"If only Sudheer could have seen this." Soma thought aloud as she stood in the balcony , as if the breeze would catch her words and carry them forth to some place unseen. Their eldest daughter Seema had got her dream job after a long anxious wait . Seema had grown morose and distant as the days rolled by. But Soma ,unlike other mothers had not fussed about her daughter. She did not even try to calm down Seema's fears .
"A little stress does no harm to anyone" she told an open-ended mouthed Seema as her youngest daughter Ruma giggled.
"That's Mummy, always unpredictable!". She grinned at the sobbing Seema.
' Seema , there are other jobs in this world too. You don't have to worry yourself sick over this. Be strong "
"You will never understand Mummy. You are no less than an unfeeling machine." retorted Seema sulkily as she wiped her tears. Soma smiled as she remembered Seema's apprehensions . So very like her father. " Oh God, I can't thank you enough for the added dignity."
Her thoughts went back to the same day twenty years back. She stood in the same place alone and afraid. Sudheer's body had been taken to the crematorium, the lament of his mother and relatives ringing in her ears. She was already thinking of how to manage everything in future, no time to mourn her husband's death or the unfair twist of destiny. Sudheer's eldest brother was a gambler and had absconded with some crook's money. Sudheer's murder was a case of mistaken identity. The dutiful son, devoted husband and doting father , the sole bread winner of the family had paid for his gambling, shirker brother's misdeeds with his life. Soma's complacent world had fallen apart and she had to pick up the threads and step into Sudheer's shoes and that too soon, very soon.
" Don't worry Malti , we are all there for you" she heard a neighbour say.
" You all are our responsibility now " ." a garrulous , gossip monging relatives ' shrill voice rung in her ears.
Time would pass and so would the sympathy. Soma could foresee that. She walked inside quietly, tall and dignified as her mind worked and made plans for the future, first time without Sudheer. She needed a job, however low paying. Sudheer's father would take his place in the shop. As for her job, her mind went blank again.
"Oh no, I can't afford the luxury of moping ." she chided herself as she picked up her daughter's notebook lying on the floor near the dining table. Kids had the habit of doodling in the last page of their notebooks. But, Seema and Ruma had no such luck. It was their mother who filled the last page of her daughters' notebooks with her sketches of flowers and birds. Homework time for the girls was doodling time for the mother. A ghost of a smile curved her mouth remembering how Sudheer used to tease her saying she was the girls' youngest sister during homework time !
A neighbour Deepa came running to Soma, " Are you alright ? Be strong Soma. You can manage everything. I shall help you "
" Deepa di, can I get a job ?" her voice trailed off suddenly embarrassed.
"A Job? What will you do ?"
" Maybe you could help me get a job in your school as an Art & Craft Teacher. " Soma's voice betrayed her lack of confidence. She was pleading. Something Sudheer had never let her do . Oh God, let all pride and dignity be tossed to the four winds, she needed a steady income. Sudheer's picture hung on the wall. Tears threatened to flow again. Soma squeezed her eyelids and wiped off the moisture . She could see a faint line running from the floor upto the centre of the photo frame. A crack ? No just a line. Her line to Sudheer's heart? A ladder or a challenge ? No . Her dignity meter.
" You have to be by my side. Sadly , you are at the bottom now. Do something fast." Sudheer's eyes seemed to tell.
She stared at her line , her dignity meter. She had to reach the frame and that too with dignity. Right now it seemed impossible, not just uphill.
" I will try my best best Soma. But, an Art & Craft teacher's salary is nothing to boast about." warned Deepa.
" I just want a steady income Deepa di "
" What about the shop ?"
" I have given up on the shop. " Soma sighed.
" Of course, I will take care of the shop” .She heard Ritu, the domineering wife of Sudheer's gambler brother say aloud ," My children's education is my responsibility. Of course, I shall take care of Soma's children too."
Three days had passed . Her dignity meter showed no sign of rising. Deepa paid her a visit three days later. She sat near Soma , the hum of chanting for the departed soul soothed and disturbed simultaneously. Soma took her hand and drew her aside. " Any hope Deepa di ?"
"Yes, you have to come for an interview tomorrow. You need a portfolio. I have compiled one for you. I took a few of your sketches from Seema and also pictures of the sarees you have hand painted. "
"Oh thank you Deepa di. I have no words to express my gratitude ."
Soma looked at her dignity meter. She was slightly above the floor now.
" Soma ma'am, you are not doing all the duties assigned to you. Your attitude is casual and careless." Soma squirmed as the voice of the Incharge boomed in the corridor. " You take all the privileges, transport facility, casual leaves everything yet your work leaves much to be desired. Look at the display board. I think the children are more creative than their Art teacher." her voice was loud enough for everyone to hear. Soma's heart sank. She wanted to protest but decided against it. The Incharge weilded great influence over the Principal and the school management and she did not like Soma. The other Art teacher Swati was her favourite. What if she lost her job ? Oh no! She could do with a few more humiliations but couldn't afford to lose her job. She went to the Principal and apologized for her “casual” approach. The dignity meter could not have slipped lower. She came home , not a word about the terrible admonishment in school to anyone. She looked at the floor to check her dignity meter. Her spirit was bruised and she couldn't afford to cry. She looked up suddenly. Her dignity meter had risen ! How was it possible ? Swati had this uncanny ability to be at the right place at the right time and amass all the accolades for all the work done by her and Soma as a team. Soma had never been so humiliated in her life earlier, but today was different, thanks to Swati's wiles. Still the dignity meter felt right at the end of the day. Deep within she knew, holding on to her job was more important than a few sharp admonishments at the work place. Soma was pleased with her patience and wisdom of the moment.
Her toothache was worse today. Soma had to go to the dentist.The suave dentist smiled at her. " You should have come earlier ma'am. " His eyes shone. Soma sensed the import of earlier. Fear, excitement and a long forgotten pounding of the heart suffused her being. That day she helped her daughters with their assignments with a new enthusiasm. After a long time, she hummed in the kitchen and while she painted sarees and scarves for the nearby boutique. Her daughters were grown up and doing well and so was her business with the boutique and the steady job ,of course. The reason she was happy today. Or was it ? She looked at herself in the mirror for a long time. Besides a few strands of grey in the hair, she hadn't changed much. She looked forward to the next appointment. Dr .Harish was friendly with all his patients and extended the same courtesy to Soma. He asked about her children, her job with the the professional detached demeanor of a good dental surgeon, yet his eyes belied his casual air. Three more appointments were required and Soma's heart skipped a beat again. She tremulously avoided looking at Sudheer's picture that evening. Her dignity meter was low today, she knew that already. Still her eyes were drawn to Sudheer's. The smile seemed warmer today, the eyes kinder. Her dignity meter, to her surprise was high. A year rolled by . She used to catch a glimpse of Dr Harish almost everyday as he dropped his son at the bus stop right across the road. She hid behind Swati everytime their school bus crossed the road. She saw him look up with searching eyes everyday and her heart skipped a beat. She was happy with her life. Soon, very soon, she would be by Sudheer's side in the dignity meter.
" How dare you ?" " There is a limit to being shameless." " No wonder, you have been shopping for new clothes of late." The crass cacaphony of accusations flayed her senses. The peaceful pallor faded from her being. What was happening? She knew about Seema and Abhay being a little more than friends. Oh no, not now. She would tell everyone after a year maybe, when the youngsters were ready for marriage. Seema had just started working.Oh God , save the situation now , an agitated Soma almost spoke aloud. “You have two daughters of marriageable age , Soma , for God’s sake “ the gambler’swife shouted . Oh , how Soma hated that couple.She referred to them as killer gamblers now. “ How can a forty five year old woman think of romance “ her mother-in –law shook her head in disbelief. “ Thank God, Swati told us about your cat and mouse game with that dentist. His wife died two years back . The man is foot loose , amassing a few affairs with frustrated widows before he remarries.” Soma’s head reeled with shock .” I have treated you both like my parents Maa. Taken care of you just like Sudheer would have done”.Soma could hardly recognize her voice .Was it guilt giving it a rough tone.She used to look at Dr Harish every day after all .Didn’t her eyes seek him out everyday at the crossroad? “ It was your duty “. She heard the gambler’s wife say with the conviction of a serial swindler.. “No” Soma shouted .”It was your gambler husband’s duty to take care of his parents” “ Now Maa pack your bags and go to your gambler son . I have helped this thankless woman clear her gambler husband’s debt . Sudheer’s duties are over” .Soma shook with anger first time in a long time. Soma , the quiet and docile Soma. , no self respect listening to the Incharge’s insults day after day .The same Soma , was shouting at the top of her voice today. Anger at herself, the situation and the thankless people around she called family . Now maybe his daughters would come and demand an explanation for what the vile Swati had told their grandmother. She slammed door of her room shut but not before she stole a glance at Sudheer. The smile had admiration today ! Her dignity meter had soared !! She was not at his side , she was a notch higher. “ No , its not possible “. Soma thought aloud . .” I used to look at Dr Harish everyday .The affair bit was an exaggeration , but I was ……what? Infatuated ? No . Not at this age”. Seema entered the room followed by Ruma . “ Let Dada Dadi stay here Mummy” diplomacy was definitely not Ruma’s cup of tea. “ They have an eldest son . I want them to know the difference between their son’s families . “Soma’s eyes brooked no protest . Ruma was quiet . “ Mummy , there are people I love looking at “ .Seema told in a matter of fact voice . She sounded so much like her father. “ I like talking to boys other than Amit .Sometimes , I have differences with Amit , not the boys . It is a time when I am on another man’s side rather than Amit” “ I don’t want to listen to nonsense . It pains me to think that you believed Swati Aunty “. Soma was struggling for words . Had the scales slipped from her daughter’s eyes ? Oh no. “ I didn’t believe in the venom Mummy but I know you like looking at him “ “No” Yes, “ I noticed that many times when we went to the grocery store together . Your eyes were drawn to his car , his clinic several times “ “Oh come on Mummy , didn’t you ever stare at posters of film stars?. Didn’t you ever turn the pages of a glossy movie magazine to stare at your favourite hero again and again ? .Didn’t you ever tell Papa , you adored a male actor ?” “Yes” “ He is a poster boy in your life Mummy . He is nothing more than that . Just loosen up .You have been on a leash all your life”. Soma stared at Seema.She looked at Reema then. She reflected the same mature look her elder sister had on her face. Her girls had really grown up ! They had cleared her confusion. Not infatuation, just a passing phase of poster boy ogling ,oops, staring ! " You are wonderful Mummy. So strong, so hardworking , so graceful and dignified. You are my hero. I want to be like you except the Art teacher bit." Ruma said giggling. " We admire your family values, work ethics and the poise and dignity with which you carry yourself." Seema joined in sedately. " Papa would have been so proud of you ." Soma wasn't listening anymore. Did her girls say dignity?. Yes, she heard them right. Her dignity meter soared. She was by Sudheer's side, maybe a notch higher. His daughters had made sure of that. " Don't send Dada Dadi away Mummy" pleaded Ruma. " No . I won't . Don't worry. I just got carried away then. Sudheer's parents will stay here with dignity. " said Soma and saw the pride in her girls' eyes. They had stopped her from going down in the dignity meter. She and Sudheer were fortunate to have such lovely daughters. A few days later the three of them were coming back home when Ruma said cheekily. " Look Mummy , your boyfriend number two. His car swerved to the right now." " Shut up Ruma. Let's hurry up. You have an interview tomorrow and Seema has to leave for her office a little early." Soma said in mock annoyance." And what is this boyfriend number two. I have no boyfriend. By the way, who is boyfriend number one then ?" "Sudheer Kumar " they cried in unison . " Oh my my, lucky guy, his wife just can't stop staring at his picture the moment she is home." Tears of joy moistened Soma's eyes " Congratulations Sudheer , we have achieved a milestone as parents . We have the most adorable young ladies for daughters ."
By Sudipta Mohanty