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The Momentous Event
|by Dr. Manasi Dutt|
During the last few days there had been incessant discussions in the Basu household about this upcoming law. All the famous lawyers and famous judges from all over India had gathered in Delhi, to change the law of the land, to formulate a new law. Till now the law of the land had been, that the sons would inherit everything and the daughters would inherit nothing. That was because the sons were the ones who carried on the family-name, they were the ones, who kept the flame of the oil-lamp alight at the family altar.
In other words, the sons were the heirs, whereas the daughters were nothing but temporary guests, who, when married away, went to other people's households to produce their heirs.
In Manjula's family, the Basu family, both her grandfather, the well-known well reputed lawyer, who even commanded the title of Rai Bahadur for his loyal and arduous service to the British Raj, as well as Manjula's uncle, whom she called kaka, were staunch supporters of the old law that the daughters should inherit nothing. Kaka's support for the old law was very obvious because he had produced the solitary son in the family. His son's name was Avay, meaning the one without fear; the name was abbreviated to Avi. There was no doubt in kaka's mind that every bit of the family property would come to him because he was the father of the only son in the family the only heir, whereas nothing would go to Manjula's side of the family, since she was nothing but a daughter and Manjula's father didn't possess the manhood of producing a son. Because of such opinions lots of humiliation hung over Manjula for being a woman.
The momentous event happened in Manjula's life when she was 14 years old studying in grade 8. It happened on the first day of the summer vacation, even before she left the bed in the morning. As usual her mother came to wake her up. Manjula didn't have an alarm clock, and she didn't have any bedside table either. Her mother functioned as her alarm clock, her mother woke up every morning at the crack of dawn and then she spent hours meditating.
While meditating, tears streamed down her cheeks. Manjula asked her mother, 'Ma, why do you cry when you meditate?' 'I don't cry, her mother answered in a cool tone, the tears I shed are tears of joy. During meditation I carry on conversations with my god. My God is my mother, my God is also my father, talking with my mother and father makes me so happy that I cry incessantly'.
In that fateful morning when the momentous event happened, as Manjula's mother came to her bed to wake her up, the sun was already up in the sky and the daylight had turned sharp, as if the daylight was cut by the sharp edge of a recently a sharpened knife, those sharp edged daylights fell on Manjula's bare legs and the back of her neck and the light beams were hot enough to dig in hot claws in her flesh.
Manjula's mother called her daughter in an urgent voice, more urgent than in other days, she said, 'Manjula get up, get up right away we have to go to the rooftop and discuss about something really important, immediately. Right after that, you'd have to hit the books and start studying'. 'Why is the hurry for studying?' Manjula asked in a foggy tone, 'this is only the beginning of the summer vacation today is the first day. I've got three more months left to do whatever I wish to do then why is the hurry?'
Manjula knew something momentous had happened, 'has the sky fallen down or what? Manjula tried to be humorous. 'Manjula, This is no laughing matter the law of the land has changed today and you should be well informed about that, since it would affect your life profoundly'.
Manjula could guess what that law would be. For weeks there had been discussions in the family about this upcoming law. It was said that all the famous lawyers of the country as well as all of the famous judges had gathered in Delhi to write up this new law, and then the old law would be discarded. In the old law, the sons, who carried on the family names and kept the flame of the oil lamp burning at the family altar were the real heirs. Manjula, being a daughter, was no family heir, so to say, a nobody. In Manjula's family, the Basu family, there was a solitary heir, who was Avi, her uncle, her kaka's only son.
From an early age it was made crystal clear to Manjula that for being a son Avi was way superior to her, the male superiority was a well accepted fact in the Basu family. Manjula and other female cousins were lumped together, whereas Avi was treated differently. When sweets were distributed among the children, the female children received one apiece whereas Avi received two, for being a son. So was the rule in every household and everybody accepted it.
Manjula's parents were also treated differently because they had failed to produce a son. Manjula's grandparents and her kaka's family claimed that Manjula's mother's womb was defective and of inferior quality. That's why a son refused to grow in it. Manjula's father's reputation was even worse, he was called a man without a manhood, because his manhood had betrayed him by not producing a son. All these different opinions swirling in the family poisoned the family atmosphere and Manjula grew up in a poisonous atmosphere like that.
In that morning on the first day of summer vacation as her mother woke her up in an urgent tone, Manjula unglued her eyelids as fast as she could and stared right in the eyes of her mother. In those deep dark, doe eyes of her mother's Manjula saw hope and excitement dancing alternately. Manjula sat up with a jerk and climbed down the bed with a jump, 'let us go to the rooftop' Manjula said in a hurry, her mother pulled her up by her hand and the two of them climbed up the steps in nimble feet and reached the rooftop in no time. They sat down in the shade of a wall, knowing soon the sun's rays would gather enough heat and scorch their skin.
Words and sentences gushed out from Manjula's mother's mouth as if she could barely hold them back. The dam had burst. She unfolded the newspaper she had carried rolled up in her left hand. 'Manjula, look at the paper and see what the news is all about, from now on in our country, the country of India, the sons and daughters would be treated equally, there would be no difference between the two. Do you know what that means for you and me? For me it means that I shall bring up my daughter, in the same way as I would have brought up a son without any difference between the two. From today on, you would be just like my son. Do you remember the poem I always tell you? Today that has come true. Today my prayer has been answered. I told you Manjula, Pootra sama, kanya mama. My daughter is equal to my son. Since your birth I have prayed for this wish to come true. Today the Almighty has answered my prayer. You are a very fortunate woman Manjula a Shoubhagyabati'. Manjula nodded her head with shyness.
'From today on you are going to hit the books, you are going to get the education as a son receives.' 'What does that mean?' Manjula asked with trepidation. 'That means', Manjula's mother Said in a level tone, 'you are not going to be a teacher or a nurse, as women usually become, instead you will be a lawyer, or a doctor or an engineer, a real professional, and not just somebody who goes to work to put some extra money in the family budget. You have to be a real somebody well known and well reputed. Can I count on you with all these responsibilities?' Once again Manjula looked deeply in her mother's eyes and once again in that deep darkness she saw hope and anticipation dancing fervently. 'Of course I shall make all your dreams come true' Manjula uttered in an assertive tone, 'if you can bring about the change in the law, then of course I can bring about the changes in my life'. Then the two of them stood up together and started to descend the steps knowing fully well there would be nothing but chaos and discussions awaiting them in the apartment.
The reason of the chaos being, Manjula's kaka, the father of the heir to the family, never wanted the law to change. Her grandfather had gotten used to the fact that Avi her kaka's son was the heir, this change of law would be hard on the old man Manjula's mother thought. As they neared the apartment they could hear the screeching and squabbling going on inside. The lawyers and judges, who had gathered in Delhi, are nothing but fools Manjula's grandfather declared. 'They are clearly against the sons. The average people like you and I would be spending heaps of money for our daughters' weddings and their dowries then offer them inheritances as well. What kind of a rule is that? Is this country ruled by the elected government? or by the monkeys ? Has the elected government lost its head?' Manjula's grandfather asked the air, no answer drifted back.
As Manjula entered the apartment and listened to the squabbling, screeching and arguments, she pondered, 'if this noise continues, after lunch I shall go back to the rooftop and spend the whole day there'. Just as she entered the apartment, she was surprised to see that her aunt, her grandmother, the maidservant, and her cousins were all around the dining room table, but her uncle, her kaka, and her grandfather, her dadu, were nowhere to be seen. 'Where are they?' Manjula wondered. From the others soon she came to know that her kaka and her Dadu were so heartbroken that they had taken to the bed.
Manjula decided to visit her Dadu. Despite his old fashioned beliefs, Dadu loved Manjula with all his heart, Manjula was aware of that.
On reaching Dadu's bed Manjula found him lying with his eyes closed, the soft folds in his upper eyelids were swollen in a sack, and the soft folds in his lower eyelids also formed a similar sack. At the corner where the sacks met hung one drop of tear, like a pearl between two shells. Empathy and kindness for Dadu welled over in Manjula's heart. She felt very distraught thinking how much this change of law has hurt this old man. At this point Manjula forgot all the advantage she would enjoy by being brought up as a son and by receiving the education as a professional just like a son. All she wanted, was her dear Dadu's sadness to disappear. With gentle fingers she wiped away the drop of tear. That woke Dadu up. 'Manjula, you know, I always loved you as much as I love Avi. You know that. Don't you?' Manjula nodded and stepped away silently on padded feet. She exited the room without dadu's knowledge.
That day was a Thursday. The day when in the evening Manjula's grandmother, her Didu, offered a special pooja to goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. At this pooja Didu offered the goddess the sweets rossogolla. After the pooja was over, all the children of the household, Manjula and her cousins gathered around didu. That was the time when Didu distributed the rossogollas. Each girl child received one rossogolla and Avi was the one who received two. Nobody protested. Because that was the rule that had always been observed. But today was a different day when the pooja was over and the time came for Didu to distribute the rossogollas she placed one rossogolla in Avi's cupped hand, just as she had done with her granddaughters. Avi broke out into a bellowing cry. Immediately Didu said, 'Avi, I don't love you any less because I'm giving you one rossogolla. I can't do anything about it. Since now it is the law of the land. You understand that, don't you?' 'I do' Avi said through his sobs with his eyes smeared with a layer of moisture. That was the way how the atmosphere changed in the Basu family.
In the evening when Manjula's mother asked her, 'Manjula, do you want to go to the rooftop to have a discussion?' Manjula was indeed very eager to join her mother. On reaching the rooftop she asked her mother the question that was dancing right at the tip of her tongue. 'Ma, you might bring me up as a son, but we have to keep it a secret between you and me. How can we do that forever? Someday it has to come out. Doesn't it?' 'Yes, someday indeed it has to come out but till then we don't have to be in any hurry, that day might be still a long way away. Till then, keep your mouth shut and do your work'. 'But Ma, even at the end after being brought up as a son I shall still remain a girl, I shall never be able to be an heir, isn't that the truth? The bottom line?' 'Only God can tell us what the truth is', Manjula's mother uttered with a wise nod. 'Don't you remember what happened two years back? didn't God twist the truth at that time?'
Two years back out of the blue Manjula's uncle, her kaka, and her grandfather, her Dadu, decided that the heir of the family, Avi, should receive the best possible education, in the best possible school. After doing their research of all schools in the state of Bengal they decided for a residential school in the resort town of Deoghar. Avi was taken there by his father. That place was run by a particular religious group. After one week all huffing and puffing, one messenger from Deoghar arrived to meet Avi's father. The messenger informed that Avi had committed some kind of a grave misbehavior and had been expelled from the school. Immediately Manjula's kaka and her Dadu left for Deoghar, and came to know that Avi had been disobedient to the orders of one elderly monk. The monk had rebuked Avi severely and Avi had beaten up the monk badly. The old man's ankle was twisted so severely that he had to spend three days in a hospital bed. The principal said that they could forgive any other kind of misbehavior, but beating up a monk could not be forgiven. Thus evaporated Avi's chance of going to a good school and receiving an excellent schooling. So was dashed any hope the family harbored for Avi's great schooling. His father and grandfather were utterly heartbroken. 'Another such twist might show up in the future, who knows?' questioned Manjula's mother, still Manjula's face remained smeared with doubt. Her mother added 'if you have to choose between two people one standing on top of a mountain gleaming with intelligence, qualities and abilities and one standing in the gutter caked with dirt, mud, grime and disgrace who would you choose? The one standing in the gutter just because he has an appendage between his legs? Manjula, life is not that easy. One can have a legal protection, that being the law of the land. But to be admired, appreciated and adored by others has to be earned.'
As Manjula and her mother neared the rooftop, they heard a sobbing, an uncontrollable sobbing, each sob followed by a retch followed by another sharp sob, sharp spikes of sobs interrupted by hiccups and retching. Both of them stopped in their tracks. 'Isn't that Avi's voice?' Manjula asked. She and Avi were close. They had grown up together. Avi was only two years younger to her. On reaching the roof-top Manjula and her mother found out that it was indeed Avi who was sobbing on the roof top. As Manjula approached him, he said, 'it was really a terrible day for me.' 'I know' Manjula said as gently as she could. Avi ran to her and thrust his head in the crook of Manjula's neck. He continued sobbing and Manjula's neck got flooded with his tears.
With the end of her sari Manjula dried her neck and pressed Avi's head hard on her shoulder, only to be flooded all over again. 'Were you hurt because you received only one rossogolla?' Manjula asked in a gentle tone. 'No, I couldn't care less for that,' Avi answered through his sobs, 'but the smirks on the faces of my sisters broke my heart,' he added. 'From now on you will receive the same as the girls, you know that, don't you?' Manjula said. 'Yes, I do know, but please, not with a smirk, the smirk is like diving a knife through my heart. Soon the novelty of the whole affair would wear off and that would wipe away the smirks from the faces of my sisters. By then kaka and dadu would also forget their sadness and our family would be back to normal. Whatever 'normalcy' means.' As an afterthought Manjula added, at any time when you wish to have two rossogollas, just let me know, I shall give you my share. 'thank you' Avi whispered back, while wiping his tears, he said 'at this moment your offer means a lot to me' while wiping his tears.
At that moment Manjula's heart went out to Avi, the tall lanky, muscular boy, his body slightly stooping, his shoulders slouching a fragile twelve year old, who was left in an unknown place with unknown people two years ago. As soon as he got over that phase of stress, arrived this second phase, the change of the law, when all his privileges were stripped away and with this change of law, his very own family has also stripped him off his identity. He is no more an honored heir, but just an ordinary child with no special rights. Manjula felt nothing but sadness for him. 'Avi, remember, Tough times don't last, but tough people do. Keep your chin up and your shoulders braced back, the tough time would pass'. 'Is that a promise?' Avi asked with a lopsided smile, Yes, that is a promise Manjula said in an assertive tone. The two cousins descended from the rooftop hand in hand, One, who was already a son, the other who was trying her level best to grow up as a son. At that moment there was no difference between the two, they blended seamlessly. Even their feet followed the same rhythm. From next time on Manjula always gave him her share of rossogolla. She didn't wish to consume too many rossogollas and get fat.
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