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Daughter— Maitreyi Pushpa

Jan 7, 2023 | Fiction | 0 comments

Translated from the Hindi by Rituparna Mukherjee 

 

I was walking down a dirt road with dust-laden feet. I was not a stranger to that road. In my childhood, I used to traverse it every day on my way to school. All the children of the village would leave for school early morning with bags on their backs and managed to reach school by the time the morning bell rang. I used to be secretly upset and often wonder, “Why does my mother want me to study so desperately?” My other friends, girls in the village, were free of this burden. They would prepare cow dung cakes, bide their time under the warm winter sun, learn to make flatbreads, and sing songs. The pain of being deprived of these pleasures and skills would pierce my young heart.

The path which led to school also had my beloved friend Munni’s farmlands. I would often find her sowing seeds with her father, watering the crops, or managing the cattle. I used to be jealous of her because she could do as she pleased. She could go home whenever she liked, eat flatbreads, and play—that’s all she had to do. And there I was, engrossed in studies the entire day, mugging up complex history chapters, trying to remember geography for fear of the teacher, then walking four kilometers, and finally reaching my home. I used to be terribly hungry when I got back. 

I could only meet Munni once I reached home. As soon as she saw me, she would run to my house. She would look at my school bag greedily. I still remember the covetousness in her eyes. I used to think of her as a really foolish person—why else would someone want to study? I considered studying to be the most boring job of all. But Munni would always turn the pages of my schoolbooks wistfully. Although our tastes varied vastly, we were bound to each other by something unknown to the two of us. I didn’t quite like to leave her behind and go to school. There were many times when I would join Munni in herding cattle on my way to school and would stay there for the entire day. I had begged her mother many times—

Chachi, please send Munni to school.”

“What are you saying, dear girl? She is a girl after all. What will she do, and where will she go after studying? It’s different for you, Vasudha. You’re an only child. You are both son and daughter to your mother, so even if you study your entire life, who’s to say anything? You have no one to object—neither father nor brother.”

I had nothing to say to this logic. What could I have said? I decided that this was the sole reason why my mother wanted me to go to school. She would have otherwise taught me household chores. I was but a child, how could I have comprehended the value of education?

It was a Sunday. After washing my hair, I went to the terrace to dry it well. Our terrace was joined to that of Munni’s house. After a few moments, I heard Munni’s voice—

“Amma you are not being fair to me. You can fund the education of five boys in the house but when it comes to me, you have no money. You consider the cost of my books and copies burdensome.”

“You repeat the same thing over and over again, every day. Haven’t I already told you that you cannot go to school?” said her mother, irritated.

“Why Amma? Why not me?”

“Will you hush already? You have been speaking too much these days. How dare you try to compete with boys! Boys are our hope and support in old age. You will marry and belong to someone else. We won’t eat off your income, will we? That’s it, you better get it clear in your head. I have said whatever I have to in this matter.” What could Munni have said to this? She became quiet. Of course, I knew that Munni was an extremely clever and intelligent girl. If she would have been allowed to study, she would have proved to be an extraordinarily brilliant student. She was far more intelligent than her brothers. 

Munni had already excelled at all other skills, whatever she had the opportunity to learn. When she would sing to the beat of a dholak , many people would stand still in the lanes and listen to her. When Munni danced at Panditji’s son, Hitesh’s, wedding, I felt that all my education fell short of her skill. People had earnestly praised and applauded her. Her body shone with a beautiful grace at that moment. Her colorful ghaghra matched the movements of her agile waist, and for the moment it seemed as if the entire ground was swaying happily with her. She was exceptional in stitching and embroidery as well. She was my friend, and not just me but the entire village held her in high esteem. 

She had shouldered all of her mother’s responsibilities and managed the household quite skillfully. Silently, she prepared parathas for her brothers, sent them to school, washed their clothes, worked with her father in the field, ate their leftovers, and yet she grew up to be as beautiful as the moon. She remained nonetheless an object of worry for her parents since they had to marry her off. However, Chacha did not have to run around for Munni’s marriage. She was beautiful and proficient in housework. She was married off easily to a person known to the family. 

When she went away after marriage, I felt as if someone had cut my chest in half and taken it away. Her mother’s relief matched my pain. She had been burdened with Munni’s future since her birth. Now that her daughter was married, Munni’s mother felt as if a big burden had been lifted off her shoulders. Now ChachaChachi were only left with their sons, and they were not a reason for worry. They could live as they pleased. This thought pleased them to no end. 

Munni only came to the village to honor the ritual of coming to her parent’s place. Chacha-Chachi had washed their hands off her after her marriage. While people focused on her father’s compulsion to buy a dhoti for her husband and clothes for her, no one looked at her attachment to her mother or her affection for her father. A maze-like love for the sons lay between Munni and her parents, barriers through which she could see through but could not cross over to reach her parents’ love on the other side. 

Time passed by, and slowly the boys started getting married one after the other. None of them turned out to be truly accomplished in their studies. Of course, one of them did make it to the post of junior engineer. He was the eldest son. His marriage was conducted with a lot of splendor and ceremony. Chachi was on cloud nine with happiness and pride. But no sooner had the newlywed daughter-in-law come to the household than she declared that she could not possibly live in a backward village. The eldest son could not defy his wife’s wishes. He supported his wife silently. The two of them left for Haldwani the very next day. 

Once when he visited his parents, he took away the cash that Chacha had received from his wife’s parents as dowry. He said that he had to get a flat of his own because living on rent was difficult.

Marriages kept happening—new daughters-in-law kept joining the family and their sons’ behavior kept changing. The second son had his shop in the very same village. Where could he have gone? His wife was, however, the daughter of a real shopkeeper. She measured every bit of tea and sugar consumed by Chacha and Chachi like a miser. Consequently, Chachi had to get herself a separate kitchen from her daughter-in-law.

Gradually, each son made his own separate arrangement under the same roof on one pretext or another. Meanwhile, Chacha-Chachi were reduced to being alone and a neighbor to their sons. While Munni was there, Chachi never had to bother about touching the stove, but in her old age, she had to think about cooking and household chores. Her eyes didn’t help her much either. Everything was a blur. Her knee joints were another problem altogether, they were in constant pain. Old age along with her sons changed behavior with her. However, what pained her the most was that despite being the mother-in-law of five, she had to cook her four flatbreads alone and separately. It was most insulting. She hesitated going out to her neighborhood. Until now, she had been a proud mother of five, a symbol of good fortune, one who held her head high among her neighbors. Chacha used to boil over in anger at times.

Chachi would calm him down by saying, “Every stove is made of soil. Who listens to their parents these days?”

I had returned to my village after a long time. I left to ask about Chachi’s well-being almost immediately after I reached my place.

Chachi,” I called out to her but got no reply, although I saw her in the kitchen as soon as I crossed the door and went into the court. She looked up, peered this way and that, and then went back to her work at the stove.

Chachi.

“Who is it?” she asked, trying to keep her dim stove burning. Her watery, cataract-ridden eyes were not able to see me perhaps. Munni’s mother, of whom Munni had taken such diligent care, was reduced to such utter helplessness! 

Chachi… It’s me, Vasudha,” saying which, I sat very close to her old frame.

“Vasudha, my child, when did you come? My eyes have almost gone blind, I cannot see properly. So, I could see you enter.” I spoke of mundane things with her for some time. I asked her soon enough—”Chachi, when was the last time Munni came here?”

“Munni… How can Munni come here, child? This house now belongs to her sisters-in-law. I survive in one corner somehow. How do I tell you, my child? These daughters-in-law plot to throw me out of my own home every day, a home that I have built by my own hands. They have separated the fields, where will we live if they take away the house as well? Where is the justice in this Vasudha?”

“Don’t your sons say anything, Chachi?”

“Don’t ask me anything about them. They are sinners. Utterly worthless! They have become servants to their wives,” Chachi spewed her lava-like wrath scornfully.

I was greatly saddened at her plight. She must never have thought that all five of her sons would fail her. Our expectations spoil us and blind us to reality. The pain from our loved ones hurts us the most in old age and makes us rudderless.

“We have sent Munni a letter, my child, but how will she free herself from the care and responsibilities of her own household?” I knew she was consoling her troubled heart with these words. I can’t say if she had any expectations of her daughter but the day I was supposed to return from the village, Hitesh had come running—

“Vasudha, Munni has arrived. She has been asking for you.”

I ran to her house immediately. I saw her coming to me—

“Vasudha, I’m so happy to see you,” saying this, she hugged me. Both our eyes were brimming with tears. The feeling of friendship has such many deep seas in it!

“I have been missing you ever since I came to the village.”

“I wasn’t supposed to come, Vasudha. But I couldn’t stop myself when I received Amma’s letter. I have brought my daughter here as well. She will stay here, help Amma to make her flatbreads. Amma can’t see properly,” saying this Munni broke down in sobs. She stood sobbing for a long time. I comforted her—

“Don’t cry, Munni. You have done the right thing. But fool, this is a time for your daughter to study. Where will she study here?”

“Vasudha, you have studied here, haven’t you? So will my daughter,” saying this, Munni wiped her red eyes. 


Also, read a book review of an anthology of short stories titled New Urdu Writings From India and Pakistan (Edited by Rakhshanda Jalil ), reviewed by Shams Afif Siddiqui, and published in The Antonym:

Exploring New Urdu Writings— Shams Afif Siddiqui


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Maitreyi Pushpa is an eminent writer of Hindi fiction and has authored ten novels and seven short story anthologies. Born on 30th November 1944, her work renders a keen questioning glance at the position of women in Indian society in both urban and rural sectors. She is the recipient of the prestigious SAARC Literary Award.   

Rituparna Mukherjee is a faculty of English and Communication Studies at Jogamaya Devi College, Kolkata. She did her MA in English literature and currently pursuing a Doctoral degree in Gendered Mobilities in west African and Afro-Diasporic Literature at IIIT Bhubaneswar. Her areas of interest include African and Indian literature and Post-colonial and Feminist theories as well as English Language Teaching, Second Language Acquisition, and Communication studies. She works as an ELT consultant, translator, and ESL author outside of her work and research schedule.

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