Story by Someeta Das
“ A prayer couched in the words of the soul, is far more powerful than any ritual” says Paul Coelho, in Brida.
Rituals are an extremely important part of the traditional Indian family. Every family has its own rituals which create its identity and credibility. Some rituals are common in all families of a particular community, even when they may differ in concurrent events of life and death.
It was raining torrentially for the past three days. Starting on a Wednesday night, there was no sign of letting off, as it seemed that the heavens had opened up. Never had the month of January witnessed such a deluge, thought Kaveri, who stood near the window gazing worriedly, as it was just a few days to her son Viresh’s wedding. Her mind wandered as the past flashed before her eyes. Kaveri had lost her husband Deepak, who served in the Indian Army a few years earlier, in an encounter. He was awarded posthumously in a ceremony, for his gallantry, but Kaveri’s world had fallen apart. She was then in her late forties, and Viresh had just finished high school. He wanted to join the Army like his father, and Kaveri, respecting his wishes had let him decide, so when he qualified the Short Service Commission Examination and accepted for his physical fitness, she vacated the quarters in Mumbai and returned to the family home in Kolkata.
In Kolkata, the house at Dhakuria lane, was occupied by Deepak’s brother and sister-in-law, who were extremely conservative and always upheld old traditions and beliefs. Viresh moreover, had visited them a couple of times previously, but was always at loggerheads, for a modern young man like most of his generation, disliked the impositions of some conventional rituals observed by the customary Bengali community, which his relatives also tried to get his motherobserve, after his father’s demise. Viresh had warned his mother several times that she would not be able to adjust in such a constrained atmosphere, but his mother had stood her ground saying, “Now that I will have to vacate these quarters, and you will be out for training, where will I stay?” Viresh knew the futility of his words. In the past, his father had been transferred to a number of places for work, thus had no time to interact with his course mates, his mother always busy looking after them and running the household.
She loved photography and had wanted to study it professionally, but with no time on her hands, her talent was buried in household chores. Now there was time, and she had information that there were reputed institutions near the place she was going to live that offered short term courses, but the question remained would she be able to? Viresh had spoken to his uncle and aunt, but they had been non- committal, so his mother a little apprehensively, packed and left for Kolkata a few days after Viresh had left for his training in Pune. Adjusting to a different lifestyle took a little time, the ground floor flat left to Deepak by his father was old and needed repairs. The first floor was occupied by Nripesh, Viresh’s uncle and his wife, a childless couple, who were not very happy with Kaveri’s decision to shift to Kolkata, for they had wanted to rent out the entire floor.
It took Kaveri a little time to get things moving- the bathrooms had to be renovated, the pipes and fittings changed to make them work. Kaveri managed to ask around, and get suitable masons to complete the jobs, and then finally adorning the renovated apartment with a fresh coat of paint she settled in. It was nearly a year however, before things were fully functional. Viresh in the meantime managed to come to Kolkata a couple of times, taking a few days off from his rigorous training, and even completed the legalities concerned before leaving his mother alone, to finish his course.
Kaveri had by that time become quite friendly with her neighbors. Being an Army Officer’s wife, she always volunteered whenever help was required. At first they were a little suspicious, but gradually they came to trust and rely on her. A couple of years passed, and Viresh was now, at present, like his father a Captain in the Army. Whenever Kaveri broached the topic of marriage, he would stall her off by stating ”What is the hurry?” In this way he had managed to keep his mother at arm’s length for a few years. It was now the month of October, and Viresh had taken a few days leave to celebrate the most important festival of the Bengali community ‘Durga Puja’, with his mother. Kaveri was determined that this time she was going to be firm and finalize his marriage as he was nearing thirty years of age. His mother had asked him earlier if he had anyone in mind, but hearing the negative reply, she decided that she would have to do something herself.
She took up the topic hesitantly with her brother and sister- in-law, for she knew a wedding being a social occasion, demanded the involvement of family and friends. Having no one on her side of the family- for she was an only child, and her parents having died early, she was dependent on her brother and sister-in-law to help her out. Talking to her sister-in-law Geeta one day, she was informed that there was a girl whose family was known to them for they had seen Mrinalini growing up. Mrinalini was extremely qualified, good in studies, having completed her post- graduation in the Government Arts College. Her parents were also looking for a suitable match and had even asked Geeta whether she knew anyone. Kaveri immediately agreed to speak to Mrinalini’s parents, but the only drawback was that they were extremely conservative. “They would not like to talk to a widow for arranging the match for their only child”, said Geeta.
When Viresh heard about it, he immediately negated the proposal stating the obvious” We will never be able to adjust with such conservative people”. But Kaveri who had met Mrinalini when she had come to visit her relatives upstairs, knew that she was extremely suitable for her son. For one, the family was known, and then she knew that she could love the girl like her own daughter. She had instinctively connected to Mrinalini, the moment they had met. It was with some degree of reluctance and resistance from her son that the marriage alliance was finalized. “And now this deluge…” thought Kaveri as she returned to the present with a start.
The wedding was to be a simple affair. Mrinalini’s parents had initially objected saying they had a lot of relatives and wanted to celebrate the wedding with pomp and grandeur, but Viresh had put his foot down stating the obvious “ I do not have too much leave”. With a heavy heart Kaveri undertook the wedding preparations, her sister-in-law helping her fix the date with the local priest, buying the gifts for the bride and her family, taking a hand in most things for Kaveri, being a widow was not allowed to be involved in, and this had also left Viresh fuming but helpless. Mrinalini, in the meantime had come to meet Kaveri a couple of times. She never said much, content with the arrangement made by the elders, but at times Kaveri found her observing her silently and intently. “An upbringing in a conservative family brought with it certain inhibitions”, Kaveri thought, for unlike girls of her age Mrinalini would keep quiet and nod her head to most of the preparations. She was never asked for her opinion and even at times would not react to the high handedness of Kaveri’s brother and sister-in-law, and this made Kaveri wonder whether the young girl’s docile nature was not being taken advantage off.
It was now the 22nd of January, the day of the wedding. Viresh had arrived at nearly two in the morning. The celebrations were to begin with the “Ashirbaad”, or blessings showered by the elders of the family, normally such rituals being held much earlier, conducted with alacrity and enthusiasm on two separate occasions. But the plans had to be changed as the paucity of Viresh’s leave made the elders rethink and both families decided to solemnize the day at the house of the bride, followed by the registration of the marriage and a dinner to commemorate the event. Kaveri had known all along according to rituals a widow was not supposed to participate in any auspicious occasion, least of all her son’s wedding. She kept the matter to herself knowing that if Viresh came to know the actual facts he would call off the wedding at once.
It was while preparing to board the car to take them to the bride’s house where the festivities would commence, that Viresh noticed his mother’s absence. On inquiring, he was told by his uncle and aunt that she would be joining them in a while. The unsuspecting young man went along with the elders, but kept glancing out and frowning perplexedly. Once they reached, Viresh was caught up in the flurry of excitement as Mrinalini’s parents received him with a lot of fervor. Just before the ceremony started, seated with Mrinalini, Viresh asked Mrinalini’s parents whether his mother had arrived. The silence which followed was deafening. It was his uncle Nripesh who had to bell the cat finally, and in no uncertain terms mentioned there were certain things a Bengali Hindu widow was unable to do and this was one of them. An embarrassed and uneasy silence prevailed. Viresh knew if he called off the wedding then, his mother would be both angry and disappointed. “Moreover your mother knew all along that she would not be allowed to participate in these rites and rituals”, stated his uncle in a warning voice. All this while Mrinalini was seated beside Viresh a silent observer, tearful and overcome with emotions, but unable to say anything. The moment she heard her parents and Nripesh announce the final verdict, she stood up without a word and told the gathered people,” If this is the ritual I will not marry”. Her parents and other relations who had gathered, appeared to be dumbfounded. No one had ever heard Mrinalini voicing an opinion. She emphasized “I will do whatever you have decided, provided my mother-in-law is here to give us her blessings”.Viresh silently stood up, a look of admiration on his face, held her hand tightly nodding to the crowd” And so will I” he announced. Finding themselves defeated, the elders could do nothing but give in gracefully. At home Kaveri was sitting alone, tears streaming down her face. Hearing the phone ring, she picked up the instrument surprised to hear Viresh’s voice giving her instructions firmly brushing aside her feeble attempts of resistance ”What will people think?” Nearly an hour later, Kaveri stood surrounded by the two young people. Quietly, but happy and grateful, she saw them looking and smiling at her, eyes filled with love and respect. Encouragingly, the young couple stood by their mother as she signed, a witness to their marriage, once again disregarding all objections that it was not propitious. Next day completing all rituals, Viresh took his bride and mother home.
But more surprises were to follow. It was a week later when Mrinalini handed over a sealed envelope to Kaveri. She stood with Viresh by her side and asked her mother-in-law to open it. With trembling fingers Kaveri opened the envelope blinking rapidly for she could hardly trust her eyes. It was an admission letter to a short term course in photography from an Institute situated very near the house. To Kaveri, the ritual of welcoming a daughter to the house had just begun.