Culture & Society

Short Story: Mrinalini Gets Married

Sahana Ahmed writes a short story for Outlook.

A baoul singer at santiniketan. Photo: Sandipan Chatterjee.
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It was in October that Mrinalini had called up Ma to announce her engagement. Ma’s first reaction was, “My God, Mini, are you drunk?”

Mini smiled at the memory. Ma had asked her if she was sure; after all, she had been alone far too long. But Mini had made up her mind. “I’m ready for a new life, Ma.”

***

Mrinalini Lahiri was born in Santiniketan. Her Baba taught at Kala Bhavana and her Ma read Philosophy. As soon as she could walk, Mini was packed off to school with her sisters Bela and Sarojini. Classes were open air, there were no walls, and the students sat under the shade of shimul and chhatim trees. Mini would roam the campus, chasing ducklings and kittens, pretending to be a Baul, singing pretend Baul songs. Little Mini was growing up to be a very happy child; three months after her third birthday, her Baba died.

Ma stayed on at Visva-Bharati, she didn’t have the heart to uproot her daughters from the idyllic life they had grown used to. The Vice Chancellor’s household was looking for a caretaker and she promptly took up the job.

India had been free seven years now but there was cynicism in the air. The powerful were scrambling to usurp the fruits of Independence; the young were forgetting the lives of Gandhi and Subhas. But the feisty mother of three held on to her little world of idealism. At bedtime, she would recite the works of Kalidasa and Vyasa, and after work, she would frequent the library to know if the latest Leela Majumdar book was in yet. Sitting on the kitchen floor, chopping vegetables on her boti, she would tell her girls about karma and kriya, and over dinner, they would deconstruct the recipe’s seeds, roots, grains, and herbs. She would get the girls canvases for birthdays, and on certain days she would stop their Mathematics homework, to make them write essays in English.

The year 1971 was a watershed year. The country went to war. Bela left for Lady Hardinge, Sarojini joined All India Radio, and Mini, who had just finished her degree in Agriculture, won a bursary to study Agricultural Chemistry at McGill.

“I can’t go, Ma, who will look after you? Canada is so far, and so cold, and you did read about the blizzard, didn’t you? And French is so difficult, and we don’t even know anybody there, and Ma I don’t want to fail you!”

Ma looked into Mrinalini’s eyes. “Look, Mini, it is all right. Don’t feel guilty about wanting to leave.”

***

Life at Mac was as exciting as it was overwhelming. There were a few missteps but Mrinalini soon found her stride. Everything was so new, yet so familiar. The campus was green and endless, and her quarters not only had the charm and comfort of home but a spectacular view of the lake as well. Locals were devoted Francophiles, as committed to their language as her own people were to theirs, yet they were less formal and more friendly, patiently helpful with her French and her Ginny-come-lately ways.

At school, she got the scope for academic inventiveness. The freedom and support helped her open-up her wings and be unafraid. She wore a short skirt for the first time, had her first sip of wine, and went to her first Jazz concert. She realised she had never laughed so hard before, and she was elated her friends found her exotique. She spent time working on a farm, and the host family taught her beekeeping and woodworking; plumbing and welding too. During the holidays, she was invited by the herbarium curator to her house for dinner. That is where she first met Arunachalam Krishnamurthy.

Arun was from Bombay and an uninhibited Kishore Kumar fan. Between dessert and coffee, as the children were being tucked into bed, he introduced the gathering to Raat Kali Ek Khwab Mein Aayee and Ek Ladki Bheegi Bhaagi Si. Maybe it was because he kept glancing at her, maybe because she was the only Indian girl there, she had to join him for the obligatory duet. They sounded beautiful together, and that night, Mini saw snow for the first time.

In between her work on Salmonella Inactivation in Aqueous Peptone, she found time to meet Arun at the library, or the Centennial Centre, or the John Abbott grounds. Mini knew Arun wished to stay back at Mac, and she resolved to continue their courtship long-distance. However, Arun’s newfound allegiance to his Tamil Iyer roots was hint enough for her to not hope for a future with him. She was the one to call it quits. She returned home to Ma armed with a post-graduate degree, a bruised heart, and a gallon of maple syrup.

***

Mini spent the next four years wading through insipid work and uninspired men. Her Programme Head’s vision for the department seemed to end at her “sleeveless Bengali” arms; his sharp tongue never failed to lash out at her “foreign-returned” ways. What stung her more was the realisation that she was letting small people make her feel smaller. Bela had bought a house, Sarojini was engaged, and what was she doing? Wasting her time in a system that let perfectly good work go waste in the pothole-ridden sludge of the boonies because nobody had thought to build a cold storage!

Yes, there were a few good men she met during those gloomy PUSA days, but none she had the mind to wish upon herself. And then one fine day, at an FAO symposium on Food Irradiation, who does she bump into but Mr Bombay himself.

“You look good in that hair, Mrinal!”

“You look all worried yourself, what are you doing in these parts?”

“Looking for you.”

“Shut up, Arun.”

“No seriously, I have a job proposal for you. I mean if you’re looking for a change that is… Seeing somebody? Ah, that look!

Okay, okay, just don’t kill me for asking. Are you free for dinner tonight?”

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“What’s the occasion?”

“That we are going out for dinner.”

Arun now worked to promote social justice through food sovereignty and was looking for someone to help him set-up the model in the East. He insisted that had they not met serendipitously, he would have sought her out. “Mrinal, please think about it seriously.”

The decision was made for Mini when one of her lab assistants ingested a beaker of indoxacarb for grievances guessed at but never established. Mini joined Arun, and they were together again. Passionate, young, driven, they didn’t have the time to start a family, so they never felt like formalising their relationship. Ma was happy that Mini was happy, and Arun’s people…well, they were never happy, so why even try.

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Nineteen years after they had first met, Mrinalini had a hysterectomy and Arun had an affair. This time Mrinalini gave him the privilege of leaving first.

***

Hi Mrinalini, 
I’d like to connect with you on LinkedIn. 
Tashi Lachungpa 
Filmmaker, Farmer 
www.sangbum-farmstay.com

Mini removed her glasses and peered at the profile picture. She had seen this face before, the aristocratic nose, almond eyes, calm smile… She clicked on ‘Accept invite’, then Googled the name. Of course! Under the man’s Wikipedia and website entries was a YouTube video by a June Lachungpa. She clicked on the link.

Mini knew this video well. A pretty, kohl-eyed girl in a bob, singing a soft ballad. An apprentice had posted the video on her Facebook wall: “You must watch this! #SoEmotional.” It was a popular post, what they called viral nowadays. She hummed the melody, she still remembered snatches of it. June’s lyrics scrolled in on the bottom of the screen.

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August the ninth 
Nineteen ninety-three 
Lost in vapour, lost memory 
Her voice, sedated, calling me 
White tiles, a window, a pine tree 
A man rocking his baby 
To sleep

“She sings just like Sarojini,” thought Mini.

June’s image faded away, and in its place appeared a slideshow of black and white photographs. A young woman with delicate cheekbones sat under a quilt, nursing a steaming cup. The same girl, all dolled up in a saree. Posing in front of the Taj with a young Tashi. A close-up portrait, wing-tip eyes…

I have a wish 
That I could find 
A love as lovely 
As my daddy 
I have a wish 
Oooooooooo [x8]
By my bed
In reverie 
He told me of a girl born free 
She showed him what he’s meant to be 
A daddy rocking his baby 
To sleep

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Tashi in a turtleneck sweater and bell-bottoms, a mic in hand. Cutting a birthday cake, his woman looking on. On top of a camel, looking shocked. Under a banner that read: Gawa & Tashi. Seaside, Gawa in a bikini…

I have a wish 
That I could find 
Such a Knight ‘n’ 
Be his Lady 
I have a wish

The pictures were coloured now. Gawa in hospital scrubs, a little June in her lap. Gawa with a shaven head. June and Gawa in matching bakhus. All three in front of the Pyramids. Eiffel Tower. The Tower of Pisa. On board a sailboat. A Moroccan medina, Tashi carrying his wife in his arms… 

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Mini clicked pause and sat looking at the grainy image. Tashi was smiling through wet eyes, and Gawa looked straight at the camera, proud and defiant.

***

When Tashi came over to meet her with his proposal for a documentary on Affordable Cold Storage Equipment for Rural Farmers, Mini was surprised to see how old he really was. Of course, his profile said he was born in 1949, a year before her even, but she had been thinking of him only as Gawa’s Tashi. When she mentioned the video, he looked embarrassed. “Oh that,” was all he said.

Mrinalini’s part was shot within a month, but Tashi kept in touch with her. Tashi was amazed to learn that Mrinalini had never married. Two months were all he took to gather his courage and ship a pot of dendrobiums to her doorstep. His handwritten note read:

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paths, travel weary 
stop voyager, rest a while 
winter was 
spring is

Mini’s reply was a simple text message: “Yes.”

***

By ten o’clock, the peon at the Family Court was sleepwalking through his job. He collected documents and photographs and verified the applicants. He offered no congratulations, his own marriage hadn’t turned out well. Weary and impatient, he longed for a cigarette break. When he called out the names of Mrinalini Lahiri and Tashi Lachungpa, an elderly pair came forward. He craned his neck to look behind them, but there was no one else there. He was confused. He glanced at their IDs, and let them in. He ignored the vibrating cell-phone in his shirt pocket, and wondered where he had seen the old gentleman before.

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