“You thought of taking my son to Elco for pani puri? That sh*thole from hell where they don’t use Bisleri?” Thus spoke the woman, who otherwise could not stop ranting about the establishment she now hacked to pieces, with her NRI friends. Ragini clicked disconnect, dousing the incessant clucking of mother hen.
How she wished she could disconnect that woman, Durga Chauhan, her saas (mother-in-law), from her life! There was no reasoning with the old cow when she believed that her darling son had contracted a deadly bacteria while lunching with his bestie in a London pub. They had eaten steak, and posted a picture on social media. His parents were dead against him eating beef. What would they know?
The Chauhan patriarch, Nanubhai, was forever busy counting money. Durga Chauhan had her hands full with kitty parties, where she would flaunt her Fendi purse and those ostentatious solitaires. Of late, Ragini found herself in the throes of an existential crisis. Wearing a ghunghat on special occasions, serving men Dal Baati. Men who went about their conversations as though she did not exist. That is the very essence of patriarchy, right? The invisibility of women.
She had felt like a little girl then. Now, she felt the weight of an age that did not belong to her
At times, Ragini would ask herself the question: “Who am I?” Was it the alien, demure woman behind the ghunghat or the girl gallivanting in London’s Richmond Park without a care in the world? She had felt like a little girl then. Now, she felt the weight of an age that did not belong to her. Not that she had anything against Kishore. She was the one who had insisted he spend time with the friend he had not seen in a decade. London had been the last leg of their whirlwind European honeymoon.
But Ragini had no inkling of what lay in store. Only a short while ago, she was an air hostess. Living in a girls’ hostel, sneaking out at night to escape the warden. A warden she would gladly embrace now just so she could escape the clutches of her dictatorial saas.
Daddy (her father-in-law) was not so harsh, but he always took his wife’s side when she said things like “namak kum hai (the salt is less)”, nodding his head like an obedient goat. After all, if the popular adage was to be believed — happy wife, happy life. Sad as she was, Kishore Chauhan seemed the happiest man in the world.
One day, Ragini decided that enough was enough. She turned away from Kishore, when he eagerly crawled into bed to get a taste of his ghunghat queen without her ghunghat. She thought that she might as well be clad in a burqa at all times. Her friend, Salima, from school, perennially wore one. Salima’s decision was out of choice, though. Ragini could not even choose curtain fabrics.
Kishore did not seem to understand the problem. And how would he? He was always at Ernst & Young. She, forever with Mummy and Daddy. A Mummy and Daddy that were not even hers. All of a sudden, she buried her face in her pillow and wept. She had the yearning to return to her hometown in Rajasthan. To be free.
Dish of the day? Laal Saas!
Laal Maas gone wrong at the Chauhan householdFlickr
The previous night was a mere palate cleanser for the life-defining moment to follow. The ensuing afternoon, Durga had organised a lunch for one of her kitty groups at home. For the “Jungli Billis”, as Ragini described them. “Of course, I’ll be Head Servant,” Ragini thought. The last time they had come over, they had created such a ruckus she got a migraine that lasted two days.
While having lunch, somewhere in the midst of whose damad got a Mercedes for whose bahu, and taking a trip to Paris to spend their husbands’ money, Ragini heard Durga say to one of the women: “At least you can have a conversation with your daughter-in-law. My bahu is impossible to talk to. After all, she was an air hostess. No wonder she has loose ethics.”
All hell broke loose.”What about your son’s ethics? They must be pretty sound. After all, an air hostess was his choice!” Saans (and saas) came to a halt…
There was more to come, as Ragini scattered the contents of a pot of Laal Maas (a Rajasthani version of mutton curry) all over the floor. As though scattering the ashes of a life she had ended. She had never felt more free. Dish of the day? Laal Saas!
Kishore listened patiently all night to a sobbing Ragini, in a suite at the Taj Mahal Palace. All she had gone through over the previous year or so. In the morning, a decision was made. They would move with immediate effect to his Carmichael Road flat.
“But you love your mother, Kishore. How can I do that to you?”
‘I love you more, Ragini.”
‘Love grows love’
Before patriarchy can be smashed, it needs to be understoodUnsplash
It would be five years later that Ragini would enter the original Chauhan household again. The occasion was Nanubhai’s 90th birthday, and Ragini could not have been happier. This despite the hushed whispers that floated by more frequently than glasses of chilled Nimbu Sherbet. She had refused to grace the occasion until the previous day, when she received a mysterious call from a feeble voice. Someone who had aged too fast.
Bahu and saas met under the shamiana at the Taj, as Ragini fiddled with her ghunghat. Saas could not meet bahu’s eyes, as she said: ‘I’m sorry for thinking love was a package deal. That you had to love me, too, if you loved my son.” Eyes brimming with tears, she continued, “The last five years have taught me lots, beta. Please give me a chance to love you.” After a pause, she added: “Because love is like that. It makes a family out of people…Love grows love.”
Durga was right. She had loved Nanubhai. Her mum-in-law, too, before she went rogue. Her love for her husband spawned other loves. Tears surfaced in Ragini’s eyes, as she took Durga’s hand in hers. The ghunghat had dropped. Ragini finally felt seen.
Rohit Trilokekar is a novelist from Mumbai who flirts with the idea of what it means to love. His heart’s compass swerves ever so often towards Kolkata, the city he believes has the most discerning literary audience.