[ One of my favorite novels is ‘Nirmala’ written by Munshi Prem Chand almost 90 years ago. In this novel, the writer has described the agony and suffering of a young woman who is married to a much older man with three children. The honest, well-bred woman is a victim of her husband’s suspicion and tortured by her husband’s sister who lives with the family. Her entire life, devoid of any happiness, is that of suffering and agony that ultimately takes her life at a young age.
A lot might appear to have changed in Indian society since then. A young reader of ‘Nirmala’ today might be tempted to label it as archaic and outdated. But has the Indian society really changed all that much? A closer inspection might tell a different story. My story is not a pure work of fiction but based on real life experiences in the 21st century. ]
is on her way back to her village in Jharkhand, earlier a part of Bihar; with
her two daughters named Kamla and Sundri aged 11 and 8.
remembers the day she had entered her husband’s house the very first day after
her marriage when she was only 16. It was late in the afternoon. The shadows
were long. There were occasional sounds of vehicles blowing their musical horns
on the state highway near the village. A small crowd of neighbors and relatives
had collected in front of the two room hut. Some old men were sitting on the
charpoys discussing issues of daily life and disinterested in what was
happening around them. She got down from the three-wheeler that carried her
from her old home to the new one. On the short journey, her husband, Lachman,
had tried to hold her hand but she had firmly put them in her armpits. The
mother-in law and sister-in-law decked up in their best dresses had welcomed
the newlyweds and performed a small puja before sheentered the house and sat on
a duree. Lachman sat outside with the men folk. I heard loud laughter as his
friends teased him good humoredly. I wondered if they were making fun of me. A
baby started crying and her mother offered her nipple to feed him. The child
found Lachman to be gentle and caring when he made love to her that night.
morning, the screaming of peacocks and barking of dogs woke her up early.She
got up, took bath and was ready to start her new life.
mother-in-law, now Ma to her, greeted her with an all-knowing smile, while she
bowed and touched her feet, and said,” Beti, today you will enter the kitchen
for the first time. What will you like to cook, some halwa or kheer?”
had chosen kheer. Soon the two of them were busy cooking, Ma providing all the
ingredients and Shyamla doing the cooking. Kheer was first served to Baba, the
father-in-law, who blessed Shyamla by putting her hand on her head as she bent
and touched his feet. After this, kheer was served to other guests.
commented,” Ma, kheer is superb, isn’t it? I want another helping.”
playfully teased,” Yes, son, it is prepared by Shyamla, now you will only like
food cooked by her.”
blushed and could not think of a suitable response.
was working as a mason under the tutelage of her maternal uncle. They would
construct mud houses as well as brick and mortar houses. The roofs were mainly
of baked clay tiles supported on timber beams or just bamboo and reed grass.
remembers how happy Lachman was when she delivered her eldest daughter Santosh,
though her Ma and Baba were a little disappointed at her not giving them a
would say,” My queen and my princess, my two loves.’
Santosh cried in the night, he would be the first to wake up and change her
nappies and put her to sleep after her feeding.
was happy that her mother had trained her in all household chores as well as
told her howto behave with her in-laws, respectfully and patiently, even when
she was distressed. She knew she had to adjust and live with them under all
circumstances. She was often distressed when her brother was treated better
than her. He would be given more food, more freedom and less tasks while she
would eat the leftovers with her mother, helped her mother with all household chores.
Her mother had once explained to her,” Beti,
we are women. We are created to take second position to men. This is the law of
the society. We worship gods in temples, but our living gods are our husbands.
It is the husband who feeds, cares and protects. If your husband abandons you,
you are as good as dead. The society will look down upon you. You are young
now, but one day you will understand.”
family was having a normal life with its everyday ebbs and troughs till a sharp
twist came there way with the visit of Subhash.
a childhood friend of Lachman, visited them. He had gone to Delhi to a relative’s
house and ended up working as a mason with a contractor in Ghaziabad.
you are wasting your time in the village. If you want to see real life, come to
Ghaziabad with me. You can earn a lot more there and enjoy life with so many
malls, cinema houses, markets, beautifully dressed men and women.” He said and
continued,” You would be able to send more money home than what you earn here.
Your daughter will be a city girl and learn lots of new things.” Lachman, then noticed
his friend‘s grass green shirt of fine fabric, brown trousers, nice looking
shoes, well shaven face and shampooed hair and sun glasses to top it all. He
suddenly felt inferior to Subhash in his ordinary pyjama and kurta.
reverie got interrupted when the train stopped at Kanpur Station and her
daughter shook her and said,” Ma, we are hungry.” She was in no mood to get
down, She handed some money to Kamla and said,” Go, buy some food. I am not
hungry.” Then she bought some tea in a plastic cup from a vendor for herself. The
daughters bought noodles with manchurian and enjoyed the same.
train again started moving eastward. The three of them had a full seat to
themselves in the second-class compartment. She sat next to the window, looking
outside and the daughters huddled together on the remaining seat. Soon the
daughters were asleep while she sub-consciously resumed her daydreaming.
recalled the conversation at the Meral Railway Station, where she and the
little Santosh had gone to see off Subhash and Lachman. Santhosh was merely
three years old.
said to Subhash,” Bhaiya, he is going there depending on you. Please take care
felt he was being considered inferior. He sourly said,” Arre, am I a child? I
have been to Ranchi and Daltongunj. Don’t think I have not seen big houses,
cars and well-dressed people. Subhash is my friend and he will take care of me
and find me a job. You need not worry about me.”
kept quiet and felt sorry for showing her concern.
you take me to Ghaziabad when you have a job?” She asked after a few moments.
Yes, only if I do not find another Shyamla in Ghaziabad.” He said jokingly.
words said as a joke pierced her heart. These words combined with the pain of
separation were too much for her to bear. She started crying loudly and people
on the platform started looking their way.
felt embarrassed at this attention. “Don’t you understand? I was just teasing
you.” He continued,” When I am well settled in the job I will come and take my
queen and my princess with me.”
was a lull in the conversation as she composed herself and Lachman played with
Santosh kissing her again and again.
train arrived and after a brief hug to his wife and last kiss to the princess,
Lachman and Subhash boarded the train.
remembered the difficulties with which she spent a year with Ma and Baba. Though both were kind to her but she missed
her husband badly. She would also get tired taking care of Santosh and doing
her duties as the daughter-in-law.
she felt lonely and sad her Ma will try to cheer her up. Twice she visited her
parents’ house in Audharia, on the insistence of her mother-in-law, who
believed that she would be more relaxed at her mother’s place. Her mother was
so happy to see her and Santosh. After a few hours she would think of her Ma
and Baba and return home to be with them. She felt guilty being away from
soon got a job with a sub-contractor. He started earning good money. He would send enough money to meet their
expenses. Baba, who was getting old and losing strength, stopped working as a laborer.
Instead they created a kitchen garden next to their hut to keep engaged.
Santosh would enjoy watering the plants and enjoy fresh tomatoes and carrots.
They would also get about one letter a month from Lachman.
about a year, Lachman came to his village to fetch his wife and daughter. When
his parents heard this, they were inconsolable.
After prolonged discussion they decided that Lachman and Shyamla would
move to Ghaziabad and Santosh, now 4 years old would stay with her
grandparents. The separation of the child from the mother was a very poignant
moment. The mother, torn between the husband and daughter sobbed relentlessly,
the daughter cried out loud at Meral Station as Tata Amritsar Express pulled
away carrying her parents.
the help of Sandhya, Subhash’s wife, she set up her household quickly. Now she
would prepare meals in the early morning, make her man eat breakfast, and carry
his lunch in a tiffin box. Then she would lovingly bid him good-bye, before
becoming busy with other chores. Soon they had a black and white TV and a gas
connection for cooking. Shyamla gradually bought some dresses from the weekly
market at bargain prices and did away her village clothes. However, she ensured
that her dresses were having long sleeves and high-neck. She would not go out
without her dupatta and always kept her bosom covered. She had been wearing
such clothes from the time boys started looking at her bosom as she began
growing into a woman in her village.
met a few women who worked as household maids in the flats in the multi storied
buildings around village Kanawani. One day, after dinner, when the husband was
in a relaxed mood, Shyamla nervously asked if she could work in the flats like
other women. She explained that she had so much time and was getting bored
while he was away. Lachman, himself was concerned about the finances. He wanted
to buy a motor cycle and drive his wife around the city. He allowed himself to
be persuaded and allowed her to give it a try.
was soon working as a household maid. Her employer’s family consisted of a
husband, wife and a school going child of about ten. Soon she learnt use of
cooking range, microwave, washing machines as well as the various soaps and
detergents used in the flat.
gave birth to another girl when her eldest one was 6 years old and to another
girl 3 years later. After this the family reconciled that they did not have a
son in their fate and opted for sterilization.
sincerity, honesty, and her good behavior, Shyamla established herself as a
reliable maid. She working in 3-4 houses and earned around Rs 7000 per month.
In addition, she would get some nice food, clothes and other goodies from those
she served so diligently. She was so trustworthy that the ladies would often
give her the keys to the house for doing her work while they were away.
would visit Ramna every year and meet Lachman’s parents and Santosh. Santosh
was going to school and also helping Ma and Baba. With some money coming from
Lachman, the house was in a better condition. They had fixed wooden doors and
windows in their hutment. This saved them from very hot air during summer and
chilly winds in winter.
two daughters Sundari and Kamla were admitted in school at age of 5 years. The
two daughters were good in studies. Kamla could draw beautifully and with the
help of one of the ladies for whom Shyamla worked, she was also taking extra
coaching in drawing and painting in the multi storied apartments. Her husband
would occasionally come drunk and they would have a fight. Other than a few
such incidents their domestic life was uneventful.
moved from one work site to another and picked up additional skills of working
with construction equipment. Between them they were earning above Rs 30,000 per
month, but with house rent, sending money to village and expenses, the saving
was meager. Despite these concerns, the couple would often compare their life
in village to their current life and thank their stars and Subhash for bringing
this opportunity their way. They felt that life was much happier, and they
could hope for a much better future for their children as a result of moving to
Ghaziabad. They used to talk about their
daughters going to college and Kamla making her name as a painter. At times,
they would laugh at how ignorant they were in village with no exposure to metro
rail, taxis and city buses, the cinema halls, the markets and malls; so much
better schools, hospitals and availability of so many varieties of foods,
clothes and modes of entertainment.
good times are not forever.
day Lachman came home and broke the news that his company had got a contract in
Abu Dhabi and they have offered him a job in Abu Dhabi at Rs 40000 per
month. He was very happy with this offer
and was looking ahead to visit another world and earn more money. When he broke
the news to Shyamla she asked him,” How will I stay here without you?” “No” he
said,” you go back to Ramna and take care of your daughters and the old
in-laws. Apparently, he had figured out everything before bringing it up before
his wife. She argued endlessly and tried to explain that it was not worth it.
She tried everything to make her husband see that what he wanted to do would
undo all the progress they have made in the last so many years. She begged him to think of their children’s
future, their studies, the quality of life in village, the prospects of being
well educated etc. The daughters too expressed their preference to stay in
Ghaziabad. When Shyamla realized that he was bent upon going abroad, she
suggested that she would stay in Kanawani with children while he worked abroad.
This was also not agreed by Lachman.
was their biggest fight in the last many years. To protest
the decision, Shyamla stopped eating for 2 days. She would just cook the food
and keep it in the kitchen and lie down on the bed. She did not go to work, did
not talk to her daughters or to her husband. Her daughters cried with her and
begged her to eat. But her husband was unmoved. Then she remembered what her
mother had told her, when she was still a child,”The men are the masters and
we, the women folk, have to obey them.”
The man had made his decision completely oblivious to the views, desires, welfare of the woman with whom he had spent 19 years. She submitted to the command of her god, as the words of her mother echoed in her mind.
bought their train tickets, packed their baggage and put them on the train. The
husband and wife hardly exchanged a word before parting.
she was lost in her memories of past and musing what lay ahead for her children
and herself, the train was chugging along towards her village.