have mutton curry.

The cooker was making insistent noises on the stove. Karuna descended from her boudoir upstairs, completely unapologetic about the time. She made herself a cup of tea, without offering Hema any, and helped herself to breakfast. Glaring at a blithely indifferent Karuna, who was tucking into the still warm khichdi, Hema felt like throwing a knife at her.

‘Shameless,’ thought Hema.  Hema’s voice went up a notch. ‘Maadevi, stop singing that abominable song! This is a respectable household. And come early from tomorrow. Things need to be done at the right time.’

The song was now about the travails of a young bride. Really, there was no respite from Maadevi’s musical battering of her senses!

‘Where is he?’

‘Still dusting the furniture.’

What was wrong with the world these days? Men doing house work? Such a far cry from her days.

She looked at her father who lay sunning himself, rendered immobile after a stroke. Now he had known how to be a man. Though he stopped talking to her, and avoided her like the plague after she had come to live in his home, with her little girl, after being widowed, he still commanded respect.  She had accepted his treatment of her then, but the bitterness and chagrin continued to nest in her. She could neither forgive nor forget. Now, though he lay on the bed, in the verandah, a ‘zinda laash’ – a living corpse- his mind was still sharp.  She deliberately walked in front of him these days, fully aware that his eyes followed her mutely. She made it a point to look at him with impudence, knowing fully well that he did not even like having her in the same room. He would throw a fit if she appeared in front of him.

If he could.

Her mother, Annapurna, spent the better part of her day tending to his every need, totally in his power though he couldn’t say a word. Hema approved. The reins of the household now belonged to her.

Annapurna had helped Hema all she could. She still remembered the day when she was sent back after her husband died, Annapurna was the only one who had held her and comforted her. Soon after the mandatory period of mourning, she made her daughter take up tailoring classes and insisted she get a diploma. Her father had been all for sealing her fate as unpaid domestic help, to be relegated to dark corners when required. Which father behaved this way? In an imperfect world, evidently.

Annapurna gave her packed lunches surreptitiously and paid her fees on the sly. Hema still remembered her abject humiliation when she had to fend off unwanted advances from men who thought she was easy game. She had fought back angry tears, back home, and told Annapurna she wanted to give up, stay at home. Her mother had hissed at her, eyes flashing angrily, saying, ‘You need to be independent. People are going to walk all over you otherwise. Now stop feeling sorry for yourself and get a grip!’ Strange words from her mother-a woman who was an eternally devoted slave to her husband.

Anyway, Hema managed to land a job at the municipal office after all the struggle. She fit in, with her austere dress and sober manners. She had a good permanent income and suddenly she did not feel all that useless or helpless. No, her status as a widow with all its perks did not change, but she was treated as a woman of power, whose opinion mattered, because she was earning. Or so she thought.

Her daughter, Swarna, was now ready to be married. Hema took on herself, the entire responsibility of her dowry, trousseau and the wedding arrangements. Her brother was relieved that he did not have to fight the formidable Karuna to help Swarna get married.

Hema took care of everything. Furniture, wardrobe and their groceries, even after the wedding, nothing was too expensive for Swarna’s wishes. Hema did nothing for herself, it was all for her beloved daughter. In a way, remarked Karuna rather maliciously, Hema was living her life through her daughter. Hema bristled at the thinly-veiled implication. Was nothing sacred anymore? Sacrosanct?

Karuna seethed with anger whenever Hema got some gold ornaments made for Swarna every Diwali. After one extravagant gift of six gold bangles, Karuna could not help saying, ‘Some people have all the luck. We offer support to the destitute, a roof over the head, but the gifts go elsewhere.’  Hema did not eat for two days after that. She sat on the bench in front of the house and enlightened every passer by the treatment meted out to her. People flocked to her as she circulated the juicy details of Karuna’s personal life. Really that woman had a voracious appetite, tiring out her husband… Her gold was all impure… She stood on six inch heels under her sari to create the illusion of height…she wore three petticoats under her sari…she was all skin and bones…she grudged her only niece’s happiness…and she treated a ‘beybass, laachaar vidhwaa’- a poor old widow- most abominably….she did not allow her to eat more than once a day…she was eyeing her money…she made her mother-in-law wash her clothes…she made her husband clean the house… on and on and on.

Karuna’s cheeks burned as the news travelled to her. She hastily made amends by buying Swarna a yellow and red benarasi saree and Hema a cream creation. Hema stopped her tirade, but the damage was already done. Karuna could scarcely hold her head high in public and Hema retained her unassailable position as the undisputed queen of the household.

Karuna never forgave her for that and did her best, at every given opportunity, to remind Hema of her inadequate status. She defied her at every given opportunity. No, not directly, but insidiously, in ways that got under her skin. Flaunting her husband, her children, talking about them with Swarna, deliberately leaving Hema out of it all. Swarna was unaware of the undercurrents and laughed openly with Karuna. Karuna took her out shopping, got her chaat at Mangalbhai’s shop and soon Karuna and Swarna were as thick as thieves. Hema watched balefully as Karuna played this game openly, without holding back.

Swarna continued to be loving to her mother, but obviously preferred the flamboyant and cheerful company of Karuna.  Swarna never asked Hema to visit. Her parents-in-law would not approve.  Karuna and her family, however, made frequent visits to Swarna, bearing gifts each time. They refused all hospitality, saying ‘Beti ke ghar mein, hum paani bhi nahin peetay.’  -We do not even accept water from a married daughter-, implying that once a daughter is married off, no claim could ever be made on her time or money.

Hema could have visited, albeit shamelessly, in the eyes of society, but she was too proud. She wanted an invitation, an informal one at least. But who would invite her? All occasions that were auspicious did not acknowledge her presence and there were no other. Hema pretended not to care, but care she did. Deeply. Swarna drifted away from her. She did not need Hema as she had done earlier. The wedge had been driven into the mother-daughter relationship.

Karuna had blood on her hands.

Maadevi’s grumbling brought her back to the present. There was a heap of clothes to wash and Maadevi was saying she wanted a day off, all the while scrubbing away at the hemline of a petticoat. Hema reluctantly agreed, knowing festivals were very important to Maadevi and her clan. Everybody had a life. She had tried to buy Maadevi’s affection by sharing her meals with her, not leftovers but ladlefuls of dal and spoonfuls of curry before she, herself, even had her lunch. Hema also gave her the dishes the privileged Karuna and family would have, for she, herself, was not entitled to meat dishes. Nothing impressed Maadevi. She knew exactly why Hema was showering her with unsolicited help. She grew more impertinent with time.

Festivals especially made her feel lonely. Karuna would flaunt her married status by donning the brightest saris and colours that reflected the gemstone encrusted jewellery. Matching glass bangles occupied a place of pride on her dresser. The sindoor seemed to be laid on thicker than ever. Hema felt a mixture of sorrow and resentment, but knew she could not gain the upper hand about this. She was a widow and there was nothing that she could do about it. She could rule the roost but she would be reminded constantly that she was not one of them. She would never belong. And now she was a widow- a victim of malevolent stars, afflicted with a body that was slowing her down. She needed to rest, put her feet up and let it all go. Let go completely. And then what? Be at Karuna’s mercy? She would rather die.

Hema walked to her wardrobe and took out from its innermost recesses, the sari, her husband had given her just before the accident, the green and yellow silk that she had never worn,  could not ever wear.  It was destined not even to be unfolded. It smelt musty, just like her. Age was certainly catching up. The disrespect she had to put up with, the assaults on her sanity, when would it ever end? She knew she would give anything to get back all she had lost, but no one could turn back time.

She boiled some water on the stove and filled a tub with cold water. She poured the hot water into it, tested the temperature and added salt. She sat there looking out of the window, her feet soaking in the water. She heard Karuna serving food to her family and random words drifted her way. She heard joyous laughter sporadically.

Bitter acceptance seeped into her. She knew she had be this scheming, practical person, controlling all around her till one day she had to let go.

Till then she would continue to stifle and be stifled in return.

But now she had scores to settle.

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