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Oh Maa

by Riya Ghosh
(Mumbai, India)

The sheet remains creased to the folds of my body, waiting to be undone to its created-perfection. The net, trapping in the sponges that comfort my grey hair for the night, remains hooked to the nail by the window pane. Bloated with my ageing blood, two mosquitos sit tiringly on the net. Only to meet with a murderous fate.

The pungent dark blood churned my stomach. Stretching for the bottle, I cried “Oh Maa!”
The whistling of the cooker came from the kitchen, where she was busy collecting water in the many sized containers. Its availability is a joking matter in our small town of Kalamboli. For, there is water on days you have been warned your taps to go dry.

“The water is gone already! It did not even last 15 minutes. They haven’t said anything about the water not coming today, but I hope there is water in the evening.”
“You can start storing it when it comes in plenty.”
“It is easy for you to say. Have you ever tried waking up early to fill the waters? I have to do all the chores single-handedly.”
“Then, let me help you with washing the utensils. And cooking too! We can also have a maid, like before, when you were working. You are getting old, Maa.”
“You and your father take fun in calling me old. But I can do more work than the two of you combined. As long as my bones are working, don’t bother to enter the kitchen. Focus on your studies, and try to make your father proud. Once you are married, the walls of the kitchen are all you will see. And if your husband turns out to be one like your father, I pray, may all the seven heavens have mercy on you. As for now, only do what has been asked of you: fold the mosquito-nets and make the beds.”

The clouds started getting dark outside. Droplets collected on the black rails. Slurping from my bowl of porridge, I allowed the silver to clatter against the ceramic. I have been sitting at the balcony for a little over an hour, watching the tiny figures splashing in the mid-June showers. The climate slowly took a turn for a fevering chill. And the partnering taller figures pulled the tiny ones back into the hazing concrete outlines.

Maa started quickly pulling the shirts and pants from the clothesline, tied in the balcony.
“Hotto-chara, hotto-bagha brishti! It has to rain, the moment I hang them for drying. Can’t it rain before or after?”
“Haha! Maa, if the Rain God were to adjust his timing as per all women’s needs, there will be no rain! Just let them dry them under the fan. Why take so much trouble?”
“Stop your advising agency and shut the windows! The bed will be already wet by now. Oh dear!”
“Relax Maa. I haven’t opened the windows, because it was getting dark outside.”
“Why can’t you do as been told? The room is stinking! And we can’t open the windows for a long time, now.”
“The room is not stinking! It is damp. And I would have had to close the windows, following immediately it's opening. See! it is raining heavily.”
“Just like your father, never heeding my advice. But when in trouble, chant my name. And kick me out from your lives, immediately, when your purpose has been served. That’s what your father and his family have always done to me. And now, you too become like them. After all, blood speaks for itself. You have his blood.”
“Maa! Please calm down.”
“Always asking me to shut up, is what your father does. He is comfortable pointing out the wrongs in my family but is never willing to look into the picture of his own family. It was their fault that my son is dead, but they will never admit.”

CRACK. The flower pot, once standing empty, now lay as a mosaic of the many unspoken yearnings. Pulling together the curtains that were mourning the melancholy of the season, I turned to bolt the windows and the doors. And the howling
came to an abrupt stillness. Broken only by my beating heart, which thumped nervously now. Like having met a person who you would wish to say: The days we have had, have they all gone? Is there nothing left of those? The sepia couldn’t hide the hazel of her eyes. The inky black hair, befalling her shoulders, swayed rightly in the orchestrated photograph, taken well before her marriage. Any man would have fallen for her, let alone my father, who had married her in his thirties. She would pride on a mundane rainy morning of how much she was loved in the years following their marriage. Fading with each monsoon, following my birth, for I had taken her place in my father’s heart.

The ply creaked opened, and the old fingers searched for a cloth. Finding nothing, I rubbed off the accumulated layers of ego from over a tiffin box, with my muslin coat. It is an ordinary box to any onlooker, which had locked in the life of a twenty-four-year-old leaving to never return home.
“Oh Maa,
By the time you read my letter, I will be gone forever. Don’t worry about me, for I will be fine and alive. I am not taking this step in a fit of rage. I have given it a good sum of three years and finally thought that it is best for us to go our separate ways. For, I can never be your son. And I could not make you fall in love with me, all these years. I do not understand why you make me bear the burden of your sacrifices, which I have never asked from you. I do not understand why you hate me so much. And I am sick and tired of proving myself to you that I love you and I care for you. I never wanted to be your chains. Maybe, now that I am gone, you will have one less reason to blame your daughter.”

It still feels like yesterday, when I had shut the doors of the house behind me. I never looked back, until the fateful call bringing news from your pyre. Doctor had said, you both passed away together, on Baba’s Sixty-third birthday. Leaving behind a will, and a letter, which I never dared read.

“Shona Maa,
Perhaps this letter will find you only after our death. What remained unsaid, might find words today. The old man had given up his whole life to bring you up, like his son. He fell in love with you the moment he set his eyes on you, in the hospital ward, when the nurse had handed you over to him. Your big black eyes meant the whole world to him. You were his pride. He was the best father he could be. And somewhere, down the line, he forgot to be my husband. I can never forgive your father, for he is responsible for my desires that found comfort in the arms of another man. And I am sick and tired of proving my worth to him, as a good wife. Yet I chose you over my love for anyone. You were never my chains. But I did not know how to love you. If only you had told me how to be your mother. If only you had chosen to punish me, rather than leaving me…”

The chime of the clock synchronized with the knock on the door. And colours spilled into life, with the laughter of little worms with feet! Wriggling their way under the blanket, they crept up all awake for their bed-time stories. As for me, when I look into my daughter’s eyes, I know I have not passed on my burden of sacrifices onto her. The love I see in her eyes is no compensation for being raised by a single mother. And I know that I have been a good mother and a grandmother.

1. Maa: Mother
2. Oh Maa: Dear mother
3. Hotto-chara: A Bengali term for being a jerk
4. Hotto-bagha: A Bengali term for being a jerk
5. Brishti: Rains
6. Shona Maa: Dear daughter

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