After numerous joyous namastes and mutual congratulations, Mrs. Chandak stepped out of the panditji’s house beaming with happiness. She had just concluded a discussion with her son’s future in-laws and finalized the date of the wedding of her second son to Savita, a wonderful young girl. She was class 10th pass, a good cook, devout and traditional. It had taken half a year to find such a girl. How courteously she had massaged her feet! Today’s modern girls just touch feet lightly before springing up, but this one bent low and massaged her feet respectfully and then, after receiving blessings, stood up, but still kept her head bent low. This is how one’s children should be, she thought, respectful and courteous to their elders, behaving in keeping with their role in society.
She knew her son Ramesh wanted a more educated bride, but he didn’t know what was good for him. Suresh’s bride was such a problem, she sighed. Then she smiled again, thinking of her first born, Suresh. He was such a good boy. Because of him they rose up in society. Her husband was a low level, government clerk, but Suresh had become an IAS officer. He was a good boy, a very good boy. And for him she had found an educated wife, an IPS officer’s daughter who had just cleared the UPSC exam and become an officer in the Customs and Excise service. The Chandak family had now become the toast of Bhopal society.
Feeling thrilled about her life, she walked briskly towards her home. Normally, she would have asked one of her sons to drive her the 2 km distance to their home, but today she was feeling so happy and energetic that she wanted to walk. She smoothened her hair, covered her head with the pallu of her art silk sari, and smiled at the beauty of the rich blue and gold sari border. Art silk saris were all the rage now in Bhopal. In the pleasant September weather they were not too hot or too cold, and always looked fresh. If it had been winter she would have worn a pure silk sari for such an occasion. Normally, she would not have a range of saris for different weathers, but with Suresh’s income, now she could hold her own in society.
Thinking of Suresh made her happy as well as distressed. She had so many problems with his wife. The girl had the temerity to object to living in the family home, she recalled indignantly. Yes it was small, and Ramesh had to sleep in the drawing room and they all had to share one bathroom, and yes, moving into official quarters would have been more comfortable – but it was not a bahu’s place to argue! Aarti had the boldness to remind her that before marriage she had assured her that she and Suresh could move into their official quarters. One says these things on social occasions, didn’t this girl understand, she fumed.
Outwardly she presented a calm demeanour, and spoke soothingly as one might to a child, “Bahu, don’t you want to live in the family home first? This way you will understand us and become part of the family. There is enough time to move into quarters. Why, we all will move together as one happy family.” She smiled inwardly as she replayed in her mind’s eye the surprise on Aartis face at the last statement.
“But, but....,” Aarti had tried to protest.
‘No time for chit chat bahu, we have work to do,” Mrs. Chandak had replied abruptly to discourage further argument and vigorously polished a well polished brass puja diya.
When Mrs Chandak realized that since all the IAS quarters were occupied (because some of the officers had refused to vacate them even after they had been transferred out), they would have to move into the quarters of the Customs and Excise department, she objected vehemently to moving into the quarters, finding excuse after excuse. Really, she thought, I should not have to argue. A well behaved daughter-in-law would accept my decision. She had not even asked for dowry out of respect for Aarti’s family, surely the girl should return the respect.
At least her son was still loyal, not completely won over by the girls wiles, she thought. Every night they could hear the two of them arguing. Sometimes their arguments would be so loud that they would walk outside into the municipal park to continue their fights.
Mrs Chandak had heard of these types of girls before. She determined to be strong and firm so that this girl would understand whose house this was. When Aarti wanted to introduce the concept of indoor chappals, she rejected the idea outright.
“But the bed sheets get dirty ma!” she had objected. But Mrs. Chandak had not even deigned to argue.
“Does the girl not have any respect for the gods?” she had complained to her friend. “The puja corner is in the drawing room, and she wants people to enter the room wearing chappals? Such an ignorant, uncultured girl, she even disturbs me by watching TV when I am praying.”
Aarti was also unhappy with the situation. She was agitated and angry every day. This was not the life she had imagined with her husband. She had been so excited when the marriage had been arranged. Her husband-to-be was a jovial, intelligent person, and the whole family seemed so friendly. With her future mother-in-law’s blessings she had explored the officer’s quarters available and even planned how she would decorate and furnish them.
But now everything had changed. Her mother-in-law had reneged on so many assurances she had made her before marriage and even her husband had changed, she vented to her friend. Instead of a smart officer he had become like a scared, docile boy before his mother. His standard response to her complaints was “she is my mother, what can I say.” And eventually the modern young man she thought she had married began parroting his mother with statements like “this is our tradition,” “this is not in our culture.” Aarti felt she had reached breaking point when her activities were monitored by her mother-in-law through a very clever declaration that it was shameful that the bahu had to drive to work by herself, and that henceforth Ramesh would drop her off and pick her up.
Aarti smiled as she recalled how she had scored over her mother-in-law over the housing issue. She had pointed out that if Ramesh were married, his parents would have to sleep in the drawing room. Then she proposed a solution that would be acceptable to Mrs. Chandak. She and her husband would buy a big flat with enough space for everyone and the house rent allowance they received would help them pay off the loan easily. Mrs. Chandak immediately realized the benefits. The argument was indisputable. Besides, Mrs. Chandak thought, but did not tell Aarti, that they could rent out their current house to provide extra income for her younger son to reduce his dependency on the older son and his manipulative wife.
So she accepted the suggestion, but slowly, over time, as though she had to be persuaded. And to make her mark on the decision, she insisted that a separate puja room be built in the new place so that the gods were placated for leaving their ancestral home.
“Ancestral home my ass,” thought Aarti. “It’s just an apartment.” But outwardly she smiled, having won the battle, and said, “Of course, everything will be done as you wish.”
Savita was thrilled and anxious about the match. She had heard it was a very smart family and that they had a very smart, government servant, daughter-in-law – how would she fit in? They were very nice she felt, they had not asked for dowry. But with no dowry and no income, what would her status be she wondered? Her mother assured her that everything would be fine, she was young, just 18, strong, a good cook and housewife, and with such a fresh charming face, she would win over everyone. And it was a good match. In her wildest dreams Savita had not imagined being married to someone linked to the government.
Whatever anxieties she had were allayed when she met the whole family. They were very sweet to her and Ramesh looked so gentle and kindly. And her jeth-to-be had even shaken hands with her as if she were an officer.
They had a grand wedding ceremony, funded not by the girl’s side but by the boy’s. Mrs. Chandak wanted a ceremony befitting her family’s status, so she had graciously stated that her family would take charge of the wedding and honeymoon. “Just bring your trousseau my child,” she informed Savita, and advised her to buy clothes that would be suitable for the elevated social circles she would mingle in after marriage. The wedding was truly extravagant. It was held on the palace grounds under a huge, high ceilinged marquee, with gold and glass chandeliers to light up the place. And video cameras rolled over the place, zooming in and out as they did at cricket matches, capturing all the high ranking officers who had been invited. Savita sat decorously and submissively through the ceremony, but inwardly she was a jumble of conflicting emotions.
After the ceremony she was taken to the house for an auspicious introduction to the gods in the puja room before being whisked away by Ramesh for an exciting honeymoon in Singapore. After a week in Singapore, her first trip abroad, the couple returned to Bhopal and Savita began her new life with her new family.
Thrilled with life and eager to please, she recalled her mother’s training and woke up early in the morning to serve the family. Before anyone was awake, she went to the puja room and was about to light the diya, when she stopped, thinking her mother-in-law may like that honour. So instead, she dusted and mopped the puja room and washed the brass diya thoroughly and polished it with a few drops of lemon juice. Then she placed fresh wicks for her mother-in-law to light.
After that she made a huge pot of tea and started work on the dough and potatoes to make a sumptuous aloo-puri breakfast. Drawn by the wonderful fragrance of the cardamon peel she had added to the tea, her in-laws and husband soon stepped out of their bedrooms, earlier than usual. At once she wiped her hands and rushed to touch their feet, with her head decorously covered.
Mrs. Chandak’s sharp eyes took in everything, the puja room, the clean kitchen the respectful behaviour. And she was very pleased, but she did not show it. Her husband and son were beaming with happiness and satisfaction, but she moderated her expression and voice to simply show satisfaction. Too much praise would go to her head, she felt. It was better to show restraint to keep her in line. She blessed Savita in a routine manner as she touched her feet and said, “Come bahu, let us light the lamp for an auspicious beginning.”
Aarti and her husband did not emerge from their room so Savita started toward their room with a tray in hand.
“No need,” said Mrs. Chandak, adding contemptuously that “Aarti has installed a hot pot in the room so they have their tea there. They don’t even have breakfast at home, just eat some junk in the canteen.”
Now that Savita was here, Mrs. Chandak inducted her into her pet projects. From cooking lunch for delivery to her sons in office, to cleaning the fridge, changing the curtains, scrubbing the kitchen wall tiles, and preparing sweet dishes and kachoris at home. Savita managed to get a break only by requesting permission to shampoo her hair.
By the end of that day Savita had grasped the dynamics in the house and wondered where her future lay in the tussle for power between her sasuma and jethani. That night, as she unpacked the puja set her mother had sent her, she thought long and hard about her situation.
Next morning Mrs. Chandak woke up with a smile on her face. She had instructed her new bahu to prepare coffee instead of tea. Surely the lovely aroma of coffee would make even her older son push aside the tea bag tea in his bedroom and join the family for breakfast.
But there was no sound from the kitchen, no aroma of coffee.
After waiting a few minutes, Mrs. Chandak stepped out of the bedroom to investigate the matter. No one was in sight.
“Bahu! Bahu!” she called out.
Immediately Ramesh peeked out of the bedroom door and put a finger to his lips.
“What is the matter?” asked a surprised Mrs Chandak. “Is bahu unwell? Is it her time of month?”
“No, no,” said Ramesh in a loud whisper and beckoned his mother to look inside the bedroom.
Alarmed, Mrs Chandak craned her neck inside and in the darkened room saw Savita sitting cross legged in a corner of the room, hands folded, head bowed in prayer, a lighted diya, a smoking incense stick, a crystal bottle of rose water, and images of deities on a small platform.
“She is praying. She told me that at home she would pray for the family every morning for 3 hours and that it is important to continue this for the well being of her new family. Last night she unpacked the puja material her mother had sent her and set this up. Look, she even has silver flowers so she does not have to go out to pluck fresh flowers. Isn’t that clever?” said a delighted and appreciative Ramesh.
“Yes, very clever,” replied Mrs. Chandak in a deliberately emotionless voice. She needed time to understand this situation before responding. “Is she going to pray for 3 hours every morning?”
“I think so. She says that since she learnt to pray she has always prayed for her family. And now,” he added proudly, “she will also pray for my well-being and success.”
Mr. Chandak, who rarely spoke in household matters, felt moved to say, “We are fortunate to have such a devout bahu. Every day she will pray like this, she will bring great good fortune to this family.”
“Indeed,” said Mrs. Chandak, concealing her displeasure with great difficulty, “we are fortunate.”