A New Road
by Indrani Talukdar
(Dehradun, Uttarakhand, India)
The wedding had been splendid, truly royal. So the Times of India had written. Nobody had expected Tilottama’s wedding to be anything less, in any case. Her grandfather had been a zamindar during the British Raj and her father, an only son, a high-ranking civil servant. To be sure, Tilottama hardly knew her father who always kept getting transferred out to new places. Her mother had died during childbirth and she had been brought up by her grandparents. Thamma doted on her and so did Dadu. The same couldn’t be said of her two sisters-in-law and mother-in-law, though. As a matter of fact she had hardly recognized her mother-in-law from the cheery fireball who’d lifted her chin with such love that it seemed to fill the entire courtyard where the family – even her extended one – habitually gathered for tea. Only that day had been special because Rathin’s family was coming to see her. The lone voice of protest had been that of Choto mashi’s who wanted her eighteen-year-old eldest niece to complete her B.A. in English and sit for the civil services’ exams. Tilottama, who had topped her 12th Board exams, wanted to study Spanish at the Jawaharlal Nehru University on the other hand. “Why Spanish, of all things pray?” Baba had thundered during one of his rare visits home. She had been too shy to let him know she adored the Tango songs and wanted to unravel their meaning. Between her youngest aunt’s ambition and her father’s need to dominate her existence her own dreams had wilted like a plant unwatered and uncared for.
She had met the groom – Rathin – only once. He’d appeared distant and indifferent and had even yawned while speaking to her. She’d caught a glimpse of his Colgate white teeth and wondered if they were false, they looked so unreal.
Rathin had been indifferent even on the night of the wedding. For one thing, he’d landed up drunk after everyone went off to sleep. He had barely looked at his new bride but switched off the lights and gone off to sleep snoring heavily.
That entire night she had lain awake thinking of Sohail. Sohail used to study at the boys’ school neighboring hers. A low wall separated these segregated institutions of hallowed learning, its slender altitude serving as a conduit for the sexes to mingle freely. Tilottama’s best friend Shalini had a boyfriend in the school next door. Arun was a family friend and the two exchanged letters and flowers almost everyday. The families were aware of the blossoming romance and had given it their blessings. Shalini was among the lucky few to have her parents’ blessings (as well as her future in-laws’) with regard to her future partner. Tilottama hadn’t been so lucky. Sohail had been Arun’s best friend and frequently accompanied them on their numerous dates and rendezvous. Dates to which Tilottama sometimes tagged along. That’s how she met Sohail and the two began exchanging notes and cards. Sohail could be so creative when it came to words. She came to understand later that he was the best essay writer in his class.
It was one of his well-crafted, superbly creative notes that got her in trouble.
She usually secreted the notes underneath the cover of her moral science book. One day the cover tore open and the notes fell out. Before she was able to retrieve any Thamma picked them up. That evening nobody spoke at the dining table. The house had been this silent – Neetu, her ayah told her – the day her mother had died giving birth to her. Dadu and Thamma, so open in their affection, clenched their facial muscles tight in anger, grief and betrayal. If only they would shout at her. But then, who said breaking rules was easy?
Tilottama was promptly withdrawn from school despite Reverend Mother’s protests. The school allowed her to appear for her final Board exams privately, though. She never saw Sohail again.
Shalini told her during the wedding about the caterwauling at Sohail’s house post discovery of the beautifully-crafted love notes. Dadu had gone over personally to speak – actually, ‘warn’ would be a more appropriate term – to Sohail’s family. Sohail lived with his mother and maternal grandparents and an unmarried uncle, his father having died when he was a baby. In contrast to the iceberg that had formed in her household, it had rained fireworks in his. His maternal uncle whom Shalini described as a ‘brute’ had smitten his face with a rose bush cane sprouting unsightly welts. Tilottama had imagined the red-blue gashes across Sohail’s handsome features and winced. “Please keep still,” one of her distantly-related aunts warned while applying alta to her feet.
“Boudi, this is for you,” Ranu, the driver’s wife who also did the cleaning and dusting had brought in an inland letter. She turned the sky blue epistle over. The neat hand-writing seemed to be Rathin’s Dida who, unlike the rest of her husband’s family, appeared to dote on her. The words were formed like pearls.
“Boudi…” Ranu was twisting the end of her sari pallu. “Bordi would like to speak to you.” A chill caught at her throat. Whenever Bordi wanted to speak to her there was trouble. This past week Bordi had sent for her thrice. She never looked forward to these summons. A fire burst inside her forehead; she could feel her temples throbbing wildly.
“Tell her to come here instead!”
She counted till five. Her eldest sister-in-law flung open the door and shouted, “Just who do you think you are! Ranu broke the fish bowl didn’t you hear?”
“But you did my dear, why didn’t you pick up the pieces?” A male voice spoke before her mouth could file a protest. It was Arvind Maheshwari, the richest jeweler in town, also Bordi’s ex lover. Bordi’s conquests had been legendary, right from school. It was said of her that if you joined all her ex lovers from end to end they would form a chain around the globe.
What had made Bordi enter into an arranged marriage with the school teacher Mohit Bhattacharya was something Tilottama failed to understand. Some said it was because her last boyfriend, a professor of English Literature at the local college, had ditched her on the day of the wedding. People who’d been close to the professor said his mother had been extremely vocal in her protest regarding the entry of ‘an infamous coquette’ in her household.
Mohit da and Bordi fought constantly. Correction. Bordi fought with Mohit da constantly. As a result, Bordi ended up spending much of her time at her father’s house. Every time she walked out on her husband there would be a fresh wave of trouble for Tilottama or Tilo, as Chhod di had taken to calling her.
Chhod di was supposed to be the brilliant one in the family. An Oxford graduate in Botany she was the only one amongst her luminous coterie of friends to return to India. She was currently the head of the Botany department at a local college. Of her three female in-laws Chhod di appeared to be the least hostile. Or so she thought.
One Sunday afternoon, when the entire household was asleep she woke up to hear a small movement in the kitchen. She saw Chhod di reading her personal diary next to the stove. Like a wild animal she tore at her and snatched it out of her hands, her eyes live coals. Chhod di had reacted by not speaking to her.
The collective hostility of her in-laws was hanging upon her like a sword. Did Chhod di and the rest know about Sohail?
Bordi’s spectacles glinted antagonistically under the lamp light and she advanced menacingly.
Arvind caught Bordi’s hand as Tilottama stepped back involuntarily. Bordi opened her mouth to hurl the choicest abuses available in her arsenal when Arvind commanded ‘STOP!’
If Tilottama had a knife in her hand she could have sliced the silence with it, she thought as blood rushed to her head. She looked up to find Arvind winking at her conspiratorially, his smile reaching the corners of his large eyes. A gurgle of laughter formed in her throat and she coughed to cover it up. Bordi’s eyes were ablaze but she said nothing. For the first time that she had stepped in as a bride Tilottama didn’t feel intimidated.
A storm broke loose when Rathin returned that evening, though. She did not know what it was that she abhorred more: the theatrical ravings or the icy silence and solitary confinement. Finally, the driver was summoned from his sleep at 11. He was given directions to her natal home. Ranu helped her with the packing.
No one saw her off as the family’s old Ford revved to a roar inside the porch.
To Tilottama it felt as though a large boulder sitting on her neck was finally being lifted off. Once the hell-spot she called her in-laws’ house was out of sight she pulled out the note Arvind had hastily thrust into her palm. She reclined comfortably, her first relaxed posture in months.
Her voice rang out loud and clear as she read out his address to the driver. The Ford was soon speeding by a new road… The End