Wednesday, 24 May 2017

The Power Puff Girl

''Why are you late again, Amma? You know I have to go to my mother's place today but you are not bothered! Don't you know Mummy waits for me every Monday?'' Sheena questioned her ageing cook breathlessly.
''Sorry Didi! I know you go there every week but some urgent work held me back. Don't worry, I will finish all the work quickly'', Amma tried to mollify Sheena. ''Didi, there's a good news! I have fixed the marriage of Preeti.''
Amma had been working for Sheena for around fifteen years now. Preeti, her daughter was barely ten-year old when she accompanied her mother to work one day. Sheena was aghast to see the tiny girl sweeping the floor. ''How can you make your daughter do jhaadoo-pochha? Why don't you send her to school?'' When Amma expressed her inability to pay her school fee and allied expenses, Sheena had offered to pay all her expenses on the condition that she would concentrate only on her studies and not work as a maid in anyone's house. Amma had agreed reluctantly for the sake of Preeti's education even though she didn't want to take any undeserved favors from her employers. Preeti had turned out to be an excellent student often securing a place among the top five students of her class. She had a melodious voice and was good at dancing too. She often won her school awards at various inter-school competitions. Once she had even enacted her favorite cartoon characters-the Power Puff girls in a fancy dress competition at school and won the first prize too. Soon her school offered her a scholarship under the economically weaker section quota. Her excellent results had fetched her sponsorship for higher education and helped her complete her masters in computer applications.
Two years ago she had acquired a well-paying job in a reputed software development company and a few months ago they had invested in a small 1-BHK flat in an upcoming colony nearby. The down payment had been made from Amma's savings and the sale of their humble tenement. For the balance amount Preeti had taken a housing loan from a bank.

And now Amma-her mother so excitedly told Sheena about Preeti's marriage.
'Oh great news Amma!' forgetting her annoyance Sheena asked her about the groom, his family, profession, wedding date in one breath, She was quite fond of the girl who had blossomed into a beautiful, smart, career-conscious yet a very grounded and sensible person. She had been insisting upon her mother to quit working and look after her failing health. Amma had left all her part time jobs in other households but continued her cooking job for Sheena's family. Over a period of time they had developed a strong fondness for each other and Sheena had started relying on her more like a family member.
Promising Amma all help in making the wedding preparations Sheena left for her weekly visit to meet her ailing mother.
After her father's demise seven years ago her brother went abroad to pursue his dreams. Since then her septuagenarian mother had been living alone in her sprawling home on the other side of the city. Initially her brother used to visit her every year and reiterate his promise to take mother with him but soon all the promises were forgotten and so were his mother and sister. When her mother fell sick a couple of years ago and had to be hospitalized for a week, Sheena wanted to take her to her own home so that she could look after her 24*7 but her husband seemed rather unwilling to take on the responsibility of the ailing old woman. In very clear and concise words he told Sheena that her mother was the responsibility of her brother only, not theirs. Sheena could visit her off and on but couldn't bring her home. A distraught Sheena called up her brother to return to India but he shrugged off all responsibility suggesting that she could be moved to an old age home if Sheena was unable to look after her. What left her aghast and completely disgusted was the not so subtle hint by her brother to sell off their family home so lovingly built by their parents for their children. He offered to even come down for a few days and help her find a good old age home for the mother and buyers for their home. An obnoxious glint of greed in the eyes of both her brother and her husband at the prospect of holding thick wads of currency notes in their hands sickened her to the core. She spoke to her mother and together they resisted the attempts to sell off their family home which still reverberated with the memories of their father's joyous laughter.
That day she heard the last from her brother. Her husband had also distanced himself from her. They remained husband-wife only for the sake of their children. Now the entire responsibility of her mother lay with Sheena only. She managed both homes with the support of Amma, a couple of full time house helps in her mother's home and her own teenage children but of late she had been finding it difficult to travel to the other side of the city every week, after all she had also been getting on in age. But neither her mother's traditional mindset nor her husband's pettiness would let her bring her mother home. In fact sometimes her mother remarked rather ruefully that Sheena shouldn't have sacrificed her own marital life for her sake. She should have 'adjusted' and made a fresh attempt to win back her husband. Sheena was perplexed by her mother's reaction, she was moved by her love for her daughter at the same time, yet Sheena had stood firm in her resolve that her mother won't go to an old age home at any cost.
A week later, Amma approached Sheena gingerly,'Didi...'.
'What? Need something Amma? Money? How much?'
'No Didi, you have already given many things. I just wanted to ask if you would come to my house for Preeti's engagement next week? It will be an honor for us and she will be so happy too if you join us to bless her.'
'Oh why not! I will definitely come Amma. Preeti is like my daughter too. But tell me Amma, what do you plan to do after Preeti's marriage? You'll be all alone after she leaves.'
'Yes Didi. I was thinking of going back to my village where I have my brothers and their families. I have not been in contact with them for long but I thought what are families for if not to support one another at such times? I had invited them for Preeti's engagement and marriage too but yesterday only my brother called up to inform that they would not be coming. I am so disappointed Didi. It's my only daughter's wedding and there would be no family elders to bless her on her big day.' Amma blurted out gloomily.
'Oh but why do you want to go back to your village and be dependent on your brothers who don't even value you any more? You have your home here so you should stay here only. Besides, Preeti will always be near you even after her marriage so don't worry at all, Amma. I will be there on the day of engagement.' Sheena patted her hand reassuringly.
As the day of Preeti's engagement approached closer, Amma immersed herself in the preparations, shopping for gifts for the groom and cooking sweets and savories for the guests.
On the D-day, Sheena arrived early to help Amma in the preparations. Her small flat was daintily decorated with buntings and fairy lights. Preeti was looking ravishing in a rust colored anarkali suit.
The groom and his folks arrived soon. They were greeted with a traditional tika and welcome drink. After exchanging the usual pleasantries the engagement ceremony was performed, gifts were exchanged and then everyone settled down to partake Amma's feast.
Chomping down a kachori with hot cardamom tea, the groom's mother looked around the flat,'The flat is quite nice. Have you purchased it recently, Preeti?
'Yes aunty. This is our home.' Preeti said proudly.
'How much did you pay for this, behanji?' Preeti's future mother-in-law prodded Amma.
'I had some savings and sold off our tenement too for the down payment, for the rest we took some home loan from the bank and Preeti is paying the EMIs.' Amma replied with a glint of pride in her eyes.
'Oh you're paying the EMIs with your salary, is it so Preeti?' the MIL sounded a bit annoyed but looked pensive. 'So what are your plans, behanji? Where do you intend to settle down after Preeti's wedding?' she queried sweetly.
'I will be staying here only. Earlier I had planned to go to my village but after so many years in the city I don't think I will be able to adjust in the village.' Amma didn't want to disclose the real reason behind her decision to her new relatives so soon.
'But how would you manage to live all alone? You are getting old and Preeti was telling me you don't keep good health too. You need someone to look after you in your old age.' she dripped sugar and honey in her concern for Amma. 'Preeti, wouldn't it be better to look up a decent old age home for your mother. You must spare time from your wedding shopping trips for this important task, beta.'
'Old age home?' Preeti was aghast. 'But why aunty? Amma is not going anywhere, She will stay here only. She's perfectly capable of looking after herself. And I will be here to care for her in her illness and old age.'
'But she wouldn't want to be a 'kabab me haddi' between her daughter and son-in-law, would she?' the MIL persisted as the others looked on perplexed about her real intentions.
Sheena felt she was watching a replay of her own life, the only difference being the other characters. She was immensely disturbed and annoyed with the lady's obnoxious demand but had kept quiet till now as she didn't wish to interfere in the family matters of Amma lest her objections should cause any rift in the alliance. But to her utter shock, Preeti's groom and his other relatives had also kept mum as if in tacit agreement with her MIL.
'My mother would never be a 'kabab me haddi' for me, aunty. How can you even suggest that I should send her to an old age home? She has toiled her whole life to educate me and secure my future. Now when she needs me the most, you're asking me to desert her! I can never do it, aunty.' Preeti replied in a firm but polite voice.
'You don't worry about me, bitiya. I am strong enough to take care of myself. I will go to the village and live with your uncles. You can live in this flat peacefully with your family.' Amma tried to pacify a visibly upset Preeti.
'Live with uncles? Uncles who have refused to even attend my wedding! No way Amma. You are my family and will always be.' Preeti declared emphatically.
'But bitiya, I don't have much life left. I don't want you to sacrifice your happiness for me.' Amma turned to Sheena, 'Didi, please make her understand...' her voice trailed off gloomily.
Now she must intervene even if only for Amma's sake, Sheena realized that the situation could go out of hand if Preeti remained adamant. 'Preeti, you should not speak with your MIL like this. You are getting married in this family and you should learn to adjust with them. Don't worry so much about your mother. Amma can live with me or my mother. We all can sit together calmly and find out an amicable solution.'
'Learn to adjust? Learn to leave my mother all alone in an old age home when she needs me the most? Learn to pander to the greed of these vultures who are so shamelessly preying on the only home my mother has? And why? Just because they think I am a fatherless, helpless girl who needs a man to survive in this big bad world but look at this man...he doesn't know the difference between right and wrong, he doesn't have the courage to raise his voice against his mother. I am sorry to be rude but Sheena aunty, I am shocked you are advising me to learn to adjust, you who fought tooth and nail against your brother and husband for your mother! No Sheena aunty, there's nothing to talk about. I can not adjust to this extent and I will not!' Preeti's face was red with fury by now.
'Hey girl, how dare you speak about your MIL like this? I will not tolerate this kind of arrogant behavior after marriage. Teach her some humility and politeness, behanji. As it is I have not demanded any dowry considering that you are a widow. But if she's paying the EMIs for this flat, why shouldn't my son and Preeti enjoy the benefit of living here after marriage? Even otherwise it is going to be theirs after you, isn't it? And let me also warn you behanji, if she continues such senseless and insolent behavior in future too then this marriage will not last long as my son will not tolerate any nonsense from her!' Preeti's MIL threatened in a dark undertone.
'Thanks but no thanks for the warning, aunty. I will not trouble him at all. I refuse to marry this nincompoop, spineless son of yours who doesn't seem to have a tongue in his mouth.' Preeti's voice had suddenly become absolutely calm now.
'Don't you dare to break this alliance girl. Nobody will marry you after this day. You will remain a spinster throughout your life. You will spend all your life alone with only your ageing mother for company.' The callous and selfish woman wrung her hands in desperation at losing the prize catch and cursed Preeti angrily.
'Don't you worry about us. We have been alone and we will be alone but we will be free. Free to hold our hands and lead our life with dignity and on our terms, free to look after each other, free to fall asleep peacefully without any greedy and cantankerous MIL  breathing down my back. Please leave now. Goodbye.' Preeti threw the gift boxes and banged the door shut behind the offensive woman and her relatives who quietly picked up the boxes of sweets and gifts and left in a huff.
Sheena gazed at this new Preeti with a sense of pride and amazement at the way she had fought for the honor of her mother. She cringed at finding the echoes of her mother's traditional mindset in her own advice to Preeti to 'adjust' to the obnoxious demands of her MIL. The realization that these orthodox ideas were deeply entrenched even in the so called 'emancipated' and 'empowered' women like her hit her hard. She resolved to be more careful in her conversation with her teenage son and daughter so as not to let the slightest traces of these 'culture and traditions' seep into their impressionable minds.
She rushed and embraced Preeti in a tight hug,'Thank you Preeti! Thank you for showing me the mirror. You really are a true Power Puff girl, for yourself and for all of us. May your tribe increase, girl!'

Thursday, 11 May 2017


''No means no! How can I leave everyone behind and enjoy all alone Surekha? I have never done that and I will never be able to have fun without my husband and children.''Ankita protested vehemently.
''This is exactly why I want you to come this time, my dear! You'll learn to enjoy without them too. Don't they go out without you, to movies, to hangout with their friends, to have night outs and also outstation trips?''a visibly upset Surekha retorted.
Ankita and Surekha had been best friends since school times. They had gone to management college together and had been placed in reputed companies. They would work hard through the week and party harder with their girlie gang during the weekend. They shared all their secrets, their first crush, their infatuations, their first love, their breakups, their squabbles with parents and other friends. They had their own moments of disagreements and fights but they always made up within a few hours. Both of them got married within a couple of months of each other and then Surekha and her husband picked up some lucrative jobs in MNCs and had to move abroad. Ankita had bid farewell to her childhood friend with moist eyes. During the initial years,they had kept in constant touch through emails and video chats sharing their joys and sorrows, rewards and reprimands, gains and losses. But gradually the different time zones and the ever increasing pressure of family and work did them in.
Ten years hence, Surekha had returned to India for an year-long stint with an international enterprise known across the globe for its commendable work in the social sector. The first thing she had done on landing in India was to look up her long lost friend Ankita. She was still her usual naughty, chirpy, chatty self and had almost immediately become pally with Ankita's children. Her own son was studying in a residential school in America and she was sure that her husband would take good care of him.
Whenever Surekha returned from her travel across the villages of India, she would narrate anecdotes from her amazing experiences there. It filled Ankita with a sense of wonderment how her friend who had never travelled to the rural India during her childhood or youth and had just returned after a long sojourn abroad, found her visits exhilarating. She never complained of dust and pollution, water and electricity shortage. Rather she seemed to be enjoying her work and interaction with the less privileged sections of society. She also seemed to enjoy the beauty of bountiful nature that city dwellers were deprived of. She had recently been on a women only trip to Rajasthan and had signed up for another trip to the magnificent hill state of Himachal Pradesh. She wanted her BFF Ankita to accompany her on this adventure trip which she had been so vehemently refusing.
Surekha had noticed how stressed out Ankita appeared everyday. Her husband Arun had to travel frequently for work which meant that the responsibility of looking after their children, their studies, school functions and illnesses, household chores and shopping, parents and relatives had to be undertaken by Ankita singlehandedly. She had recently been promoted to the position of senior manager and client meetings and presentations would often require her to stay in office till late. Even during the weekend she had hardly any time to relax as she had to catch up with the week's pending tasks. Of course she had house helps and cook but she loved to fulfill her children's demands for their favorite pasta and parathas herself. It was not that her husband did not help her when he was home, but he was never home enough. And even when he was, visits of relatives and friends and outings with children only increased the demand on her already sparse time.
This lack of any 'me' time had started taking its toll on her body and health yet she failed to realize it or rather she refused to accept it. It was only when Surekha pointed it out to her that she hesitantly admitted that she had been feeling constantly fatigued and mornings often saw her just forcing herself to get up from her bed without the strength to move her aching body. Surekha was trying to make Ankita realize that she needed some time out from her hectic schedule to unburden her constantly occupied mind. She was happy with her children but she still needed to get away from the daily rut and do things that she really enjoyed. A short break from her hectic routine was what she needed at the moment.
''But what about children? And their school and studies? And home? How would everything be managed? Arun would never agree.''Ankita said gloomily.
''First you have to convince yourself Ankita, that you want to go. Everything can be managed and I am sure Arun would not say 'no' too. Call him up, right now.''Surekha insisted.
After the initial hesitation and reservation, Arun was quite enthusiastic. He suggested that he would take a week off, it would give him also some much needed respite from his living-out-of-a-suitcase monotonous work life and he would be able to spend some time with the children. Children threw some tantrums but when Arun cajoled them and promised not to be overly strict about their food preferences and sleep timings, they came round too. Akthough Ankita was still skeptical about his ability to manage home and hearth, yet she decided to take up his offer bracing herself for a tsunami in the home on her return.
It was with a heavy heart that Ankita bid goodbye to Arun and her children. She was sure she would miss them so much that she wouldn't really be able to enjoy her trip even though Surekha was going with her. After greeting the fellow travellers hesitantly Ankita settled down in her seat while Surekha went ahead to have a word with the trip manager. Intending to catch up on her reading, she dug inside her capacious bag to take out her favorite author's latest novel that Arun had taken care to buy for her when her hands hit upon something...oh her favorite bar of chocolate! Must be her kiddos' she loved them for such tiny but loving gestures! She picked up her cell phone to call them up and sank her teeth into the sinfully yum gooey chocolate, her comfort food. She had barely said hello to Arun when strains of some beautiful melody filled her ears. A co-traveller had had started strumming her guitar and very soon a couple of women matched notes with their soulful voice. Surekha smiled knowingly to see her friend relaxing finally and joining in the Antakshari that was the logical outcome of the all pervading happy mood in the bus.
Two stopovers and seven hours later they were welcomed by the elderly owners into their beautiful homestead with the magnificent view of the lush green valley. Morning sessions of yoga and meditation, trekking, bird watching, interesting anecdotes of the hospitable owners, late night coffee and chit-chat sessions with the jovial Surekha and the lovely fellow women in front of the cackling flames of the bonfire, badminton, scrabble and an occasional round of rummy, sometimes just wandering alone along the forest trails.......Ankita didn't even realize how five days just flew by. Network connectivity was not so easy to get in the resort located deep inside the forest yet Ankita had been able to call up home everyday. Initially anxious and jittery as to how the kids would be managing without her, she felt guilty for having left them alone to fend for themselves. She was also a little jealous when they told her excitedly how much fun they were having with their Dad but she was surprisingly glad too for this golden opportunity for the kids and father to bond together. 
As they bid adieu to their genial hosts and clicked a few more pictures, Ankita felt inexplicably happy and rejuvenated. No, she had not been selfish in taking up this trip without her husband and children. As the bus hurtled down the long winding hill roads Ankita ruminated over the last few days. She had been herself after such a long time...she had excitedly chased butterflies and climbed trees to pluck fruits just like a child, she had even amazed herself when she was able to give an impromptu Kathak performance with perfect precision. Her chats with Surekha would stretch into the nights yet she had fallen asleep without a worry and woken up refreshed. Perfect strangers at the beginning of the trip had quickly shed their inhibitions and shared their joys and worries about juggling career and family, bosses and maids, fun and freedom. Most of them had become good friends within the five days of togetherness.
As she alighted from the bus and bid goodbye to her new friends promising to keep in touch, Ankita felt a strange lilt in her voice and spring in her feet. ''When are we going for our next trip?'' she asked gaily as she hugged Surekha tightly and thanked her for compelling her to let go of her guilt trip and go for the she-trip. 


This story was first published on my Facebook page and has also been published by Women's Web.