Translated from the Gujarati by Manoj Chhaya
The renovation of the house was finally over. It was done in order to accommodate the comforts Kushan, Nirali, and Subhash wanted with contemporary styling. Curtains, fixtures, aluminum sections, and colorfully tinted glass panels changed the look of the house to such an extent that it showed no trace of its old identity.
Everyone in the house was so happy. Sulekha had been feeling a deep sense of contentment. She felt that her strenuous trip to the US was worth it after all. She had stayed away from her family for two years while visiting the US and had never missed the sight of the fact that she was in the US for earning and not for fun. She saved every penny she could, restraining herself from every attraction. She accepted jobs there if they paid her well, overlooking the risks involved. Her roiling days in the US had made the renovation possible.
She was content today, not because of the shining bright renovated walls but because she loved the bright and happy faces of her children and husband.
Kushan’s enthusiastic voice startled her from her thoughts.
Kushan said, “This old house is like new!”
Subhash responded immediately, “Like your Mom!”
All three of them laughed at this.
Subhash added, “Renovation, Renovation! It is all the magic of renovation.”
He winked to Kushan and gestured at Sulekha.
Kushan let out a boisterous laugh and the three moved out of the room, laughing and moving their arms in an affected manner.
Sulekha kept gazing at them and felt as if they were moving away from her. She felt like a stranger in her own house. She felt depressed.
It has been like this ever since she returned from the US. She could discount Subhash’s behavior but she felt her children had alienated her. Subhash supported them. An episode like this took place every now and then and she would feel empty and neglected.
She thought to herself: I did not visit the US for this. When she looked back and remembered how eager they were to get the changes done to suit their choice, she could not believe that Subhash, Kushan, and Nirali are making fun of her after the renovation.
Sulekha looked around the house with an air of a stranger. The sunlight on the green glass in what was so far a gallery embossed the pattern engraved into the glass. It looked so attractive. Sulekha could not take her eyes off the glass, nor could she take her mind off the thoughts.
Kushan had suggested converting the gallery into his study room. He was studying for the final year of his B.Sc. and wanted a separate space. The entire area of the flat was not bigger than a hall and a kitchen. So far, he had managed to study in the kitchen area at night, and in a corner in the hall during the day. Sulekha had thought of a brick-collage wall but Kushan had disapproved of her and so she had finalized a cement grille. But at last, it was Kushan. He had had his way and converted the gallery into a room. This change guzzled a lot of money, she thought. Furnishing the room was an added expense.
Nirali was no different. Kushan, at times, chose to study in public or college libraries, or even in the garden. Nirali did not have that option. Sulekha could not exactly recall what Nirali studied, but it was interior decoration, fashion designing, and advertising— or something similar to these. Sulekha had tried to understand what Nirali was studying and doing but she had failed to figure it out. The only thing she figured out was that Nirali was into something that involved a lot of scattered objects and material. Nirali obviously could not go out of the house to study with all this scatter. She would shift from one corner to another in the house. Nirali had suggested a folding partition in the hall for her workshop and that again was an expensive affair. Sulekha had tried to understand what Nirali had suggested but the disgusting expression on her face in response had made Sulekha give up.
The kitchen had also undergone a transformation. Nirali and Kushan had explained the changes they wanted in the kitchen to the workmen. Nirali had even drawn something on a piece of paper to explain it to the workers. Sulekha was glad to see that her kids knew so much. When she saw them discussing how their friends’ houses had things planned in the house, she would be surprised. Initially, she had tried to get involved in the discussion, but she was not heard. She felt she was not taken seriously and even disliked. She remembered how once Kushan had pulled her down harshly, saying— “Mom, visiting the US does not mean you understand everything.”
Sulekha would feel numb on such occasions rather than feeling insulted.
Sulekha came out of the partitioned space. Kushan and Nirali had designed and adorned this side of the partition to be the drawing room. She kept staring at the wall hangings. They were expensive wall paintings but Sulekha could not infer any pattern in the patches of color and crisscross lines. She had heard Kushan and Nirali discussing these paintings at length, though she had failed to grasp the essence of their discussion too.
…The renovation was finally over. The new look of the house was appreciated by every single visitor. It was a job well done— they said, and Sulekha’s eyes would glitter with happiness when she received such compliments. She would accompany the visitors to every nook and corner of the house and explain the background to every change made. She would give credit to her children for their ideas. When the visitors praised Nirali and Kushan, they would say that both the children were very intelligent, they were born geniuses. But the one thing that everyone acknowledged was that every part of their personality bore a mark of Sulekha’s meticulous upbringing.
Sulekha would hear all this with an expression of surprise on her face.
These were the same people who had once praised her— before the family ruined itself in betting and gambling. Her father-in-law could not survive the disgrace and died a sudden death. Subhash, who was brought up in utter luxury, had no sense to survive. They had to let go of the entire building except for this small flat that they renovated. There had been no cash or gold in the house and Subhash did not know how to find work or earn.
Some of the well-wishers had suggested they migrate to their village but Sulekha was not ready for it as she wanted her kids to have better opportunities for self-development available in towns and cities. Sulekha had not compromised even a bit when it came to choosing a school for them or getting them quality study material.
She had been at war with the world for this. She accepted every challenge and each challenge made her aware of her strength. She went through a number of activities to earn— from starting a cottage workshop for making and selling pickles and lentil thins to dealing in pre-owned articles. She had even started a best-from-the-waste workshop for some time. All the skills she had learned and acquired before she got married were now suddenly making more sense and helping her enormously after all these years. Her earlier diligence, enthusiasm, and her innate cordiality were getting revived, she had felt. The connections she had developed saved the house from getting sold. She secured the future of her children. She was glad that Nirali and Kushan were being praised for every single aspect of their personality— their education, mannerism, speech, and attire among several others.
Sulekha’s old visiting cards that Nirali had discarded were lying on the corner table next to the sofas. Sulekha examined them as if they were left by a visitor. How zealously she had got her name printed on the visiting card and had listed all possible services she could offer! But a few days back, Nirali and Kushan had laughed and ridiculed so much while reading the card.
The contacts she had developed during her visiting-card-days had made it possible for Sulekha to visit the US to earn. It was a two-year offer and her job was to look after the children in a group of families and teach them Gujarati.
Sulekha had not known how to react to this out-of-the-blue proposal to accept a job in the US. She had no personal motivation to visit the US, but she wanted a lot for her kids and the family in India and this was enough for her to accept the offer. It was the well-being of her kids that gave her the courage to venture out on the unforeseen path. It was a brave new world in front of her. Her eyes— widened with the sense of wonder— tried to take in as much as they could. She could feel herself getting evolved into a new self. Her language, her dressing, her perspective, and her perception— among many other things— were under a major change. This transformation, she felt, would help her get closer to her children. This thought excited her when she returned to India after two years.
Initially, after her return, she found her excitement worthwhile. Her courage and her efforts were admired and her stories of the US surprised everyone. She won praise for spending two years so well in an unknown land. Subhash, Kushan, and Nirali would witness Sulekha’s talks to the visitors.
But very soon the excitement waned away— not because Sulekha was any less excited to share her experiences but because she could feel that she was being mocked.
Sulekha used to share her experiences whenever she got a chance. At times, when Subhash, Kushan, and Nirali would be sitting together and chatting, Sulekha would join them and talk about her stay in the US. Subhash, Kushan, and Nirali would allow her to speak and their excitement would encourage her to share more. Sulekha had taken a fancy to speak English in her daily conversations after returning from the US, and the trio loved it because it gave them a chance to ridicule her. However, Sulekha took time to realize it because the trio was careful that their amusement was not visible to her.
Sulekha replayed in her mind an episode yesterday. As she came out of the kitchen last night, Subhash said to her, “Sulekha, ever since you have returned from the US, the kids hardly watch TV.”
Sulekha did not know how to respond.
As she stared at everyone, Kushan and Nirali started a dramatic conversation:
“Are you not feeling well, Nirali?”
“Hmm… I am proper but empty is climbing on my leg.”
This funny variety of translated English was a recent invention that the trio had developed to make fun of Sulekha’s English. Sulekha realized this fact after quite some time. At first, she would take pains even to correct them! When she corrected them, the trio would get very serious and pay attention. But Kushan and Nirali would again use that funny English and would act as if they were really embarrassed to be using incorrect English. This went on for a long time before Sulekha overheard the trio mocking her and making fun of her English in her absence. Deep inside her, she felt a numb pain. While in the US, she had imagined how she would teach her children the techniques of good conversation and styles of speaking English. All her plans were in vain, she found. The children did not need her advice and they were getting smarter on their own. Her American experience was of no value to the children. It was hard for her to accept this fact. She felt defeated, alienated, and isolated.
She could see now that her language, style, and sentences were a subject for jokes because they sounded so artificial. Her jokes and mimicry were a big hit in the communal Gujarati events in the US, but here they were fit only for ridicule. She failed to figure out the reason for this change. She felt helpless.
Sitting on the sofa now and shaking her leg as if trying to shove away something, she recalled another recent incident: when Sulekha learned that actress Rohini is going to be present at Nirali’s friend’s wedding reception, Sulekha wanted to be there at the reception. Nirali was invited with an accompanying person and hence, there was no problem. Nirali could have easily allowed Sulekha to come along but Nirali complained that it was embarrassing for her when Sulekha talked.
Sulekha threw a look at Nirali but could not oppose Nirali at this point in time. She gave a loving smile to Nirali and started walking away. Subhash joined in and said sarcastically to Sulekha, “Aren’t you wearing a T-shirt? Nirali is wearing one.”
Everyone, including Sulekha, laughed out loud.
When they reached the venue, Nirali disappeared. Sulekha was anyway interested in meeting Rohini. She stood in a corner as if waiting for Rohini. She somehow managed to approach Rohini after she arrived at the reception. Rohini was smiling casually at everyone. She had noticed Sulekha staring at her for a long time now and said hello to Sulekha. Sulekha moved closer to Rohini and started breaking the ice when Nirali joined them. Sulekha had to stop talking to Rohini. Nirali could hear only the last part of their conversation where Sulekha was inviting Rohini to visit their house.
Nirali noticed a telling smile on Rohini’s face and saw that the others in the group were also smiling in the same manner.
Nirali dragged Sulekha to a corner and Sulekha started wondering what her fault was. She could find no answer. Nirali too did not explain to her what went wrong but when they returned home, Nirali enacted the entire episode in front of Subhash and Kushan. Sulekha kept listening to all that Nirali had to say and hung her head low with guilt.
Subhash asked in a mocking tone, “So, when is Rohini Hattangadi visiting us? It will be a good chance for us to host a film star!”
Kushan took it further.
“Why are you so surprised if a great star invites another star to her home? Mrs. Sulekha is the only lady comedian of India!”
Nirali added, “… and America returned.”
So much mockery made Sulekha cry.
She was in tears as her mind replayed the episode.
She heard someone outside the house talking about the renovation.
A voice said, “The renovation has been done very well. There is nothing old left. Everything is new.”
The other voice said, “That is what renovation is!”
Sulekha heard a lurid laugh after that.
This short story with an English title accurately catches the finer emotions of the female psyche and portrays the neglect and mockery women go through in their daily domestic life. It is not uncommon in literature to see portrayals of women facing neglect — nor is it unusual to see women protagonists neglecting themselves but the protagonist of this story— Sulekha— is a self-aware and responsible woman. However, she has a moment when she chooses to laugh at herself! The author has gracefully portrayed the irony of her life in this story. By making her daughter instrumental in Sulekha’s subjugation, the author has chosen not to accept feminist stereotypes. The story touches upon several aspects of life— from patriarchy and generation gap to familial love and the futility of loving efforts. Dialogues add a touch of realism and drama to the story.
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