The Unlauded Woman in Mahabharata

Someone was following her. The alleyway was dark and deserted. There was a lone, weak light in the distance which painted the surroundings in a translucent yellow. The stench of urine and gutka was getting stronger. It was inescapable. She held her breath to suppress vomit from rising in her throat. Kunti pushed the pram further and further away from the mansion her father called home, and into the unknown lanes of Gokul. Every few seconds she glanced backwards, to make sure nobody was following her. No matter how many times she’d turned around, she was not satisfied. 

   Kunti woke up. Her eyes were wide open. She stared at the long, crystal chandelier in the middle of the room. At least the child in the pram was not crying tonight. Kunti didn’t bother looking for her husband, Pandu. The absence of his deep inhalations and exhalations, the complete silence in the room meant: he was either in his office on the third floor or he had retired for the night to his second bedroom, on the other side of the House. 

   At five o’clock in the morning, Kunti began her morning routine. She draped a pastel green pure chiffon sari, slipped on her brown, handmade kolhapuri sandals, tied her long black hair neatly in a bun, poured herself a glass of coconut juice from the jug at her bedside table and took the stairs to the ground floor. She switched on the light in the corridor to a daylight colour. On her way, she left the half empty glass on one of the many intricately carved wooden high tables. She stepped out of the House through the back door. This was the only time of the day that Mrs. Kunti Pandu, wife of CEO of Vichitravirya & Co Ltd, would leave her room without applying any make-up; no foundation, no rouge, no eyeliner and no kajal; only the red sindoor at the point where her hair parted. The only time in the day that she gave herself the freedom to be aam, normal like other people. 

   Kunti walked down Altamount Road, slowed down her speed, as she took the winding downward slope. The morning breeze left a tingly sensation at the base of her neck. The crows and pigeons had already begun their day. They flew from one tree to the other, cawed and cooed for the world to wake up. The dark blue sky was turning a shade lighter with every step Kunti took towards the base of Peddar Road. She went up the slope, took the right on Babulnath Chowk and then finally she turned left. This brought her to Chowpatty. The stretch of sandy land along the coast extended for miles and miles till the tip of Bombay island. Kunti stood there, she watched the ebb and flow of the waves and she willed the nightmare from last night to go away.  

   The recurring dream reminded her of her father Kuntibhoja’s belief in Karma. He’d told her, “Beta, if you ever do something bad, if you hurt someone in any manner or form, then the same thing will happen to you, sooner or later. It’s the cycle of nature.” Her inability to bear a child after that incident had done nothing but further strengthened her father’s beliefs.  

   Going to Chowpatty, in the early hours of the morning had been Kunti’s ritual for so long, she didn’t notice the coarse, wet sand entering her sandals as she made her way towards the ocean. This was the spot where the city skyline was visible. The tall skyscrapers, the Brabourne Stadium and the long bridge which connected the east side of Marine Drive to the west. As the sun rose up from behind her, the lights that illuminated the hotels and the street lights that formed the Queen’s necklace went off. Now, it was only Bombay- the city of dreams; either you go with the flow or you drown with it. Kunti had experienced both. After all these years in the city, she was still struggling to keep her head above water.  

   She turned around and faced the horizon. She could feel the heat from the first rays of the sun at the back of her head. The stalls along the beach had opened up; they sold egg bhurji and bun maska, bournvita milk and filter coffee. Young Chhotu was preparing her masala chai at the stall. Kunti had a running account there. At the end of the month, Chhotu gave her a bill on a scrappy piece of paper, and she gave him an additional fifty percent of the total.  

   Chhotu handed her a steaming cup of kadak masala chai, “Good morning Didi!,” he greeted her. Kunti blew out cool air into the short cutting glass, and took small sips. The stall owners had started to place the plastic stools and the plastic mattresses outside their shops. There were homeless people sleeping by the pavements. Their children had woken up first. Some were in ragged t-shirts with no chaddi, others only in a chaddi. One of them took a shit only two metres away from where they’d slept. The other kids started playing with the street dogs, they pulled the dogs’ tails and ran, or threw trash and dared the dog to catch it. As the intensity of the sunlight increased, Kunti knew it was time to return back to the House. She couldn’t be seen by anyone. This was her secret morning ritual. She took the same route back. The small cafés had opened up, the Gurkha at Babulnath Temple was unlocking the steel chains of the huge, grey iron gates, the thelawala selling paan and tobacco was setting up the boxes of mint flavoured sweets and chewing gums, as well as the various condiments needed to make paan.  

   Kunti took the back door to the House. She saw her glass of coconut juice was there, as she’d left it. As she shut the door to her room, she heard the first of the domestic help starting their morning shift. Kunti slipped off her kolhapuris, put them in the walk-in wardrobe in the section where her traditional shoes were kept, changed into her night gown she’d worn an hour back and got under the thick duvet. She decreased the temperature of the ac, and hoped that the sweat on her body cooled down before Dhatri Dasi came to wake her up. Her mind wandered to the time when Pandu had taken her to the famous Bachelorr’s on Marine Drive because she was craving strawberry and cream in the middle of the night.  

 

They had just made love when he told her. Or at least she had made love. For him, it was something else, something necessary, a way of starting a family. Feelings didn’t seem to enter into the act.  

   “I’m getting married tomorrow,” Pandu said.  

   “What?” 

   “I’m in love. I’m getting married tomorrow.” 

   “And you’re divorcing me?” Kunti tried to keep her voice as steady as possible. 

   “No! Are you out of your mind? I’ve married you. I can’t break that promise.” 

   “Then?” 

   “We both know we don’t have that thing between us, the spark.” 

   Kunti looked at him with disbelief, she couldn’t find a drop of compassion in his body language. She asked, “So you’ll have two wives?” 

   “It’s the only way Kunti.” 

   Kunti was tempted to ask who the other woman was. She wanted to know how they’d met, when the affair had started, for how long had it been going on for, how she looked, if she had long soft hair, or whether she made him laugh. Oh, for God’s sake, they’d just had sex, how stupid of her to think they were making love. Did he really love that other woman? Or was it a ploy to start a family because he assumed she couldn’t? 

  Kunti waited for Pandu to emphasise on anything else; what their living arrangements were going to be like, who was going to be in charge of the household duties, why was he really doing it  and why was he breaking the news to her in that manner.  

   But Pandu simply rolled over the bed and disappeared into the bathroom. She tried to get a hold on her emotions. She couldn’t cry or show little bit of weakness before the man she called her husband. Her ego wouldn’t give him the satisfaction, no matter how much she loved him. All she wanted to do was rip off the comforter and forget the last few minutes. She heard the shower running in the bathroom. She waited for Pandu to get ready and leave.  

   Kunti locked the bedroom door. Everything smelled of Pandu. But it also reminded her that he was marrying another woman. She ripped off the comforter and the pillows. She threw away the clothes she was wearing, her silky La Senza night gown, her matching lacy rose coloured bra and underwear.  

   Naked, alone, she opened the hidden drawer in her closet, under all her diamond and gold jewellery she found the Marlboro suttas. She took two from the pack, and the lighter. She locked herself in the bathroom, turned on the exhaust and smoked the two suttas. She took one deep drag after the other, every two seconds, and waited for the tobacco to slow down her racing brains, to calm her mind and her heart. She went back for two more. After she’d exhausted her lungs and her body, she turned on the shower at a temperature so high that at any other point in her life she would’ve screamed out loud. Her long black wavy hair, with tresses of brown, drenched in the hot water as she slowly slipped down to the cream marbled floor.  

   She sat there, under the shower until Dhatri Dasi found her. She was the only person in the House who had access to unlock all the rooms that Kunti could lock. Dhatri Dasi turned off the shower, wrapped Kunti with a fresh thick towel, a smaller one for her hair, and guided her to the bed. She gave Kunti a pill, which she gulped down, asked for another and waited for sleep to take over her consciousness. 

 

When she woke up, the lighting in the room was set to dim. Her eyes focused on Dhatri Dasi who was entering with a tray, a plate with two black forest pastries and a mug of steaming hot coffee. She could smell the goodness instantly. Kunti realised that Dhatri Dasi had somehow managed to dress her into a soft robe while she was sleeping. A fresh sheet with a floral print was spread out on the bed with matching fluffy pillows as opposed to the square ones which she’d ripped off earlier. Kunti sat up on the bed, 

   “Dasi, come here, sit next to me for a bit.” 

   With her mug of coffee in hand and a spoonful of her favourite pastry from Taj Palace Hotel in her mouth, Kunti tried to savour the short term happiness she felt.  

   “What time is it Dasi?” 

   “It’s half past two, but its Monday.” 

   “I slept for two days? Oh God, what reason did you give Sahib that I couldn’t attend.. attend..?” 

   “That you’ve got your periods and so you can’t touch anything,” Dhatri Dasi sighed. 

   “Oh almighty Vishnu! Thank you. Have some of the pastry, Dasi.” 

   “Thank you, Kuntidevi. I just had my lunch. Do you want to watch something?” 

   “I’d really like that.” 

   They sat back for three hours, watched Kunti’s favourite romantic-comedy Apna Haath Jagannath on the Crown television screen. They laughed at the scenes they’d seen so many times before.  

   As the end credits rolled off, Dhatri Dasi finally looked at Kunti. 

   “He’s married someone else Dasi. I’ll still be his wife, but he’s married another woman.” 

   Eyes watery, Kunti collapsed in Dhatri Dasi’s lap, the closest figure to a mother she’d had ever since she was a child.  

   “Oh Kunti!” Dhatri Dasi said, patted her head and petite shoulders with her wrinkled hands. 

  “I thought he loved me. I didn’t think, of everyone on earth, my pati, my husband would take another wife. He didn’t even think of me for one second. I mean nothing to him.” All the pent up tears came out like the gush of water bursting from a pipe. Kunti cried until she dozed off again.

 

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Night Before Dawn

(Revised post of The Girl)

The huge waves lashed against the jet-black rocks. The two coconut trees danced in the humid breeze and the pale sun was halfway hidden in the bright clouds. The sun had set but the residue was a bluish sky which descended into shades of purple with a slight yellow sympathizing with the gloomy mood that she was in. She sank into the dry coarse sand with her face in her hands. She could hear the continuous sussing of the wind and the buzzing of the bees in the nearby plant growth. It was quite windy today because her dark hair kept dancing in the wind. Her face looked grumpy and was pink due to the continuous crying. She had a flawless, immaculate figure, the kind people would fawn over. Yet she was here in this small town of Cadaqués, weeping till her eyes turned red.

Isabelle was grief-stricken and there was an endless stream of tears flowing down her cheeks. She had just attended her late Aunt Flora’s funeral held in the town Cathedral. Cadaqués is a tight-knit village where everyone knew each other and hence, almost the entire town had come to pay their respects. Such was also the reverence her aunt upheld. She was an extremely affectionate and benevolent person whom everyone loved her. The villagers remembered her aunt’s kindness which was cast on them when it was the least expected, the happy moments and the sad ones too. Aunt Flora had died in a car accident. It was quite uncommon for such accidents to occur. Especially since Aunt Flora was neither driving her own car nor was it her usual style of driving. One could blame it on fate but it was outlandish for aunt Flora to drive so rashly. The ambiguity of the entire accident was pushing Isabelle towards insanity. Why was her aunt driving a car, not hers, as if she was out of her mind? The very composed aunt who was always the one trying to pacify Isabelle’s impatience. There had to be something. Something of utmost importance. This unusual behavior of her aunt perplexed her by the minute. Her head was whirling past a million thoughts, but none struck her as strong enough to explain such erratic behavior on her aunt’s part.

For the past twelve years Aunt Flora had been a mother and a father to Isabelle. Isabelle’s parents, Alejandro and Alicia, had died when Isabelle was only five. Aunt Flora was her mother’s sister who was more than happy to take her custody. She was there for it all: from her first day of school to her first fist fight, from her first successful painting to her failure at flamenco dancing. She was a constant presence; supporting her, appreciating her and loving her. Though Isabelle had always been grateful to have her aunt by her side, she had never explicitly expressed it. Now she wished she had.

A year after taking over Isabelle, Aunt Flora had met a handsome sailor, Mr. Nicholas who had come along the coast with a group of friends. There was a kind of charm about him which was hard to resist. Even Isabelle liked him. Not surprisingly, Aunt Flora believed that she was irrevocably in love with him and though a hasty decision, agreed to marry him within a month. The newly married couple were unaware of how much they were yet to know about each other, or at least one of them was. They made a mutual decision to live in Cadaqués as Mr. Nicholas had no home of his own, being at sea for most part of his life.

Aunt Flora owned a tiny house on the outskirts of the town along the deep blue sea. There were two rooms, a small kitchen and a living room. The house was painted white from the outside, like all the other structures in the town. The town was along the coast and has a dockyard. Isabelle was presently mourning her aunt’s death at the pier. Added to the grief of her late aunt, Isabelle had over the years begun to abhor her uncle. After a couple of months into Aunt Flora and Mr. Nicholas’ marriage, one day Isabelle had returned home early from school and she stumbled on her uncle who was passed out in the living room. The entire room and the passage which led to the stairs was reeking of cheap alcohol and some kind of a drug. That day she covered up the terrible stench by opening the windows and spraying the room freshner, thinking it must have been a mistake. In the evening when she was having a light snack by the kitchen, her uncle looking fresh as always sneaked up from behind her and whispered in her ear,

“Thank you for covering up for me princess. I knew I could count on you.”

The comment made the hair at the nape of her neck rise. This made her realise that such behavior had always been a regular occurrence. Earlier on whenever she would return from school, she would see Uncle Nicholas sleeping in his room assuming that he had come home after a tiring shift at work. But she had her doubts. So one day, Isabelle skipped school under the pretence that she wasn’t feeling too well, and realised that Uncle Nicholas never did leave for work. In fact he sat in the living room drinking alcohol which was hid in a discreet corner of the room. She now registered that the all too pleasant and flowery, sweet smell that would hit her senses when she would enter the house was for the sole reason to hide the stench of the alcohol. Step by step everything that she had previously ignored about her uncle came back to her. Those accidental touches and the intrusion of her personal space, those coy glances which had once upon a time made her erupt into a fit of giggles, she realised were all actually deliberate actions. She had felt sick then and she felt sick now. She was unable to bring herself to tell her aunt at that time about the true and perilous nature of her husband. She knew her aunt loved Uncle Nicholas a lot however Isabelle had failed to understand see the reason behind it. The only reason she presumed that Uncle Nicholas had not laid a hand on her was because of the presence of her aunt. Aunt Flora had been like a realm of security for her. But now with her gone, Isabelle was terrorised. There was a whirlwind of emotions going on within her. It was difficult to think straight.

Isabelle was at that moment more glum about what was going to happen to herself than of the sorrow of her aunt passing away. It was a pity she was only seventeen. Only a couple of months more and then she would be able to live legally on her own. But still that did not mean that she would go back to the house. She will not let herself live through the constant fear and torture of getting molested.

Sitting there in front of the sea as the sun gave away its last light, she wiped her tears, and took three deep breaths. I can figure out a way, she said to herself. Determined, Isabelle began to chalk out a plan in her head. Incontestably, the first thing that she would need was money. She thanked God for the funds she had saved all through her school years. It was not much, she knew that, but she could definitely survive for sometime. The most crucial problem was that she would have to go back to the house where the loathsome man lived, to procure her savings. Just the thought of it made her shudder.

No, she did not have it in her to go back to the dreadful place. She needed some more time on her own.

Isabelle began to walk towards the outskirts of town where she knew a small inn by the name of Bienvenido. There it was, at the corner of the road behind the twin coconut trees. Only a young man from the next town handled Bienvenido, so it was hardly plausible that the others in town would know about her staying in the inn for the night.

She reached the dingy little inn. The white paint of the structure had peeled off. The front door loosely hanging from the hinges, creaked when Isabelle pushed it open. Alarmed by the unusual noise after a quiet evening, Isabelle took a couple of seconds to set her heartbeats back to their usual rhythm. She entered and the first thing she saw was a tiny worn-out wooden desk and a single bulb flickered over it. There was no one there. The room was small, almost claustrophobic with a door to the left and a tiny passage that disappeared into darkness. Isabelle found a little rusted bell to call the manager. After waiting for several minutes, an old lady, may be in her late sixties with straight white hair came out looking fresh as ever. Isabelle was astounded.

“Hola! How can I help you today Ms.–?”

“Ah, um Bella, please call me Bella. I want a room for the night,” stuttered Isabelle.

“Of course, the rate is ten euros for the night. Why don’t you fill in the details here, in this register, right here.” said the old lady presenting a worn out pale blue book from the drawer.

“Thank you.”

Isabelle filled in her name as Bella instead of Isabelle and while she was contemplating what her hometown should be, old lady, whose name she had learnt was Mrs. García, recognised her from the funeral.

“Aren’t you Flora’s niece. Oh my, my why yes indeed. I remember you. I have been meaning to talk to you… You’ve got Alicia’s beautiful green eyes too!”

Isabelle was taken by surprise at the mention of her mother. Nobody had ever in her entire life mentioned her parents before her; it was an unspoken subject. She just stared at Mrs. García.

Isabelle mumbled,“Ah! E-um yes, no, no. Um, I need to leave–”, and she turned to leave.

“Oh no darling, I didn’t mean to scare you. Come in here, into my office. We can talk. There’s a lot I would like to tell you.”

Isabelle felt irresolute. Should she go in? But what if Mrs. García does not let her go through her plan and report her to the authorities? But then again what if she actually helps her through? It was a risk to be taken. And more importantly what did she have to tell her? Isabelle followed Mrs. García into the room, nervous and constantly fidgeting with her side bag. Isabelle entered the office. There was a medium sized desk at the back of the room, a comfortable looking couch by the side window and an electric stove on the opposite side where Mrs. García was rummaging through the vessels. Isabelle took the liberty to sit on the couch and waited for Mrs. Garcías to turn around.

She smelled something sweet and chocolaty and soon a mug of bubbling hot chocolate was handed over to her. Isabelle was surprised. Why was this stranger being so nice to her? They had never spoken before, at least she couldn’t remember ever talking to this kind old lady. Maybe there have been no tenants in the inn and she needs one to pay the bills. But she doesn’t give off the vibe of being sly. She seemed quite genuine.

Mrs. García took a seat next to Isabelle and put an end to Isabelle’s endless stream of thoughts.

“My name is Ms. Fleur Lopéz. I have known your aunt and your mother since the time they were born. I know it may come as a surprise to you. But I just moved into this village recently and brought this inn. I don’t even need the money, god knows I have enough of it, but I just wished to stay close to your aunt and mother. I didn’t know your mother had died,” Ms. Fleur said her voice wavering for just a second. If Isabelle hadn’t been staring straight at her, she wouldn’t have noticed the breaking of this unknown lady’s almost-still voice.

“Your aunt had come to meet me today morning. She had heard that the owner of this inn had moved away and that there was a new owner. Obviously it seemed suspicious to your aunt that there was such an unexpected move. So she came to see what the fuss was about. That look on her face when she first saw me. I was terrified. But eventually happiness spread across her face like wildfire. For a long time, I wasn’t sure how she would have reacted considering the way I had left her, your mother and your grandmother back then. But I decided to take the leap. I wanted to be under cover for a while and see my family from a-far. You know I’ve been wanting to do that for a long time. But this is a small town and news spreads so easily here, it’s scary, won’t you agree Isabelle?”

So she did know about her. She knew her real name. But she still didn’t know how everything was connected. Her mind still fuzzy, she took a sip of hot chocolate while staring out the window. It was delicious, the rich melted chocolate with hardly any milk had her craving for more. She tried to put on a confident front, steadied her voice and said,

“You still haven’t told me how you are- no sorry- were related to my mother and Aunt Flora.”

Aunt Flora, this was the first time she had said her name since the accident. How is she going to live on. She did not realise how dependent she was on her aunt until recently. Her future seemed so blurry. Look at me, she thought to herself, I am sitting in the room of an unknown woman, who claims to know the two most significant people of my life.

Ms. Fleur’s voice brought her back to the present.

“I am their aunt. Your grandmother’s sister.”

Isabelle did not know how to react. One thing she knew was to make sure that she was not bluffing. She decided to ask some basic questions first as to what had happened that this old lady who claims to be a great-aunt of hers, had disappeared for so long.

“Why did you vanish? Where did you go? And why did my aunt never talk of you? How do I even know you are speaking the truth”

“Yes, you are right. Why didn’t I even think you would need some proof. I will get you the photographs which will prove that I am indeed related to you. But first with an open mind just listen to my story. My first marriage was an unhappy one. There were some, oh no, many irreconcilable differences and we got divorced in a couple of months. Following that, I was so desperate for love, I was careless and ran away with the first man I met. It was a disaster. I left without informing anyone. Your grandmother was furious with me, and I was so close to Alicia and Flora, that when everything went down with this man I ran away with, I was scared that they would hate me too. But I was wrong. So wrong, I did not realise that I was so late. My sister, your mother and now your aunt,” whimpered Ms. Fleur.

She then moved slowly to her desk, opened a drawer and produced a huge photo album and handed it to me. I turned the cover page, and saw the first picture of my mother, aunt Flora, my grandmother and another lady who I now realised was Ms. Fleur. She continued to flip through the pictures where she saw a picture of both her mother and father from their prom, which she always has in her wallet. Her aunt had given it to her. Her parents had been childhood sweethearts and from what she was told, and as cliché as it sounded, they completed each other. She realised that this lady before her was indeed her grandmother’s younger sister.  

Isabelle did not know how to react. She just sat there staring at the photo album, flipping through the pictures as a tear slipped down her cheek.