Conjugal Vignette

Dr. Sarojini Sahu

    “Your children are grown up. Why don’t they talk to their father?”

    “What will they say? If they say anything, he gets angry and attempts to hit them. I will just feed you like I feed the dog. That’s it.”

    She was perturbed when she heard our gate opening. I immediately got up and saw that the milkman had come. I came back with two packets of milk. She regained her calm after she saw me. Gradually she became comfortable with me. She got up from the sofa and came over to me and held my hands and said “You are like my younger sister; that’s why I am telling you all this. Please, can you advise me on what I need to do?” She appeared as if she had found some hope even though her face still looked pale and helpless. In fact, I could not understand what kind of help she was expecting from me. Her helplessness constantly took me back to a time when I must be about nineteen or twenty years old. The fights between my parents were coming alive. I was in my final year of B.A. There was the pressure of the honours’ syllabus. There was a similar incident between my parents over a mere domestic help. Initially I was very cross with my mother. Sometimes they would fight over dinner; sometimes there would be fights in the middle of the night and my father would leave the house. These things had become regular features. As the eldest in the family I had to take care of my younger siblings. Two of my youngest siblings could not understand what was going on and would look at me with shock. ‘Extra marital affair’ did not exist in their world. I could understand but never believed. I never wanted to believe. My mother had become anemic after giving birth to five children after me. Her veins appeared like blues rivers and canals under her bright fair skin. She had her menopause. I had come to know about menopause from a book. This event happens after forty-five to fifty years in the life of women and it makes them feel worthless for their husbands and they suffer from a complex. So I used to think that my mother was just being suspicious of my father without any reason.

    My mother wanted that the maid servant should not work for us. But we were not ready to get rid of her. In fact we all had become so dependent on her that we thought we could not manage without her. There was no pump in the well and the cooking was done by burning wood. The maid would cook and fill up about fifty buckets of water in the tanks in the bathroom, kitchen and even for dishwashing. She would wash the clothes and the dishes; fry rice and even comb our hair. She would massage our bodies with mustard oil. She would stitch buttons and quilts. She would water the plants in the garden. She would sometimes cut the wood into small pieces to be burnt for cooking. She was like a machine ready to work as soon as you switch it on.

    My mother knew the reason behind our desire not to throw her out. She knew that her children would not agree with her. Sometimes she would fight with our father and leave the house and go to her sister who lived in the other corner of the town. She would stay at their place for the whole morning or sometimes the whole afternoon and then her sister and her husband that is my uncle and aunt would console her and bring her back to our house. Once she locked herself in a room. My father was so angry that he punched the door hard enough for the nails to come out and half of the door was hanging out. I was not at home when that incident happened. My younger brother who was in grade seven during that time could not ride a bicycle properly but pedaled it to my college. He waited for full forty minutes until my class finished. I was scared to see him because my mother was always threatening that she would take poison. My younger brother told me about my mother’s brooding and my father breaking the door. I immediately took a rickshaw and came home. When I came home my mother was eating her wet rice in a corner and my father was reading the newspaper on his bed.

    After that many unpleasant incidents took place. Once I got up with the sound of glass bangles. At three in the morning my mother was filling up the tanks in the bathroom and the tank for dishwashing with the water from the well.

    “What are you doing?” I asked her. “Why are you filling up the tanks at three in the morning? Are you mad? Who wants you to do this?” I took away the bucket and the jug from her hand. She did not give them to me. She did not lose her temper; neither did she cry. On the other hand she told me: “None of you really listens to me because you have to fill up the tanks, wash the dishes and mop the house”. There was a strange wetness in her voice; more than the tears in her eyes. I sat down with hands on my head. I could not understand what had to be done.

    My mother would talk about her misery to all our neighbours just like Mrs Choudhury. She could never understand that she should not be talking about her private life in public. She could not understand that everyone was laughing at her. Once she was shouting at my father at the top of her voice. I could not tolerate anymore and tried to put my hand in front of her mouth and stop her. She pushed my hand from her mouth and said, “You can hit me.” My father’s image was slowly and steadily getting tarnished and yet we could not do anything.

    One day I realized why should there be so much fuss over a maid. Someone else can be employed in her place. I called the maid and told her to go back to her village. We would pay you all that we owe you and on top of that we would give you hundred rupees more.

    “Aunty is just creating a mountain of a mole” she said and started crying out loud.

    “No one wants you to worry about that” I said.

    It was my final year in Graduation classes. My younger sister was doing her Under graduation and my younger brother was giving his school finals. Why do such strange incidents take place? Why does the smooth simple life suddenly become complicated? Why does it all get chained in a span of a few seconds? Why the trust does build over years suddenly dissolve? The person who was so dear suddenly becomes a stranger. These questions haunted me when I thought of my mother and saw Mrs Choudhury in front of me.

    I freed my hands from Mrs Choudhury’s grip and said, “I am connecting you to the General Manager. You tell him everything. He is your husband’s senior so he can drive some sense into your husband.”

    She agreed to my proposal. It appeared as if she had become impatient to share her children’s problems over the dinner table; to enjoy the timeless pleasures of bed like the autumn rain; or maybe to live again the conjugal life that had started twenty five years back.

    As soon as the phone rang on the other side I handed her the receiver. She narrated her misery from beginning to end. When she kept the receiver back her face appeared clear like the sky without a single cloud. I asked her, “What did the General Manager say?” She stood up intending to leave. “He told me that he will talk to Mr Choudhury today”
    I also consoled her not to worry and everything will be alright.

    Later on we realized it did not benefit Mrs Choudhury by asking for the General Manager’s help. That evening she came to meet me secretly. She told me that talking to the GM over the phone did not serve any purpose. On the other hand he called me up in the internal line and explained to me that, “Don’t irritate your husband. Don’t fight with him all the time. It is not good to suspect your husband. He may have lost his temper and said something. In real life how can one divorce one’s wife?” She appeared very tired and helpless. She asked me, “Could you please tell me, is it possible that the GM does not know about their relation? Everyone knows yet why no one wants to admit it? Why is everyone taking it so easy? Don’t they find it indecent? I got paid back by complaining to the GM. How will I describe his atrocities? He questioned me. You have gone to the GM and complained about me isn’t it? I will marry her. I will see what you will do. If you want to stay here just keep quiet and live otherwise leave this place.”

    “Tell me, is it possible to remove this woman from this place?” she asked me.

    I replied, “Mrs Gomej has been here for a long time. Her father was an old hand in this company. She is born here. Not only Mr. Choudhury but many people pine for even today.” I smiled.

    She spread her lips and said, “She indulges in style; we don’t otherwise……….”

    I said, “No, not really that. Her genes have made her different from us. Her golden hair blue eyes and bright complexion does not belong to this place.”

    “She can be transferred. Tell me, who should be approached?”
    I tried to make her understand. “Everyone has a boss. Why are you so worried?”

    I could not help her much that day. I could only promise her that I would give her the necessary telephone numbers.

    This was my first experience in fighting for someone. Leave alone fighting, we did not even participate in the college strike because my father had a very bad temper. Whenever there was a strike in the college we would stay at home and enjoy our meals. We did not get to see the effigy being burnt nor did we see the buses set on fire. We just heard about the stories of black flags on top of the courts. Again when the schools and college came back to normal we would listen to the stories of bravery and their stories of food in the jail. I felt as if they had participated in the struggle for independence. From that point of view my life was really colourless.

    The next day also she came to our place without the knowledge of her husband. As soon as she came she was eager to go back. “He has come to know that I visit you. Did you get the Director’s number?”

    I had written the number in a small piece of paper. After looking around for a while I found it and gave it to her. She was nervous to phone the Director. In fact, I was also a bit nervous. She asked me to connect and I did so. As soon as there was the ring from the other side I quickly gave the phone to her. She asked me, “What should I say?” In the meantime she had to talk to the Director. She was repeatedly narrating her misery to him. She had exhausted herself painting as helpless as she could. She asked whether Mrs Gomej could be transferred and when she kept the receiver down she was almost in the verge of crying.

    Like a person who has lost confidence she had lost her capability to gather herself and said “Nothing else can be done.”
    “What do you mean?” I asked.
    “Why are you washing dirty linen in public? Try to explain everything to your husband and help him get back to track. This is what he said.”
    “What did he say about the transfer?”
    “Transfer is not as easy as you think. It cannot be done according to your whims and fancies. Try to adjust to your family.”
    “What does he mean by adjust?” I asked.
    “I don’t really understand what he wanted to suggest by adjust. He asked me what evidence I have got about my husband’s relation with her. Is this a movie or a detective novel? Is it a court that I will have to provide evidence? I have seen lipstick marks on his chest, arms and thighs. These marks don’t stay for eternity that I could show them.”

    “Don’t lose your confidence. Have faith in God. He is the mightiest of all”, I said.
    In fact I had lost confidence. I had never been addicted to sports. During my school days I used to sit in one corner of the school field under some excuse or the other. I was never affected by winning or losing a game. That was the first time I experienced the pain of losing.

    As soon as she heard god’s name she took out a tabeez , a talismanic locket she had been wearing under her blouse. “Someone has given this to me. If I put on this one I will get him back”.

    I tried to remember if my mother had also put on some kind of magical tabeez to get back my father.

    Suddenly she asked me, “Do you know who his enemies are”.

    “Enemies” I asked with surprise.

    “I will ask help from his enemies” she said.
    Even though I did not approve of her plan I could help appreciate her intelligence.
    She asked me, “Who is Avidutt? Did he have a fight with Avidutt?”
    I was surprised to hear Avidutt’s name. I know Avidutt. But he never comes to our place. I have never spoken to him.
    “He had a fight with Mr Choudhury a long time back. He is from a famous mafia gang. At that time he had threatened to defame Mr Choudhury and Mrs Gomej by writing their names on the walls.”

    She was very pleased and asked me, “Do you have his phone number?”

    “I can look in the directory.”
    “Please can you find and keep it for me, I will come tomorrow” and with that she left.

    For sometime there was a lot of indiscipline in my house. The first day when she came to my house and shared her sorrows with me, I could not give my children breakfast; seeing the stranger in the house they quietly took their chairs to the garden and sat there. By the time she left it was time for school. Most of the days she would arrive around the time the children would be coming from school. I could not help the children in taking off their school uniforms. I could not put jam on their toasts or put beverages in their milk. They took their food as they could. I could not water the plants in the garden neither could I finish my novel. All my chores were getting delayed yet I could not say no to her.

    The next day she came back to plead with Avidutt about her misery. Avidutt was not at home. I was thinking there is still time to keep her out of that. But she started talking about Mrs Gomej and the discussion took another turn. She said, “I am insulting her in streets wherever I encounter her. I shouted at her in the club by calling her a prostitute”.

    “Mrs Gomej did not say anything”, I asked. “When did you say that? Where was I?” I felt as if it was just her imagination. Can anyone say such thing on a woman’s face? Has she has started fighting and shouting in her imagination?

    The next day she came to phone Avidutt.
    “Is Mr Choudhury not at home? How could you come?”

    “The old man was going out for a walk. I thought he was going to her place and followed him for sometime. Half way through I realized he was going towards the stadium so I returned. I will make the call and leave quickly.”

    After having a conversation with Avidutt that day I saw her smile for the first time. She was very happy and commented, “We call these people hooligans but when it comes to helping someone these people can give their lives”.

    Somehow I felt whatever she was saying could be true. The well-placed people are very selfish. Really, she had narrated her misery to everyone; but no one came forward to help her.

    After speaking to Avidutt she did not come to our place for a few days. I thought maybe the man threatened and set things alright. But I was wrong. She came again to me and said, “I am really troubling you”.

    “Not really”, I said trying to conceal my feelings.

    “Do you know what Mr Choudhury is up to? He has been taking that wicked Avidutt to drink for the last three days. He is coming home at twelve in the night. I was thinking he is going to Mrs Gomej’s place. Gradually I came to know over fights. The other day he hit me and said you had employed hooligans after me. The hooligan whom you had approached is drinking with me for the last three days”.

    “There is another way” I said.

    “What, are you referring to the union? The old fellow has also got them in his side” she said with rage.

    I replied, “No, I know a journalist. We will talk to him. You will see he will be back on track”.
    “Strange”, she said. “Everyone knows they have a close relationship. Yet, how could everyone pretend as if there is nothing? Everyone is blaming me that I am suspicious; that I am trying to defame him. What kind of wife will defame her husband unless she feels insecure? Am I mad? Don’t I have a daughter to give in marriage? Don’t I love my family? No one is coming forward to solve the problem. On the other hand everyone is arguing that there can be no breakdown in such a strong household. Is anyone able to understand why I am having sleepless nights?”

    I realized that my mother must not have got up at three in the morning as I had thought. She must not have been sleeping at all at night. It is not easy to seal the cracks in the household by a single person.

    She left our house very unhappy. I tried to put my ideas into action. I spoke over the phone to the journalist whom I knew. I asked him what could be done about such cases. The journalist listened with great attention to everything very sympathetically. He also did not fail to condemn Mr. Choudhury. Then he asked “Do you have any proof? Any letters or pictures? We cannot publish anything without proof. A defamation suit could be filed against us.”

    I promised the journalist that I will discuss about this and inform him even though I knew that it was not possible to get those things.

    She never came back to our house after that day when she had left our house very unhappy. In the meantime a week had passed. One day I was sitting on a chair outside when I saw her going past our house avoiding looking towards the house. I had this desire to run and ask her “Do you have any letters or pictures?” The next moment it occurred to me- She went past our house leave alone smiling; she did not even bother to look towards our house.

    As days passed, I started getting more and more interested in her. Yet I never went to her place to find her whereabouts. How could this person who came to our house everyday suddenly become so quiet? I had helped her without any motive. Isn’t it proper on her part to let me know what happened?

    I asked her nieghbours about her just out of curiosity. I heard that these days she was going out with her husband. She was going out from evening till midnight all decked up with kajaal in her eyes; big earrings, lipstick, sleeveless blouse and dark nail polish. Still people do hear shoutings from their house at night.

    I was trying to remember what had happened in our house. How had peace come back to our house? I could not remember anything clearly. For a few days the maid had sat down as if she had lost her sense just like Mrs Gomej. She had blamed my mother. We were fed up with all that was happening and had lost interest. How the maid got out of our lives we did not even realize.

    Somehow I came to realize that life does not end like the story or fiction where the culprit gets punishment and the innocent goes to heaven. Perhaps life is like this. I was assured, after all everything will become alright in time.

    (Translated by Gopa Nayak)

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Dr. Sarojini Sahu - Born in 1956, Dr Sarojini Sahoo has an MA and PhD degrees in Oriya Literature, and a Bachelor of Law, from Utkal University. She now teaches at a Degree college in Belpahar, Jharsuguda, of Orissa. A distinguished bilingual South Asian feminist writer, and an associate editor of a feature oriented English journal Indian AGE, she has been conferred with the Orissa Sahitya Academy Award, 1993, the Jhankar Award, 1992, the Bhubaneswar Book Fair Award and the Prajatantra Award.
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