The Unsung

She’s someone exactly like someone you know and yet dares to be different. She seeks her voice yet has remained the unsung. Can she hope to dream?

Read the story featured in eFictionindia vol. 3 issue 11, below:

The Unsung

The moment I put pen to paper I hear my mother-in-law’s “Sushma bahu, would I never get my tea?” I almost get up abruptly, hurriedly setting my braid and pallu – almost. And then stop. And sit. And write. Because today, my work is done.

Waking up at 4:30, I readied myself, the prayer room, and five lunch boxes. I broomed and dusted, washed and dried, cut and fried. After my rounds of “Pranaam” and “Bye, beta,” I ate and cleared. Then began my other work – I listened and apologized, lowered my head and nodded, almost retaliated but stayed mute.

It’s time for my tutees to arrive. They don’t know it’s their last music lesson with me. My husband doesn’t know about the packed suitcase beneath our bed. And my kids – oh, my kids. But they would manage, and says a tiny hope inside me, understand.

Twenty-five years of unpaid, unappreciated, 19-hour workdays. My work here is done. I put my resignation letter in the drawer.

I don’t know if I would make it –surviving in a big city all by myself. I don’t know if the other scholarship students would be all modern, smart and English-speaking. I only know it’s time I listened to music… the music within my soul…

*
I look up to see stars cheering me on as the lights wink at me from below. As I stand here, the salty breeze pregnant with aspirations loosens the hair from my braid. A stray line from a book floats in my head: “The view from the top is wonderful.” It is… it is! In daily soaps and the rare movie treats I have had a glimpse of big cities with big buildings and bigger dreams. Yet to actually stand on the terrace looking at the Mumbai cityscape is something else… I feel on top of the world! It isn’t a climb of ten floors but twenty-five years.

Finally. Two months of novelty and independence! A student again. This time in a school which no one forces me to attend. Surrounded by creativity, knowledge and an easy positivity…

I am among the oldest students in the music school. Wiser? I can’t say that. Here girls are allowed to have wants – and they know what they want. A twelfth-standard student has been selected in a music school abroad and is just waiting for the Board results. The weekend batches have career women learning music for pleasure or as a second career option. Even the housewives have supportive husbands offering to take the kids to the park while they learn.

The only person I spotted in a Sari was the one in the mirror. While I understand English I can’t speak it well. Not like there is any pressure to make conversation or friends, everyone is self-centred. In Dhar, everyone knew everyone, and it was our business to know the new ones. To help the ones like us and gossip about the modern ones, which were rare. It’s all different, even the way the traffic sounds. In Dhar, there would be silence broken by the stray bike without silencer or the random horn based on a film song. Here it’s a continuous buzz, almost comforting in its constancy.

“Hey Sush, I’m famished!” Mona, my roommate, breaks my reverie. Stylish, spunky and with a devil-may-care attitude, she actually helped me stand on my own. I enter the hall, happily uncovering the upma I had made. “Thank God for you Sush… another day you saved me from starving!” She relishes each bite and asks for more. I never knew there existed women who couldn’t cook. It’s almost like a man and his male-organ… he just has to have it to be a man.
“Oh, nice Sari!” She chirps.
“Umm… thanks,” I say embarrassedly and reach out to clear her plate, but she stops me. I am not used to being stopped from doing others’ work. Or being appreciated. My kids have appreciated me sometimes but then cooking taken as a woman’s duty, and even they don’t clear their own plates.

Sometimes my mother-in-law’s shrill voice pierces my sleep. At others, a stray tear slides down my cheek for my kids. Panchi is too young and I understand her anger. However I’m grateful that Palak has tried. I learned that during one of my blank-calls home from the phone-booth. Once, when after her “Hello?” I answered with my silence, my elder daughter said “Mumma, I know it’s you. I love you. I’m happy if you are. Don’t worry about us. And please buy a cell phone!” I did. And since then some of the guilt has abated.

The exact moment I’m thinking of her Palak calls me. Long live my girl, I think as I pick up.
A moment later, I’m sobbing so hard that Mona has to the phone and note the particulars of the hospital. My little daughter… what was I thinking when I came here?
“Sush… Sush! Get a grip,” Mona holds my hand. “So are you going?”
“As if I won’t! Panchi is ill!” I snap.
“Actually, you don’t have to go, because if you do you would never come back. Courage comes only once sometimes,” she says concernedly. “She has everyone…”
“She doesn’t have me! She needs me!” I scream in order to keep from breaking down. “I really, really need to go…”
“In that case, let me book your flight.”
“Fli – flight? I haven’t ever been in one…” I feel timid all of a sudden. I can see her trying to hide her surprise, even irritation.
But people are surprising. “Then I’ll fly with you.”
“Really? But.. the classes… and I really can’t let you do that Mona,” I say feebly.
“Come on! Miss out on a chance to see that monster-in-law of yours? Not gonna happen,” she grins.

*

Courage indeed visits only once. Having the doctors say the seizure could be because of stress. Seeing Panchi’s look accusing me of betrayal. Hearing my family’s taunts and my husband’s silence. Where was courage now?

With Mona, I guess. I almost envy her when I see how my family behaves with her. Earlier there were a few jeers and whispers for her attire and attitude, however now there’s envy in the eyes of the women here. I do not fool myself that it would mean a change for me. I’m their bahu, not a guest. And everyone’s still angry.

Two days later while she’s leaving, Mona asks me “So when should I book your return honey?”
I let my silence answer her.
“Don’t tell me, Sush! Panchi is gonna be okay, and you can’t leave your seat just like that! Do you know how many people would kill for it?”
I tried to speak but I know that would unleash the torrent of tears.
“Sush, what is your plan?”
I gather myself. “The way I see it, you’re either the rock or the stream.” She looks at me like I’ve lost it. “When my obligations were the rock, solid and unyielding, I chose to be the stream. And now that their current is too strong… I need to sit rock solid and still, and let it all pass over me…”
“Well, screw your rocks and streams. I’ll request the Dean to keep your seat for a month.”
“Listen, Mona—”
“No listens and buts. I’ll see you,” she says confidently.

I envy that confidence. Being young and free of family responsibilities it’s easy for the Monas of this world. Some of us have a different destiny awaiting us. Even if we dare to dream once…
…we pay for it. I gather my strength. My kids need me.
Panchi’s just back from the hospital. Seeing me stay she seems to have forgiven me. At least forgiven me enough to say “Sing for me, Mumma,”. I almost don’t, feeling nervous with my husband Prakash around. Yet Palak seconds her request and I start with their favourite lullaby. I’m just halfway through when Panchi has slept and Palak has started wiping her tears. I hug her tightly. At that moment, Prakash leaves.

Is this always going to be like this? Will he never forgive me?

“Will you never forgive me?”
He asks me the next morning.
“What? What do.. what?” I stumble.
“Sushma, I know I haven’t been an expressive or out-of-the-way supportive husband,” he said humbly. “But I thought we had trust. Why did you need to leave me without even trying to communicate?”
Words failed me and all that escaped were sobs. He softly touched my cheek.
“It’s okay, what’s done is done. What are your plans now?”
“I thought I could leave it all behind. But my kids – our kids, Prashant, I can’t leave them behind. So that decides it for me. I’ll stay and work my way back into acceptance, I guess.”
He paused. “Do you think that’s possible?”
I wondered, too. “It is with the kids. And I’m hopeful, regarding you. Honestly there isn’t much love lost between the rest of us,” I sigh.
“One last thing, Sushma. Do you regret your daring to leave it?”
“No.” I stated with conviction. I thought back to the days of music and freedom. “No.”
Loud sounds of utensils banging comes from the kitchen. My mother-in-law’s good morning summons.
As I serve breakfast, a silence lingers over the dining table.
“Bas, Mummy,” Panchi says.
“Thoda aur beta, sehat banani hai,” I coax.
“Doh meheene toh badi sehat banwa li tuney,” Mummy ji reproaches me. “Ab zarurat nahi humari sewa karni ki.”
Prakash clears his throat. “Actually, Mummy, zarurat waise bhi nahi hai kyuki hum chaaro Mumbai shift ho rahe hai.”
Like a character in a badly-directed Hindi movie, I literally drop my spoon.
“Dimag sadh gaya hai tera? Teen din mei isne apna jadu daal diya?”
“Are you serious?” My devar.
“Yes. I guess I did a re-think when I saw Mona. If she can have so much freedom, why can’t give my wife a chance?” Then he looked directly at Mummy ji. “Aur isne toh apni aadhi zindagi de di aapko. Aadhi isko apne man se jeene doh.”
Mummy ji uses her Brahmaastra. “Arey bachcho ka toh socho! Aisde hi thodi na ukhaad sakte ho inhe?”
Palak looks at me encouragingly. “Dadi, we’ll miss you, but Mumbai is like wowww! No Panchi?”
The latter nods. A twinge of guilt grips me as I notice her relief at not being betrayed and left behind.
My eyes meet Prakash’s. Gratitude meets encouragement. And the violin strings and Mumbai skylights beckon again…

 

Shubha Jaggi

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