Breaking Barriers11 mins 394 11 mins 394
The room was filled with the heavy sandal scent of burning incense sticks, stuck in clusters in half broken coconut shells. The scent of flowers assailed the nostrils, roses, tuber roses, lilies, and jasmine, all white. Flowers to pay tribute to the loved one lost. They were the traditional sympathy flowers, always seen at funerals, each symbolizing that the soul of the deceased has returned to a peaceful state of innocence.
The hospital staff had done the ritual of bathing and dressing her up in a new white muslin dhoti, wrapped tightly around her head. Little wisps of silver hair had escaped, swirling around her face with the breeze from the overhead fan. She was finally free from the pain that had changed her personality overnight. The once 'pillar of strength' battling all the odds in life, had been reduced to a pitiable figure, begging to be released from imprisonment, unable of take the pain of the cancer gnawing away at her inside!
Relatives and friends were trickling in to pay their last respects. Each one reaching out to embrace us, her four daughters, left totally orphaned, having lost their father while still students.
The attending priest raised the question of who would do the last rites, in the absence of a son. "Any son-in-law?" he questioned. "None," we chorused in unison. Shibani the eldest, widowed a decade ago, had two daughters. Sharbani divorced had no off springs. That left us the twins Sunanda and Supriya. Both residents of USA, we had rushed down for the funeral sans families. “ No cousin brothers of same 'gothra’ “, quipped the Priest.
The silence that followed was deafening. Sudhir Mama, Ma's only brother could have salvaged the situation, but he chose to stay away, just as he chose to run away when responsibilities surfaced with Baba’s demise. The ungrateful one, who had not only sponged on his sister and brother-in-law, but damaged the psyche of their first born.
Shibani the first- born, had grown up being the victim of Sudhir mama's amorous advances. Victim of child abuse carried on under the very nose of his caretakers. Every night he would creep into her bed, she barely nine and he nineteen. His body pressed against hers, she fooled herself into thinking he was just there to have some cuddles on a rainy night. It felt good to be held tight, the warmth of his body seeping into her cold emaciated one. His hands massaging her chest, tugging and pulling at her non-existent breasts, his crotch swelling, pushing, as he rubbed himself against her, told a different story. Was this an expression of love? It felt good yet something told her it was wrong. Head reeling with confusion she often wondered whether to tell Ma and Baba. Or share the secret with her five year old sibling Sharbani. Better sense prevailed. Nah! For three years she let it go on, without a murmur of protest.
Puberty arrived at twelve. Her body changed dramatically, hormones playing havoc, and with the monthly five days of being isolated, the nightly visits came to a stop to her utter relief. She was freed at last. Ma explained to her about her role as a woman, the gift of her virginity to her husband, and motherhood that would follow. Innocent Ma had no clue, her first born had become a woman at the tender age of nine; abused by her beloved brother, a jewel in her family, turned home grown rogue.
That day Shibani spilled the beans, sharing the trauma of her childhood with us, her siblings, in hushed tones. Hmm! So that adequately explained Shibani's paranoia in not allowing us or anybody else to bathe her daughters, never losing sight of them, going to the extreme of having them sleep in her bedroom till they were twelve! Of course it did not go down too well with her husband, who demanded sex every night whether the girls were awake or asleep. Denial sent him on the path of philandering, which snowballed into his acquiring a mistress to satisfy his carnal needs. That was when he contacted HIV. His insatiable sexual appetite, and philandering, was his Nemesis, rushing him to death's door. Weighed down with the double edged shame that could never be scoured from her system, embittered Shibani; viewed the male species with complete disdain.
Ma now deaf to the world would never know her past and how it had shaped her future. Ma always totally involved in running her home, pandering to Baba’s whims, being at the receiving end, for giving birth to girls. Girls she brought up single handedly after Baba’s demise. Ma the astute woman, how come she never guessed?
Shibani's disclosure was infectious. With down cast eyes Sharbani confessed she had made a huge mistake in running away with a foreigner visiting their village, leaving Ma not only devastated, but bringing shame to the family. Not to mention ruining the future for the twins, still in their teens.
Rudolph touring India, had been smitten with her long black hair, her coal black Kajal lined eyes, her ebony skin tone, all associated with the exotic east. Married in a temple, followed by a registered marriage, they left for his home in Deva, a small town in Romania. She had dreams of a comfortable home, with a modular kitchen, electronic gadgets hooked up, a few kids running around the garden, surrounded with fruit trees; apples, peaches, nectarines. Dreams shattered, as she discovered he lived in a mobile van, which could barely accommodate the two of them.
Her senses revolted as she walked into her new home with no water supply to even perform the basic needs, washing, bathing, cleaning. Ugh! And to eat food out of boxes which was as alien to her as his queer living style. All this and much more, she took in her stride, to keep the marriage going. Till one day, after returning early from fruit picking in the fields, she found Rudolph snoring on the bed; his arms wrapped around another female, white as alabaster, with stringy dirty blonde hair, the stink of their bodies making her gag. Hell broke loose! Accusations and counter accusations were hurled across the room, with the Romanian female screeching like a banshee, speaking in her Romanian dialect.
With the cross currents of accusations, the die was cast. No amount of his pleading could hold the marriage together. Sharbani demanded a divorce just four years into her marriage. Without a second thought, she left him to his dirty home, moving into a paying guest accommodation, taking up two jobs to meet her living expenses and still be in a position to send money home for Ma's treatment. No one knew of her whereabouts except Shibani her confidante. Every month, without fail, the wire transfer amount from Romania would show up in Shibani's account. Ironically Ma who thought the worst of her second daughter, would never know of Sharbani's financial aid towards her medical treatment.
Two sisters four years apart, were like peas in a pod, sharing a camaraderie like none other. Shibani grown prematurely old, still nursing the scars of her childhood and Sharbani living out her days in Romania, getting into the flesh trade out of frustration and need. The thought of relocating back to her home country crossed her mind often. But it all seemed so pointless. But now that she had to answer to no one, or hurt Ma’s sentiments, Sharbani had no qualms in returning home.
This came as the third shock wave of the day to the twins Sunanda and Supriya, twenty minutes apart. The first, in seeing Ma inert on arrival, looking like a Egyptian mummy, followed by Shibani's gross confessions, and then Sharbani's ignominy and choosing to remain anonymous for Ma’s sake.
Sunanda, the older of the two, born with jaundice, they nearly lost, always hogged more attention and accorded preferential treatment, special food, special beverages. The fairer one endowed with classical features, always mollycoddled. Neither parents nor didis ever knew the truth about Sunanda, or the darker side to her personality. After all she was the 'baby doll' as she was nick-named. Hah! I wasn't going to be the one to go into her murky past. Forever covering up her misdeeds, standing up in her defense. Partners in crime we were, she committing them, I covering them. If Ma’s still unreleased soul was bringing out the confessions, would Sunanda follow likewise?
How during school exams, she would have the chemistry formulas written on the hem of her skirt, little notes folded to thumb size, placed inside her brassiere, the frequent visits to the toilet on the pretext of suffering from diarrhea, to get answers to questions. If I questioned her she would shut me up. So be it. One day she would get caught. Caught she got! During the second semester of engineering exams, the invigilator found her peering down too often. She was debarred, had to reappear in the same paper along with her third semester exams. Ma never ever got wind of it! On many occasions, I was witness to her stealing from Ma’s purse, little at a time, so that it would go unnoticed. The extra money funding treats she gave to her friends in the college canteen. Her beauty was her bane. Love affairs were unaccountable. Running from one to another as they serenaded her with flowers, chocolates, showering her with praises for her beauty. She fell for it, hook, line and sinker! None of them saw a life partner in her, merely one night stand.
I still recall her shaking and crying with fright on discovering her pregnancy.
'Supriya,..please...please help, I cannot tell Ma, she will strangle me to death' she confessed. I searched on the Internet for abortion clinics, made an appointment, saying I was bringing my sister. The tedious job of filling up the no objection form rested with me, her next of kin. With bated breath I waited outside the clinic as the procedure commenced. Then returning home to the awkward situation of facing Ma and her questioning looks as to why Sunanda appeared so pale in the face. Second year into my medical studies, Ma believed me as I explained that she was suffering from anorexia and needed complete rest and nourishment for the next one week by which time she would be up and about. Wow! I will never forget that one con artist act of mine.
Sunanda the glibber, fetched the best match from the most respectable family in town. The Ganguly family wanted her for their son, professor in Boston University, teaching in the department of economics. Never mind if they were Christians, Ma reasoned, after all this was the golden opportunity for her precious girl. Ma who lived as a pious Hindu widow, broke the rules of society. Tantamount to sacrilege!
As the events of the past came flooding back, I found Sunanda giving me guilt stricken looks. Would she be the next to sit in the confession box, I wondered! Would she share the details of her extra marital affairs? Would she confess to shacking up with her husband’s colleague leaving her two sons to grow up with their father? At some point in her relationship with her paramour, she had phoned to explain that her marriage had become stale, as though she owed me any explanation, except to use me as a sounding board.
But Ma who remained blind to her faults, never lost an opportunity to chide me for my shortcomings. And shortcomings as innocuous as behaving tomboyish, preferring pants over long skirts, preferring to keep my hair short, preferring to play with the boys in the neighborhood. The rebel in the family of women! But I never let my plain looks interfere with my dreams. I never lost focus on finishing medical college, winning six gold medals for the final MBBS exams, and with scholarship granted to do my MD in Boston medical college, kept my spirits buoyed. Sometimes I felt like a man, trapped in a woman's body. I could have been the son Ma and Baba craved, born unfortunately, with female genitals.
The sun was just setting when the Priest reminded us we needed to rush with the ceremonies before proceeding to the crematorium. I stood up in front of a roomful of relatives and my siblings, asserting my right to perform the last rituals as her 'son' born daughter. How would it make a difference just because physically I was a woman, but at heart always her son. The priests were dumbfounded. Shibani, Sharbani, Sunanda, were dumbstruck! No consent was needed as I bulldozed the priests to guide me with the rituals. At the crematorium I lit the funeral pyre as I watched Ma’s body consigned to flames, and then reduced to ashes. And with it, broke a long held tradition.
Returning home with the urn carrying Ma’s ashes, I found the house emptied of friends and relatives. No shoes lined up outside the door. We four siblings, sat huddled together with Rani, Ma’s faithful companion, curled in a tight ball, resting near our feet. Rani's dog brain could sense the tragedy. She grieved with us, tears rolling down her canine eyes, refusing food. We stayed awake the whole night pushing the wick up as it kept shortening ensuring the flame kept burning, refilling the oil each time the level lowered. A night spent rehashing the past, as we held onto our individual memories, our perspectives, our take on life. Women who broke barriers to assert their individuality, without any regrets.