By Chaitali Sengupta
Angry clouds gather in the west corner of the sky. Thunder crashes, once in the overcast skies and then in her bosom. Scanning the sky with her nervous eyes, Ms. Bose switches on the TV, her mind in complete turmoil now. Her twenty two year old daughter has not yet returned home and it is past 12 o clock at night. Earlier in the day the KNMI weather bureau had issued a code orange weather warning for Noord- Holland, Friesland and Groningen. Uprooted trees, damaged roofs, closure of roads and highways, her mind briskly translates the Dutch teletext into English, a habit, like so many others, she yet cannot get over, despite her 23 years of stay in the low lands.
“Auto slaat over de kop, A20 afgesloten tot nader bericht.(Car overturns; A20 closed until further notice)” The words jump at her from the screen and she reaches for her mobile, punching Piu’s number frantically, sending silent prayers to the Gods above that she picks it up this time. How would she come home if that highway remains closed? And whose car it was that had overturned, she wonders? Fear dizzies her.
While the ringtone burrows into her ears, her mind goes through the scene from the morning.
Is it necessary to go today, of all days, to the youth day evening party, she had asked, even though she knew the answer she would get. “There is a warning for extreme weather,” she reminded her daughter using Bangla, using which she breathed easily. “You may get stuck. It is not safe to drive…”
With an exaggerated sigh her 24-year-old daughter, Anamika Bose — Anna to the native tongue and Piu to her — refused to listen. “Really Ma, you can’t let weather dictate our lives. I’ll be there before the storms strike.”
It irritated her, this pert brightness in Piu’s voice, but she forced herself to be calm. Incase there is a need, she had continued in her simple way, would she call her parents’ friends, the Rays, who lived only a few blocks away from where the party was held. I am a grown up girl, Mum, quite capable of looking after myself, she heard Piu snap as she gathered her large bag, stashed her foundation and cream into it and moved out of the bedroom after giving herself a last hurried look in the mirror. While Ms. Bose sat rigid at the edge of the bed, Piu added from the door, “I’ve my mobile, I’ll call you as soon as I reach, Ma. Besides, Martijn is there. He’ll take care of me.”
Martijn. Blue-eyed, tall, white with a sharp European nose. And a few years younger to Piu. She still remembers the silence that had bristled around Piu’s announcement at their dinner table couple of months back.
“Martijn and I, we ’re going steady, wij zijn nu 8 maanden bij elkaar (We’ve been together for eight months now)! It’s serious, and I intend to move in with him soon,” said she, her face gleaming with satisfation.
In the silence that ensued she saw her husband nodding his head and preteding to be interested, encouraging further conversation. “Martijn? The one whom you introduced me at the Kunst Akademie?”
It had prompted Piu to talk in great deatil about Martijn’s love for art pieces and a whole lot more half of which she doesn’t remember anymore. What she remembers is that strange heaviness running through her limbs and those many words swirling around in her head. In her maternal confusion she had only heard herself speaking about the difference in their ages. He’s a couple of years younger to you, she had tried to begin cautiously.
Piu cut her off, offended and almost furious. “What is age, Ma? A number, een getal. Has got nothing to do with love!”
He has dropped college and you are a topper in the university, she had struggled to put the words in their correct mould and had failed miserably in her agaitation. On what basis have you taken this decision Piu?
She knew the collision that her words would produce. But with those very definite notions of womanhood that she had been raised with, those set of dictates that explained who is considered a good woman and how she is to behave, she ignored the outcome, going ahead. It all feels good to you now, Piu. A couple of years later you’ll regret it…
She felt the brittleness in the air around before her daughter spoke up. “Why is it so impossible to talk with you, Ma? You never understand.” Piu’s voice was stretched thin, her hands pushing the plate away. “You’re forever distrusting, forever finding faults with me, my decisions. Whatever I do, it is never right for you.” She picked up her plate, threw the leftover food in the bin and before storming out of the room, had turned to her father, saying, “I hate it here, you know Baba (father). Can’t take it anymore, this perpetual interference.”
The edges of her daughter’s words had cut her to the deep and the bleeding had begun. Can a mother be an enemy to her own daughter, she thought? Her husband moved back to the kitchen with a look of vaccum in his eyes and repeated the same words, like an ancient mantra. “While in Rome, be like Romans. Don’t bring your prejudices into her life, it won’t work. Try and be a part of the society where you are living…”
And hadn’t she tried? To be a part of this society?
She had adopted this land, learnt the language, exchanged her nationality, included mashed potato & veggies-stamppot — in their winter menu, gone to the barbeque party with her neighbors in summer and tried to relish the olliebollens in the winter. Given up adorning her parting with vermilion in public and had gotten used to to wearing trousers in place of her comfortable cotton saris. And yet that link with the land had refused to form; that much awaited bonding remained as elusive as on that very first day when she had landed in Schiphol, a timid bundle of nerves, following her young husband in silent excitement, her eyes wide with wonder and bright with hopes.
That first year was the year of change for both of them. But while the changes transformed her simple husband to a meticulous, ambitious person, all that the new changes did for her was to nurture a dissatisfaction with her own, lonely life.
The harder she tried to fit into the society, the more was her need to recoil back and belong to that old world she had left behind. The inordinate laxity prevalent in this western society, the permissive lifestyle, the non-existence of permanent relationship between man and woman had awakened a kind of wary incomprehension in her in those early years. Later she had tried to strike a balance between her deep-rooted Indian beliefs and modern European outlook. But in the new enviornment, she had found the new ways of life to clash with the importance of values she was raised with.
Once when her colleague Ineke from the small wereldwinkel (shop) where she went twice a week had wanted to know how was it possible for her to be still connected to the land she left twenty two years ago, she had just smiled, covering up her frustration of not being able to coin the exact expression in Dutch to her colleague. How was she to explain that her family in that crumbling, old home in Kolkata was still her rock and that she considered the place she left twenty three years back still as her home?
Disruptive, angry winds lashed out at the house like a furious animal kept in chains. Where did she go wrong, she wondered, standing in front of the telephone table and trying to connect with her husband who was at the moment travelling out of Holland. Her very desire to pass on to her child her heritage and to help her to grow so that she could create a space to call her own — was this desire so unfair, one that she didn’t deserve to yearn for? The phone kept ringing somewhere on the other side of the Atlantic, but instead of her husband’s voice she reached his voicemail. Knowing that it was useless to leave a message, she put the phone down. She had to find Piu herself, she knew. But how?
Her back slumping, she walked up the stairs to her own room, watching her own shadow, a silhouette of loneliness and regret. A cup of strong masala tea, that was what she needed now, as she felt the dull, familiar ache returning and pressing on her temples. As she filled water from the tap in her small water kettle, she could not stop thinking about Martijn.
What was it in him that she didn’t like, that she didn’t trust? The way he addressed her by name? The way he held Piu’s hands in front of her? The way he casually spent the night with Piu in her home? Something that she as Piu’s mother found most inappropriate?
Once when she had tried to raise the point to Piu, her daughter had tried to explain hard. “It’s not your fault, Ma, I don’t blame you, she had tried to be sympathetic in her thoughts. It’s all because of that ‘closet culture’ you were raised in, where parents decide their children’s future. It is still so prevalent. You are so used to find happiness in marriage by arrangement. How would you understand the importance of the freedom of choice Ma? You never knew any other man in your life other than Baba.”
She watches the water come to boil; She tries to be honest with herself. No, it wasn’t that she mistrusted Martijn. What she did not, could not bring herself to trust was these modern, temporary, impermanent relationships between man and woman, relationships that needed to be ‘worked out’. “It’s up to us to work out the relationship,” Piu had concluded, finally having no patience left for her mother’s litany on the need to keep the best part of her heritage.
She had then wanted to ask Piu how did one ‘work out’ a marriage, was that a sum, a calculation, or a formula that needed to be worked out? But watching the glittering stars of hope in her daughter’s eyes, the question had died on her lips.
She checked the weather outside, lifting the curtains. The dark outside her window was shattered by the unrelenting zig-zag of lightening. Closing the curtains, she walked back to the sofa, carrying the tea cup in both hands. She felt tired, exhausted, and the pain behind her temple pulled at her eyelids. But she could not sleep. What if Piu phones..? Or anyone else…from the police station…just anyone…?
And that’s what gave her the idea. Although she knew it would infuriate Piu, she still wanted to try. She lifted the mobile and punched Piu’s friend’s number. A couple of rings as she sat stiffened and then a high-strung voice mumbled, “Met Myra.(Myra speaking)”. Gripping the mobile in her hand she asks after Piu. “I cannot reach her,” she says, asking her if she could pass on her message. A couple of minutes later the mobile rings. It was Piu. Finally.
“I’m sorry I missed your calls, Ma. Was so busy.”
“You should have called, Piu. I’m alone here, sitting and worrying…when will you be back? Your father is also not here…”
“Why did you have to call Myra, Ma? You know I hate you calling up my friends,” she went on as though her mother hadn’t spoken. “I told you I’ll be fine. Will be staying over at Martijn’s tonight. Don’t worry, I’m fine.Will call you later.”
“Listen, I was saying, the Ray’s are there, nearby, if you need…”
But she has hung up already. Disconnected herself.
Chaitali Sengupta is a published writer, translator, journalist from the Netherlands. She is involved in various literary & translation projects for several literary and social platforms in the Netherlands and in India. Her works have been extensively published in many Indian literary platforms like Muse India, The Telegraph, Indian Periodical, Eindhoven News, The Asian Age, Borderless Journal, Setu bilingual. Her recently translated work “Quiet Whispers of our Heart” (Orange Publishers, 2020) received good reviews and was launched in the International book fair, Kolkata, India.
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