CREATIVE FICTION : Bypass Views by Resham Bhattacharya
Mridula smoothed out the creases on her sari. Black, with batik work, it seemed to respond to the caress of her fingers. Over the purohit’s shoulder and beyond the flicker of the fire that breathed in the center of the new living room, she caught a glimpse of her reflection on the French windows that looked out over the balcony and beyond that, onto the bypass. She chanced a shadow of a smile, permitted it to flirt across her lips.
Rahul had always made fun of her mirror face. So different, he said, from her face in repose.
Conversations with Rahul had always left her feeling bewildered, they left her feeling like she didn’t know who she was. It was happening again. Even though they had parted ways years ago and even though he had since married, here he was, popping into her conscience at a time when he was least welcome. He had made fun of their old rented house and the way that Mridula and her parents lived. She could hear him now.
The ceiling won’t cave in on me, will it? Or he would wheedle, Mimoo (Mridula had to admit, even now, that he had her at ‘Mimoo’) that place is a deathtrap, no amount of Kakima’s dimer devil is worth getting my head bashed in with falling plaster. How Mridula wished that he could see her now, now that she was the owner of her very own Rs. 30 Lakh 2 BHK flat, overlooking the bypass no less. Bypass View. He would have laughed, she thought. Who would ever have thought that the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass with its half-built roads, its poky little bazaars, its glass-fronted dhabas and its seedy population of syndicates would ever constitute a view?
When she looked around and saw what she now had with his eyes, the hope began to fade a little. Instead of the griha-probesh, she saw a miasma of desperation.
Even as she felt herself sinking, she dared herself to smile a little harder, a little longer, fingers inadvertently flitting over her shoulders, smoothing down the anchal so that it fell over her arms, hiding their mass. She pulled the anchal tighter, tugging it close to her body, making herself smaller in a bid to ensure that she was taking up less space, that she was appearing less noticeable. She remembered her mother in the morning. Casting an appraising eye over her daughter, the latter had hemmed and hawed before reconciling herself to the fact that “well, at least black is a slimming colour”.
Surely the sari was more than that? For months now, ever since she first bought it, the sari had put a smile on Mridula’s face whenever she had thought about it. And think about it she had. It had represented the holy grail at the end of a rather long and fraught road, the only hope that she had allowed herself to cling to as she had fought through the thickets of bureaucracy. She had even thought long and hard about the blouse that she would wear, eschewing the matching blouse piece for something more enigmatic, something more her. In the end after scrolling through Facebook for hours while buried in the frigid depths of Basel, she had dared to go out on a limb and place an order for a Parama blouse after a former classmate posted ‘While some women dream in Sabyasachis, I dream in Parama’. She had waited for months, waiting to wear her black batik sari, her ‘Debi’ blouse, she had waited for months to feel complete and here she was. Feeling complete. It was a shame her mother couldn’t see that but that was Santa Sengupta in a nutshell; her pride rested on the simple fact that she had never spoken a word in praise of either of her children.
Mridula looked around, taking in the stark, bare walls of the new flat. Finally, after all that, those walls were her’s. Who needed a room of their own when they had a home?
She smiled. She had done it. She looked at the people, the friends and the family assembled there and she felt warmth bubble up within her. These were her people. She had known them her whole life, she had clambered onto their laps, she had sought solace in their embrace, she had eaten at their table, these were the people that she had borrowed books from, the ones who brought her pujor jama year upon year and now that she was older, continued to buy her pujor sari. Of course, they had had their ups and downs. Some years it truly did feel like there were more downs than ups but today, well today she felt nothing but love for them all. Her smile grew wider and wider, more expansive until she included all of them in her beam. Here they were today, for her and her parents, celebrating the fact that for the first time ever, the Senguptas had their own roof over their heads and that Mridula had been the one to put it there.
Mridula had not needed Rahul to tell her about the dilapidated state of her home. She had not needed him to say anything. She had spent years shaming and castigating herself enough. She had seen the way that everyone else - the extended family - looked at them. The obvious pity in their gaze. Nothing ever seemed to go right for the Senguptas. Things began to look up with Mahesh and his job in Canada but he seemed to have no intention of ever returning. Months had turned into years and nowadays they considered themselves lucky if they managed to get a response from him on a group chat. No blue ticks. He had muted them. When Mridula was given the opportunity to go onsite, she grabbed at it with both hands. She had hopped back and forth, from Kolkata to London, to Abu Dhabi, to Dubai, to Stockholm, to Berne, to Basel, to Oslo and then New Jersey again. Living in box-like flatshares, she had longed for a room of her own and for a place that she could call her own. While everyone else used their earnings to plan weddings or to fuel startups, Mridula faithfully channeled her money into her dream home.
Bypass View had fallen short as it was not dream-worthy but it was a start, a new beginning.
When Mridula remembered that after the griho-probesh was over, they would still need to return to the old house, she groaned. Those peeling peppermint green walls were seeped in decades of humiliation.
Mridula excused herself from the rituals. She wasn’t really needed there. Her relatives, she
knew, lived for these occasions. They knew the ins and outs of every mantra and loved to bully the priest purohit in to conducting everything their way. Even now, she could hear a little bickering, two aunts from opposing sides of the family were debating the order of events. The purohit (sourced from the other side of the family) had got it wrong - that much was clear - they both knew better but they weren’t quite sure about who agreed on the finer points. What with it being a Wednesday morning - the almanac had been consulted and it had duly delivered a series of dates that flouted the needs of capitalism - very few young members of the family had made it. They had all promised to come in the evening but for now they were all running on the hamster wheel of life.
Mridula wandered aimlessly about the little flat, taking in its clean walls, smiling benignly at her relatives, filled with love that they were here, after all that, after all those years, they were here for her and her parents. She missed them, she realized, when she was not there. They would carry on living their lives just as they had been for all these years, she would drop in now and again, listening to their forever conversations, the ones which reminisced marriages long gone by, of Suchitra Sen, of Uttam Kumar and Sabitri, of tea shops where the great and good frequented, where Pablo Neruda was discussed in the same breath as Jyoti Basu. A little cluster was discussing how, in their day, these parts of the city weren’t even considered inhabitable, how they much preferred Ballygunge and Bhowanipore, how the stench of the erstwhile rubbish dump still lingered here, how it reminded them of the marshes that they had once, long ago, passed on their way to picnics in garden houses that had since been swallowed up by rapacious civilization. Mridula beamed brightly at then, stilling them for a brief moment but not silencing. It was reassuring to know that while things had indeed changed, they had not changed all that much.
Mridula meandered between them, walking on a different earth. She climbed the stairs to the communal roof where the caterers had set up their tables and kitchen. A roughshod pandal offered some shade from the glare of the February noonday sun. She tested out the wobbly tables, cast an eye over the bright red plastic chairs, tugged at the little bits of plastic that had frayed. She wondered when she would - if she would - ever be able to afford something grander, the kind they showed in movies where marigolds lay thickly over every surface, the kind of sumptuous yet salt-of-the-earth extravaganza that required a bottomless pot of money to pull off. Here instead, was real salt of the earth, the kind they never showed in movies unless they were depicting grit and tragedy. Standing on the rooftop, Mridula’s gaze caught the city. It was a clear day and the new Hooghly Bridge was visible. Feeling like the empress of all she surveyed, Mridula began to walk downstairs. The pujo had come to an end and her great uncles were milling around in the landing. Her father was there too. The men in her family! She rolled her eyes in exasperation. They never lost an opportunity to pop out, negotiate quick escapes from where the rest of the family - the women- had gathered. She found herself pausing on the stairs, giving into the temptation to hear them speak.
“She tries too hard. Who knows what is the need?”
“She worries too much.”
“She should have waited”.
“What happens when she marries? Will her husband let you live here? She will bring home a new age ghor jamai is it?”
“She doesn’t think she will marry”. That was her father. He was looking down at the ground.
“What’s her worry? If her grandmother got married, so will she”.
“The girls these days are too modern”.
Her father again. He continued “Mridula’s friend married someone she had never met. Their parents met, the children were told. They spoke on Skype but the first time they met was at the ashirbad”.
Tania and Jayanta. How nervous Tania had been! And while, by all accounts, she was happy now, Mridula had never thought of replicating Tania’s story for herself. Surely Tania and Jayanta were the exception rather than the rule!
Eyes smarting, Mridula walked down the stairs and past the little huddle of men. They shuffled out of the way with ahems and ahas. She pretended to look out over their heads.
Ah those men, Mridula seethed, they always pretended that they were discussing matters of state, too worldly for a woman’s ears but they were just as bad. Marriage! Marriage, that was what was wanted of her, expected of her. She walked through the relatives who had now begun to look askance for lunch and went to the little balcony next to the kitchen. In a few years, it would become home to an abundance of mops and brooms but for now, it was free. She let out the breath that she didn’t realise she was holding.
It didn’t matter, Mridula rued, resting her head against the iron curlicues of the grille, what she did or how she did it, it would always come back round to marriage, and the fact that at thirty-seven, she was still single. She wondered how her grandmother had stood them for so long,how she had upended her own life to blend seamlessly into theirs when they, all these years later, had yet to overcome the apparent tragedy of a dark and swarthy sister-in-law.
The view from the kitchen balcony was bleak. A sea of corrugated tin roofs punctuated by the odd unfinished brick house with half-done roofs and that verandas which dropped off into nothingness. Mridula didn’t see it. She lived in her own head, she anticipated a different reality to the one in which she lived her life. The reality of her family always took her by surprise and she wondered, not for the first time, how her grandmother had borne it all. She had been the one to introduce the family to birthday parties and cake, to the concept of drinking tea for ritual and pleasure, she had made jellies and jams and even won prizes for it, she had raised her youngest brothers-in-laws as if they were her own children and yet no matter what she did, she would still remain a disappointment to them, the fact that she was not her sister-in-law was a hurdle that they had been unable to get over. Midula had seen the way that their eyes misted over whenever they spoke about her, the way in which they remembered the bottle green of her benarasi sari and the white gleam of her feet as she had threaded her way through the paddy fields and balanced across each ask , a time so very long ago when there was still one Bengal.
Every time Mridula left Kolkata, she forgot all of this, the aching sadness that came from decades of being found wanting seemed to evaporate and instead she was filled with longing, the longing that had brought her here, led her to invest in the flat and try once more to build a life and a home with her parents. But no, it was her marriage they wanted, not her. She asked herself, again, what they stood to gain? After an apocalyptic argument several years ago, the pair of them were no longer on speaking terms, choosing to cohabit out of a sense of duty over love, companionship or anything else. She had never witnessed a moment of tenderness shared between them but they were the biggest advocates of her marriage, posting her profile on every online marriage portal that their WhatsApp contacts referred them to. If it had not been for Mridula’s many rejections, they would have had her married long ago. Her eyes smarted and she felt them well up with tears.
Not now, she told herself, not now. She wouldn’t let the see her like that. The afternoon passed quickly. The caterers had forgotten one of the items, an aunt felt weak, a cousin called to say that they couldn’t make it, Mridula flitted here and there and tried to make do and mend. As evening began to settle over the city and a rosy light, touched with gold, began to pour into the flat, Mridula caught her mother’s eyes. The latter beamed. Mridula smiled back.
Clutching her cup of tea, Santa Sengupta looked at her daughter, filled with hope.
“This light, it’s so beautiful. We call it kone dekha alo, it is the light to see prospective brides with. Maybe that’s where we went wrong Mimoo, with you? Even you look beautiful beneath it”.
Mridula cast her eyes down, she felt that familiar lump rise in her throat. For years she had allowed them to make her feel like she was not enough. Today, she found herself deciding, was not going to be that day. An eerie calm washed over her. Looking up, she spoke quietly, “ I think I look good in any light”. Before she could say anything else, she quickly got up and left the room.
Up on the roof, as the city began twinkle, Mridula considered that it hadn’t been so hard after all, to speak up. Perhaps, she thought, she should have done it before. Here, on the new roof, the city stretched out before her, full of hope. Whether she stayed or whether she took the first flight out, to a new onsite project, to a new city, to a new flat share she felt nothing but hope. She had made a home for herself, a little place of her own to come back to and she would allow no one to steal the joy that it gave her. Her black anchal danced in the wind. She felt like a goddess, bestowed with incredible power. She would not, she decided, allow anyone to make her feel less than...This was new beginning after all. The four walls of her new home would allow her to write a different story.
Griho-probesh - a housewarming ritual
Anchal - also known as the pallu, the anchal refers to the end of the sari that is draped across
Pujor jama/Pujor sari - it is customary to give new clothes and saris as gifts before Durga Puja.
Uttam Kumar, Suchitra Sen, Sabitri - classic matinee idols from Bengali cinema.
Ashirbad - a blessing ceremony
Kone dekha alo - sundown. Kone means prospective bride and alo means
About the Writer:
Born in Kolkata but brought up in Cambridge, Resham’s writing seeks to try and make sense of the immigrant experience. Resham recently contributed to ‘She Speaks’, a collection of short stories written by twenty women of Indian origin living, learning and working from all around the world. Resham currently lives in Zurich with her husband and two children. You can follow Resham and her writing on Instagram where she records her experiences of raising ‘Third Culture Kids’ using the handle @themigratorymum.