That triangular spot near the hibiscus plant. That's where they used to rest. When all the other girls had finished their morning studies and were roaming around in the neighborhood, their mother would raise her voice--“Tinni, Minni, if your homework is done, go take your baths. No going outside now!” The two sisters always listened to their mother and only went out in the evenings. After their baths the two of them would pick flowers. Tinni being older by 5 years was taller, so she could jump and grab the branches to lower for Minni to pick the flowers. Minni always tagged along her older sister. If Tinni picked flowers, she would carry the basket, if Tinni arranged for Puja, she would make the sandalwood paste, and when all the chores were finished, both the sisters would come and spread a mat under the hibiscus tree, in their very own, triangular corner.
Split bamboo canes fenced their yard. Around the fence were Basak shrubs so dense that if you sat down, nobody could see you from outside. They would lazily draw henna designs on each others hands or aimlessly chitchat while sucking on juicy oranges. During the season of Chalta, they would have Chalta, if it was time for tamarind, then it would be tamarind. Berries, olives, unripe mangoes, chukai, latka, they ate everything with relish. Mom did not stop them. She was strict about a few things, but did not stop them from having fun. She wanted the girls to have some discipline, not float around aimlessly like bits of algae in a pond. She showed them the joys of life, read them stories, and led them into the world of music. Sometimes they sang together, 'the morning star looks down on me...' or sometimes Tinni sang alone 'I open my door to welcome the spring...' and Minni danced. Mom would then lose herself in her favorite novel by Pramath Nath Bishi or Tagore.
In the evening their dad would come home. Mom always made him hot tea, and served some snacks for all. Light conversation would be tossed around—bring a little flour tomorrow…we are almost out of crackers…next month I have to make some new pillow covers for all, etc. Occasionally heavyweight topics came up too—dad’s office news or local politics. After tea, dad went off to the club, to his friends for some cards or chess. Mom would supervise the girls’ homework, till it was time for dinner. Thus they spent a peaceful, pleasant life for a long time.
Tinni was quiet and polite. She was almost 18 now. She had started college. Minni was only thirteen, in class eight. She was restless and a chatterbox. Now their mom became their friend. There was no need to discipline Tinni; she already new right from wrong. Minni always listened to her older sister, thus always followed what Tinni did and their mother wanted. That was it. Mom was relieved. Now she could relax and enjoy their company. Tinni had grown so pretty. All the boys in her college were writing her love letters. She brought them all to her mom to read. Mom just smiled and said “forget about all this.” Minni too peeked at a few. Boys wrote like that? Minni too was pretty. One day she too would get her share of such letters. Those nerdy boys would write to her ‘I love you so much…’.
Tinni was done with her final school exams, so Miss Karabi came daily to teach her music. Minni was not into music. Her love was poetry. Besides, she still had a few more years in school. Tinni learned songs from their mom, from the teacher, from the radio. She sang, 'the flowers bloom in my heart, not in the garden...' Miss Karabi was very impressed by the way she twists her voice at '...my heart...'. "Such a polished voice!" she told their mom. Her mother loved to hear this. Her father loved it too. Even the neighbors said, ‘Our Tinni can sing!’
With singing and dancing, Tinni finished her carefree college years. Her beauty had started attracting various marriage proposals. Minni had become more studious. She was supposed to take her secondary exams next year. But in the evening, she too would forget about studies and joined in Tinni's song, poetry recitals and their mother's friendship. Their evenings were now so joyful that even dad occasionally skipped his chess games and joined them in recitals—'I will join life today in the game of death...', or mother and Tinni singing: '..From fear, to fearlessness, let me be born again…'
All fears then receded. The fearlessness bloomed like sweet mango flowers. Minni would then recite—
… There is love in the steps I walk,
There is love in fetching the water,
There is danger in every step, thus fear
The dream comes—very easily
The heart trembles---very easily…
It was like floating on clouds, like gliding on a boat in soft wind. Their family. The autumn clouds were bathed in golden sun. Air heavy with the fragrance of shiuli. Dad, Mom, Tinni, Minni, peace, security, love each other, trust each other. I cannot live without you. This feeling brought relief surely but worries and fear too. One day dad came home to find Minni in high fever. Her face was beet red. A glum faced doctor was standing at her bedside, feeling her pulse. Suddenly dad remembered reading in the paper, warnings about mosquitoes and encephalitis and death…"Doctor, please.. Is it encephalitis?" Dad almost collapsed on the floor. The doctor left the daughter and rushed to feel for the father's pulse.
And then there was one monsoon season. It rained and rained. Dooars was completely flooded. Right at that time, Tinni came down with abscess in her tonsils. She was in such pain, could not eat, could not speak. Dad and mom decided to take her to the city hospital. A full one hour drive, in good weather. Driver-uncle was so scared. Minni was sitting in front and in the back seat, Tinni was lying with her head in mom’s lap and feet in dad’s. Mom kept on saying, “don’t worry, everything will be alright," and Tinni was drooling something sticky and white from her mouth.
Thus the years went by. In worry and relief, in good times and bad times, but always filled with love and trust. Tinni’s schoolteacher brought news of a suitable boy for Tinni. Dad immediately said, “No, no way. I will not be able to live without her.” Mom reassured him, “You can’t say that. A daughter has to be married. That is how your mother came to this family, that is how I came too…” But there were tears in mom’s eyes. Dad looked at her—at the silver around the parting of her hair. Mom stared at dad—his forehead had broadened, there were whites in his hair, moustache, beard, even in the hairs on his chest. It was time then. Time at last for them to exit the realm of youth. Now the stage belonged to their children. The new generation. Dad at last agreed to the wedding. The boy came from a large family, two younger brothers, boy's parents and also uncle and aunt. Dad worried “Will she be able to manage?” Mom said, “Why not? A woman can do anything. Have I not trained her well?”
Tinni was happy because she was supposed to be. Minni was sad to think of her sister going far away to Kolkata. She went there only once, to her uncle's place, in Batanagar, when she was small. She did not like Kolkata at all. Now her sister would be going to that ‘unliked’ city. But, the wedding went off without a hitch. Tinni set off from the small, quiet, peaceful Dooars to the Big City. Mom tearfully reminded the groom to make sure Tinni got some rice in the morning, “My daughter really loves rice for breakfast”. Minni said, “My sister sings so well. Do remember to ask her to sing, please”. Dad did not say anything, only placed his hand on Tinni’s head. His lips trembled in some silent prayer.
That was April. After that Tinni came only once, for two days. Minni had her final exams and did not get a chance to talk with her properly. She only glanced at Tinni from time to time. There was something extra in her sister.
Was it the sindoor in her hair? The conchshell bangles, maybe? Wearing a sari whole day, like the grown ups? No. None of these. A different light was in her, an indifference for Minni’s absence, preferring her husband’s company over her sister’s. Minni felt hurt, alone, and somehow empty.
After many years, the two sisters were sitting under the hibiscus tree, eating tart berries, as before. After April, came May, June and then July. Apparently on this month, the mother in law was not supposed to see the face of her daughter in law! So Tinni returned to her parents. She would also stay through August, because as everyone knew, nobody was supposed to leave home in August. So, to celebrate this long stay, the two sisters feasted on the berries. They didn’t spread a mat on the ground that day, it was a little bit damp from the rain last night. So they sat on two wicker stools and made funny sounds with their tongue at the tartness of the berries. Minni was watching her sister; she appeared somewhat pensive, quiet. Minni asked—“Very noisy?”
Tinni answered, “Yes. Always trucks and buses and trucks and buses...”
Tinni—“Too much. Feel suffocated. Everything looks dusty, the sky is grey.”
Minni—“But you have a roof, no? You go there? Look at the stars?”
Tinni—“Yes, I do. With your brother-in-law."
Minni---“Why? Not alone? Scared?”
Tinni—“Silly! Not scared. It is the rule. Not allowed to go on the roof in daytime. And in the evening, one can’t go alone, for fear of evil eye!”
Minni---“Oh dear! You believe in all this?”
Tinni—“I have to."
Minni—“Don’t you wish to go? See the stars? Remember how we used to see a skyful of stars from our yard? I wish we had a flat roof to go up on.”
Tinni—“Silly! Flat roof will never last in the heavy rain here. But you know, the stars there look very distant.”
Minni—“Distant? Of course they are distant. Stars are never close.”
Tinni—“No, those are even more distant, dull, faint. As if no starburst is going on there. You will understand Minni if you see them”.
For a while they were silent. Minni tried to imagine a dull star but could not. It was not like this before. The marriage had split up the two inseparable sisters. They both could feel it. Just to escape that feeling, Tinni suddenly said, “We have a well!”
Minni shot up, “Well? Really? What fun! Did you yell down? Was there an echo?”
--“Yes. I leaned over. The well looked unused. I was just going to yell, when my aunt-in-law appeared and did it for me.”
--“What do you mean?”
--“She started yelling, --‘Oh God! What will happen to us! You are the new bride, you should never stand alone by a well like this! Oh help, anyone! Come and see, your bride has gone mad!’”
The two sisters could not stop giggling. Tinni said, “There is more. There is banana day, radish day, spinach day, potato day, eggplant…”
--“Hey, hey, you started talking crazy like Kashem…”
--“I swear. It is crazy. Every month there is some ritual to observe. Our mom never did such things. It is weird. Everyone seems crazy like Kashem. Every occasion must be observed. Every rule must be obeyed. Rule after rule must be made and remembered. Just like Kashem. Overwhelmed by rules, he could not remember the real simplest one and could not open the door of his cave. These people too are mired in superstition, unaware of the real essence of life, the clue to goodness and joy”.
--“Does anyone sing? Read poetry?”
--“Anybody asks you to sing?”
The monsoon clouds thundered and poured at will. But monsoons did not last forever. Tinni spent the monsoon at home. And August too passed by before Minni got answers to all her questions. Tinni returned to her in-laws. She wrote to her mom--"...I made potato veggie a bit dryish, like you taught me. Everyone laughed at me. They prefer it with more sauce…”
Every new bride gets her share of such harmless teasing. But, to tell the truth, Tinni was loved by most people. She was quiet and not prone to petty quarrels. She was pretty but not a show off. She was accomplished but not overtly proud. During September and October, many relatives arrived to see the new bride and were mostly pleased with her. They agreed-- “This bride is quite nice”. “Looks even prettier after the wedding.” “Heard she can even sing?” “Why don’t you sing something for us?”
Tinni obediently sat with the harmonium and started 'How the light blooms like a lotus…’,
Sagar-auntie started gossiping with Tinni’s mother-in-law, “Hear this, my sistrer-in-law’s daughter, young thing. Already dating some good-for-nothing guy. Serves her right. She is such a show off! Now this girl of yours will beat her. Rub her nose in the dirt…”
Tinni finished her song. Sagar-auntie applauded, “Sing another one”.
In November, Madhu-auntie visited, --“What! The new bride has not started cooking yet?” Tinnis's mother-in-law said, “Of course she will. There is no hurry. Some day she will have to take care of everything. Go, child, bring us some tea.”
Tinni went to make tea. Quickly she got ‘promoted’ to the kitchen. First tea and breakfast, then lunch and dinner for all. No one wanted to eat the hired cook’s dishes anymore. Tinni tried to make new dishes. She also took on other jobs. Making bed for her father-in-law, arranging hot water bottle for the uncle-in-law, laundering shirts for the brothers-in-law, massaging the aching back of her mother-in-law etc., etc. She never complained about any of these chores. Only when she went up on the roof to spread out the wet laundry to dry, she stood for a while, looking far out. Busy road, shops, cars, smoke and noise.
Thus one winter passed, another arrived. Tinni had not been to her parents in last six months. Before that, Dad had come with Minni for a visit. Minni saw the dull stars and the yelling well. After that brief visit, nothing. Every day went by just like the one before. Same morning, same night. Occasional visits by Sagar-auntie or Madhu-auntie. Watching boring channels in TV. Her husband too had stopped taking her to the roof every evening. He had resumed visiting his old friends now. That was fine by Tinni. She did not mind. Her father too used to visit friends while their mother helped them with home works. That was expected. That was the rule.
Tinni did not think about the stars anymore, nor about yelling down the well. She did all the cooking now, the in-laws only helped her in the evening. The relatives, when visiting, did not ask her to sing anymore. Everyone knew about her singing. Now they talked about her cooking, whether she did her chores with a smile or not, whether she still remained as pretty as before etc. The other day she had accidentally burned her hand in the kitchen, her mother-in-law said, “There will be so many such mishaps." That day Tinni wrote to her sister, "…have not touched the harmonium for ages. Been feeling like singing. Wondering if I can ask for lessons again? Once in a while I still go up on the roof and look around. Everybody is moving, going somewhere. Only I am still, stuck in the same place. I feel as if I am finished. Minni, I never really wanted to be someone or do something. But if I did, could I have had a different life? Remember, you used to recite—
…Why the bridal dress? Why the fragrant flowers?
This royal outfit for a mere housemaid?
In the deep cave of night,
What if I have to become an animal!…
It was a wintry Sunday. Many friends and relatives had arrived to celebrate the 25th wedding anniversary of the brother of Tinni’s father-in-law. Tinni too was happy and energized. She had been running around whole day looking after everyone. By the time she got a break, it was late afternoon. Everyone had finished feasting and visiting and were napping in various rooms. Tinni felt exhausted. Did she have a chance to sit since morning? She could not remember. She did sit once, while eating. After that she could not remember anything. Now she really craved some rest. First she went to her own room. Her husband was sleeping there with his two brothers. Her mother-in-law's room was closed. She went around and found no place to rest. Exhausted, she at last went up to the roof. The sun was lukewarm at that late hour. But there was so much space. She spread the end of her sari at a corner and laid down, too tired to even bring a mat. She put her head on her arm, draped her sari over herself and was fast asleep. Only her feet stuck out from under her sari.
Reclining to the West, the Sun-God stopped for a moment to look at those feet. So cold and bare. He poured a little warm sunshine over them. Tinni barely moaned in her sleep---"Aah... Maa!"