An excerpt from a collection of real-life stories that offer a testament to cultural-economic shift that has taken place since the 1980s
GN Bureau | March 16, 2022
Nautanki Saala and Other Stories
By Mohua Chinappa
Here is an anthology that shares real stories of women (and men) Mohua met over the years – from a tribal Khasi woman who ran a tea stall to a journalist from the Northeast trying to fit in the big city to an unassuming college girl who could not anticipate the ‘consequence’ of her brutish rebuke to a man.
It is a powerful collection that lays bare the lives that form a testament to the cultural-economic shift in the last few decades and attempts to strengthen the feminist who hesitates in confiding.
Mohua Chinappa, a former communications and brand consultant, introduces to the reader an eclectic collection of protagonists who deny their feelings, who deny their desires, who make poor decisions… Most of the stories in the author’s debut book are a testament to the cultural-economic shift witnessed over the decades, and they are also an attempt to strengthen the feminist who hesitates in confiding.
An excerpt of one such story:
Teen Choto Chamuch
By Mohua Chinappa
The villagers said it was a sign from the Gods above that Hindus must leave Bangladesh. The home, the mango tree, the tamarind tree, and the hibiscus, all seemed to droop in shame at every existence of Sobha in the dusty lanes of Faridpur. The little temple, with its flickering light, dimmed out, every time she passed by, reiterating her ill luck.
Sobha soon realised it was time to take the reins of her life in her hand. She sat up all night and looked at the broken trunk in the corner, the photographs of the gods and goddesses, the bed that had not even seen much of her nakedness against the light in its raw self. She held her sari tighter and decided to leave Faridpur.
Sobha left in search of her absconding husband. It was the morning hours, she passed by the temple, the little shop that sold fish and she looked down tears leaving a trail on her sunken cheeks. She carried the little tin box with her belongings, her husband’s photograph, and the door keys. She put her money in a little knot at the end of her sari and threw it over her shoulder to catch the train to India.
The train stopped as she got in, she realised she made a mistake and maybe she should stay back. But by the time her box was down, the wheels made the hissing sound and were on its tracks. She stared at the hollow faces around her and allowed the train to move her body in motion with the clanking of the wheels against the tracks and the sound of coal being ushered into the train. Sobha covered her face with her sari and sat with fear gripping her bones.
Draped in a cotton saree, which screamed of its humble make, carrying a box and a bundle holding her belongings and the countless letters she had penned to her husband (which were returned unopened), she began her journey towards Delhi.
With the meagre amount she had at her disposal, she had expected the journey to be dotted with obstacles, and indeed it was. She bruised her elbow and her hair got into knots that she didn’t care to smoothen out. All she wanted was his return.
Night fell and she was miles away from her home. She became aware of the journey ahead but that did not deter her from continuing—suddenly the journey and her search for her husband seemed to have given her otherwise desultory life a new meaning. She thought of the stray cat and the unlit lamp with the bedding that she had forgotten to roll, in her one-room pride.
Sobha was sure that she would find him.
On reaching Delhi, she went looking for him, sharing his photograph, which was grainy, tattered yet surprisingly sharp, across colonies and streets hoping someone would recognise him from somewhere.
Under the Jamun tree, Sobha felt like she could trust the man asking her if he could help. Maybe it was because he’d asked in Bengali. Maybe she wanted her story told. Haltingly, she narrated it from start to finish. He listened patiently and without a moment’s hesitation, offered her shelter, if she would, in turn, agree to help his widowed mother in the kitchen.
Tapan Das, Sobha’s ‘savior in disguise’, and his family were a part of a Bengali cluster who had been displaced from Bangladesh’s Faridpur district too. Sobha could feel the urgency of the migrants to cling to their ethnicity, class, caste, religion as she walked through the narrow by-lanes leading to Tapan’s home. Familiar smells of foods wafted in the air, making Sobha feel at home immediately. Women wearing similar cotton sarees, their dark hair oiled and combed into neat buns, bindis sparkling on their foreheads, and the familiar clanking of the shakha-polas, made Sobha feel safe again. Most of the migrants had fled wars, famines and all were displaced souls in lost lands where they had arrived in search of money and magic. They missed what had once been home but were fearful of returning to that life that had exposed them to nothing but misery and poverty back then.
Living in the shelter in Delhi, she had often dreamt of her life back in Bangladesh, her husband who would be somewhere, pining to meet her, and a beautiful tomorrow they would build together. She often thought of her home back in the village, the water pump, the well, the egg basket blackened by soot, and the yard with the mango and jackfruit trees. She remembered only the good things, discarding reality when it got too much to bear.
Sobha walked into Tapan Das’ home; a small, barely-there verandah, leading to two minuscule rooms with another home above it. Here the roof was brick and cement, unlike her home back in Faridpur.
It boasted a single cot and two chairs, unlike the adjoining homes. A bulb flickered in one corner of the room reminding the residents that it needed to be replaced soon. A few utensils neatly stacked in another corner of the room, demarcated that area like the kitchen. In spite of all this, the room radiated a familiar warmth; it gave Sobha the feeling of having arrived home, something she had missed for so many months. Tapan’s mother, an old lady, welcomed her with an endearing smile, immediately erasing Sobha’s nervousness and putting her at ease; even though the old lady knew nothing about this young girl, her son had picked off the street and brought home. She gave her a change of clothes and Sobha bathed with a bucket full of cool, clear water, had a plate full of rice with potatoes and ghee drizzled on top, and soon fell into a deep slumber under the whirring fan.
As the days passed, Sobha started making herself useful in the house and kitchen by helping the old lady. She called her “ma” and one could often hear ma and Sobha bickering like mother and daughter. On such days, she sat near the tulsi plant in the verandah and poured her heart out in her Bangladeshi dialect.
One could find Sobha and Ma sulking with each other but Ma would make it up to Sobha by her evening cup of tea. She would gently open the window and try to wake up Sobha for her 4.00 pm perfect indulgence.
Often Sobha acted like she was asleep even when she heard Ma tiptoe to open the window. Even after all arguments, Ma would add shrimps in the bottle of gourd vegetarian curry and keep it aside for Sobha. Shrimps were Sobha’s favourite fish. Ma had come to see Sobha as her own daughter.
Sobha’s simplicity allured Tapan. He was happy to see her eyes /smiling in his home. Tapan had been contemplating marriage with Sobha for some time and with almost a year gone by, he thought the time was ripe to extend his proposal.
One afternoon, Tapan was reading the paper on the chair and Sobha was as usual trying to grate the coconut for Ma’s evening snack and keep some aside to make a coconut jaggery ladoo for Tapan. She was busy keeping the extra grated coconut when suddenly Tapan lowered his newspaper down and told her gently, “I think you need some Alta and some fresh Sindoor on your parting and I must apply it with my hands.” As soon as he said it, his face turned red.
Sobha looked up at Tapan, her hands held onto the grated half coconut. She felt her rib cage break and her heart fall out like a heap of blood-soaked in sorrow on the floor. She recalled the train journey to Delhi and the whirlpool of emotions engulfed her. She held her sari at the corner so Tapan would never know the mixed feelings in her heart. If she accepted and Tapan stops loving her? Left her too—how would she continue?
Maybe he was just being his kind self. She looked at Tapan and softly said, “I have learned to cook just like Ma now, I can manage the home very well; I am happy with whatever is here. You won’t ever leave Delhi in search of a better living?”
Tapan got up from his chair, helped her get up, and cupped her face in his hands. His fingers were drenched with her tears. He said, “Let me make you a cup of tea.” Sobha was shivering as she stood there, wanting to hold Tapan a little longer. She recoiled in fear recalling the leaving of her husband and she lowered her eyes and said, “Don’t go. Stay.”
And he stayed.
[Excerpt reproduced with the permission of the publishers.]
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