Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Progati - The tale of Progress

"Have we really come to an age where we no longer differentiate between the sexes? Have we really given women their true position in our so-called well-educated and advanced society? No, we have not!
There are still those narrow minded and conservative people who believe that letting women of the family step out into the world is hazardous to their family's honor. There are those who not only restrict the freedom of the women in their own family, but try to influence the others to do that as well. Then there are those who are absolutely unconcerned with whatever goes on outside the four walls of their own house, inside, the women are captives of an age-old culture. One such captive was Sudha....."
As soon as I read the opening lines of this book, I was reminded of Rewa. Rewa Shastri, the tall dark girl from my colony, an ordinary girl with an extra ordinary personality. It wasn't as if she was very beautiful or very charming, but she had a personality that left a mark. Every one who had met her was impressed by her. Well, everyone except Nabin. Rewa lived in the same neighborhood as me, and we ended up in the same school and college. But we were never close friends, acquaintances you might call us, but not friends. She had her own group of friends who were interested in everything from sports to dramatics to movies to debates, from fashion to boys. I was this demure girl from a simple middle class family where the stress was to raise a girl to grow up to be a good homemaker. We were three sisters, and my Father was forever worried about our dowry. My mother spent the entire day looking after her elderly in-laws, and our home. The three of us began pitching in at a very young age, and the time that should have been devoted to books was devoted to pulses and rice, and needles and threads. My sisters accepted this gladly, for they had no interest in the former, but I always wished I had some more time to spend with them. But I could never vocalize my feelings. The very upbringing my parents gave me prevented me from rebelling against them. I found it ironic, and laughed it off sometimes. At others, I simply pushed it to the farthest corner of my mind and continued with my chores. Rewa led an exact opposite life. She was the free spirit of our neighborhood. She lived with her aunt and uncle, and was always out of her house. Yesterday was a basketball match, today a debate, tomorrow a dance competition. Where was the time to sit at home and learn the chores?
Rewa had been popular in school and in college, her popularity grew double fold. Three months into the start of eleventh standard, Rewa became an instant celebrity in the entire college. She had taken Nabin Mukherjee head to head in a debate. Nabin Mukherjee was the college star, intelligent, good looking and the son of an influential industrialist. He was a student of second year B. Com and had won many university medals in debates and elocution. When Rewa faced him in the intra-college debate finals, all were sure of his easy victory. Can't blame them, none of them knew Rewa. They had to speak about the freedom of women in a man's world. Rewa was supporting and Nabin opposing. That was probably the first time Nabin met his match. Quite literally too! Well, fact is that Rewa won and Nabin, not used to facing defeat, took it very badly. He claimed on stage that Rewa had had the advantage of an easy topic. Everyone is advocating the freedom of women in today's society. Her part was cakewalk. And Rewa, stung by his remarks, refused to accept her prize. Not only that, she called for a re-debate where she would speak against and Nabin could "advocate for the freedom of women". Two days later, the auditorium was packed. Everyone had heard of an SYJC girl who had challenged Nabin Mukherjee. This time, the debate was more heated, more passionate, and once again, Rewa outshone her opponent.
I think of Rewa often, wondering where she is and what she is doing. Last heard, she and her family moved to another part of the city. And since then, no one from the neighborhood had heard from them. And that was twelve years ago! While we had been waiting for our final year B.Com results. So much has changed since then. And in the deepest corner of my heart, I thank Rewa. After all, it was the article written by her that changed my life.

Rewa, the master of words, wrote articles and stories that were published in various magazines. One such article was this. Abbu had just rejected my plea of continuing my education. I was to take my final year exams and get married to a well-settled boy from a good family. He was already on the lookout of such a candidate. And I knew, like always I would accept his wish, killing my dreams for my own future. Just as I'd done before. After all, I was a girl. I was to keep my family's honor by mutely accepting my elder's orders. One afternoon, I saw a classmate of mine waving a magazine in her hand.

"A fab article by Rewa. It's a must read. "

She passed the mag around. A few saw it and passed it on, a few read a couple of lines. I read the whole of it. And the words are etched on my mind forever.

"For how long will we be suppressed under the guise of culture? Which culture says you have one set of rules for some people and another set of rules for the others? Who gave men the right to decide what to do with our lives? And if we don't ourselves protest and fight for our rights, then who will? What are we women waiting for, that an angel will descend from the skies, wave a magic wand and all our problems will disappear? No, nothing of that kind will happen. Problems have to be worked upon, else they remain. If we have to improve our position, we have to act ourselves. You have every right to fulfill your wishes. And to do that, if you have to break the shackles of loading, then break them. Live your own life."

It seemed that she had written this for me. Rewa's face was staring out of the pages of the magazine, her voice saying,
"Live your own life Saira, follow your dream. You let go of one, don't make this a habit. Fulfill your dream, after all, its your life."
Her words inspired me so much that I decided to live my dream. It wasn't easy then, convincing Abbu to let me study further after my graduation. I used logic, tears, and pleas, all that I could, and finally Abbu relented. Maybe it was my broken heart, maybe it was the difficulty of finding a groom for an average looking, average educated girl from an average family. I was so happy the day he said yes. I wanted to meet Rewa and thank her. But, she had moved the day before.

Over the years, I went on to do my masters and become an asst lecturer in my college. And that is where I met Aftaab. He was studying in the same college where I taught. Final year CA student. A year later we were married and Abbu was glad the last of his responsibilities had been suitably fulfilled. Ammi was happy that I found such a well-educated husband. All these years she had been my support. Silently encouraging me to go on. Perhaps she had once felt the need to break her own shackles, but she never could utter a word in front of first her father and brothers and then her husband. Perhaps she saw a reflection of her own unfulfilled desires in my freedom. When I was getting out of their conservative world, she let me go with smiles on her lips, tears in her eyes and blessings in her heart.

Aftaab encouraged me to study further and I went on to do a Doctorate in economics. Years went by, he is now a successful finance consultant and I am the deputy HoD at my college. Three months back, I read about a book on the best seller list - Sudha by Progati. It was a story of a middle class girl and her progress. I heard a lot of acclaim for the author's views expressed in the book. Her philosophy on women's position in society and their progress were charted out in the book through her protagonist Sudha's life. And when I read it, I immediately though of Rewa. Progati's opinions were very similar to those of Rewa, and soon I read all of her four books. About the same time, my own book - The Common Man's Economy was released, and before I knew it, not just the academic circles but also the man on the street was reading it. My book was a bestseller! I still remember the day I showed Abbu the card - guilded letters on a rich cream background, announcing my nomination for the award in the best in non-fiction category. A nomination for the Indian Writer's Association Awards may not be a big thing for Dr Saira Bashir, but it was a big thing for Saira Sheikh, the timid girl who was dead scared of her Abbu. The very man who now read the invitation card with misty eyes. He read reread and re-reread it. He clutched the card the whole day like a little child clutches his favorite toy. Finally, I had proved that I was right – a daughter could bring as much honour and pride to her family as a son. Ammi would have been so happy today. And I saw her smiling photograph, her eyes seemed to be saying,
"Saira, I am proud of you"

I would've attended the function with my entourage, complete with my husband, two kids and Abbu, had Aftaab not gotten that urgent call. He had been called away an hour before we were due to leave for the function. He left assuring us all that his work would be over in half an hour. And all of us got ready and settled down to wait. After forty minutes of listening to "The subscriber you are trying to reach is currently not available", I had begun to get irritated at the recorded message. We should have left long ago, the function was due to start in fifteen minutes, and Aftaab's phone was still unreachable. That was when Abbu decided that I should leave.
"Go on, I'll wait with the children. Once Aftaab comes, we will all join you."

And so I endured the hour-long journey alone, in a stifling taxi, the hour seeming longer than it really was. My entire life passed before my eyes in that one hour. Two faces kept coming to my mind again and again. One was Ammi's and the second belonged to Rewa.

By the time I reached the venue, the function had already begun. I quietly slipped into the back rows and glanced about me. The function wasn't a grand one; it was stark simple affair, living up to the clich├ęd writer’s belief "Simple Living and High Thinking". The hall was small, seating about a 100 people. On a low dais in the front, sat the Organizing committee and the chief guest, an eminent fiction writer. I had read two of his books, and found him high on sleaze and sensation and low on intellect. But the truth was that his work sold and thus he was the guest of honor. In the melee of intellectual looking writers, stood out a plump woman who sat in the front row. Her shimmering dark green saree stood out in deep contrast admits the dull pastel fabrics of the remainder of audience. And the diamonds she wore on her fingers, ears and neck certainly qualified to be called rocks! In a glamorous page 3 event maybe, but here she looked absolutely out of place. She sat diagonally opposite me and every time I looked at her face, it seemed more and more familiar.

The nominations were called, and the awards given out. My heartbeat rose to a crescendo when my name was called out in the nominations. The guest of honor was handed the envelope and he opened it. An eternity seemed to pass as he adjusted his spectacles over his nose and read the name written on the card. Then he glanced at the audience and smiled. He said, "The second lady winner of the evening ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Saira Bashir..."

I walked up to the dais in a trance. The chief guest shook my hand, placed the trophy in my trembling fingers and invited me to speak.

"Well, I owe the success of my book to Allah and to all my readers, and I thank all those who have helped me become what I am today. My kids, my husband, my Abbu, my Ammi, and the girl who gave me the courage and inspiration to get started - Rewa, Rewa Shastri"

The customary polite applause followed my words as I descended from the dais. The lady in the green saree sat directly in front of me, and as my gaze fell on her, I saw a look of immense surprise on her face. And now, from such close quarters, she seemed all the more familiar.

I glanced at the heavy line of sindoor on her forehead and the Shaaka-Pola, the sign of a married Bengali woman on her wrist and thought, "Maybe I've seen her in some newspaper or magazine. These society ladies are everywhere these days"

I sat through the remainder of the awards and the vote of thanks in a mild trance. Seeing and hearing all that was happening around me, but not really taking anything in. I was euphoric on receiving the award, sad because none of my family members were present, proud of my achievements and mildly surprised by the Bengali lady in the front row. I was missing Aftaab and I was missing Abbu. I really wanted them to be there with me. After al, it was not everyday that you got awarded for your books! And while I fidgeted about my chair, cradling the trophy in my arms, the ceremony rolled on, the chief guest rose to speak and his booming voice cut through my reverie and brought me right back to the proceedings. I caught something about encouraging the women writers, the fact that there aren't enough women writers of Indian origin was emphasized by today's winners list. Only two women writers. That was when my cell phone screen lit up, and reading Aftaab's name on the display, I moved out of the hall to take his call.

"I'm so sorry Saira, I tried to get free earlier, but things just kept moving on and on..."
I cut him off. This wasn't the time for explanations.
"Its ok. Listen, I've got to tell you..."
"I'm on my way home. I just talked to Abbu. I'll pick him and the kids up and meet you at the hall. Then we'll go out to lunch and celebrate."
"Celebrate what?" I was smiling. He already knew.
"Oh come on Saira. You think I wouldn't know? I can hear it in your voice. You've won"
My smile turned into a wide grin and I felt such a rush of love for my husband that I wanted to fly out to him and hug him right then. And at that moment, for the first time in twelve years, I wished I had wings, though for a different reason.
"Yes, I won. And I missed you and Abbu. But never mind that now. Come soon. I'm dying to meet all of you."
"Yeah, will be there in about an hour"

I moved back to the hall to find people drifting away to the left side wing. I crossed over and joined the throng when I heard the sonorous voice of Neel Survekar. Neel was Aftaab's friend, my editor and the one who planted the germ of writing a book in me. The only reason I'd refrained from mentioning him in my acceptance speech was that he'd absolutely forbidden me to do so.
"Think of my reputation Saira", he'd said with mock seriousness "Do you want people to think that I urge people to write, and then go on to edit their books, and thats how I get work?"
We'd laughed it off then, but this morning, when he called to say best of luck, he didn't forget to add a line about not mentioning him in my speech.

"Oh Dr Bashir, congratulations. Many many congratulations", he said, reaching my side. "So, when should I come home for a celebratory dinner? Mind you, I want Murg-dam-Birayni, fried fish and Gosht-a-la-Saira Bashir in the menu. So you decide the date or I'll drop in on my own accord one of these days"
I was laughing.

"Sure Neel, you are welcome anytime"
"You know, I'm glad you reached in time for collecting your award. I thought I'd have to collect it for you."
"But I thought you liked collecting awards."
"I do, but not for someone else"
"Why not?"
"Because I've to give them off to them afterwards"
"Ha ha. Neel, you are impossible"
"I know"

We had reached the second hall by this time. It was a small rectangular room where the refreshments were laid out. Contrary to the dull atmosphere of the hall where the award ceremony was held, this room was electric. The place was buzzing with the voices of about a hundred people talking at the same time, the waiters serving refreshments, friends and colleagues catching up with each other and debates and discussions from politics to films to world peace that took place when the collective IQ of the attendees was more than that of the Lok Sabha!

"Ah, there she is. Someone I thought you'd be interested in meeting."
"Who?"
"The winner of best fiction - Progati"
"Progati?"
"Yeah"


I looked in the direction Neel was pointing towards and found the green sari clad lady deep in conversation with the chief guest. Looking at their animated faces, I could figure out that they were probably having a debate. As we neared them, snatches of their debate fell on our ears.

"What do you mean by not enough women writers? Who are Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri, Mahashweta Devi and Manjula Padmanabhan? "

I halted as I heard the voice, and stared at the mouth that had spoken, the eyes that sparkled, the hands that had gestured. I couldn't make a connection between this obese garish lady standing in front of me and the enigmatic Rewa. But the connection was undoubtedly there. It had been nagging at the back of my mind ever since I laid eyes on her, and it was laid bare by her words. And yet, I couldn't quite believe it, that this was Rewa. That Rewa was Progati hit me a moment later, and that didn't surprise me at all. After all, hadn't I thought of Rewa when I first read Progati?

"And have you heard of Anita Desai, Shobha De, Kamala Das, Amrita Pritam and Shashi Deshpande?"

The man had been struck by Rewaitis, I thought smiling to myself. Rewaitis was the term people used in college, to describe the condition of the poor soul who entered into a discussion with Rewa, and could think of no counter-arguments.

"These are the famous ones - only the tip of the iceberg. There are so many women writers around. You shouldn't make off-hand remarks about there not being enough women writers, specially in a setting like this, where you are going to be heard and quoted", Rewa went on. Once she started of, there was no stopping her, just like the old days.

"Oh come on dear, all he wanted to convey that women writers should be encouraged and supported. Surely you don't disagree to that!" said the tall, authoritative looking man who had just joined to debating duo, or rather the debater and her victim. This man was easy to recognize. I was surprised to see him there and more so seeing that after all these years, he still looked the same. Almost as if time had forgotten to brush over him. The image of Rewa standing on the stage facing Nabin flashed through my mind, for that is who she stood facing even now!

"That's her husband. Nabin Mukherjee", Neel whispered into my ear
"He is the chairman of Kaymes Industries"

Nabin and Rewa married? How was this possible? They couldn't satnd each other in college.

Three shocks in succession - finding Rewa, learning that she was Progati and that she was married to Nabin. The third more so. Neel had been looking at me and expecting some sort of a remark, an exclamations of awe maybe. After all, Kaymes Industries was among the top ten business groups in the country and though it had been affected by family feuds over the past decade, it had held together. And now, under Nabin Mukherjee's flagship, it was on a fast flight to the number one spot. Nabin had had a glorious career, and I had followed it not just out of professional interest, but also because Nabin had once been a college mate. Neel certainly expected me to be impressed, and the shocked expression on my face confused him. Dazed, I allowed myself to be led by Neel and introduced to the couple.

"Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Mukherjee"
"Hello Mr. Survekar. How do you do?"
"Very well. Very well indeed. Meet Dr. Bashir. She is one of the two women to have received an award this afternoon"
"Of course. That was expected. Wasn't it? The common man's economy is a splendid book Dr. Bashir", said Nabin, addressing me, "your ideas have made people sit up and notice of India economy."
"Thanks", I said, "I didn't know that even the uncommon man read my book"
"Oh, then you under estimate yourself Dr. Bashir. I must say you need to develop more confidence in yourself and your achievements"
I didn't know what to say to that, and before I could mutter something incomprehensive, Rewa took over.
"Still the same timid girl. Don't let him intimidate you Saira, he is a big bully", she laughed, took my hand and continued, "You haven't changed one bit. Still look absolutely the same"
"But you have changed a lot. And by a lot, I really mean a lot. I just couldn't recognize you when I first saw you sitting in the front row."
"Yes I've put on a little weight", she laughed. But it was not the same merry carefree laughter I'd heard as a child. It was wistful. There was something to it that I couldn't put a finger on. I didn't dwell on it much, because the look on Neel and Nabin's faces distracted me. Both looked utterly puzzled and Neel even had his mouth hanging slightly open. Rewa was visibly enjoying herself. She hadn't let go of my hand yet - a fact that I found strange.
"You two know each other?", Nabin finally asked.
"Yes, we are childhood chums", said Rewa "we lived in the same locality."
"I didn't know that!", said Neel.
"Yes, we even went to the same school and then the same college.", I ventured. "So you can say that me and Rewa know each other."
"Rewa is dead."
"What?", I asked.
"Yes, Rewa is dead. I'm Progati", her tone was icy as she uttered these words and her hand which still held mine seemed to have lost all its warmth in an instance.

For a full minute, all four of us looked at one another, not speaking a word. Finally, it was Nabin who recovered and said, "Rewa was christened Progati by my late mother on our wedding day. Ever since, she likes to be called Progati and not Rewa."
"Nice try Nabin!",
I thought, " but your explanation does not cover up for the intensity in Rewa's voice, nor for her sudden rigidity."

We chatted on for a while then, the way people who've met after ages would - where do you live now, where do you work, do you have kids, how old, what are they doing etc. After about five minutes of re-familiarization, we ran out of topics and stood looking around, somewhat awkwardly. Rewa's behavior had killed the host of questions in my mind about the last twelve years. Where had she been? What had she done? And most importantly, why had she married Nabin? Why did she go from being Rewa to Progati? Why did being addressed as Rewa upset her so much?

My cell phone buzzed. Aftaab had arrived with Abbu and the kids, and I excused myself from the group.
"Don't forget the Gosht-a-la-Saira Bashir!", said Neel.
"I won't" , I smiled at him and turned to leave.
"Saira", Rewa had called out to me.
I turned and looked up at her questioningly. She asked for my cell number. We exchanged the numbers and set out to meet my family, leaving behind the thoughts and memories of the past one-hour at the entrance of the hall.

The drudgery and pace of routine life pushed Rewa to the back of my mind, and I really didn't think much of her till last week. When my colleague Mrs. Aarti Ahuja approached me for an endorsement, the first person I thought of was Rewa. Mrs. Ahuja was all of 55 kgs, had graying hair and looked like a complete push-over. That had been my first impression about her. But true to the saying, her looks proved deceptive. She was the HoD of the humanities department of our college and involved with a host of charity organizations and NGOs. She had recently undertaken a fifteen day tour of the tribal areas in MP and had returned with a steely will to do something for the women back there. Her plan was to spread awareness about the appalling conditions of those women and then campaign for their improvement. And to spread awareness, she wanted people to pitch in. Getting acclaimed writers to do articles in newspapers and magazines seemed like a good idea to start, but I didn't consider she was going to ask me to write an article. When she did, immediately thought of Rewa.
"I know someone who would be more suited for this job, Mrs. Ahuja"
"Who?"
"Heard of Progati?"
"Progati, the same one who wrote Sudha?"
"Yes, the same one"
"Oh, that will be great. If she endorses this cause, we will surely get some positive results"

I smiled at Mrs. Ahuja's child like enthusiasm. It was almost as if the old lady was transformed into a little girl. Later that evening, I rang Rewa. She sounded dull, I wondered why. But, I didn't ask and she didn't tell. We decided to meet the next afternoon, in a swanky cafe close to my college. I wondered what my students would say when they see me walk into their regular joint!

I chuckled at the thought next afternoon, walking down to the cafe. It was a cloudy day, and the pleasant breeze ruffled my hair. A few youngsters did turn their heads when they saw me enter the place, but they went back to their chattering almost immediately. I spotted Rewa sitting in a corner and took the chair facing her.

"Hi", she made the beginning.
"Hello"

"So what was the important thing you wanted to discuss with me?", she came straight to the point. A thing that suited me for I was hoping to reach home sooner that day. The kids loved it when I unexpectedly arrived home early.
"A colleague of mine has surveyed tribal areas in MP and I've seen some of the reports. The women there live in a pathetic state. Can you believe it, some of them are grandmothers at the age of twenty-nine!", I was surprised the amount of passion in my own voice.
"So?", her tone was cool. No emotion betrayed.
"I wanted you to endorse the cause of those tribal women in MP"
"Sorry Saira, I can't do that!"

I was so taken aback at the blunt tone that she had used, that all I did for a few moments was gape at her. She coolly picked her coffee mug and sipped the steaming brew.

"Hmmm, less sugar", she said and emptied the two sugar pouches lying nearby into the mug. And then, as if nothing had happened, went on to enquire about my kids.
"They are fine, but why wouldn't you do the article on tribal women?"
"The answer is simple my dear, nobody wants to read it!"
"What? Nobody wants to read it? What sort of an answer is that?"
"Honest and simple"
"Honest and simple?"
"Yes, I'm not pretending I can't do it, I'm not giving you excuses like I don't have the time. I'm telling you that I can do it, I have the time, but I don't have the inclination. And that, is the plain and simple truth Saira.",
her voice was steady, no emotion betrayed.
"Ok, I appreciate the honesty, but I don't understand it. Why do you not have the inclination?", as opposed to her cool demeanor, I struggled to maintain control.
"Who do you think wants to read about these illiterate grannies at twenty-nine? Is there an audience for such a work?"
"People don't know about these people, we are trying to spread awareness about their plight. We have to create the audience." My own words surprised me here. I had considered an easy option. I will talk to Rewa and she would agree to work with Mrs. Ahuja. There, my work was done. And now here I was, across the table from Rewa, talking passionately about this project.
"It doesn't work that way Saira. Creating audiences is easier said than done.", again a crisp business like tone.
"Do you always write for established audiences?"
"Yes"
"Yes?, but all that stuff you wrote about in school and college. About independence of women, about liberation from an age-old culture, what was that?"
"That was exactly what the people wanted to read at that time."
I was gaping at her with my mouth hanging open. This was not the Rewa I'd admired. This was not the Rewa who was my inspiration. This was not the Rewa whom I had mentioned in my speech. But then, this was not Rewa. Rewa was dead. This was Progati.
"I was surprised when you mentioned my name in the acceptance speech. Becoming an inspiration to people was never on the agenda. I was merely writing what they wanted to read. My writings have always been driven by need. The audiences' need and my need- the audiences' need of reading seemingly progressive writing and my need of Progati, of progress."
"Rewa …"
"Progati. Not Rewa. Progati. Rewa died the day I married Nabin. The day I progressed. It's a long story. The tale of my progress",
the crisp business-like tone was gone, replaced by an emotional weary voice. And as if to reflect her sudden change of mood, the plreasant breeze started howling at the windows.
"Tell me", I was intrigued, not just by the prospect of hearing her story, but also by the sudden change in her voice.
"It all began with my parent's accident. The day my sister Rachna and were orphaned. Rachna was very young then. Just a toddler, but I was old enough to understand things. None of our relatives wanted to take us in. At least not the both of us together. They were debating and trying to decide who would be a better fare - the stubborn Rewa or the toddler Rachna. Obviously, they were trying to decide which one of us would be less troublesome. It looked like we were bound to be separated, till I ran to my Ajji, my mother's mother and told her I did not want to leave Rachna. She was moved by my tearful pleas, and asked her son, my uncle to take us both in. His wife, my mami was strictly against that. She had two daughters of her own already, and to her, rearing us was akin to rearing unwanted pets. But they had to bow down to Ajji's wishes, and take us in. They did, and that's when all my troubles began"
"Your troubles?"
"Yes, my troubles. All you people thought I had a fantastic time. Didn't you? You thought I was the independent Rewa, the free spirited Rewa, the Rewa who had no responsibilities. But you couldn't have been more wrong. Rewa was neither free-spirited, nor was she free of responsibilities. Rewa was an innocent girl, whose innocence, family and happiness were robbed from her at one stroke. The first twelve months at my mami's house were the worst days of my life. She treated Rachna and me like dirt. She didn't care whether we went to school, whether we ate our meals, whether we were living or not..."
Her voice trailed off, and I felt she was the eight-year old Rewa once more, reliving her hell.

"And one day, I got the solution to my problem at school. I was picked up by my teacher to perform in a school play. It was more like stand in the school play actually! But it was the route of my escape. I spent that whole afternoon at school, and when I returned home in the evening, my aunt didn't even bother to enquire where I was. I realized that as long as I was away from home, my aunt didn't bother about me. So, in spite of my stage fear, I began participating in as many plays and dances as I could. Soon, I moved to debates, sports and what not. This is where I met a lot of people and I realized I could be a real charmer if I wanted to. That's when the stubborn Rewa transformed into the popular Rewa. I kept Rachna with me as much as I could, and my aunt was happy to have us out of her sight as long as possible. That suited me just fine, for when we were out, both of us could forget the venom she spurted out at us. Rachna was the intelligent one, and she began spending as much time in the library as I was spending in all my various activities. Did I tell you that she is now doing Ph. D in bio-informatics at Georgia University?"

She was proud of Rachna, almost as a mother would be of her child. The pride showed in her voice, her eyes and her expression. She was the mother goose and Rachna, her goose ling.

"Yes, you did", "only about ten times" I wanted to add, but decided that this wasn't the time for humor.

"I always wanted her to be a doctor. She is so intelligent and so hard working. She used to study all the time. I was heart-broken when she had to give up her medical seat because uncle wouldn't fund her education and I couldn't get loan. That happened two years after we moved from your locality. Uncle bought a better house in a better locality, but mami's behavior towards us didn't become better. I was working in a small accounting firm at that time, and was paying for Rachna's education and all of her needs. I didn't have the money for Rachna's medical education, and she had to give up her seat. That's when I decided that I had waited enough. There was no point in waiting anymore. That's when I asked Nabin to marry me!"

That was surprising. She asked Nabin to marry her! Even though no one had given me an indication, I had assumed that it was Nabin who had asked her to marry him. This was so unconventional. But then nothing about her was conventional, wasn't it?

It was only then that I noticed, heavy raindrops had arrived to give company to the howling wind outside. I worried about getting home in this weather; I worried about the kids getting home from their activities. My kids did all sort of activities at school - drama, debates, singing, dancing, sports -just like Rewa. Unlike me, they were free to do whatever they wanted, and unlike Rewa, they were not forced to do them. The right to choose was a wonderful gift my children had. And only now, when I heard Rewa' story did I fully appreciate it. The right to choose meant you could do whatever you wanted, and it also meant that you didn't have to do what you didn't want to.

"What are you thinking?" her words brought me back to the cafe.
"About something both of us didn't have", I was still glancing out of the window.
"Whats that?"
"The right to choose",
I turned to face her and for the first time since I had known her, my gaze met hers. All those years of looking upto Rewa were behind me. I had realized she was as human as I was. She had her flaws like all humans. She wasn't the Goddess that I had once thought she was. The expression in her eyes was intense. I knew that she agreed with me, but would probably never admit it.

She surprised me, again.

"Yes, we never did have that."

My cell phone buzzed at the exact moment and that allowed me a chance to hide my surprise and avoid gaping at her. I answered my phone. It was Abbu.
"Where are you?"
"Close to college Abbu. What about you? And the kids?"
"When I saw the signs of the approaching storm, I went over to their school and picked them up. Don't worry, they are fine. Aftaab also called. He has started for home. When are you coming?"
"In a while. I'll call you while leaving"
"Ok. Should I ask Aftaab t pick you?"
"No Abbu, I'll get a taxi. Don't worry. If there is a problem, I'll call you"
"Ok. Be sure to call me"
"I will. Don't worry"
"Ok. Bye"
"Bye"

"That was Abbu"
I told her. "I have kids of my own and he still worries as if I am a little girl"
"You are lucky",
her voice quivered when she said this.
"Yes, I know"
"I don't have anyone to take care of me - except Rachna"
"Why? Nabin doesn't take care of you?"
the words were out of my mouth before I could stop myself.
"No. He doesn't think there is any need to."
"Why?"
"Because he married an intelligent, independent, steel-willed lady, who doesn't need to be taken of."
"But you are an intelligent, independent, steel-willed lady. Aren't you?"
"Yes, but even an intelligent, independent, steel-willed lady needs to be taken care of. And Nabin doesn't think thats necessary. I guessed I impressed my independence too much on him. I always wanted him to think that I can do everything. I don't need anyone, much less a man."
"Then why did he..."
"Marry me?"
"Yes?"
"Because I wanted him to."
"You...."
"Yes"
She paused a while before going on. Took a breath and said "If there was anything mami hated more than Rachna and me, it was taking spending money on Rachna and me. Other than basic necessities and school fees, she didn't spend a penny on us. Rachna Liked to read. She wanted books. They were expensive. I liked to play. I wanted sport shoes. They were expensive. Rachna wanted to join the library. That was expensive. Everything we wanted was expensive. Each and every thing that we wanted. Each and everything that we needed." Her voice was bitter. Her face was like a filmstrip, with expressions passing over with every word spoken.

But there was no self-pity. She wasn't feeling sorry for herself. She wasn't crying. Perhaps the clouds saw that too. They were shedding lesser tears.

"And so, I decided that if they weren't going to give us any money, we had to earn it for ourselves", she said "I wasn't sure how, but I was lucky. Like Alice, I found my magic hole."
"Magic hole?"
Was this too emotional for her to handle? Why is she speaking gibberish?
"Yes", she giggled at my confusion.
Rewa never giggled. She had this dignified chuckle. Not a schoolgirl giggle. But hen again, this wasn't Rewa. This was Progati. And I didn't know Progati. But then, did I know Rewa? No, I didn't.
"Yes, I found a talking rabbit. Mrs. Krishnan. Do you remember her?"
"Mrs. Krishnan...... sounds familiar",
I was trying to place the name.
"She was the English teacher at our school."
"Oh yes. I remember now. The lady who spoke with a lisp."
"Yes, she was my talking rabbit, and she showed the magic hole through which I found my wonderland"

Her delight shone through her eyes. I guess Mrs. Krishnan was another person she cared for. She was as animated talking about her as she had been while talking about Rachna.

"Mrs. Krishnan was helping me research for a debate once, and she handed me an article to read from. It was good, and had some useful points. And when I saw the author's name, it was Sumangala Krishnan. Mrs. Krishnan was the author! She said she loved to write and seeing her work being printed had been a childhood dream. That's when she went on to suggest that I take up writing too. She said I had a flair for writing. I was about to dismiss the idea as a waste of time and energy. After all, what could I gain from writing for a few magazines? But then, she showed me the magic hole. She said that the fee she got for her work was being put in her son's education fund. I was surprised that this work paid. At a time when you have no money, any money is good money. So I went home, pulled out an old essay, refined it and gave it to her. She sent it to some magazine, and it was published. I got 50 rupees for it. And those 50 rupees were like a treasure for me. I paid Rachna's library fee with that money. Ever since, I've written scores of articles and short stories in magazines. I guess even you have read some of them"
"Yes, I have. I have read more than a few", the fact was that I had read all of them. In school and college, I could read only a few of them, and since I idolized her so much, I wanted to read each and every one of them. So after I started teaching, I scanned the library archives to read all her articles. And that took a long while. A lot of her work had been published.
"Yes, a lot of articles were published."
How so, I was wondering.
"They had to be. I wrote what the readers wanted to read. I wrote what the magazines wanted to publish."
"What?"
"Yes, I had a strategy"
"Oh", that was all I could say.
"Every week, I would pick a magazine and read the last five six issues from Rachna's library archives. That gave me a fair amount of idea what the magazines published. And the most useful page, was the reader's feedback page. Most people don't read that page when they read a magazine, but for me it was the biggest source of information. When I had my finger down on the pulse of the readers, I'd dish out exactly what they wanted to read. So you see Saira, I've always been a writer for the readers. And that is the reason I can't do the feature on tribal women."
"What??? Oh!!!", I had almost forgotten about that. I was so engrossed in her story. But I already knew she wouldn't do that. I was sitting there to hear her story.

"You need a strategy Saira. You always need a strategy. And once you have it in place, you can get absolutely anything."
"Strategy. I've had no strategy in life. I owe everything I have to serendipity."
"Well, I don't I got everything I have after a great deal of planning and careful execution. Even Nabin."
"Nabin?"
"Yes, him too."
"How did you...."
"How did I? It wasn't easy. But it wasn't impossible. When I started college, like all the girls I too was besotted with Nabin. He was the perceived God. Wasn't he?"
She took a break at this point, signaling the waiter was a refill of the coffee mug. "
You have been sitting here for so long, and haven't had anything. What would you take?"
"Anything"
"Please refill my mocha, and a latte for my friend", she told the waiter and calmly turned to me "You don't agree?"
"I said anything was fine. I'm not too particular about my coffee"
"Not that. You don't agree about Nabin being perceived as a God?"
"No.... I don't."
"No?",
her single raised eyebrow could put a tele-vamp to shame.
"No"
"Why not?"

"Because God, is too big a title, and anyways, this is my opinion. I'm allowed to have one. Right?" I didn't want to get into a debate with her. The temporary lull had passed away and the rain was picking up momentum again. I wanted to go home, but I also wanted to hear her story. Getting into a debate would mean I get to do neither.

"Well, yes... but I saw him as a God then. He was far too above and I knew that to reach him, I needed a strategy. I observed him for a while, him and his friends, specifically his girl friends. He was always surrounded with those who were awed by him. All the girls he hung out with were pretty lasses. Spoilt little daddy's girls. Not one of them could converse intelligently for more than ten seconds. I guessed that that perhaps that was the reason he was so easily bored of them. That's when I decided my strategy. I was going to be this intelligent, independent woman, who is not awed by his looks, brains or social status. But before that, I had to get him to notice me. That's where the big debate helped."
"So you see, it was serendipity"
"No Saira, it wasn't. Not one thing in my life do I owe to serendipity."
Her voice was cold, devoid of all emotion.

"But how is that possible?"
"I arranged the debate. I befriended Sumita, the cultural secretary of our college and planted the idea of the debate in her mind. That is how I knew all the topics before hand. I prepared both sides of all the topics for fifteen days. I had to reach the finals. I had to face him in the last round. You see, I knew that the winner of last year gets a direct entry into the last round. So once I made it through the semi finals, I would be in front of him. And he would notice me."
"Oh...." I was speechless, that someone could go to such an extent.

"After that things were easier. He had not only noticed me, he was impressed by me. All along the next three years, I made sure that I was in every debate, in every sports event if Nabin was there. I always treated him with a cool regard. Not like a friend, just like a known acquaintance. I guess he had never been subjected to such treatment. He was intrigued. I knew he respected me, he was impressed with me, but that was not enough for me. I wanted to marry him, but I didn't know how to bring that about."

Our coffee had arrived. The fresh brewed coffee aroma reached my nostrils and I suddenly realized I was hungry. I glanced at the counter and scanned the menu display. Club sandwiches seemed tempting, and I asked her if she wanted them too. No, she said. She was trying to reduce. I asked the waiter to get one for me and turned to her.

"But you did bring that about."

"Yes, after graduation I was looking for a job and there was none coming by. So, I went and asked Nabin if he had a job suitable for me. He had just started working for his father and I told him that the only jobs available without any references were of secretaries and clerks. I knew I had the caliber for more challenging work, and if a reference was what it took to get it, I'd prefer getting a reference on my own rather than anyone else. Little did he know then that no one else would give me a reference. He gave me a job, and a good one at that. I worked very hard there and that's when we became friends. That's when I delved a bit deeper into his psyche and understood him a bit more. That's when I realized he thought that I was this intelligent, independent and steel-willed lady who could take care of herself. When Rachna's admission into a medical college did not come through for money, I was shattered, I was heartbroken. I broke down in front of Nabin, saying that being independent and intelligent doesn't pay. That I should have looked for a rich husband to support us rather than trying to support us on my own. That this world did not respect intellectuals, all it cared was for outer gloss. The words had their effect. Nabin went on to negate everything I said, trying to control me. Saying there were people who respected me and he was one of them and that whatever I had done was the right thing. And then I said you are saying all this just to console me. And he said no, I really do like you for what you are. That's when I said, if that is the case, will you marry me, and he said yes. So we went ahead and got married."

"But why did you ask him? Did you love him?"
"No. I did not. I married him for Progati"


"Progati?"
this wasn't making any sense.
"Yes, for Progati. For progress"
"Progress?"
Yes, for my progress. For Rachna's progress. Progress from that drudgery life to a better, easier and comfortable life. Progress from a world where we yearned for little little things to a world where we got everything we wanted. Progress from a world where we crushed our dreams with our own hands to a world where our dreams became reality. Progress from inside a cage to an open sky outside the cage. Marrying Nabin would have gotten me all that. My marrying Nabin was the route to our Progress, to our Progati."
Her words were interrupted by the buzzing of her cell-phone.

"Hi Nabin....... No no, I'm not at home. I'm with a friend of mine. You remember Saira..... yeah, Dr. Saira Bashir....... nothing, we are just reminiscing old times...... yeah, I'll be home soon..... Shukto, again?....... but we had it the day before......... No I..... Fine, I'll tell Paro to make it for dinner...... ok.... bye"

She put it down with an exasperated look on her face, then turned to me and said, "That was Nabin. He wants to eat Shukto again tonight."
"Shukto?"
"Yeah, it's a supposed speciality. I hate it, and he wants to eat it everyday. He hates maharashtrian food. That's why I never cook for him. We've got Paro, a girl from Kolkata to do all the Bengali style cooking for him."
"Why don't you learn Bengali style cooking?"
"Why should I?"
"Because Nabin likes it."
"But I don't"


The cell phone buzzed again. But this time, it was mine.
"Hello"
"Are there any windows?"
"What?"
"Are there any windows where you are?"
"Yes, there are. Why??
"Can't you see the weather outside? The storm is raging."

"Of Aftaab, I don't worry about a bit of rain."
"Well, my fearless Nadia, you don't, but I do. And that is not a bit of rain. So tell me where you are, and I'll come and pick you up"
"There is no need for that. I can find my way home. I won't get lost or wander away. Ok daddy?"
"Stop kidding Saira, and tell me where you are"
"I'm in the cafe near college."
"What are you doing there? Isn't afternoon too early to be dating?"
"If I were dating, you'd be with me hubby dear. I am with Rew..... er Progati"
"Did she agree?"
"What?"
"“To do the piece on tribal women"
"Oh that"
"Yes, that."
"No"
"No. Why?"
"Well........"
"Ok, tell me later, I'm coming to pick you up" and he disconnected.

"That was Aftaab", I said to her. She nodded, and said "I'm repeating myself, but you are very lucky. Nabin called too, merely to order the dinner menu. He didn't ask me where I was, or what I was doing, forget offering to pick me up", at that moment, I saw a fleeting look of jealousy pass her face. That was most unbelievable. All those years when I was cooped up at home, helping ammi with housework, reading my schoolbooks, I often thought of the free life Rewa had. I often wished that I sprout wings and fly away into the sky, freed from the bondage of my life. I often wished I could change places with her. And today she, Rewa was jealous of me, of my life. But then, did I really want to do it? All those years I fantasized about living her life. But today I know that would mean giving up on ammi'
s love, abbu's affection, and the warmth and security of my childhood. No, I definitely did not want that. My chain of thoughts was broken when she continued, "You have such a caring loving family."

"Yes"
"And a husband who cares. He is coming to pick you up. Right?"
"Yes"
"Mine would never bother. He just doesn't care."
"Do you?"
"Do I what?"
"Do you care about him? Don't answer me. Answer yourself. Perhaps he would care, if you care too. Perhaps he cares, but is too intimidated to show it."
"Intimidated?"
"Yes, of the steel willed independent woman. If she needs to be taken care of, she has to let her husband know. If she needs to be shown love, she has to show her love."
"What will that accomplish?"
"Progati"
"What?"
"You have progressed so much in life. From the days you lived in your aun't fear to the days when you were the most popular and confident girl in school. From those days to being the idol of so many girls your age. Yes, Rewa was the one a lot of girls idolised. What if she wasn't a miss universe, she was intellegent and confident and talented and wittty. Not only that, she was courageous You have progressed, but you can progress a lot more, with a little bit of love. If you have that, you'll have a perfect life. Well, as perfect as human life can be. But if you want love, you have to first give it."
She was silent, her face impassive. I had expected a battery of arguments or a stiff 'mind your own business look' or some reaction. Not this. She looked as if she hadn't even heard what I said. And then she said, "Look, the rain has suddenly stopped." We settled our bill and walked out of the cafe. The moment we stepped out, the clouds broke and a feeble sun started shining.
"It's a sign", she said.
"Do you believe in signs?" I asked, a little surprised.
"Yes. I do." She turned to look at me and said, "What you told me just now.... "
"I didn't....."

"Stop. I guess I needed to be told what you told me. All through my journey of progress, I have done things only for myself. I have never given back. And looking at you now, so happy and content, I realize what I have been missing out on. I don't know if I can have all that you do, but I sure can give it a try and hope to be successful.", there was a change visible in her manner. A feeble one, but a change nevertheless. The way she spoke, the way she looked, the way she carried herself. The cold stiffness seemed to be receding, and a warmth was seeping into her demeanor. Just like the clouds breaking up outside and the sun shining through.

"I am sure that you would."
That was when Aftaab's car turned around the counter, and we said our goodbyes. I walked to my husband's side, whose face relaxed when he saw that I was fine. Before getting into the car, I turned back and looked at her. She was walking towards her car, on the other side of the road, on her way to progress.

The inspiration to write Progati was a line that someone once said to me. It went something like "People are not always what they seem. You can't judge a person based on a few interactions. Its only when you know everything, including circumstances, do you really require why and how people are how they are." I don't remember when and how I heard this. But one fine day, I just remembered it and Rewa and Saira were born. My current mood has severly affected my writing. I guess thats evident. But the end is generally what I hand in mind. Finally, do give me your comments. How did you find this tale? Good or bad. Nice or Rotten. Whatever you felt, honestly...

5 comments:

priyanka said...

this was great!! i was having my lunch when i started reading and left my luncjh in between as i was geeting distracted-to finish the story. simply amazing- a truth we do not accept

The Bhandari's said...

Awesome, I never knew you write so well until I read a review of this story on Ricky's post, review compelled me to read this and I guess it was worth reading it :)

Marthyan said...

Hi Anks,

Dropped in from Ricky's blog

Liked the story and one suggestion

You should have broken it to mulitple sections and posted, just a thought

well written and loved reading it

Riddhi said...

I got the link from Ricky's blog and boy! am I glad that I did get the link!

It was great! Much more than that, it was thoughtfully written as well as thought-provoking.

I sure hope you keep writing.

swati said...

I came across your blog today from your profile....the only word that comes to my mind after reading this story is ironical...it hits hard on the face...