Being Women

Return Of The Past

As Titi stretched her hand to reach the stacked tea trays the shawl slipped from her shoulder exposing her back and arms – bare, save the straps of her nightdress, the one Sohini had assured her would not look daring in the confines of the bedroom.

Cupping the hot mug in her palms Sohini warmed up her cold hands and took a long sip of tea to ward off the morning chill. The gentle rays of the early morning sun were yet to give off any heat, the leaves still bore the signs of heavy night dew and there were only a few sparrows and a lone sunbird hopping around on the wet grass to keep her company. This was her favourite time of the day; Sohini enjoyed this hour of solitude before the rest of the neighbourhood woke up to the cacophony of the newspaper delivery boy and the milkman. The light shawl rested on her knees, but rapt in her thoughts she had forgotten to wrap it around her slim shoulders.

After all these days of hustle-bustle, the house was once again quiet. The guests had finally departed yesterday although the Vermillion dabbed slightly bedraggled banana shoots and the tender green coconuts atop the decorated pots at the doorway, were evidence enough that it had been the venue of an auspicious event in the recent past. Sohini’s son Arjun had got married two days back. The three-day-long ceremony ended last evening with the reception.

Sohini had gone to bed quite late, only after she finished tidying up the house, picking up the litter-strewn around, straightening the covers and fluffing the cushions and pillows. She was exhausted yet her body clock woke her up at the usual time. She was content to spend some intimate moments with herself after the chaos of the past week. And despite the winter chill, her heart was warmer; perhaps warmed by her success and achievements. True, she had a false start but then she got up and dusted herself off and made a dash to the finishing line.

Arjun’s wedding had brought up the memories of her own marriage to the surface from the darkest corner of her soul where she had repressed all her pain. Her marriage was not even close to happy but Sohini could never go back to her parents’ home. She had chosen Akash against the wishes of her parents. She had clung to her pride. But fate, for once, had intervened favourably. When Akash, a traffic police sergeant was mowed down by a rogue truck driver, late at night, Arjun was just a year old. The driver was never arrested but Sohini had considered it to be a divine intervention. She had readily shunned all colours, playing the dutiful widow when in reality she was eternally grateful to the absconding driver. Since Akash was killed on duty the state government had offered her a job under compassionate grounds in the home department. Sohini had readily accepted although going to work while leaving behind a toddler was incredibly hard. Her in-laws who stayed in a district town, had offered to look after Arjun but Sohini had refused outright to either leave her job or part with Arjun. She was unwilling to depend on anyone, other than herself. After the death of Akash’s parents, his siblings had not bothered to be kept in touch except for a sister but they have never been close. Sohini had embraced widowhood wholeheartedly, sticking to light coloured sarees, hair tied in a neat tight bun and wore no jewellery except for a slim chain around her neck, studs in her ears and a tiny nose pin — the only touch of defiance. She had even given up wearing a bindi. Sohini would remind one of a lifelong yogin, an ascetic – who had renounced all gaiety in life. The world knew she grieved for Akash. The pretence also kept away the men who prowled around vulnerable women.

On the wall of her living room, hung a huge photograph of Akash in his uniform. Every day, Sohini wiped the glass clean with her pallu, and changed the water of the decorative bowl which she then filled with night jasmine from her garden. Its heady fragrance kept away the scent of alcohol reeked breath that still lingered in her memory. Her bedroom was stark, devoid of personal knick-knacks or a shrine dedicated to her dead husband and the lacy underwears tucked away in the drawer were the only evidence of her underlying sensuality.

 Arjun knew nothing of her memories and he looked up to his dead father as the martyr who had died on the line of duty. However, Sohini knew she would not be able to manage to raise a teenage boy all alone, without a father figure By the time he turned ten Sohini had got Arjun admitted to a reputed residential school for boys, run by missionaries. As the only child of a slain policeman, Arjun easily secured a seat although he had sailed through the admission test with flying colours. It also signalled the beginning of a decade long struggle for Sohini. She worked six days a week and on every Sunday she would board the train for a two-hour long journey to the suburbs where the school was located. She spent the rest of the day with Arjun before undertaking the return journey to reach home late in the evening. Throughout the week she would cook various delicacies and squirrel them away in takeaway containers for Arjun and then drag the heavy bag full of goodies across the city on Sunday. 

 And he had done her proud. He had secured a rank among the top ten during his board examinations and got an engineering degree from a reputed institution. He had landed up a software developer job in Bengaluru. She didn’t understand much about his job profile but it left him devoid of company most of the time. He had always been a loner but to Sohini it felt his job was isolating him further. That was the sole reason why Sohini wanted Arjun to get married at such a young age. Her son had agreed readily but raised his hands in mock surrender when Sohini suggested he should choose his own partner. “Ma, you know me inside out. You are the best person to choose a partner for me. I will gladly tie the knot with whoever you select,” Arjun had said. She had acceded. Having studied in a boys’ school he didn’t know many girls. And a little age gap made couples all the more compatible, Sohini had reasoned.  

One of her colleagues had brought this proposal and she had met Titi informally at a get-together. And she liked what she saw. A vivacious girl, Titi brought joy to the lives of those around her. Her eyes twinkled playfully as she chatted and laughed gaily and it was obvious nobody was a stranger to her. Her upbringing was strictly middle class – her parents were school teachers and Sohini felt she would be the perfect match for Arjun – her jovial ways would balance out Arjun’s shy and reticent nature. Her son would be the perfect husband – caring but not dependent. Sohini has raised him well. Unlike other bachelors, he was not at all sloppy and could cook a decent meal. As a child of a single mother, he had helped Sohini in the kitchen and knew to pick up after himself. 

After the wedding was fixed and Arjun returned to Bengaluru, Sohini and Titi had grown closer as they shopped together, buying sarees and jewellery for the wedding trousseau. Colours once again appeared in Sohini’s monochrome life as she bought sarees and dresses in the brightest red, orange, pink and yellow for Titi. When her parents objected to buying sleeveless blouses, lehengas and strappy nightdress Sohini indulged her. After spending decades tightly coiled up like a spring her overwrought nerves were for the first time calm, revelling in inner peace. With a smile on her face, Sohini stood up and carried her mug to the kitchen sink. She must start the preparations for breakfast. After the rich spicy meals of the past few days, both her son and daughter-in-law might look forward to something simple. Titi was already in the kitchen, warming milk for coffee. As Sohini gave a beaming smile and greeted Titi with a hearty “Good Morning” a look at Titi’s averted face made her heart clench in terror. There was something familiar about Titi. Her pale, chalky white face was lowered to evade meeting her mother-in-law’s eyes and Sohini suddenly recognised why she was familiar with that look. As Titi stretched her hand to reach the stacked tea trays the shawl slipped from her shoulder exposing her back and arms – bare, save the straps of her nightdress, the one Sohini had assured her would not look daring in the confines of the bedroom. There were scratches on her back but it was the darkening bruise on her upper arm where the fingers of a rough hand had left a mark, that stood out. Sohini could not help the strangled cry that came out of her throat. She recognised in Titi, the Sohini who had stood similarly 24 years ago – bruised and battered like a bird with a broken wing. Doubts at once assailed her as Sohini wondered whether she should have bared her soul to Arjun about the bitter experience of her own marriage. Perhaps then she could have imparted her son a valuable lesson – the one about the importance of consent.

By Anindita Chowdhury

Anindita Chowdhury is a special correspondent of the English daily, The Statesman. She is based in Hyderabad. Apart from reporting, she writes short stories and essays with special focus on history, particularly the social and cultural aspects of the bygone era. She can be contacted at

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