“Oh my god, I must see him. When are you guys coming down?” said Munu, excited to hear about her nephew.
“Not sure, yet! If everything works out, we’ll be there by Wednesday. Three CLs plus a weekend and we’re going to have a blast at New Year’s Eve!” exclaimed Nomi, who lived with her husband and two-year-old son in Bangalore.
“Brilliant! I’ll take a few days off too. Oh, did I tell you that I won the Best Designer of the Year Award at the contest I participated in? They’re paying us 25k and an internship at Google,” said Munu.
“No, you didn’t, congratulations! Did you tell…?” Nomi’s voice trailed as she thought of their mother.
“No,” said Munu, her excitement suddenly hitting a boulder at the hint.
“When did you speak to her last? June?” asked Nomi.
“No…April,” replied Munu, her voice hushed like she was letting out a secret.
“That was a long time! That’s when you…,” said Nomi and stopped. “I think she has forgiven and forgotten by now. Maybe…maybe you should call,” Nomi continued when the voice on the other side went silent.
Munu took a deep breath. “There is nothing to forgive or forget, ba. It isn’t a crime. You guys have to live with it or forget about me. Let me know when you book your flight,” said Munu and hung up abruptly.
“Hello…hello!” Nomi kept calling out but all she could hear was the dial tone.
Munu sat staring at her phone, with her legs curled up on the window seat of the eighth-floor apartment in Malad that she shared with two other girls. It was never going to be easy. She had of course planned to let her mother know more gracefully than she did. But her mother had been too insistent, looking for potential grooms both in Classifieds as well as not-so-classified matchmaking aunty groups.
“Lost in your thoughts again?” asked Sonal, a gynaecologist from Indore, and also Munu’s girlfriend of two years.
“Nah!” replied Munu, looking out the window at the street lights and the passing cars.
“Don’t worry, babe. Things will be fine. Let’s go have Sanjukta Devi’s special dinner tonight. Come on, I have an early C-section tomorrow!” she pulled Munu on to the dining room where a warm platter of rice, piping hot matar-ki-dal, iromba chutney and dry fish cooked in bamboo shoot waited for them.
Munu took a deep whiff of the food, remembering how her father loved and her mother hated the smell of dry fish. “How can you eat this?” her mother used to say. “Like this,” Munu and Nomi used to hold the uncooked dry fish pieces over their mouth to tease their mother.
She remembered her last conversation with her mother in April; the day she came out, about her relationship.
“What?? You’re lying. It’s impossible! Deuta was straight, I am straight. How could you be…?” Mitali, her ever conservative mother, couldn’t bring herself to pronounce it.
“Gay, ma! And it isn’t a hereditary disease or abnormal. I still breathe, eat, run, love, live and laugh the same way you all do. I just don’t get attracted to the opposite gender, that’s all,” Munu tried to explain.
“No! This is not going to happen. No daughter of mine is going to do something like this. I have sacrificed a lot for you and I am not going to let you ruin my reputation. Enough of Mumbai-tumbai! You get back home and everything will be alright!” Mitali was gradually losing her temper.
“I am not doing an experiment, Ma, or throwing a tantrum to send me to a school picnic. It isn’t going to get over because you say so. Even if I come back home, I will still be gay, whether you like it or not,” argued Munu.
“I wish your father was around. You wouldn’t have dared to do this in front of him,” said Mitali and broke down, exasperated.
Both sat still for some time, Mitali sobbing and Munu, feeling choked and helpless.
Finally, Mitali rose and started putting ironed clothes inside drawers, closing open windows and folding hospital corners of crumpled beds. Munu followed her, trying to explain, “Ma, I’ve always felt out of place. Now, after so many years, I understand myself.” Mitali moved about, not allowing Munu to unravel any more.
Munu stopped in her tracks, tired of her mother’s reaction and said in hushed tones, “I am still your child, Ma. Nothing has changed.”
Mitali looked back from her chores, yelling out, “EVERYTHING HAS CHANGED. YOU HAVE CHANGED. I don’t know you anymore!” and stomped off the room.
After she quietly ate the delicious dinner that her roommate had prepared, Munu retired to her bedroom and cried into the pink pillow that her mother had bought for her from Fancy Bazar, two years ago. She still seemed to get a faint smell of the naphthalene balls her mother had packed in it.
Nomi was supposed to reach by Wednesday but Bikram’s deal turning sour had dampened the whole plan from working out.
“Bikram has been so irritable last two days. He behaves as if his world is the only one I should care about. I get disappointments too, you know. But I don’t sit around grumpy and sullen. And I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. I have a kid that needs looking after,” said Nomi, taking a drag from her cigarette, and continued, “You know, sometimes, it’s really trying!”
“What is?” asked Munu, holding her phone to the left ear, clicking the mouse with her right hand, dragging the lasso tool on the Photoshop.
“Marriage!” said Nomi, as she ashed her cigarette on the tall, steel dustbin at the office smoking area, upset about the possible cancellation of the Mumbai trip. “By the way, did I tell you Ma is going on a pilgrimage trip to Vaishno Devi with her naamghariyas?”
“What? How do naamghariyas plan a trip to a temple?” asked Munu, bewildered.
“I guess, when it comes to trips, they become secular,” giggled Nomi. “Anyway, I have a meeting at noon. Enjoy your New Year party!” she added.
“Wish you too, and yeah, give kisses to my darling nephew,” said Munu.
“Will do,” answered Nomi, as they both hung up.
The group of pilgrims from Guwahati reached their hotel on the evening of 31st and had a quiet but quaint senior-citizen dinner, retiring early to bed.
Mitali woke up at dawn the next day though the helicopter ride was scheduled at 11 am. She liked to rise early on the first day of the New Year. She went for a walk with her roommate, Promila baideu, a chatty septuagenarian. When they got back, Promila switched on the TV while Mitali went for a shower. She came out drying her hair on the hotel towel when her roommate increased the volume and gestured her to listen. “Look what happened in Bangalore! Does Nomi know about this?” said Promila, pointing at the TV with the remote.
“What happened?” asked Mitali looking at the screen.
“There was mass molestation everywhere. So sad, see! But these girls, nowadays! Why do you have to come out to the streets to celebrate your new year? Just stay home, can’t you?” complained Promila.
Just then, someone knocked at the door. It was Baruah sir, the retired school principal who was part of their pilgrim group. Mitali held the door open for the flushed principal and asked, “What happened, sir?”
“Did you see the news?” asked Baruah.
“Yes, we were just…,” said Mitali, but couldn’t complete.
“Can you please…can you please call Nomi? My daughter Priti was there. Her friend called to say that she is hurt and that she is in a hospital, but her phone disconnected. Can you please ask Nomi to find out where they have taken the victims? I’m trying to book my tickets,” said Baruah breathlessly, his voice breaking, as he tried to find a grip on the door.
“Sure..sure sir!” said Mitali, dialling Nomi’s number.
It was evening. The bad weather had cancelled both the helicopter trip as well as any flight out of the place. Everyone hung around in the hotel lobby, watching the news. Just then Mitali’s phone rang. It was Nomi.
“Yes, Nomi, tell me,” asked Mitali, as the eager eyes of Baruah sir and other passengers held onto her words.
On the other side, Nomi gave a grim report. “I found her in the medical college hospital. I don’t know if she was in the same or some isolated incident, but she was found badly bruised and bleeding in some alley near MG Road. I spoke to the doctor. He says she’ll recover, but she’ll need therapy. He says he’ll give more details only to the next of kin. It doesn’t seem like a haphazard molestation, ma! But don’t tell her father right away.”
“Okay,” said Mitali, her throat dried out of fear, shock and the look of despair in Baruah’s eyes. “Nomi says she’ll be fine. She is in Bangalore Medical College Hospital. But you must try to reach there soon. They’ll only talk to you.”
Baruah dropped on to the lobby sofa, as his co-passengers tried to console him. “Men have become beasts! Animals, I tell you! I will not spare the one who did this to my daughter. I will not…,” said Baruah as he broke down.
Mitali and others stood there, helpless as the TV screen showed footages of hapless young women crying in front of the camera, holding on to the women police officials for safety and help.
That night, after bidding goodbye to Baruah sir, Mitali came into her room leaving the others in the lobby. She drank a glass of water from the tumbler on her nightstand and sat on her bed. Then she dialled the number she hadn’t, for the last eight months.
“Hello…Munu!” she said.
“Ma!” uttered Munu, in a voice mixed with surprise and sadness.
Both mother and daughter held on to their cell phones, speechless; their stuttered breathing and occasional sniffles punctuating the painful silence.
Finally, it was Mitali who spoke. “What is her name?” she asked.
ba/baideu: elder sister in Assamese
Fancy Bazar: a bustling market in Guwahati with plenty of wholesale stores
Naamghar: A place of congregational worship, usually associated with the Ekasarana (ek-one, saran-patronage) religion, propagated by the Vaishnavite saint, Srimanta Shankardeva. Followers of this religion do not believe in idol worship and hence do not usually acquaint themselves with temples. A naamghariya is one who frequently goes to a naamghar and abides by its rules religiously.
I have no intention of disrespecting any place or cult of worship through this story. It is written in subtle notice and reflection of the response of young people to religion or religious cults as such.
Also, this story is solely a product of my imagination and any resemblance to characters or situations is absolutely coincidental.