"Hell hath no fury worse than that of a Woman Scorned"…
"The author's puerile insipid language wastes the themes and insults the emotions of the characters, assaulting the intelligence of the readers…"
"Who the hell is this? How dare she write such rubbish in a literary review? Ma, you must respond to that."
"Literary critics have the freedom to praise or criticize. She is doing her job, as she sees fit."
"No, it is more than that. Why is only her opinion different? Everyone else has given favorable reviews – more or less."
"Then she is the less part of it."
"But, Ma, this is a personal attack. You have known each other. You must confront her at the reading."
"I'll do no such thing. Saraiya is exercising her right to her opinion. Any public brouhaha will only lose me my positive reviews. Also leave me open to charges of raking up a controversy merely as a marketing tactic."
" That's a wonderful idea. Look, if the next book is as good, the critics will be back, in any case. If this one sells well, they'll really flock back. And who doesn't want this book to sell? If a debate can generate sales, why not?"
"Come on, now, what is there to debate?"
"This lousy personal attack. There has to be a reason behind it. A critic can't just write something like that because she happened to be in a foul mood, or had a fight with someone just before she wrote it."
"May be the story has touched a raw nerve, some personal experience? Ma, how well do you know Saraiya? Or know someone who knows her so we can get in touch and find out. Then we'll ferret out her skeletons and expose her."
"Stop that. All of you. I know Saraiya. May be not too well, but enough, okay."
"So nothing. I know why she has thrashed my work. It is nothing but delayed impotent vengeance."
"Vengeance? Against whom?"
" Drop it. I don't want to debate this in public. Look, if my book doesn't sell because of this review, I have all of you, my husband and children to help me out of the disappointment. She is all alone - no husband, shared children and passing through relationships. The public scandal will break her."
" What scandal? That she brought her personal life into her professional one?"
Nandita walked away into the refuge of her study. Saraiya, she thought, what have you done? It was difficult to even conjure up the face to match the name.
Her husband walked in. "Tell me, what is this all about?"
"It happened long ago. So long that I'd almost forgotten the incident, but Saraiya seems to have stoked the hurt for a long long while and bided her time to wreck vengeance for what was a totally unwitting act on my part." She stopped to collect her memories, decades old ones. Her delicate brow creased as Nandita turned to gaze out of the window.
"It happened long long ago. We were in a college festival together. You know what Saraiya is like. Now, from the papers and magazines, I gather she has refined. But she has always been very very outspoken, very dominating, almost aggressive. Long ago, she had her hair cropped into a totally boyish style and switched to pants and pathani suits, rather than salwar kurtas.
Yes, occasionally, she chooses to dazzle society in a stunning outfit. That is to make sure she remains on Page 3. She never wears a sari in public – only for puja at home in a command performance for her grandmother, never otherwise."
Oblivious of the growing number of listeners, Nandita delved into memory. "Ever since I've known her, Saraiya has walked like a man; she orders everyone about and talks down to women just like men do. She even talks like a man, only that dulcet voice sounds strange coming out of that shirt-clad throat. That is a total mismatch, which takes some getting used to. She really had to practice hoarse speaking for her male roles in college plays. She sings amazingly well, but she always hated the gentle songs that suited her voice. She preferred to wreck her throat belting out those raunchy male choruses that sounded really naughty in her voice.
Despite those naughty songs, I never suspected anything. Not then, not later. It was only a few years back that I realized what she had wanted of me. Like the naïve fool that I was, I hadn't even comprehended what she had wanted and had spurned her totally uncomprehendingly. She must have been quite quite hurt, I presume. That is why this delayed vengeance. She never got a chance earlier."
"Ma, what vengeance, what hurt? You are talking in riddles."
Nandita swung round to find her family gathered behind her. Her husband was flanked by her two married daughters and son. "When did you come?"
"Long ago; doesn't matter. What did you do?"
A rueful smile played on Nandita's lips.
"Come on, Ma, now you have to tell us. We have heard the entire prelude. What did you do"
"Come on, Ma…"
"Honestly, that was the whole problem. I did nothing then and that is why I'm paying for it now. And I will have to continue to do nothing because if I speak out now, it will sound like a pettish reply to her criticism."
"Pa, do something. Ma's talking in riddles."
The old couple exchanged a long look and comprehension gleamed into the old man's eyes. " Uh-huh, is that so?"
His wife nodded slowly. " I took much longer than that to understand", she said ruefully, a touch of deep felt regret in her voice. " But what could I do?"
As the younger people stirred, a degree of asperity crept into her voice. " Enough, isn't an old woman entitled to her own secrets?"
"No," said the daughter flatly. "In a family, no secrets. You taught us that long ago, Ma. And now you want to hold out on us. At a point like this, when everyone is pointing fingers and asking questions," she paused and then resumed more quietly.
"Ma, trust us. You know we will not want to unnecessarily publicize any unpleasantness. But at lest let us understand what this is all about. Put some faith into the training that you have given us all these years."
Once again the older couple looked at each other. A smile lifted the corners of the mouth unwittingly. She had really struck the nail on the head.
"Listen, children, Saraiya and I met at a college festival. We were both part of a play and I was in charge of procuring costumes." Nandita paused, as if to gather her thoughts, or rather the memories. " She kept putting off trying on her costume. Maybe she's shy of a trial in front of others, I thought. So I took it along to her room. She was alone and asked me to latch the door. 'Come on, we're all the same inside,' I ribbed her and snapped the latch. When I turned around, there was Saraiya, with not a stitch on her, standing in a poll of her clothes (a muted gasp was heard from Nandita's little audience) apparently she had not worn any underclothes at all. As you can imagine, I was not only totally taken aback, I was so embarrassed, I did not know where to keep my eyes.
She had a shapely figure inside those baggy pathanis, perfectly shaped small oranges for breasts, a narrow waist flowing gracefully into wide hips that tapered into those long legs. She held out her hands, and I…."
"What did you do, Ma?" The worldly-wise daughters' question was almost impatient.
" I pulled the costume over her head to cover her nakedness and to see if it fitted,"
"Aw..w..w, come on Ma…"
"That is the whole problem. At that point I was so naïve. I didn't know what the gesture meant. Even had I known, how would I have handled that?" the old woman was asking herself.
" I merely took it as part of Saraiya's extravagant exhibitionism and brusquely fitted the costume and then carried it off. Actually I was so stunned, I couldn't meet her eyes. I didn't look at her properly at all. Maybe, if I had, I may have acted differently. She must have felt so totally rejected and humiliated, because upto that point, we had vibed quite well together."
"Then what? Nothing. I left the room and carried on with whatever, I don't remember. Saraiya was distant. I noted that, but didn't attempt to get close. You know me. I'm not too comfortable with exhibitionists and I had decided that Saraiya was nothing but a shameless exhibitionist. But for the life of me, I couldn't figure out what she had wanted to expose for me for?"
"It was not until many years later that I knew. In between, we almost lost touch. I heard about her marriage, and then its rapid breakup, about her 'close friend' Shreela. There were innumerable comments on how they were always together, on why Shreela never married and for occasional relief, or was it after a tiff, Saraiya would surface for a spell with some handsome hunk, but never married him. She became more and more blunt and manly and I guess, guys felt safer with her than simmering socialites whose marital claws may or not be cleverly disguised.
Only very recently did lightening strike. I finally realized what Saraiya had wanted of me that afternoon. But, -- so much water had flown under the bridge, what was the point of raking it up with her or with anybody. I put it down to my inexperience and hoped that she may have done the same, although she must have been terribly hurt. That she would nurse such a grudge and wreck vengeance in this fashion --- that I would have never, never dreamt. "
Nandita shrugged her shoulders helplessly and put out her hands to her children, appealing for their understanding.