What Will People Say?

Title: What Will People Say?

Author: Mitra Phukan

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books



There were many Tinigaons within the city of this name. ‘Three Villages’ was the meaning in the local language. A small city in the folds of a valley in the middle of Assam. There was the Tinigaon that was still a small town, not in terms of size, but in the attitudes of the people. It was not just the middle-aged and older people who clung to tradition. Quite a few younger people did, too. And it was not always bad, this conservatism. Indeed, sometimes this unshakeable belief in the sanctity of the past was beautiful and illuminating. It was this conservatism that preserved the precious heritage of the past and kept it alive, preventing it from passing into oblivion.

But at other times, when conservatism became rigid, and sought to impose its beliefs on those who had a different mindset, dictating how they should behave, dress, what relationships they could or could not have, it could become a prison that prevented any kind of progress from taking place. As with much conservatism, the greatest restrictions were placed on women. There were strict codes of conduct for women and girls, codes that varied from age group to age group, but were authoritarian, nevertheless. Individual freedoms were always secondary to the ‘expected’ modes of conduct. ‘It’s always been like this,’ was a refrain often heard to justify the many rules which had lost all relevance in a swiftly changing world. If, indeed, they had ever been relevant at all.

The rules for girls and young women, though unyielding, at least took into account the rebelliousness of youth. ‘You are young, that’s why you think like this,’ was a sentence that was spoken grudgingly by parents or uncles and aunts, to people who were, in their eyes, guilty of ‘errant’ behaviour. But young people went outside the city, outside the state, to study, to work, and who knew what their lifestyles were there? Preferring to turn a blind eye to many rumoured ‘goings-on’ in the metro cities, goings-on in which their children were willing, even enthusiastic participants, they were for the most part relieved that at least when they came home, they behaved in ways ‘expected’ of them.

And so, even though they spoke viciously of that girl, WhatWasHerName, who was now living in with some boyfriend in Delhi, they preferred to keep silent about their own daughter who was doing the same. Grateful for small mercies, they pretended not to know anything when they visited her in the flat she rented in Gurgaon. They kept a deadpan face when they came across a shirt in size 42 hanging, forgotten in the cupboard in the second bedroom. They tried not to notice the other telltale signs that their daughter had been ‘cohabiting’ with a male, and refrained from asking where he had gone, now that they were here for three weeks. They did not ask about the long phone conversations that stretched to well past midnight and were only grateful that their daughter had been ‘considerate’ enough to spare them the trauma of meeting some unknown boy with whom she had been sleeping for the past so many months. They even pushed into a dark recess that worry of pregnancy, and the even greater worry of ‘WhatWillPeopleSay?’

Yes, in these changing times, people were learning, slowly, to ‘adjust’ to the fact that the younger people now were prone to living their lives in ways that were different from what was deemed to be ‘allowed’. But when it came to older people, things still remained as rigid as they had been for centuries. Especially for women. And especially, very especially, for widows.

True, Hindu widows were no longer expected to live a life that was, virtually, a death sentence. Younger widows, especially, ate non-vegetarian food, though their mothers, after the deaths of their husbands, still did not. They wore coloured clothes, though again, their mothers wore pale, traditional clothes, even though during the lifetimes of their husbands they had worn the most vibrant colours under the sun.

But there were, still, many restrictions on single women, widows, even divorcees or never-marrieds, in Tinigaon. They could go out in mixed groups, but never in a twosome with a man not closely related. They could not ‘date’ a man, and go out with him, even if it was as innocent as an outing to a theatre, or a music concert, or having a meal at a restaurant. There were always prying and peering eyes around who would ‘see’ what was happening, magnify it many times, load it with all kinds of intent, and then broadcast it with relish to salivating friends at the next kitty party that took place.

Mihika remembered the time a recently divorced forty-something mother of two had accepted a lift, two days running, from her superior, a married, fifty-plus man. Without a car at that time just after her divorce, she had been waiting on the pavement, in pouring rain, for a bus or auto or ricksha to take her home. As time passed and no vehicle stopped for her, she was growing increasingly desperate. The nanny who looked after the children would be leaving at six-thirty, and it was almost six already. She was greatly relieved, therefore, when her boss’s boss, whom she knew only slightly, stopped and asked her if he could drop her anywhere. It turned out her apartment was on the way to his house and she had gladly accepted the offer of the lift.

(Extracted from What Will People Say? A Novel by Mitra Phukan. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2023)

About the Book

When Mihika, 56 and a widow, gets drawn into a relationship with Zuhayr, a 60-year-old divorcee who was her late husband Aditya’s friend, it doesn’t seem to her like an event that should cause more than a raised eyebrow or two. Not in the twenty-first century, and not when their grown-up children are happy that their parents have found a second chance at happiness. But inTinigaon—a small town in Assam—it is just not done for a woman of Mihika’s age to have a romantic relationship—that, too, with a man from the Other Religion: a Muslim.Tinigaon’s Old Guard is scandalized as Mihika and Zuhayr are seen together in restaurants and cinema halls,‘flaunting’ their affair. And a nosy neighbour, Ranjana, keeps the moral brigade busy with juicy details of Zuhayr’s late-night comings and goings from Mihika’s house. Mihika decides to ignore the gossipmongering and slander and remain true to her relationship with Zuhayr, who has filled a void in her life after Aditya’s death five years ago.As long as her four closest friends,Tara,Triveni, Shagufta and Pallavi, stand by her, she doesn’t care if others turn away. But when the gossip turns into something more sinister that could threaten her daughterVeda’s happiness, Mihika is forced to take a call—should she give up the man she loves for her daughter’s sake, or is there an alternative that could give them both what they want? Writing with great sensitivity and gentle humour, Mitra Phukan proves once again that she is an extraordinary chronicler of the human heart. Rooted, like all her fiction, in the culture and sensibilities of Assam, What Will People Say? speaks to all of us, wherever we are, whoever we are.

About the Author

Mitra Phukan is an Assamese author, translator and columnist who writes in English. Her published works, fourteen so far, include children’s books, biographies, two novels, The Collector’s Wife and A Monsoon of Music, several volumes of translations from Assamese to English and a collection of her columns, Guwahati Gaze. Her most recent works are a volume of her own short stories, A Full Night’s Thievery, and a translation of a volume of short stories, by Sahitya Akademi Award-winning author, Harekrishna Deka, Guilt and Other Stories, both published by SpeakingTiger.

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