Fiction

Rajani
- Kalyani Dutta

Beyond the door, afternoon sunshine glares. From inside, in the gloom, the door is a perfect rectangle of bright light to dazzle your eyes.

My aunt sits on her bed while I sit on a cane stool at the end of the bed, desultorily talking about family members.

The rectangle is bisected suddenly by a shadow of a  vertical figure. Neither the face nor the clothes can be seen. It assumes a Y shape as both hands are lifted to hold the door frame.

 Masi calls out, ‘Come inside, Rajani. Don’t stand near the door. We can’t see you.’

 The figure enters, approaches the bed. Still silent.

When Rajani speaks, her head is turned towards the window. In a low,hoarse voice she asks, ‘Your  niece?’

Masi answers ‘Yes. My sister’s daughter, Minu.  Lives in Mumbai.  She comes to see me whenever she is in Delhi. The other residents have met her.’  

Now I see the tall, fair woman. So thin, her white sari worn Bengali style seems wrapped round a stick. She looks as if she could be seventy. She moves in an odd way, body held straight.

Thick, wavy hair with only a few silver strands showing covers her head and spreads down her back. It must have been lustrous in her youth. She impresses us with a sense of great beauty now ruined.  Straight, small nose and well-shaped lips on an oval face, slim eyebrows arched over classic fish-like eyes. The expression in those eyes disturbs me. No smile, not even a glance at me, as is expected at an introduction. They appear glassy. As if she is drugged.  The perfect features too seem slightly askew.

  Like an automaton, she moves around the periphery of the room, picking up and peering at photographs from tables, shelves.

 Masi tries to ease the situation. ‘Minu, this is Rajani. She is the oldest resident in this Ashram. Longest stay since it was set up, isn’t it, Rajani?’

The oldest resident does not reply.

I am both wary and surprised. Other residents, Masi’s friends, whenever I visited, flocked to Masi’s room and settled down for a cozy chat. In the dull sameness of their lives, each with experiences of neglect, deceit, heaven knows what other sorrows, happily welcomed the arrival of a visitor. Collectively they shared the pride of having someone caring enough to come, the joy of having a guest. As at a winter fire stretching out hands,  warming their spirits in the affection and news from the outside world.

They chattered incessantly, interrupting each other, so that Masi and I hardly had any private conversation. They scurried off to their rooms, fetching gujias, namkeens, matthis to offer me – treats brought by their dutiful families.

 Their happy, excited sharing of sweets with me made my heart ache.  It was such a traditional, typical act of hospitality in an Indian home. When these women had their own homes, entertaining guests, they were part of the bustle of domesticity. Now I tried to eat a little bit of everyone’s offering.

In all this conviviality, there were sharp exchanges sometimes, embarrassing for me, but inevitable, understandable, given the close proximity in which they .lived.

‘O, so Rani ! You’ve got gujias. When did you get them? You know how I like gujias. Didn’t think of offering me one, hanh? You are so selfish.’

                                                     Or

‘Kanta, how dare you keep my sister’s letter with you for one whole day, instead of giving it to me! If your sisters don’t write to you, I can’t help it.’

Today, Masi’s friends were away attending a puja in someone’s home, a rare outing for them. Masi and I had the room to ourselves.

But here was Rajani, choosing to wander in when there were no noisy women, but showing no interest in meeting Masi’s guest. She kept moving around the room restlessly.

Seeing my discomfort Masi calls out, ‘Rajani, would you like to taste a piece of chiki Minu has brought for me?’

Rajani veers towards us, picks up a piece of peanut and jaggery chiki, rolls it in her fingers, then puts it back in the box with a grimace.

‘Nah!’ she said. ‘I like only sondesh. Nice and white, so soft. Jojo brought sondesh for me from Ananda when he came last time.’

Rajani follows her train of memory

‘When was that? After Puja? No, Diwali. So long ago. I haven’t had sondesh for such a long time. I’ll phone Jojo. He hasn’t come to see me for such a long time. I want to eat some sondesh now. Why doesn’t he come?

I know. I know. It is that wife of his. That dain.’

Rajani’s  apathy is replaced by anger. Her eyes move from side to side, breaths come fast.

I feel alarmed. Masi tries to calm her down.

‘Come and sit here. We can send for sondesh this evening from the shop near the station.’

‘No. I want it from Ananda, the shop near my house,’  Rajani says vehemently. ‘Only Jojo can get them.  That boy!   Why doesn’t he want to meet me now?  That wife, she won’t let him come.’

Masi interrupts her, ‘Don’t say that, Rajani. Jojo met you only last month. I seem to remember he said he’d be out of Delhi this month.’

Rajani’s voice rises a notch. She doesn’t seem to have heard Mashi   ‘In the old days how both of them – father and son -- worshipped me.’

Masi says to me softly, ‘That is true. Never has a woman been loved as Rajani was.’

Suddenly Rajani swoops down to the side of Masi’s bed that is unoccupied. Her face is very close to mine.

‘You know why? I was beautiful. My husband adored me. He did whatever I asked him to. Bought me any jewellery, any sari I wanted.’

Incongruously coquettish, she raises her chin, one hand slowly pushed a strand of hair behind her ear.

 She leaves the bed, slowly perambulates round it, lost in her dream of the past.

Her long tresses float behind her as she walks, fingers knotting and unknotting a corner of her sari. A faint sandal scent wafts from her hair.

Masi leans back. She’s heard the story before.

‘He loved me so much. He took an extra job so that I would have all I wanted.’ Rajani is near the window now, looking out.

'I loved Jojo,’ her voice floats back. ‘When I stood with the baby in my arms, people said I looked like a goddess. But I had to keep an Ayah to hold him. Babies are so noisy. They dirty their clothes all the time.’

Rajani was lost in the full flood of  reminiscence.   ‘I think my husband really loved that boy of his. He was so proud of his son. Said he was as good looking as his mother. He was so sad that Jojo couldn’t go to a really good school. It would have meant cutting out the expenses of the cook and Ayah. Who would cook and look after the baby?’

Rajani is now turned towards her audience, addressing us, one finger raised for emphasis, underscoring the the warning she delivered.

‘I told him I would go and live in my father’s house and he could bring up his son. Or he could find another job. It was so annoying. He couldn’t find more time to fit in one more accounting job.’

I think I should interrupt the monologue, show some interest.   ‘What about Jojo? Did he mind not going to a first-rate school?’ 

Masi shakes her head at me, signalling that now Rajani is in full flow, she hears nothing.

Rajani answers however. ‘Oh he understood that I couldn’t do household work. He was intelligent and started taking tuitions to earn pocket money when he was in high school.’

‘Let it rest, Rajani. Tell us the story another day. Time for you to sleep. Go to your room. Minu will be leaving in an hour,’ Masi says, sensing that the harrowing parts of the story were coming.

Impervious, Rajani shakes her head and continues.   ‘I can’t sleep.  Just can’t.  He couldn’t.  Towards the end.  He tried not to moan out of pain, because he knew how I hated it.’

 Masi speaks in my ear, ‘Her husband had a stroke at first.  And then he developed colon cancer.’

Rajani looked angry. ‘Do you know? I had to let my cook go. Instead a nurse had to be hired. Thank God Jojo was in college.  I used to get so angry. Felt so trapped. Smell of medicines all over the house. Pinch and scrape all the time.  I hated it.

Every day I screamed at him, ‘Why don’t you die? What is the point of living like this ?’ All he did was to weep. I wasn’t born for this kind of life.’

My throat is now dry. I seal t a look at Masi. She has shut her eyes, and her lips are pressed hard.

Rajani takes a rapid turn around the bed. ‘I couldn’t stand it. Day after day. Then I just throttled him. I had to. With my own hands.’

I shot out of the stool in alarm. ‘What? No, no. What are you saying?’

Masi, I see, has  drawn up her knees and rests her head on them. She has shut her ears with her hands.

Now Rajani at last looks at me. She seems to be gloating.

Quick as a flash Rajani bends down, pummels Masi’s pillow with both her hands.

‘Like this. Like this.’ Her eyes glitter.

 I feel I am going to faint. What nightmare is this?

Masi is near the door, calling for the Matron. ‘Mrs Puri. Mrs Puri’

 I cower in a corner of the room.

Rajani is still punching the pillow maniacally.

Mrs Puri shows up at last. She and a maid catch hold of Rajani and lead her out of the room.

Turning near the door, Matron says, ‘Going to be a bad evening today.’

Masi pours two glasses of water, drinks out of one and offers me the other.

I burst out, ‘She should be in a prison. In a mental ward.  Or in a mental asylum. Why is she here? ‘

Masi, busy making tea while I stand and watch her, glances at me and says, ‘She is not a murderer.  Her husband died because he developed cancer.’

Confounded, I exclaim, ‘Then what was this? She is completely mad. Is she getting treatment here? From a good psychiatrist?’

Masi hands me a cup of tea and settles down in the chair near her bed.

‘Oh yes. Some senior counselor from Fortis comes to check on her twice a month. Jojo can afford it.

Her illness fluctuates. Sometimes she is almost normal. But she is always aloof. What few words she exchanges are usually with me, when the others are not around. The family too talks frankly to me for that reason.’

‘Then Jojo …’ I begin hesitantly.

Masi anticipates and interrupts. ‘Do you think her son and his wife were cruel to her? No, no. Jojo has a very good job, high up in the IT industry. They are a good looking couple, both IT professionals. Now there is a lovely five-year-old daughter.’

The social worker in me sits up and becomes judgmental.  ‘I see. Can’t fit his mother in his impeccable lifestyle. Is that it?’

The incident with Rajani has shaken my nerves. I am angry. It has to be somebody’s fault.

'Don’t jump to conclusions, Minu. People are not that predictable,’ Masi protests.

‘Jojo kept his mother with him as long as he could. She had a maid servant all to her self. Reena, his wife, tried to be as gentle and conciliatory as possible.

But Rajani wanted exclusive attention from everyone. She was used to being the centre of that household. There were tantrums, fainting fits whenever the young couple wanted to go out or even be alone in their bedroom. The couple bore all this, in spite of the neighbour’s innuendos. They suspected the neighbours thought they were torturing Rajani. What a situation!’

‘Well? How did Rajani end up here?’ I ask.

 In this Ashram, there were quite a few women from well-to-do families. Some were widows, some unmarried – churned out and flung away from the system as joint families turned nuclear. Many came here out of their own free will.’

‘Look Masi. My flight is in the morning. I’ll leave for my hotel a little later. I want to get to the bottom of this weird story. So tell me.’

Masi sighs and rubs her neck. 

She says, ‘What I tell you now is what I have pieced together from what Jojo and Reena have told me. During their visits to Rajani earlier, sometimes they used to take refuge in my room when Rajani was on a rampage.

Well, when their daughter was born, some part of the exclusive attention deflected towards her, as it had to be. Rightly so. Mayuri is like an angel, having inherited some of her grandmother’s beauty. But Rajani couldn’t get used to it. Opposite of a fond grandmother, she became insanely jealous of the small child.

There was no peace in that house. She grudged the food, the gifts, the praise, the love that was showered upon the child. There were episodes where she shook the child and slapped her. No ayah would last in that house for more than a fortnight.’

Masi described what Jojo had told her. That Rajani would howl and tell everyone who would listen, and there was no lack of such people, how she had been treated like a queen when her husband had been alive and how wretched she was now.

From the balcony of their Gurgaon apartment Rajani would scream, ‘Why did you have to die? How could you have left me here alone, where no one cares about me? I am the most miserable woman in the world,’ reversing completely the curses she had poured upon her husband’s head. A deeply mortified Reena had told Masi that.

The crisis came when the little child, Mayuri, began manifesting signs of insecurity. In her playschool the teacher was concerned that Mayuri cried often, did not want to mix with other children and did not want to participate in any group activity. Now Jojo and Reena were really worried. Their hearts broke to see Mayuri’s tiny face always looking anxious.

Resolution of a certain kind was provided by old Dr Ghosh, their family Doctor, who had seen Jojo grow up. He sat Jojo down and made him take a good, hard look at the situation. 

‘Look Jojo, your mother is not going to get better. She is becoming increasingly paranoid.  Why destroy four lives? Above all your innocent child’s!  What has she done? Why should she suffer? You want her to turn into an emotional cripple? You’ve brought her into this world. You’ve no right to sacrifice her.’

Jojo told Masi how these harsh words from his kindly old mentor jolted him. 

Still, from a lifetime of the habit of cherishing his mother, Jojo sputtered, ‘But Ma … she is helpless … Where is she to go?

I don’t know what to do. Reena is reaching the end of her tether.  And my poor baby!

 My work is suffering too.’  

 Dr Ghosh, observed them for some time, then said,

‘I’ve known all of you for so long. I’ve given Rajani’s situation a great deal of thought. Take a deep breath and accept that your mother should live separately. No, no, not alone. She will be surrounded by caring people. But no one she knows who can trigger her memories.

 I’ve been looking around for the best place. There is a new home for women, paid one, mind you, which has opened in Rohini.  Spanking new architecture, not the usual drab kind.  Trained staff.  Jojo, make up your mind. I’ll make all the arrangements.’

Masi sighed, smoothed her sari over her knees.  ‘Look, Minu, I am not a psychiatrist,’ she said. ‘I don’t know when or how Rajani developed this idea that she killed her husband with her own hands. But people who hear it, always from her, and not very often, are shocked, like you were today. Oh dear, what brought this on today I don’t know. I feel terrible.’

‘No Masi. Don’t be upset.’ I comforted her. She thought my visit was spoilt. ‘Maybe somewhere in her mind there is a sense of guilt for the way she treated her husband. That she wished him dead every day, that man who adored her. And he died painfully. Perhaps, she wanted to or had visions of, in her rage and frustration, of throttling him. Now that has become real for her. Since it happens infrequently, who knows, maybe it is a way of drawing attention and becoming the focus of interest again. ‘ 

‘But tell me, do these violent episodes occur when her family visits? Is that why Jojo hasn’t visited her?’

Masi sighed again ‘That poor boy. He still comes every month. To find out about her health, see if she needs anything.’   

 'But the Ashram people told him not to try to meet her. Every meeting resulted in huge paroxysms of crying, recriminations, abuses, curses against his wife and child.  She faints sometimes. You saw how thin she is. Hardly eats anything. Her very expensive, exclusive maid, has a tough job managing her. The other residents didn’t like those noisy, violent fits.  It takes a long time to soothe her. Mostly, she is quiet and her remote, aloof self.’

We sit without speaking for some time.

It is time for me to leave.

‘In my line of work, Masi, we try to be optimistic. Groping always for a happy solution. But sometimes there just doesn’t seem a way out.  Poor woman, poor young people.

Next month I’ll be coming again, Masi.  Around the middle of May. I’ll see you then.’

My NGO headquarter is in Gurgaon. By the afternoon of  May 15 I submit  my report, then I am free to go to Rohini , meet Masi. .

As I leave the building where our office is, I come out into the market in that sector.

Facing me is a sweet shop, with a huge sign, Ananda.

 I go in to buy two boxes of sondesh.

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