Authors: MANJU KAPUR
Also by Manju Kapur
A Married Woman
RANDOM HOUSE INDIA
Published by Random House India in 2011
Copyright © Manju Kapur 2008
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EPUB ISBN 9788184002713
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Maya, Kranti, Tara
Nina was almost thirty. Friends and colleagues consoled her by remarking on her radiant complexion and jet black hair but such comfort was cold. Nina’s skin knew it was thirty, broadcasting the fact at certain angles in front of the mirror. Her spirit felt sixty as she walked from the bus stop to the single room where she lived with her mother. Her heart felt a hundred as it surveyed the many years of hopeless longing it had known.
And her womb, her ovaries, her uterus, the unfertilised eggs that were expelled every month, what about them? They were busy marking every passing second of her life.
Had she been married, thirty would have been heralded as a time of youthful maturity, her birthday celebrated in the midst of doting husband and children. A body could feel young in these circumstances, look forward to the gifts, the surprises, the love.
Instead this would be the moment that announced her diminishing prospects to a judgemental world.
July 28th, three twenty in the afternoon. Nina’s students had, as usual, bunked the seventh period. Their reasons would be: how late they got for coaching classes, how they needed to cook and help and socialise at home, how there were not enough university specials and public buses got so crowded, how eveteasing, anxious parents and girls always vulnerable, demanded the skipping of classes.
Nina stood in the doorway and stared at the three long crooked rows of tables and empty chairs. Though she had known Elective English II would not materialise, part of her job description was waiting for the tardy, lazy, recalcitrant, excuse-making, absconding student.
Her gaze shifted beyond the windows to the tennis court with its ragged, rusted wire fencing, the hostel wing behind it and the distant trees. She felt towards the shabby red-brick building the love of an acolyte. The student-less atmosphere allowed her to feel this love more acutely.
Slowly she climbed upstairs to the department room, put away her register and issued two books on Milton from the library cupboards that lined the walls. In the staff bathroom a hurried pee, her breath held against the strong, foul smell. As she emerged she encountered Kalawati, the all purpose maid.
‘Madam, see,’ she said, delighted with a spectator, pointing to the reluctant drops oozing from the tap. ‘How can I clean without water? Then they complain about my washing.’
The half filled, cracked, discoloured sink was plugged with a black rag, waving bravely from the drain. In it Kalawati was swishing tea mugs, two in each hand, leaving tea rings intact, barely wetting flecks of encrusted powdered milk. These were the mugs the teachers would drink out of tomorrow and Nina wished to see no more. Murmuring indistinguishably she walked away, down empty corridors, passing witness to the sweeper pushing clusters of dirt and paper out of classrooms which were then locked behind him. In a matter of minutes the whole place would be considered clean.
Out the big green double gates embossed with the college emblem, onto the dusty sidewalk, towards the three thirty special. Grit under the strap of her new kolhapuris grated against her sweating feet with every step she took.
Down University Road, left at Patel Chest till the Arts Faculty road, then right towards a line of waiting buses. Students milled around, waiting for the route signs to change. The minute the front of a bus proclaimed its identity, its seats would be attacked and possessed by the lucky few.
Once on her bus, the GK II special, Nina settled down to twenty kilometres of painful thought. Hour by inexorable hour her twenty ninth year was ebbing away. Tomorrow thirty, thirty, thirty. What brightness could any dawn cast on her existence? Colleagues, friends, students, parent—her world was totally female. Would she end up a bitter old spinster like Miss Kapoor of the Economics department, like the Misses Hingorani and Rao of her own, like Miss Lal of History or Miss Krishnamurthy of Sanskrit? Academics was full of spinsters, minatory signposts to depressing, lonely futures.
Yet, education was a gift and she would not exchange the life of the mind for any humdrum marriage. If she was going to settle, she would have settled long ago for one of the men her mother kept dredging up with desperate hope from marriage advertisements.
She wished her mother’s happiness was not so dependent on her own. Even now she would be waiting, peering restlessly through the window, readying the tea tray on a little side table, cups turned down, biscuit jar filled, while nearby water killed time in an electric kettle. All in readiness for them to sip tea and exchange the minutiae of their day.
The major topic of conversation in the last eight years had been Nina’s marriage—who, when, where, how? The hopes each conversation generated gradually lost their lustre as the years went by and nothing changed. From where could fresh possibilities be unearthed on the eve of her thirtieth birthday? The lack of these, reflected in her mother’s dull, mournful eyes, was what she was going home to.
Finally her stop arrived. She turned the corner, and there was the sagging iron gate and scraggly lemon tree of B-26 Jangpura Extension. In front of the house was a tiny concrete space, hogged by the monstrous bulk of the landlord’s car shrouded within a grey waterproof cover. A neat row of plants in red pots tried to dispel the ugliness with their glossy green leaves and occasional flowers, but failed miserably.
Nina pushed open the front door and stepped into her home: one small bedroom, attached to a tiny covered verandah which functioned as a drawing-dining room. The front steps provided extra seating. At the back was an angan, in a covered shed to one side was their kitchen, next to it the bathing area, next to that the toilet. B-26 Jangpura Extension had been built as a single unit, but Mr Singh supplemented his income by renting out the front part of the house to tenants who, being female and unprotected, were totally harmless.
‘What took you so long? I even waited at the bus stop.’
‘How many times have I told you not to do that?’
‘It was so late, I couldn’t help it.’
‘Have you forgotten I come late on Tuesdays?’
Despite the timetable in her possession, yes, the mother has forgotten. Her daughter is going to be thirty, that erodes all reason, all timetables but the one of marriage. Now she has a plan and she is nervous it will not be accepted. While Nina bathes away the sweaty grime of an urban monsoon day, the mother thinks of the astrologer she has to persuade her to visit.
Over tea, Nina listens to the suggestion and considers the desperation it reveals. After what happened to the father they were never again going to believe in astrology. His horoscope had revealed achievement, success and happiness. Like a king’s, pronounced his proud mother as he went from brilliant posting to brilliant posting, foregoing the initial years in the backwaters other IFS officers faced. Then, with no history of heart disease, a sudden cardiac arrest killed him at forty five. On and on his mother wailed, was early death too the fate of kings?
Yes, it was. You can’t have everything.
This knowledge, so acceptable in the lives of others, was not acceptable in her own. In time honoured tradition she held her son’s wife responsible. Instead of looking after her husband, Shanti must have been busy enjoying, enjoying her husband’s transfers to all the good European capitals. It took a mother’s eye to notice distress, to predict the onset of disaster.
The father had believed in the future, had believed in his retirement, had believed in the beautiful house he would build on a plot he was going to buy in a South Delhi colony. The architect’s blueprint would allow Nina to construct a separate unit on the first floor when she grew to need independence. His wife, listening to his dreams, basked in their glow, his daughter, listening, felt lucky to have a future so well taken care of.
The dreamer died leaving his dependents with nothing. The ground cut from beneath their feet, they had no choice but to move to the grandparents’ house in Lucknow.
Years of innuendo and resentment followed. The grandmother could not understand Shanti living when Shankar was gone. Shanti herself could not understand it.
Nina hated the atmosphere she found herself in. She hated Lucknow, her grandparents’ house and Loreto Convent. The International Academy in Brussels was her real school, Europe her spiritual home.
Anger provided the energy in the house. The grandmother resented her daughter-in-law’s existence, Nina resented her mother’s meekness, the mother put up with everything because Nina’s security depended on her patience. Nina obsessively imagined the day when the two of them would leave this small town hell. Lovingly she embroidered multitudinous themes in the farewell speech to her grandparents, single-mindedly she visualised the job that would enable her to add to the small monthly pension her mother got from the government.
It took seven years. Seven years in which Nina finished school, migrated to Delhi to do English Honours at Miranda House, followed by a postgraduate degree from the university, to end up with a lectureship at her alma mater. Seven years and six months to find this room in Jangpura Extension, and bring her mother to live with her. In Delhi Nina hoped her mother would lead a fuller life; in Delhi the mother imagined a husband could be found who would give her darling the home she deserved.
Neither expectation was fulfilled. The mother refused to indulge in any social life that involved spending Nina’s hard earned money, the daughter refused to agree to any groom advertisements or acquaintance threw her way.
She might have been more tractable if she had not fallen in love during her MA.
He was fifteen years older than her, a teacher in the English Department at the Arts Faculty. Rahul liked to love serially. Unfortunately for Nina, he reminded her of her father. She offered him her heart and expected his in return—for surely the combined forces of youth and devotion would persuade him into commitment.
She kept this relationship secret from her mother. She was looking for love on her own terms, untainted by convention and respectability.
Eventually the serial lover moved on. She thought the pain would destroy her. Despite her knowledge of his nature, in her weakened state she succumbed to his blandishments eight months later. Then followed four agonising years dotted with moments of ecstasy as she waited for him to declare that she was the chosen one. But Rahul had always made it clear that he wanted to have his cake and eat it too. Like all cakes this one was chewed, mashed into pulp and swallowed.