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The Mask

By Nishi Pulugurtha

Green all around, shades of green actually, that seemed to smile at her as she looked out. The tall moringa tree that seemed to reach up high, its small leaves dazzling in the play of sun and rain. That tree that met her eyes each morning as she looked out of that large window always made her feel nice. The rusted iron grills, the wooden window shutters broken here and there, did not shut tight, the latch rusted too, some bit of concrete laid bare a little of the masonry – her eye moved along.

***

Bimala arrived in this house after her marriage. It was an arranged one. Baba and Ma looked for a suitable groom for their youngest born and the marriage was solemnised in the traditional way. Dida (grandmother) wanted it to be done just that way. Dada (elder brother) was working by then and just a few years before this they had moved into an apartment on the eastern fringes of the city.

It was a modest one and Bimala took great pains to do it up — from choosing the colours of the wall, the upholstery, the curtains, the fittings in the bathroom, almost everything. Bimala had a keen taste for the aesthetic and visitors to their home always made it a point to refer to it.

Baba had worked with the state government and retired a year after her marriage. They were a middle class family, and a very happy one at that. Bimala was never pampered, Ma and Baba were strict disciplinarians who made sure their children had the best in life.

Anupam, Bimala’s husband, lived with his mother in a neighbourhood in the southern part of the city. Anupam had his education from some of the best institutions in India, he obviously had been a very good student. He had been working with a multinational company for some years now and everyone knew he would soon rise to the top. Kumar Kaku (uncle) knew the family well and vouched for Anupam. He and Kakima (aunty) always said, Anupam was a wonderful person, soft spoken and reticent.

“A reserved lover, it is said, always makes a suspicious husband,” Kate Hardcastle’s line from the play she read in college had come to her mind. She spoke about it to Ma and Baba. Baba said, “You can surely talk to him. If you don’t approve, we will not go ahead.”

She remembered Ma’s reply, “Kumar is distantly related to the family. We have known him for years, he is our family friend, we can trust him completely. When he says the boy is good, we could go along. I see no reason why we need to have doubts.”

She did talk to him a few times before the wedding and Anupam came across as a decent guy. They met up too a few times. She did not want to rush into it, she wanted to take some more time, but Kumar Kaku was insistent. “I know the family well. They are decent people.”

“That is alright,” Baba said. “It is a question of Bimu’s life, let her take some more time before she decides.”

Kakima too waxed praises galore, “Anupam was such a nice person.” She spoke highly of him and his family and called up Ma regularly. For some days, this was what went on in the household. Dada also agreed with Baba.

“Bimala could be given time to decide,” she heard Baba tell Ma. That was all the kind of conversation that went on at home, these days, she thought. As days went by, Kumar Kaku’s visits to their house increased. Bimala said yes after some thought. Kakima and Kumar Kaku were jubilant.

“I know both families and this is what is best for our Bimala,” she could hear his words as he spoke to Ma.

Baba did not say much. “Are you sure, Bimu, you want to go ahead with it? If you have even a little bit of doubt, any questions, anything, let me know. I am sure I can talk with your Ma about it.”

Bimala just smiled, “Na, Baba, it is alright.”

So in about less than twelve months, the marriage was finalised. A flurry of activity – arrangements were done, invitations sent out, so much taken care of. Kaku and Kakima took an ever more eager interest in everything. Things moved real fast after she had agreed. A modest wedding and soon her new “life” in the new house began.

The ‘mask’ came off in less than six months. “Don’t touch that.” “Don’t do this.” “This is my house.” “Do not try to show off your learning.” “All your ideas are worthless” – they just kept coming at all times.

“Why do you need appliances? My mother did all these by herself. “

“But Khokha, things have changed now. Certain things are needed these days. Had they been available earlier on, my home would have been so very different.” Anupam’s mother had been the voice of good sense, not that she had much say in the house.

He would just stare at her. Bimala felt nice talking to her. A year after the marriage, a massive heart attack ended that life. They had been talking when the end came and Bimala was in a state of shock for weeks after that incident.

In summer months the house was unbearable. Bimala had not been used to this heat. Anupam had said that he would make provisions so that life could be nice. That was before the wedding. Kumar Kaku and Kakima too had said that he would do all that was needed to live life well. Nothing happened. Bimala tried to reason with him, he ignored her. That day, about a year and half after they had been married, the television was blaring and Anupam was watching the news. She tried speaking to him about getting an air conditioner, he turned away. She again tried speaking.

This time she switched off the television. He shouted at her. She tried keeping her cool, he refused to listen to anything. Suddenly he caught her with his two hands, he held her neck. He held her that way and pushed her from the living room to the bedroom, she tried to break free, but the grip was too strong. Bimala was so taken aback by the whole think that she could not utter a single word. He pushed her on the bed, holding her neck in his hands, shaking her. She struggled and struggled. After a while, he eased the grip, went into the living room, switched on the television.

She lay on the bed, crying in pain, in hurt, in humiliation, insulted. All for some cold air, to live life well. After some time, she got up, there were marks on her neck. Who should she turn to, she felt so lost. She called up Kakima and told her what had happened.

“Such things happen in marriages. Don’t pay much attention to them,” she said.

Bimala could not believe what she said, “Things will be alright now, you see.”

After the conversation was over, she took out her suitcase and started packing her things. The next morning she left.

Anupam did not say a word.

Baba told her, “You did just the right thing.” Ma was upset with the turn of events but they were both happy with the decision.

Bimala never went back.

***

It has been five years since then. Restricted by the lockdown, amid reports of an increase in domestic violence cases, she got talking about it that evening. I knew that was a traumatic period in her life. She had tried picking up her life little by little. I have known her for years and have seen her as she tried to begin things afresh.

“As I look at the masks that we are to wear these days as precautionary measures, I am so reminded of the masks that people always wore.” We were chatting online, and Bimala said, “Kumar Kaku and Kakima’s masks fell off after I walked out of that marriage. All those years of friendship with my parents ebbed so quickly. They never ever got in touch with us, never again.”

Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is an Associate Professor in the department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College and has taught postgraduate courses at West Bengal State University, Rabindra Bharati University and the University of Calcutta. She is the Secretary of the Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library, Kolkata (IPPL). She writes on travel, film, short stories, poetry and on Alzheimer’s Disease. Her work has been published in The Statesman, Kolkata, in Prosopisia, in the anthology Tranquil Muse and online – Kitaab, Café Dissensus, Coldnoon, Queen Mob’s Tea House, The World Literature Blog and Setu. She guest edited the June 2018 Issue of Café Dissensus on Travel. She has a monograph on Derozio (2010) and a collection of essays on travel, Out in the Open (2019). She is now working on her first volume of poems and is editing a collection of essays on travel.

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