Drama Desi Inspirational

Out on the verandah, Nirmala sits with her hands folded into her lap, eyes weary with lost sleep. The bottom of her sari trails into the murky brown puddles that are abundant at this time of year. Even though it is the rainy season, the hot Kolkata sun beats down on her face, a price she knows she will pay for later. She can already feel the freckles popping out from underneath her skin, the scratchy voice of her sister-in-law berating her for sitting out in the sun, that voice that always manages to force its way into the pores of her skin.

Contempt for that she-devil rises up her throat as hot as bile. Then, it turns into guilt, for having such a strong feeling of hate for someone she is supposed to love. But the truth of her true feelings sting her so that she feels like the worst person in the world.

Nirmala had first arrived at the house as a young bride, with a pretty gait and face, and most importantly, laden with heavy gold saris and jewellery. She was a shy creature, lowering her face in front of her in-laws and her husband, whom she had never met until the day of their wedding.

All the relatives liked her. How they exclaimed over her, going as far as to describe her feet as beautiful as a nymph’s, from the way her toe rings flashed in the sunlight and how they tinkled prettily whenever she walked or moved her feet. She won them over quickly—except for one.

She remembers the look on Indu’s face when she first received her. It was a look that could curdle milk. She remembers everything: the pinch of her mouth, like she had been sucking on a lemon, her lip curled in distaste at Nirmala’s ostentatious display of bangles and jewels. When it was time for photos, Indu left a wide space in between their bodies and purposely turned her shoulder away from her. Her skin prickled with embarrassment as the relatives tittered at how quickly a feud had arisen between the two sole women of the household. Too bad Mama Rupa had passed away two years ago, for her gentle tones would have quickly extinguished any animosity between the two girls like water upon fire.

Nirmala tried hard to get Indu on her side. She invited her on outings to the beach and town; asked her husband what her favourite dishes were and proceeded to cook them; bought her saris in colours she knew would complement Indu’s skin well. You could say she tried harder at trying to get her sister-in-law to like her rather than her husband. It was because her mother, upon the eve of her leaving, had given her a very important piece of advice.

“You must be respectful and in heed of your new older sister now,” she had said. “It’s not as if she will be marrying out, what with that unfortunate disfigurement. Poor girl. Be nice to her, treat her well, and you will be happy for the rest of her days.”

How painfully wrong Nirmala’s mother had been. After an acceptable amount of cordiality and niceties had been shown during the honeymoon stage, Indu finally revealed her true colours. She started routine bedroom checks and rummaged through her belongings to take the saris and jewellery she thought pretty for herself. She would scold her for hoarding money and sweets from her natal home, consequently stealing them for herself. When her husband had left for work and the father-in-law was dozing in his bedroom, Indu would slap, pinch, or hit her whenever a chore was not done according to her exacting standards. She was careful to hit hard enough to leave an expression but not hard enough to leave physical evidence. She would call her coarse names, hiss them into her ear and smile as the easy tears filled Nirmala’s eyes.

Indu was forever complaining her food was too sweet, too salty, too spicy, too mild, then spit them out onto the floor so that Nirmala had to go down on her knees and pick up the soupy bits of rice and vegetables herself. When the saris were presented to her wrapped in tissue paper, she would throw them onto the floor, dissatisfied with her sister-in-law’s wares.

“Do you really think this colour matches me? And I thought you rich girls knew everything about fashion.” She scoffed, as Nirmala stood by the door shivering. “Wasting my brother’s hard-earned money on this trash. Don’t you have any consideration for your sister? Buying all that soft silk for yourself while leaving the cheap, gaudy, rough material for me?”

Every night, Nirmala would weep to her heart’s content and beseech her husband to talk to his sister.

“Of course, of course I will,” he murmured every time. “I will talk to her. Yes, I will talk to her.”

But his heart was made of the softest cotton—no man was match for a woman whose jealousy encompassed all seven levels of Hell. Like a snake, Indu’s poisonous words slithered their way into his ears and invaded his body, so he was not her husband anymore but the minion of his sister.

His affectionate soothing made way for angry words. “Why do you act like this to my sister? My precious sister, who shared the same womb as I!” He shouted. “How dare you try to come between us! You, my mere wife, whom I do not share the same blood with, trying to drive a wedge between me and my blood-sister. She tells me you are speaking lies, that you are making things up to gain sympathy from me.”

“I am not, I am not!” Nirmala weeped, rubbing her hands together pleadingly. “You remember when she spits out my food and makes me pick it up from the floor with my bare hands! Don’t tell me you are so blind you cannot see that?”

He raised a hand as if to hit her, but luckily stopped himself in time. He sighed loudly, running a hand through his hair. He said wearily, “It is normal, Nirmala, for women of the household to criticise another’s cooking. Why are you so weak that you cannot withstand even the smallest bout of criticism?”

Nirmala choked back a sob, trying her hardest to form the words encapsulating the truth of her sister-in-law’s spite. But they stopped midway in her throat. Because by the doorway of their bedroom, Indu was watching. As their eyes met, she moved away quickly, leaving behind the sick scent of jealousy, glee, and hyacinths.

In the present, Nirmala collects her memories and imagines folding them until they are nothing but tiny wads of folded paper, then pushes them into a trunk and locks it shut. But against her will, the lock springs open and out pour out the terrible memories, rushing out like the nightmares and terrible things in Pandora’s box.

Her father-in-law passed away over seven months ago. All the funeral rites have been conducted, respects paid, and they can now go on to their regular lives. And so, today is the day she is going to put Indu in her place.

She is thirty-eight years old, a grown woman with three children and another on the way. Yet, her knees knock together thinking about the moment of conflict that was soon to occur between her and the Evil Witch.

Her husband had protested when she had first brought up the idea of selling their ancestral home and land. But in the end, she wore him down and he had to agree with the facts. It was getting too hard to maintain the house, what with all its wears and tears, mould and rat infestations. 

“We will move into the apartment built on our land,” she declared to him.

“What about Indu?”

“What about her?”

“Will she be living with us.”

Nirmala felt her blood pressure rise. “She can live anywhere. In a box, a shed, anywhere as long as it is a mile away from my home. I want to raise our children in a nice, quiet home for the first time without the witch breathing down our necks.”

Now, she stands up and forces her legs into the dank darkness of her home. In the kitchen, Indu is kneading dough for chapati. She clears her throat to announce her presence.

Indu looks up, startled at the level of authority in her usually submissive sister-in-law’s voice. Nirmala notices with childlike happiness that the years have not been kind to Indu—time has pulled her cheeks downwards, so her eyes resemble a bear’s. The pockmarks, the result of her childhood encounter with smallpox, are still there, grotesquely illuminated in the weak sunlight.

“Indu.” Her voice is nothing more than a feeble whisper. She clears her throat again, straightens up her back, and, feeling a sudden surge of power, says loudly, “Indu. For the past twenty years, you have made my life a living hell. With your words and actions, you have hurt me more than the worst husband. I tried hard, so hard, to make you like me. If not like me, respect me as your brother’s wife. I gave you the chance for twenty years, but you have never proven to me that your heart is not all soot and ugliness. Now that Papa is gone, I am telling you that we—my husband and I—are selling this land to make way for an apartment building. We will be moving into one of the flats.”

Indu says nothing. Her eyes are flat and black, like a serpent’s.

“If it were entirely up to me, I would have left you to the mercy of the elements. But you are lucky your brother is so blind to your faults. You will get an apartment of your own. But don’t think we will be neighbours, that I will visit you and make you food and let you step on me over and over again.”

In a final act of revolt, Nirmala spits on the floor. She looks up defiantly at Indu, daring her to argue back. She says, “Well? Don’t you have anything to say?” An apology?

Indu stares impassively back, then turns back to the dough.

These people will never learn, Nirmala thought, her heart surprisingly heaving with sorrow. But deep down, Indu is shaken at how big and courageous Nirmala seems in this moment. The past nights of lost sleep from worrying about this moment have transformed her, making her look like a beautiful and strong Amazonian warrior. She radiates beauty, strength, and during this moment, Indu reaches the peak of her hate towards her.

Nirmala turns her back on her sister-in-law for the first and last time, swishing her sari around her ankles as she leaves the room. Her heart sings with joy.

Now, I will start living my life.

February 03, 2021 14:46

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