“Can’t you just help me with the kitchen chores for once in your life?” screeched the tiny, plump woman from behind the kitchen counter.
“It’s not my job” replied Kumari, the young girl to whom the nasty words were being directed.
“Not your job? Then whose is it? Just mine? Your dad is a lazy bum anyway!” she yelled and banged the saucepan on the marble slab in the kitchen.
Kumari breathed out a heavy sigh and got up from the wooden chair she had been occupying. She walked slowly to the kitchen to face her mother, who by this time, was all drenched in sweat, her blouse stained at the armpits.
“What is it Maa? You know I am not the kitchen types!”
“What do you mean by kitchen-types honey?” she said in a tone suddenly full of supplication. “All women must be kitchen-types someday. When will you get that?”
“I will never live to see that day mother. Look at yourself, what have you achieved in life? You were a school dropout, weren’t you?”
“What have I achieved? I have a beautiful family, a loving husband and a wonderful daughter. What else do I want in life darling?” she said, thumping her right fist in the water and flour mixture she had just begun to knead.
Kumari laughed out sarcastically.
“Are you serious mother? All this for not giving yourself the chance to study? I don’t think it was worth it. Anyway, let me get back to study please. You know that my exams are almost round the corner.” She said and buried herself once again in the heap of papers that lay messily on her desk.
It was an unusually warm evening and everything in the world appeared sweaty. Madhav Singh, Kumari’s father had just returned from the factory where he worked as a production supervisor. No sooner had he entered the cozy, two-bedroom house, his only daughter had rushed to occupy the seat next to him on the rugged, brown couch.
“Father, I need to talk to you.”
“Don’t you see I just got back from work. Can you not let me be for some time?”
“But it’s important, what I need to discuss. It cannot wait too long.”
“What is it? Tell me fast and then leave me alone.”
“I need a tutor.”
“That I know foolish girl! But for which subject?”
“For History and Geography.”
“Are you serious? A tutor for subjects that simple? In my time….”
“Yeah I know…In your time you created history of your own, but I need a tutor.”
“How do you expect to find one in this little cocoon of a town? Who do you think is that educated in this place?”
“I don’t know and that’s exactly what I would want you to find out. My civil service exams are not too far and given my understanding of these subjects, I am reasonably sure I won’t crack it.”
“Fine. Let me try and find out from friends and colleagues. Now please leave me alone for some time.”
Kumari walked hastily to the dining table and resumed her reading.
Kumari was a young girl of twenty-one, a resident of Darbanga in Bihar and the only child to her parents. Ambitious from the start, she had always made her parents proud. However, her single-minded focus on education and indifference to everything else in life did not go down too well with her parents, particularly her father. Her mother, over-burdened with family responsibilities would often attempt to explain to Kumari the importance of other worldly functions but in vain. Kumari wanted to bring about social change and even before that, get out of the clutches of the stifling conservatism she had been born into.
Small and lean, Kumari’s tenderly curved body looked almost inconsistent with her mental image of herself. Thick black-rimmed glasses covered a third of her small round face, revealing dark black eyes, a small nose and thin lips. Her hair was short, barely enough to fit into a ponytail. All this coupled with her dusky complexion gave her a very ordinary appearance. Most of the time she was at home, she would be sloppily dressed in a faded t-shirt and loose, all-over-the-place pyjamas, that always looked too big for her. “I want to feel free” she would say whenever someone brought up a discussion about her dress-sense.
“Who will marry her?” her mother would often ask of her husband, who just as worried as her, chose to never reveal his concern for his daughter.
“Someone will, some day” was all that he would say. Deep down he knew it wouldn’t be an easy affair. First, she would soon be highly educated and finding a comparable groom, at least in that part of the country, would be a challenge. Second, she was too simple in appearance, almost boy-like, without any incentive to dress well or learn anything about household work. Brides such as these were never really acceptable in their kind of society. Lastly, the family had not the kind of resources it took to marry one’s daughter into a decently well-to-do family. They had only their two-room dingy house to call their own. Whatever little was saved out of his barely-sufficient income every month was put into financing her education – buying books, journals and paying for her tuition. But anyway, it was a game of fate. One had to wait to see what it held.
The thought about his daughter’s future lulled him to sleep before he even knew it. Now there was one thing that needed to be done at first priority – find her a tutor. He could not afford to see her flunk her exams – far too much money had been invested in her education. He would not let it go waste.
It was yet another day in the Singh household and things proceeded as they always did – on all days of the year. The pressure cooker blew air in long, stretched whistles and the aroma of ginger tea pervaded every nook and corner of the house. Madhav Singh left home after his customary leisurely breakfast of potato fritters and three cups of tea, while his wife ran about the house with a rugged mop in her hand that reeked of cheap phenyl. Kumari, as usual, shut herself into her room, under the same heap of papers and study material that, by this time, was the only means to freedom in her life.
The sun had decided to set for the day and the sky had begun to lose sheen. Kumari was asleep on her cot, with a giant book on her chest, while her mother had begun the preparations for the evening snack and dinner.
“I have finally found a tutor..can you believe it?” came a loud and happy voice. It was Madhav Singh, walking in victoriously through the wooden main door of the house.
“Really? That is great news. At least our Kumari will be able to sail through her exams comfortably. But how could you so soon….” said his wife.
The elated and usually over-confident Madhav Singh interrupted her and began “When I commit to something, I do it. Everyone in this town knows this quality of mine. One of my colleagues at the factory knew this tutor and suggested his name to me. There is however, a problem.”
“Problem? What kind of problem?”
“I..i..it’s a young boy!”
“Boy? But how can we let our young girl be tutored by a young boy? Doesn’t sound too right to me. What will people who watch him come in and out every day say about us and our daughter?”
“That’s what. There is a problem much bigger than that you see.”
“What could be a bigger deal than this ji?”
“The boy is a Muslim!”
“Muslim? Are you kidding me? Is that the tutor you have found for your daughter? What kind of a father are you?” she said in a contemptuous tone. “Just to get the daughter educated, will you cross all social lines?”
“What else can I do? He is the only person here who has both the knowledge and the time to come home and tutor Kumari. In fact this boy Ayaan, is due to leave for Delhi in six months from now. Having cleared his public service exams with distinction, he has been offered a position in the capital city. It is only because he is passionate about the cause for education, he has very kindly agreed to come home till he is here.”
“You have lost it completely! I will not, for as long as I am alive, allow a Muslim to cross the boundary of my house. May God save us!”
“Please try to understand Janki..he has agreed to tutor her for free! Can you believe that? How many people of that kind do we come across these days? And think about this – if our daughter does well in the exams and becomes like him, she will be able to eke out a decent living for herself. Think of that boy’s parents – how proud they must feel!”
“I am still not convinced about that religion part. I could have accepted the boy thing but this is too much. Now do as you and daughter like and leave me alone. I do not even want to see his face” She said and walked towards the kitchen and slammed the door behind her. Madhav Singh banged his head with his palm and got about usual work.
It was a new day and one of the happiest for Kumari. Having heard about the tutor from her father, she had barely been able to sleep in excitement. It was such an experience to be in company of educated people, of people who had carved their own identity, had made their parents proud. What a pleasure it was to discuss matters that really mattered like hunger, poverty and education and not meaningless things such as which vegetables to buy and what to cook. She would finally have good company and she looked forward to it with all her heart.
It was eleven in the morning and the house lay calm. All morning chores had been completed and Kumari, fresh out of the shower, waited eagerly for the door-bell to ring. Dressed in her not-so-faded t-shirt and most comfortable pyjamas, she smelled of the flowery talcum powder she had applied liberally on her face and neck. She felt nice. Every now and then she would gaze at the plastic Orpat clock that hung carelessly on the wall opposite the couch on which she sat. She knew her tutor would come in any minute. “Ayaan” she thought to herself. “Sounds like a nice name, but what coule it mean? I can probably ask Zara, my batch-mate in college. She speaks Urdu so she would know.” She thought.
Her thoughts were disrupted with the ringing of the bell. She got up hurriedly and rushed to the door. As she turned the door knob, she saw him for the first time. There stood he, clad in a gently-ironed white kurta-pyjama, a pile of books held tightly under his left underarm.
“Kumari” he said, in a husky tone full of confidence.
“Hmm..You are Ayaan? Right?” she stammered.
“I most certainly am. May I come in please?”
“Oh I’m sorry..I completely forgot. Please make yourself comfortable” said she, handing him the glass of water that lay there waiting for him since the last two hours.
“So tell me more about yourself. I think I can mentor you better if I know how you think.”
She couldn’t believe her ears. Did people in that part of the country even know to speak that courteously? The boys in her class in college were such ruffians – most of them. They would shout and hoot and try mercilessly to embarrass their female batch-mates. And this fellow, so gentle, so serene. She couldn’t stop looking at him, at his face, his eyes and the curvature of his lips. To her he seemed like an alien who had landed from a territory she never knew existed.
As he kept on speaking, her eyes continued to hover around him to look for finer details. He had a fair complexion and bright honey-coloured eyes with long eye-lashes. His lips curved into a winsome smile every now and then, as he spoke of something he was passionate about, revealing flawlessly white teeth. He had a light moustache of a newly matured young boy that lined neatly, the top of his lips. Each time he spoke, the words seemed to come out of an abyss so deep down in his throat. It reminded her of Zara, her batch-mate. Probably it was the Urdu effect.
He kept speaking and she, staring, his words merely dropping and falling off her ears.
One thing was for sure – something about her had changed.
Days flew and months went by swiftly. Kumari’s civil service exams had gone by and she seemed to be reasonably sure she had done well. All that remained was news of her result.
Things at the Singh household had barely changed till one day, something unusual happened. Madhav Singh and his wife had just returned from a wedding in another town, decked up from head to toe. As the tiny bells on her anklets rang, Mrs. Singh unlocked the wooden door from outside. As they got on to switching on the lights in the living room, the wife got suspicious.
“The house smells like it has been locked and unused for at least a couple of hours.”
“What do you mean? Kumari must have come home after teaching tuition classes. She must be in her room. Where else will she be at this time of the day?”
Even before her husband’s speech could completely fall on her ears, she was running. She rushed to her daughter’s room and flung open the door.
The room was meticulously arranged with nothing out of its designated place. There were no papers, no books or anything else that usually marked Kumari’s presence in the house. The study table lay bare with merely a sheet of old, yellow paper, folded neatly into two. Janki picked it up with careful, trembling hands, her red, stone-studded bangles disrupting the uncanny silence of that room.
She began to read. It was Kumari’s handwriting.
“Amma, I hope you and father are back from the wedding by now. I hate to tell you this but I have made an important choice in my life – the choice of a life partner. You will certainly not be surprised to know that it is Ayaan I have fallen for, the same Muslim boy you have so greatly abhorred all this while.
In fact, we have been thinking about starting life with one another for quite some time now but it was I who insisted that we do it this way. I say it not to defend him, but to assure my naive parents that I have not been ‘brainwashed’. We are moving to Delhi where he already has a job offer. Depending on my results, I hope to find myself in a good place too. Anyway, that is something that will unfold itself in the future.
As I set out to explore new avenues, I must confess. I must open up about things I have only thought about and never divulged. You know me, don’t you?
Even when I may have been difficult to deal with all the while I was there, there has been not a day when I did not thank heavens for the two of you. I thank you and father for your upbringing and the faith that your money spent on my education shall never go waste. Not many parents, at least in this part of the country, can do that. I feel blessed that you tried (and hopefully successfully so!) to give me something that that you have never had the privilege of experiencing – liberation from conservatism.
How I wish I could choose my life partner without having to elope from this walnut shell of a town? But what can I do? They’ll kill him, won’t they? Plus how will you be able to continue living in that place? They will kill you too for bearing and rearing a rebellious daughter.
More than you, I feel bad for father. I know he has been concerned all this while, but none of us chose to reveal our concerns. But that’s fine, that’s just how we are. I know how my future has mattered to him, how he has struggled to make ends meet and most importantly, how he has kept me insulated from the pressures of society. An unmarried daughter is an albatross around the neck, right? But never for him.
Coming to you, it is not like I am unaware that you did notice changes in my behaviour over time, particularly after Ayaan began coming home to mentor me. I was suddenly more mellow, more grounded and of course, much more feminine than I have ever felt. I have observed you staring at me as I stood admiring my face in the mirror or putting on bangles of different colours just when it was time for him to come home.
You know what – I can barely relate to my former self these days. Now I suddenly feel the urge to look good, to dress up in a way that pleases him, cook to pamper his taste buds, even when I know not how to turn on the gas stove. I now understand how and why you would be after me and father to taste what you had cooked – our pleasure mattered so much to you. That’s exactly how I feel now – so vulnerable, yet so beautiful.
While your habits and ways shall be with me for life, I shall remain indebted to father for his choice of an instructor for me. If it wasn’t for him, I would never have known what love could mean and how it could make the most careless of women feel.
And by the way, Ayaan means ‘a gift of God’ which he really is. It was Zara who told me that. Well I’m not even sure why I’m telling you this. Just felt like it.
Anyway, please continue to be proud of your daughter and try and make father understand why I had to do this.
Please take care of yourself. I will communicate my new phone number after I settle into Delhi.
A baffled Janki passed on the letter to her husband, who by that time, stood at the far end of the room, clueless.
He read it hurriedly with a raised eyebrow, looking every now and then into his wife’s face, as if accusing her of treachery.
“What do we do now?” he said stammering.
“Let her be” she replied with a faint smile, “is that not why we had helped her develop a brain of her own?”
Quite unexpectedly, Madhav Singh threw himself on the bed that now lay abandoned.
“Hmm” was all he managed to utter, as he got lost into thought again.
Janki suddenly heard him say “Want some tea? I can make you some?”
“You lazy bum” she said, ruffling his hair.
Image taken from Google images.