by Malsawmi Jacob
So, it's been a whole year since Mrinali left us. Her sradha was performed today. But she is still alive, very much alive, in my heart. How can she die? Mrinali—my lovely, silly, elder sister! Her likes never really die. Perhaps they never really live on this earth, either.
Much as I grieve, much as I miss her myself, what I find so hard to bear is the sight of
Bhindeu’s sorrow. He doesn't talk much, hardly expresses his feelings to anyone. But his grief is evident to anyone who knew him before. He is hardly forty, but looks seventy. Most of his hair has turned white, his once big, brown, kindly eyes are sunken and dull, and he stoops. He seems to be constantly living in a world of reverie. If you talk to him he starts and stares at you. Then you have to repeat yourself.
Why am I putting all this down on paper now? It is to unburden myself of what I know that nobody else knows. I cannot speak of this to anyone, least of all to Bhindeu. But if I don't come out with it I shall burst or go mad. So here it is.
Two days before Mrinali disappeared we had a feast in their house to celebrate their wedding anniversary. She and Bhindeu had completed ten years together. That night I noticed that Mrinali was looking positively miserable beneath her bright smiles, bright jewels and beautiful mekhela-chaddar. I called her aside and asked what was wrong. She only replied that she should be happy but was not. We left it at that. Two days later, the day of the incident, she visited me at our home near Dighali Pukhri. Probably I was the last person to see her alive. She never went home. The next day her body was found in the pond.
During that visit she had told me of something that had happened on the day of the anniversary, which had upset her terribly. I had dismissed it as nothing worth worrying about. My attitude seemed to upset her even more. When she left she was close to tears. I was greatly tempted to laugh.
This was one problem with Mrinali—she could not see the funny side of things. She took everything, every little thing, with dead seriousness. I was just the opposite. Seriousness itself often made me feel like laughing. Since our childhood this difference had been the cause of many clashes between us.
Not only did Mrinali take things seriously, she also felt intensely. The sight of a newly opened rose or a lady bird could literally make her dance with delight, while a wounded puppy or a butterfly with broken wing could make her cry. Perhaps it was this nature of hers, added to her physical beauty, that made me feel protective towards her since we were little girls. She looked so vulnerable with her heart-shaped face, wavy hair, dark sensitive eyes, small mouth and deeply curved lips. Though she was two years older than me, I somehow felt that it was my responsibility to look after her.
People often compared us to each other, always to my disadvantage. “Mrinali is so beautiful, but Mitali is so different. How can two sisters be so unlike?” I couldn't blame them. They were only speaking their thoughts, though they had been better left unspoken. Mrinali was fair, sweet looking, slim and all that. I was dark, stout, and not so sweet looking. Of course, I wasn't ugly. I might have been that when compared to Mrinali. If I had a choice, I would have liked to look as good as Mrinali, but since I haven't a choice, I don't really mind my looks as such.
We two sisters were close friends. But Meghali, our youngest sister, came five years after me as if she was an afterthought of our parents. Like a belated birthday present. She was just the baby of the family and didn't come much into account. She is now a housewife, married to a journalist who usually comes home late, frequently drunk. They live in Uzzan Bazar, five minute's walk from Mrinali's place. I, by the way, am a medical doctor, a pediatrician on the lookout for a placement. My husband is also a doctor, a cardiologist. He is so busy attending to people's hearts that he has no time at all for matters of the heart. So you see, we do not have much conjugal bliss.
As far as family life is concerned, I should say that Mrinali was the luckiest of us three. She had a caring husband and mother in law who loved her like her own daughter that she never had. In fact, like a very young daughter. Between Ma and Bhindeu she was like a pampered little girl. May be that was part of the problem—she couldn't grow up. She was kept sheltered from the dangers and harsh realities of life. She was guarded from all possible evil influence. The friends she had, the books she read, the TV programmes she watched, were all kept under strict vigilance. She was not allowed to go out alone.
At home, she was not allowed to work too hard or idle too much, or to be sad. She was made to stay neat and well groomed at all times. Clothes, ornaments, and all things that a woman could want, were heaped on her without her having to ask. Especially in the evenings just before Bhindeu came home from the shop, Ma loved to have her dolled up and waiting in the front room. Bhindeu's face would light up on seeing her and there would be such a good feeling all around. Mrinali was truly the light of the home and the light of Bhindeu’s and Ma's eyes. Even the servants knew her importance in the family and treated her with respect. They were all out to honour her every wish or whim. She was kept like a princess.
And all this in spite of the fact that she had not conceived in all those years. Countless doctors and pundits had been tried; thousands and thousands of rupees spent, but to no avail. They were still childless. This thought did sometimes furrow Ma's brow, but not for long. She had not yet lost hope. Ma had a sister who gave birth to a son after twelve years of being married.
Of course, Mrinali was grateful. A sweet nature like hers could not fail to appreciate her good fortune. And she did her best to be a good wife and good daughter in law. But still there was an under-current of discontent in her which probably no one noticed. A longing for something indefinable, a feeling of restlessness. Once or twice she had asked to help in their electronic goods shop. Bhindeu replied that there were enough of employees. She asked to learn driving, and Ma said that since they had two drivers it was not necessary to exert herself. There were servants to do the house works. So her main duties were helping Ma with part of the cooking, amusing herself within the permitted limits, and looking pretty.
In spite of these circumstances that many women would have dreamt of, Mrinali sometimes talked to me of her 'broken dreams'. I would laugh and tell her that in her case reality was better than dreams. At times she would join me in laughing, at times she would complain that her own sister and closest friend failed to understand her. The broken dream she referred to was that of becoming a writer. Mrinali used to love reading. When she was married off, without her consent, at the age of nineteen, she was a first year degree student of English major. She loved the subject. She went crazy about poems and novels. She dreamt of finishing her studies and then writing books.
But then the marriage proposal that was too good for Father and Aunt to turn down came. It had not been easy bringing us up, three daughters, without a mother. Our mother died at Meghali's birth. Father brought us up, with help from his sister. But Aunt had her own family to look after too. And Mrinali was quite a source of worry as she was so beautiful.
How she cried when the marriage was fixed! Marrying a man ten years older than her was not Mrinali's idea of romance. She begged to be let off, but her pleas fell on deaf ears. As it turned out, it was in a way a good thing that the marriage took place. Father died a few months later and we were left orphans. Bhindeu stepped in to share the responsibility of looking after Meghali and me. Though Aunt and Uncle were our legal guardians, it was Bhindeu who gave us financial support and finally provided for our weddings to men of our
own choice. But Ma did not allow Mrinali to continue her studies after she was married.
Now what Mrinali told me on her visit, the last day of her life, was this. I am putting down the account as I remember.
“Mitali, you've got to help me, or I'll go mad”, she had blurted out as soon as I opened the door. “I'm feeling so utterly wretched I can't live on like this”.
“What's the matter? Tell me all”, I responded as we both sank down on the sofa.
“You know, day before yesterday, the day of our anniversary, was a bad one from the start. Early morning, still dark, I woke up from a horrible dream. I saw my own body, dead and all covered with green slime, being fished out of water. All the time a voice kept saying 'Wasted life! Wasted life!'. I woke up trembling all over. Pratul (that's Bhindeu) was snoring peacefully. I thought of waking him, but decided to let him sleep on. The poor guy works hard all day, he needs a good rest. I couldn't trouble him with my silly dream. But I couldn't sleep any more. I lay awake, shivering and sweating at the same time, till it was light. Then I got up and went out into the garden. When the sun rose I felt better, but the words 'wasted life, wasted life' kept echoing in my mind.
“We all got busy preparing the anniversary dinner. I helped also, but before lunchtime Ma told me to take rest. She said I looked tired, and she wanted me to look fresh for the evening celebration. I was in fact feeling quite sleepy because of my disturbed sleep that morning. So I went to bed and tried to sleep. But the horrible dream came back to my mind and I couldn't sleep at all. So I sneaked out of the house, hoping that they'd think I was asleep in our room, and went over to Meghali's place. I was hoping that a change of scene would help me to forget my bad dream.
“Meghali was bustling about preparing lunch. Gautam had invited the Editor of the paper he works with. She asked me to stay on too, so I did. I was eager to meet this Editor, R.C.Baruah, whom I greatly admired. He turned out to be a real gentleman and I enjoyed talking with him. As we chatted, I unthinkingly confided to him that I had wanted to become a writer but could not. He listened sympathetically as I told him of the incident that sealed my fate. It happened a few months after my marriage. I hadn’t told this to anyone before, not even you, Mitali. It’s too painful to talk about. I was writing a story about a college girl who was in love with a boy from her class, but was forced to marry a rich middle-aged man by her parents. Ma caught me at my writing, insisted on looking at it, tore it up and firmly told me good girls don't write such rubbish. That was the end of my writing hopes.
“All of a sudden it struck me that I was making a fool of myself, sharing my secret to a stranger. I was so embarrassed that I took a hasty leave of Meghali and rushed out, completely ignoring the Editor. I'm so ashamed of myself for treating a respectable elderly person, and such a nice one, like that. I've been so rude and crude. O Mitali, when will I stop being stupid?” she lamented.
“We all do stupid things at times”, I replied. “Don't torment yourself. Just forget it”.
“How can I forget it? I can never forgive myself”, she said.
And she left with that, in an agitated state, while I was quite amused at the whole thing. Strange, I had no premonition at all about the tragedy that was to follow. How was I to guess that was to be the last time we meet? How could I have thought that the sweet, sensitive Mrinali who wouldn’t harm a fly would drive a knife right into the heart of her husband who loved her so tenderly? Had she killed him with one stab, it would have been kindness in comparison to what he has to suffer now. As for the rest of us—Ma, Meghali, me and all who loved her, she has brought black darkness into our lives with what she has done.
But again, I can’t help wondering, given her temperament and circumstances, wasn’t that only natural? My thoughts just go round and round endlessly, always asking why did she have to do that. Why, why, why?