Two women, Ria and Shanta Bai, belonging to different economic strata, do not just work in the same office. Piquantly their lives have many parallels too. Ria, a divorcee, and Shanta Bai, a widow, have similar challenges. Find out how Shanta Bai inspired Ria to deal with life, in the short story by Shail, as special feature on the occasion of International Women’s Day, exclusively for Different Truths.
“Maedum? What happened?”
Ria lifted up her face to look in the direction of the voice and, what a sight she was! The woman who had always prided on her well made-up face had now a black trail of mascara making its way down her face. She was embarrassed to find herself staring at the worried countenance of the office staff Shantha Bai.
Caught red-handed crying – a delicate moment for her, Ria hastily wiped away her tears and frantically began to search for her little mirror in her handbag.
‘Why is that when I am most in need of anything in my bag that I don’t get it’ she angrily murmured.
Finally, after a few seconds of tussle with the items in her handbag, she found what she wanted. All along, Shantha Bhai kept staring at her, her right eyebrow taking the form of a huge arch as if screaming in silence, “Yes, yes, what happened?”
“Yes Shantha Bai, what is it?” Ria asked her trying to appear as casual as possible.
Placing her left palm under her chin, Shantha Bai asked in return, “Oh Maedum! I was asking you that question. Why are you like this? Did that second cabin Sir scold you again? Or, was it that new Maedum who has come to the office? She appears quite chunt (clever, cunning) you know.”
How quick she is to gauge my equation with my office colleagues and, she is after all a cleaning staff, Ria thought to herself. If only she knew how close she was to the truth. If only she could tell her what she had gone through a while back.
Not wanting to give her the benefit of doubt, Ria answered back quickly, “No Shantha Bai, it is nothing like that. I was just remembering my mother. She passed away last year.”
“Oh ho Maedum! We women tend to remember our mothers most when we are hurt or sad.”
“That is true Shantha Bai but…” and the intercom at Ria’s desk rang.
“Yes Sir! I shall bring the Goel file. Yes Sir! Immediately.”
“Ok Shantha Bai. I need to go. Boss has called for some work.”
“Ok Maedum. You go. But, don’t worry. Things will become okay.”
As Ria walked to the boss Gokhale’s cabin, she wondered at Shantha Bai’s words, “But, don’t worry. Things will become better.”
Without knowing anything she was sympathising with her. Even the so called close friends did not have time for such a kind of heartfelt action!
The day ended fast, thankfully. Fortunately for Ria, it was beginning to drizzle outside and everybody was in a hurry to leave office. That left with little time and energy for anyone to even cross her path and ask probing uncomfortable questions about the morning episode.
The next day was hectic once again. Balancing home and work was not going to be easy even though life was fairly comfortable what with marriage out of the way for the moment. Unlike earlier years, nobody asked her about getting married. Was it a good thing? Ria wondered. There was a time when she used to get irritated with family, relatives, friends, and even office colleagues bombarding her with queries about a probable marriage. Now, with a failed marriage behind her, she was treated like a different species altogether.
Initially, people were sympathetic. Later, they just left her on her own. Nobody wanted to take a chance with a divorcee, especially at work!
Having to leave one’s place of work where one has worked for ages is not an easy task. Ask anyone who has done that. It is like slashing one’s own roots till they bled. But, what could one do if that was the only choice to escape a battering husband?
The memories of the days she worked there were too precious and too painful to be remembered and re-lived each and every day!
Ria had met Vishal at that very office. It was love at first sight for them. Every morning, Ria was the first one to reach work. From then on, it was a constant wait for Vishal who would arrive like a VIP – late! By the time she could get that dimpled smile of Vishal it would be time to begin work for the day!
“Hi Ria!” Vishal would charmingly say and barge into Ria’s work space.
“Hi!” Ria would mumble and blush.
“Let’s have lunch together today” Vishal would often say in a matter of fact kind of manner.
“Why don’t we visit the restaurant down the road?”
“But, I have already brought my lunch.”
“Oh! That doesn’t matter. Once in a while eating out with friends can prove to be quite healthy you know.”
And, that’s how it all began. And very soon Ria and Vishal were known as a couple in the office. Ria felt elated although she did also feel a wee bit uncomfortable having never been in such a situation before. But, Vishal was cool about it. Whenever he and Ria would walk out of the office together, his male friends would make passing comments and Ria could see Vishal wink at them as he passed by. His winking at them made her wonder as to what they thought of her. She even asked Vishal.
“Who? My friends? Why do you want to know?” he would ask back in return. “Well, they seem to find me funny, I think.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Their body language gives me hints you know” she replied.
“Body language? Ha! Ha!” Vishal burst out laughing. “What about some body language with me instead” and as they climbed down the stairs, he brought her close to his body and kissed her on her lips. It was a ‘rainbow’ moment for Ria. And she strutted about like a butterfly for days after that!
Unfortunately, the ‘rainbow’ moment did not end in a treasure chest. Ria and Vishal did marry but a different persona of Vishal sprung up soon thereafter. Every day, when he saw her getting ready for work, he would scowl. “You don’t need to put on make-up to go to work” he would say.
“But, I used to do that before too. What’s the difference?”
“You are married now Ria” he would say irritatingly.
“So what? I am still a working woman and I need to look presentable at work.”
“You are not going to work to look presentable. You are going to work to work damn it” Vishal screamed.
“Why are you losing your temper Vishal? We are after all working in the same office. You see me work, don’t you?”
“Yes! Yes! I do. Like you used to work when we used to go for our little outings together” he said sarcastically.”
Ignoring the sarcasm in Vishal’s voice, Ria, as she was pinning on her saree pleats said, “Those were lovely times no? Come. Come now. We are getting late for work.”
Working as husband and wife in the same office is not always easy, and seldom without ego hassles. At least, that was what was happening with Ria and Vishal. Taking sides on work issues, expecting the other to defend during ego clashes, eating together instead of with one’s respective friends – all began to prove to be too suffocating. Sadly, the frustration of office seeped into family life at home. There were arguments. There were accusations. Sometimes, they made up. Very often they did not. Life became an island for Ria. More so when Vishal, the love of her life began to physically assault her. She bore it all if only to keep the illusion of a happy marriage alive. But then, the scars bore into her skin and heart. Unable to live peacefully together, Vishal and Ria filed for divorce.
‘At least, now I am free’ Ria thought one day as she got ready for work, this time without any accompanying comments about her dress or make-up!
But, equations had changed in the office. After her split with Vishal, her work life became like a lake with ever moving ripples. Meeting Vishal everyday was a torture. Tolerating his interference in her work was another factor that disturbed her life. So, a choice had to be made. ‘Stay on in the office where she had worked for nine long years and suffer Vishal’s presence. Or, cut all connections with the office and acquire some peace in her life!’
Starting afresh in a new place was difficult. It was regular office work but she felt as if she had become a child and was learning to read the alphabets once again. This time they were the alphabets of survival. One of her first teachers in this new world was Shantha Bai. Something about her made her smile every time. Maybe, it was the sparkle in her eyes or that funny expression of hers. Like when she saw her this morning. Remembering the morning episode made her shudder in disbelief. Shantha Bai was the first one to see her at work as usual. “You are okay now Maedum?” she asked of Ria.
“Yes Shantha Bai. I am better” and she patted her back. With still some time left before all the office members arrived, Shantha Bai with the dusting pad in hand, came closer to Ria and said, “Maedum, you see this scar on the left side of my face? The credit goes fully to my husband.”
“What? Your husband did this to you?”
“Yes, Maedum. And that was the last I saw of him after that.”
“Why? What happened” asked a surprised Ria.
“The moment I realised that my drunkard husband could hurt me so badly I knew that he was capable of doing anything. I had two small children then to take care of. What if he harmed them too?”
“That night when he did this to me he was drunk. He had just spent the night with his mistress and when I began mentioning her name in derogatory terms he hit me again and again. My children were crying. They were terrified. With all the courage I could muster, I pushed him out of the house and locked the door.”
“Then, what happened Shantha Bai?”
“I did not know when I went to sleep with my children’s heads in my lap. In the morning, I heard a lot of sound outside my door. There was shouting and suddenly there was loud banging on my door. I opened the door and there was this huge crowd of people.”
“Shantha Bai! ” they screamed in unison. “See what happened!”
“And, there lying before me in the middle of the road were the mangled remains of my once-upon-a-time husband.”
“What?” asked a horrified Ria.
“A truck had run over him while he had passed out drunk in the middle of the road the night before when I had pushed him outside.”
There was complete silence for a while in the office. Ria was too stunned to talk. Before she could even mention anything Shantha Bai continued, “Just when I thought that I was free of this man who had tortured me I discovered that there was a whole villainous world out there waiting to grab, molest and rape a young widow.”
Ria wondered at the close similarity of the situations and emotions of both of them. Today’s morning incident was just one of them.
“Any Tom, Dick and Harry wanted to bed me only because I was single again. For them, I was available, waiting to be exploited. No! Not even the presence of my little children kept them away. All they could see was a woman, alone – available by hook or by crook, by farce or by force to be made use of…”
“Then, how did you manage? It must have been very difficult for you?”
“Difficult is a very small word Maedum. When the world is against you, nobody comes to protect you. You are on your own. No one to save you. No one.”
“So, what did you do?”
“I am well known for my acid tongue Maedum. Everyone can tolerate a woman for anything but if she is aggressive or calls a spade a spade she is left alone.”
“My acid tongue and this pocket knife are all that I carry” and she suddenly took out a pocket knife from her waist and opened it before Ria. Ria was so startled that she almost fell off her seat.
“What is this Shantha Bai? Do you always carry this with you? Even in the office?”
“Yes Maedum. I take it with me everywhere. It is somewhat like what they showed long back in the Mahabharata serial where Karna has a protective shield. My acid tongue and this knife have been my guardian angels all these years of my life.”
Calming down, Ria sat back on her seat. She had a lot to reflect about. “But Shantha Bai, did you not think of marrying again at least for your children?”
“Who will marry a widow to protect her children Maedum? They need only one thing…Don’t forget that this is Kalyug Maedum…”
“But still…did you not feel the need for a man, the comfort of being protected, of being loved?”
“After all that I went through Maedum? No. Never. My children had become my only reason to live, love and die for. Nothing else mattered. And to protect them I would do anything” saying this Shantha Bai placed a cup of coffee on Ria’s table and quietly moved away since people had already been coming into the room.
Ria began her work but her thoughts were elsewhere. How courageous this woman could be! We city women talk about equality but do not make any attempts to protect that equality. How can we protect our self-respect if we continue getting battered and exploited only because we are women?
With a spring in her step, Ria walked to the Manager’s cabin. She knew now what she had to do. ‘If Shantha Bai could do it, then I can do it too maybe, not with a real knife but with the knife of confidence and the courage to ward off exploiting people, men or women. Yesterday, it was Shantha Bai, today it is me, and tomorrow it could be someone else. I know what to do now. Yesterday’s episode is not going to bring me down to my knees. Not again. Never again!’
Photos from the internet.
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