As she jostled to get inside the bus, one strap of her bag gave away.
Instinctively Rina clutched the other strap tightly with her left hand but due to the weight, the bag collided with the side of the seat near her and there was a “thud” sound. The “thud” inside her heart was even louder.
Rina quickly led her way towards the last row of the bus where only two seats were vacant. Even before settling down on her seat, Rina anxiously opened her bag and groped for her treasure. She felt the smooth, cold texture of her cell phone and with a beating heart slowly took it out.
“Thank God !” . Rina heaved a sigh of relief.
She checked the time on her phone. Nowadays she found it more convenient to check time on her cell than on her wrist watch. It was 5.50 pm. She till had 10 minutes to go. Rina took out her hands-free from the money zipper of her bag and plugged it with her cell phone.
Mita, her sister has gifted her the cell phone four months back on her birthday. Rina had made a face and with pretentious anger admonished her sister. “Mita, you should not have given such an expensive gift !” said Rina, looking and caressing the phone lovingly.
It was beautiful. The latest model of Samsung.
“Didi ! I had no choice. I have been after you to buy a smart phone for almost 6 months. I cannot send you whatsapp messages , send photographs to you. Now you better start using this from today !”
It was not that Rina did not want to buy a smart phone. But somehow or the other she had not been able to get around buying one. There was always some extra expense every month. Last month, Alok’s sister along with her husband and her 5 year old son, Munti, had visited them for a week. It was Munti’s first time in Delhi. Rina had taken a day off on a Friday and all of them had gone to Agra, Mathura and Vrindavan. It was a lovely trip and Rina had enjoyed every moment of it.
Babi , her 8 year old daughter was awestruck when she saw the Taj Mahal.
“Ma, it is Shwet Pathar [i]?” Though they stayed in Delhi, it was Babi’s first time too in Agra.
Babi had a strange fascination for marble stones. Whenever and wherever she found any white pebble , she would run to Rina with her treasure and a big smile on her face.
“Ma, ma.. See what I found ! Swet Pathar !”
When Rina looked at her daughter’s glowing face, she did not have the heart to say that it was just an ordinary pebble. It was not ordinary to Babi. Ah ! Childhood and it’s bliss !
“Yes ! It is so very beautiful Babi ! “
And Babi would run to secure the stone in the small cotton pouch along with her other “Swet Pathar”s.
Sunday night, after returning home, just before she went to sleep Rina asked Alok “How much did we spend ?”
Alok was changing into his pajamas.
“Around 7 thousand “
“Oh ! So much ?? “
“Well, petrol, food, two night stay. It was good that Samar paid for the gifts. Otherwise, it would have been even more.”
The month before, Alok’s scooter had to be serviced. The other month, her mother-in-law was sick . The Doctor’s fees, medicines are so expensive. And almost every month there is some occasion of the other. Weddings, birthday parties and what not !
With all these expenses, the smart phone for herself was the last priority for Rina. But now she was glad that she possessed one. She was not very conversant with whatsapp yet and she found it a bit cumbersome typing messages. But now she really enjoyed her hour long travel back home.
It was 6 pm. The chartered bus from Connaught Place to Janakpuri started moving and Rina plugged in her handsfree earpods into her ears and put on the FM channel. FM Gold was her favourite channel and she loved the songs of Mukesh, Rafi and Geeta Dutt.
She hummed softly along with the lilting tunes waiting for 6.30 pm.
At 6.30 pm, the signature tune of “Mahila Mahal” filled her with an unusual trepidation. Will her question be answered today ? Rina was hooked to this program for the last two months. Mahila Mahal was a 15 minutes program, aired on the FM Gold channel, every Monday to Friday, from 6.30 to 6.45 pm. Usually there was a 10 minute talk or a discussion varied topics related to women and at the end of the program, one letter from the audience was read out and discussed.
“Today’s topic of discussion is about the health of women in the age group of 35 to 45 and we have a panel consisting of Dr. Shikha Verma, a nutritionist and Dr. Renu Goyal, a leading gynecologist. “
Rina liked the bold and confident voice of the anchor Ms. Aditi Roy. She listened to the various tips given by the panelists about food and exercise, why milk and other dairy products was so important for women, how we should try to fit is bit of stretching and cardio in our busy lives etc. but Rina actually waited for the last 5 minutes.
Will her letter be selected to be read out ? She waited with bated breath.
“Thank you Dr. Goyal and Dr. Verma for your valuable tips and advise. I am sure that our audience will benefit from them and put these thing in practice.
And now I will read out the letter from our audience.
This is Mrs Dipti Mishra from Jhumri Tilaiya, she writes that she wants to pursue higher studies but her father-in-law is dead against it. What should she do ?
Well Dipti, there is a saying that where there is a will there is a way. I understand that being a married woman , you have a lot of responsibilities and you have to understand the sensibilities of your in laws and your husband.
But we women have to realize that we have a responsibility towards ourselves too. We are answerable to our dreams, our desires, albeit within the periphery of our relations and duties.
So, go for it. Try cajoling, sweet talking to drama and anger if needed. I am sure that at the end you will win. We women will have to win !
Tune in to Mahila Mahal tomorrow, same time ! Till then , bye from Aditi !”
Rina was disappointed.
She had written a letter almost a month back. When will it be read out ? The answer was very important for her. Should she write another one , Rina wondered as she put the cell phone in her bag. Her stop was just 10 minutes away.
Babi studied in std. 2. She just abhorred mathematics and did quite poorly in her half yearly exams. Rina was a commerce graduate and she was very good in maths in school. But Babi was just not interested in studying maths!
Everyday, from 8.30 to 9.30 pm, Rina taught Babi. She made her complete her homework and tried to keep her a bit ahead of the class. Alok usually came back from work at 7.30 pm was too tired to sit with Babi and her studies.
Once or twice Rina had asked Alok to make Babi complete her maths homework, but when she made silly mistakes, Alok was impatient and shouted at the terrified Babi.
“Don’t ! She is just a kid !” Babi’s tear stained face looked at her mother for support.
“You know how much tension there is at work ! And on top of that she makes these silly mistakes ! “
“Well ! You scold her even on Sundays !” Rina would try to control her anger. She did not want Babi to see her parents quarreling over her.
“She has to improve in maths otherwise she will not be able to crack any competitive exams – be it medical or engineering !”
“Leave it ! I will take care ! “ Rina took away the teary eyed, sleepy Babi for dinner.
But she was worried. She did not know what to do . Maybe she will get a maths tutor for Babi. But home tuitions were very expensive, not less than Rs 400 per hour !
So, her letter to Mahila Mahal went like this .
My 8 year old daughter does not want to study maths. I have been trying to create interest in her for maths but as soon as she is given sums to solve, her face becomes glum and she does not concentrate. In her exams, she has just got 70% in maths whereas the class highest is 100%. Just because of low marks in maths, her rank is 11th in the class.
Please help me and tell me ways to improve her marks in the subject.
Rina Biswas, Janak Puri, New Delhi
Today too, her letter was not read out in the program. As Rina pressed the calling bell, she thought of sending the letter again.
“Maa !” Babi came tripping . The part time maid opened the door.
Rina kissed Babi .
“Bhabhi kya banega ? “ The maid looked at her expectantly.
“Take out the bringal and one tomato from the fridge and cut it in small pieces. I will be there in 5 minutes” .
Rina quickly went inside the bedroom to change into a daily wear salwar kameez. Rina was always rushed for time and this was her busiest time of the day. The part time maid helped with the cooking.
She prepared roti for her mother-in-law, Alok and Rina and rice for Babi. Another vegetable dish was needed for tiffin for Alok and Rina’s office and breakfast for his mother. Rina preferred to cook the non vegetarian food herself. Babi could not eat without Mutton or Chicken or fish. If none of these were available then they had to do with egg curry.
Rina removed her sari , folded it and put it under the mattress. Ironing the sari costed Rs 15. By putting it carefully folded beneath the mattress, she could wear the sari at least three times more without getting it ironed.
Rina worked in the accounts department of Kapoor and Brothers Ltd. The company manufactured bond papers which are used in laser printers. Rina liked to wear saris to office. She had several Bengal cotton ones and her colleagues, most of them wore salwar suits, would swoon over the colours and the way she carried the sari.
Rina was slim, fair and petite and all the colours suited her. She wore her long hair either in a bun which fell on the nape of her neck or she braided it. Being a Bengali, her hair too was a matter of envy to many in her office. She was not beautiful in the classic sense but there was something about her which people found very soothing and serene.
Rina worked liked clockwork.
After changing, Rina first cleared up her mother-in-law’s room.
Alok’s mother was 82 years old and did not let Uma, the maid come inside her room. Rina quickly supervise the dinner and planned for the next day.
She prepared dal pakora for Alok and gave it to him along with a cup of tea at 7.45 pm, just when he started reading the newspaper after coming home.
By 8.30 pm, the maid left and Rina sat down with Babi with her studies.
At 9.30 pm, all of them sat for dinner. As usual Babi was so sleepy that Rina had to feed her. After putting her to bed, Rina had her dinner, cleared up the table, cleaned the kitchen , filled the fridge bottle with water from aquaguard, cleaned the table wipers, sprayed the cockroach repellent , kept the cups , saucers , spoons ready for tea in the morning, kept a bottle of water in her mother in law’s bedside table and finally when she went inside the bathroom for changing into a nightie, it was past 11 pm.
Ah ! What a bliss to be able to wear the soft cotton nightwear.
She came inside her bedroom. Babi was fast asleep beside Alok.
Rina smiled as she looked at her innocent face. No amount of cajoling could persuade Babi to sleep with her granny. Her favourite place was between Alok and Rina. On weekdays Alok did not mind but he made a fuss on the weekends. By now Rina was a master of the balancing act and she knew how to please both her husband and her cute daughter.
Rina sat beside the bedside lamp, emptied the contents from her bag and put them inside the other one which she had. Can this one be repaired , she wondered.
Nah ! She will have to get a new one … maybe next month.
As she lay down, Rina embraced her daughter and heard the peaceful , rhythmic breathing of her husband.
The day ends today.
Tomorrow again it will start at a breakneck speed at 6 am , when her alarm clock rings, getting Babi ready for school ….
She started slipping into slumber.
This was HER world. Her Own.
Rina was busy matching the entries in the ledger file in office, when her phone rang. It was an unknown number.
She frowned. She did not give her cell number to many people.
“Rina … your phone is ringing … “ Nihar shouted from the table beside her.
“Oh Sorry !” She quipped. She should have kept it on the silent mode. Alok did show her how to do it.
“Is it Rina ? “ A sweet female voice … who ?
“Yes. But who are you ? “
“Guess, guess !”
“Hmm… I can’t ! Tell me !”
“Hey ! It is Mahua …” the person at the other end almost shrieked.
For a few seconds Rina was silent. Her brain was processing the information.
Suddenly it clicked. Mahua … Motu Mahua … her best friend in school !
“Oh My God ! Mahua ! How are you ? Where are you ? Motu , How did you get my number ?” Rina squealed.
Everybody almost dropped their work and looked amazedly at Rina.
“Oh Sorry !” Rina quickly walked out of the office room into the outer corridor which led to the elevator.
The squeals and whoops from the other end continued.
“Hey! I am not Motu anymore !” Mahua laughed. “You know what, I am in Delhi, came from New Jersey about 3 weeks back with my husband. By chance I met Indrani at a cinema hall yesterday and she gave me your number and here I am … talking to my best pal ever !”
Indrani was also their classmate and her son also studied in the same school as Babi. It was again a chance meeting with Indrani a few years back and they have visited each other’s place a couple of times. Pradeep, Indrani’s husband went along quite well with Alok.
“Rina, Where are you now ? Can we meet ? I am dying to meet you girl ! “
“Oh ! But I am in office , in CP “
“Please , please please… take half day leave today and let us go for lunch at Berco’s Garden. It is in CP , so you won’t have a problem. I have a vehicle which will drop me there in an hour’s time, that will be around 2.30 pm”
“Now ?? But … “
“No buts Rina… I am leaving for USA tomorrow night and I will return only after two years … “ . Mahua’s despondent tone made Rina’s decision easy.
She walked into the manager’s room and asked permission for leave. Rina was a sincere and diligent worker . Her Manager smiled and approved her leave.
Rina walked out of her office and went inside the ATM just beside her office building. She withdrew Rs 5000 cash from the ICICI bank account… should be more than enough for lunch .
It will be her treat today. She remembered her school days, how she used to snatch Mahua’s lunch … “Motu … no need to eat … you will become fatter “ Then they would both run around each other and share their lunch.
Mahua, dear dear Mahua, Rina felt so excited.
And how they laughed and shrieked. The people in the Berco’s Garden restaurant gave them dirty glances and then they pinched each other to talk softly. They became giggly schoolgirls again.
It was after ages that Rina laughed so much ! They had to catch up on twenty years of gossip and talks. First crushes. School pranks, husbands, kids … it was never ending. Time melted away in seconds.
Their eyes were wet when they had to part … they promised to keep in touch.
Mahua dropped Rina at the chartered bus stop at 5.45 pm.
Mahua had pleaded to pay for the lunch. But Rina just would not have it.
She enjoyed spending the money on her bestest pal. Rs 2500 did not compare with the joy of meeting each other after twenty years !
Her bag and Babi’s tuition can wait another month, does not matter …
Rina was still in daze when the bus started at 6 pm.
Mahua and all their talks were reverberating in her mind. It was already 6.40 pm when she remembered about Mahila Mahal and quickly put on her earplugs and Aditi’s familiar voice played in her ears. The question being answered had already been read out .
“… and we women should remember that we have to be assertive. If we do not stand up for ourselves, no one will. We do not want any special privileges. We just want to be treated as equals. Madhavi, what might seem innocuous to you is just an age old system speaking. Our minds have been trained to think like that. We have to realize that ourselves and break away from it. We also have to help the people around us break away from stereotypes. The path is difficult. The tunnel is long and dark. But yes, there is light at the end of it …“
“That was definitely not my letter being read out”, Rina muttered to herself.
But there was something about Aditi’s words…. Rina did not understand it fully, but somehow it echoed in her consciousness.
Maybe it was her instinct as to what would happen later in the evening.
Rina eagerly waited for Alok to return home. She wanted to describe her lunch date, their giggling, the undiluted happiness … everything.
“Ma , why are you smiling ? “ Babi pulled her dupatta.
“Babi” Rina smiled at her little daughter “Let Baba come back, I will tell you about my best friend !”
“Your best friend Ma? Tell me , tell me … “ Babi had this habit of jumping continuously whenever she was happy or excited.
When at 7.30 pm, the door bell rang, Rina ran to open the door.
She almost snatched Alok’s briefcase and put it in the corner of the room and with big smile turned towards him
“You know what happened today … what … is anything the matter ?” . Rina stopped short and looked at Alok. His face was grave. “Anything wrong at work ? “
“Rina, hope you have not misplaced the ATM of the ICICI Bank. There are so many fraudsters nowadays, so I am worried. See …” Alok showed her the message in his phone .. Rs 5000 withdrawn from the ATM. “I saw the message about an hour back and I did not call you in case you got worried.“
Rina heaved a sigh of relief. “Oh that ! Yes , I have withdrawn the money from the ATM near my office”.
It was natural for Alok to get worried.
Rina never withdrew cash. Six years back when Rina had started working, she had given this joint account number as her salary account. At the beginning of the month, Alok took out money from this account and gave it to Rina for running the household. Every month Alok transferred some amount from his salary account into this joint account. Alok’s cell number was linked with this account for transaction texts.
It suited Rina.
Alok stared at her incredulously.
“You took out Rs 5000 ?? Why ?”
“Well …” Rina’s eyes twinkled with mischief. She was dying to talk.
“What ?? You know that we have to get the refrigerator repaired and next month my boss’s daughter is getting married. We have to give some appropriate gift! And this is just the beginning of the month and you go and spend Rs 5000 !”
Alok’s voice was terse.
Rina was stunned.
It seemed her senses were knocked down by something very heavy and her bubbling happiness ebbed from her face.
She could not utter a word.
Alok did not look at her. He started changing and asked her casually, trying to hide his pique.
“Yes. Now tell me what happened ….”
Rina stood still. Her voice was choked.
She could barely whisper “Nothing important” and went inside the kitchen to complete her chores.
It seemed as if her whole being was paralysed. She worked like a robot.
Just a few sentences.
But as the significance of the words seeped inside her psyche, the numbness slowly gave way to varied emotions. She felt a twitch, then a tingle and then a sharp sting of inequity swamped her senses.
Her world seemed to crumble.
Unlike other days, after dinner, Rina prepared a cup of coffee and went to the terrace. She sat there watching the clear starry sky.
The cool breeze on her face, her body had a calming effect on her. She sat still for a long time. She closed her eyes and tried to visualize herself.
She was an ordinary woman, with ordinary looks , ordinary needs and desires. She earned an ordinary salary and was happy in her own world. She did not want a luxurious lifestyle neither did she yearn for anything very exotic.
Simple things made her happy. Her daughter’s smile, a word of praise from her teacher, her husband’s promotion, occasional movie, eating out and traveling with her family to ordinary destinations like Haridwar and Puri , about once in two to three years.
Rina could not recollect when she had bought anything for herself.
The talks which she heard about some new trend in sarees or suits and how they plan to buy things did not excite Rina.
She was satisfied with her yearly shopping during the Durga Puja and gifts from her parents and sister on her birthday and anniversary or any other special occasion. She never felt the need to go out with her friends and colleagues to movies or eateries.
Rina had never felt that “this is MY money” about her salary. But today she felt different. She could not name her emotion.
Snatches of conversations and incidents flitted across her mind.
“Rina, sorry I am late. I have already had my dinner. These friends.. forced me to treat them with Biriyani for my promotion …”.
It did not cross Rina’s mind to ask him how much he spent and what needed to be repaired that month which will get postponed.
“Dada will visit us for 3 days . He is coming to Delhi on an official visit. He loves mutton and Ilish. I will get these from the market on Sunday”. Rina was very happy.
The thought that she will not be able to buy her sandals never came in her mind.
- Ma needs new specs..
- I have bought this frock for Babi …
- See this wallet. I bought it for Dinu. I will give it to him tomorrow when we visit Bandel…
But when Rina’s cousin sister had planned to visit them with her family for 10 days, why did Rina feel a hesitation talking about it ?
“Er … Sagarika , my cousin sister , her husband and her 2 year old daughter want to visit us next month … is it OK … “ . Alok had not said no.
“Do you think I should buy a pair of silver anklets for Mita’s son’s annaprasan ? “. In fact Alok had urged her to buy a gold ring instead.
But there was a difference.
It was as if the balance sheet did not match.
At that moment, under the clear and starry sky, Rina could detangle the difference.
It was as if the two wheels of the cart were at different heights. The one which was slightly at the bottom was always looking up to the one which was slightly tilted towards the top as if wanting acceptance, submitting to the pressure and trying to keep the cart moving.
The full load of the cart sometimes fell on that and just to prevent itself from buckling, it made itself feel stronger and pulled and pushed ignoring the fact that it was getting scarred, the spirit was getting weaker and the soul was slowly dying.
… Our minds have been trained to think like that … what might seem innocuous to you is just an age old system speaking …
Rina stood up and spread her arms towards the sky. No. She will not let anybody crumble her world .
Not even she herself.
An ordinary woman will deal with this in a very ordinary fashion.
Next Monday, around 2 pm or so, Rina sent a text message to Alok and smiled to herself.
“Have to discuss something important with you today evening, related to us”.
As expected, it had the desired effect.
In the evening Alok came home 15 minutes early. As she was going inside the kitchen, Alok looked at her searchingly.
“What do you want to talk about ?”
Alok seemed tense. Rina to hide to hide her smile. She knew Alok loved her. He was a good husband.
“Let me finish my work and after Babi goes to sleep, we will talk”.
Alok seemed distraught and fiddled with the newspaper. “Ok” he said in a low tone . That night, the dinner table was unusually quiet, only the normal banter and tantrums of Babi.
After the daily routine, when Rina came into the bedroom at 11 pm, she saw Alok waiting for her. Anxiety was fraught on his face. Rina had never sent him a message like this …
“Rina, I … tell me …”
“Oh, nothing very important . It is just that I have opened a new salary account for myself….”
“Oh … why ?” Alok was genuinely surprised.
“Well , I want to understand the new banking system … all these e-transactions , text messages and also, I should be able to manage my money , right ? And I think I will do a good job … I am a commerce graduate you see .. that too a topper of my batch “ Rina smiled.
It felt good to give due appreciation to herself.
“Oh… er … I suppose so ..”
“And I have decided that every month, just like you, I will transfer about 70% of my salary into the joint ICICI Bank account for our household and other expenses. By the way , how much of your salary do you transfer ? “
Alok was too astonished to answer the question.
“And yes, your sister , my sister Mita and a couple of other homemaker friends of mine get some pocket money from their husbands. I was thinking that I too do everything what they do and on top of that I work. So, you should give me some pocket money every month right ? What about Rs 1500 ? Hope that will be OK with you …”
Rina yawned and closed her eyes . “Feeling sleepy … very tired.. “ and she switched off the bedside lamp.
It was not about one-upmanship but just about equality.
It was not about money, Rina will not do anything different from tomorrow , she will be the same person, but this was a starting point. The first step.
A very confused Alok went to sleep.
And a smiling Rina could hear Aditi Roy’s voice in her ears … We also have to help the people around us break away from stereotypes…
The age old matching principle. The balance sheet should be matched.
Rina slept peacefully.
The next day Rina got up at 6 am. She went to Babi’s table to check her school bag and fill up her water bottle. Suddenly she saw the formation at the corner beside her table.
She was rendered speechless.
The small white pebbles … they were pasted meticulously , bigger ones at the bottom and the smaller one at the top … the four minarets and the central dome of the Taj Mahal !
On top of the minarets, a small golden painted pin was pasted. Small beads were pasted to form a ring at two well spaced intervals on the minarets. The big dome had a string of beads at the top and at the bottom.
Rina went towards the structure to take a closer look.
The beads were actually small thermocol balls. Each one of them were painted in silver colour. The pebbles were sprayed with white and silver spray and they shone like real marble.
It was just exquisitely beautiful. Rina could not tear her eyes away from it.
She ran and picked up her sleeping daughter and brought her near the table.
“Babi … who made this ? Babi … open your eyes … “
“I made it Ma … “ Babi was still groggy and put her head on Rina’s shoulder to sleep a few minutes more.
Rina was dumbfounded.
Her Babi was an artist !
Many people get 100% in maths, but how may can create such an ethereal structure ? So what if her rank is not in the first 5 in the class , so what if she does not like maths ?
Rina caressed her daughter’s hair and kissed her soft cheeks lovingly.
She will not wait for her letter to be read in Mahila Mahal anymore. She has found the answer herself.
Babi , you will do what you like to do. No one will ever force things on you. You are free Babi. The world will not be as difficult for you. We will take our own decisions. We will love ourselves.
Rina picked up her phone and replied to Mita’s invitation for the trip with her friends . She knew Mita will be really surprised.
“Yes. I will go to Nainital with you all. Babi will also come along with me ! ”
31 October 2017, Belvedere, Alipore, Kolkata