Rituparna Roy

Imaginary Battles

She fell asleep. Well, almost.

She had gone about her usual nightly rituals with half-closed eyes. She followed the same sequence everyday and the whole of it took her some seven minutes in all — taking fresh water from the Aqua-guard in two bottles (a half-litre bottle for herself and a litre for her husband); tidying up the bed; pulling out covers that were neatly stacked away on a small table nearby (a single bed-sheet for her husband and a kantha for herself, sewn by her granny and given to her as a wedding gift); covering her husband with his sheet (he loved this part, especially when she tucked the ends of the sheet under his feet and would beam a half-smile even in sleep); lastly, plugging-in the Good-Night mats.

She was already into her kantha tonight and almost fell asleep, blessed sleep… when she realized that she had plugged-in the Good-Night mats alright, but forgotten to switch it on! So, she got up again — for she could not bear the thought of the mosquito-bites on their bare skins. But in the 40 seconds that it took her to do it — get out of her kantha, circle the bed to the switch-board at the other end of the room, switch on the mats, and then return to bed — she lost her sleep. How stupid! If she said it, this would become a sore point with her husband, who would find yet another incontrovertible proof that she was perpetually giving excuses for getting up late. ‘Always in the excuse mode’, as he was wont to say. When would she grow out of it?

Her husband was already snoring. She envied people who could sleep like that — so easily, peacefully, almost blissfully. His was a simple existence — working very hard all day long, coming home to a hearty meal at the end of it, and then going off to sleep soon after for another such day. He had just fallen asleep. She could make that out from the volume of his snores. They were light now. Within the next 15-20 minutes, they would rise to a crescendo and then there would be no stopping them. It was best if she could sink into sleep before that, and she was so happy tonight that she would. In fact, she almost had… so luckily for someone who was cursed with sleeplessness for almost the whole year round.

But then she lost her sleep. Why?

No — it was not really the Good-Night. It was something else — she suddenly remembered what her father-in-law had told her in the morning. Suddenly remembered what she should have said but did not. It had not even occurred to her then. She hated herself for having missed such a wonderful opportunity, the best possible situation to say it in. In bed, with the muted whirr of the air-conditioner and the light green glow that emanated from its various buttons (she could identify “economy” by now), she conducted an imaginary conversation with him — refuting him violently on every point, giving him blow after decisive blow with her unfailing arguments, ramming her point home. She imagined a situation where only she would talk and he would listen, struck into stupefied silence. Satisfied that she had won the battle, she fell asleep.

More than anything else, it was these imaginary conversations — no, arguments, even quarrels — that kept her sane. Through them, she felt whole, vindicated, her battered self-esteem restored. In these imaginary interactions, which were invariably very dramatic, other members of the joint-family that she was a part of (and of which she was the youngest) had to take her presence and personality into account; her opinion, advice, her take on all issues important and mundane. It was through these that she saw to it that she was never ignored.

She was very disturbed that day because the provocative statement that she could not counter in the morning had come from her father-in-law. She was used to such unequal exchanges with her mother-in-law — or “mil” (as she privately referred to her) and not “fil”. She resented them, as she resented the centrality of the figure of the mother-in-law in her life. It was not as if she had not been warned about it before her marriage by her aunts and elder cousins, (as if warnings could stop marriages or change power relations in an orthodox household), but nothing had quite prepared her for her own experience.

Living with her mother-in-law, the latter was a formidable force — every waking moment connected to her in peculiar ways. But strangely enough, even in a different city, there was no escape — for in the few months when her husband’s company had fortunately sent him to another city to oversee a project and she had tagged along, all her work was defined by the spectral presence of the temporally absent figure of the mother-in-law, who forever threatened to materialize anytime. In the bathroom, working in the kitchen, walking on the streets, while commuting in a bus or auto, every now and then, she found herself enmeshed in such imaginary conversations — when she said all that she could not at her in-laws’ place, and struck down her opponent with the sheer force of her arguments. She would remember incidents from months ago at totally unexpected moments and there she would go again…. she had been a debater in school and absolutely relished a good performance (even if imaginary), but she was also amazed — amazed, irritated, and depressed at what her life had come to, at what she had become; the once intelligent, educated daughter of liberal parents.

She was brought up to be disciplined and polite, but her strict parents had always given her enough freedom to make her own choices, and generally, lead life her own way. She had chosen her partner, but had no idea what marrying into his family would entail. No idea that her forthright, outspoken self would be totally sucked up into the discourse of the bahu — the daughter-in-law, who, at the cusp of the third millennium, could be as educated and modern as you please, but who could never go beyond the designated perimeter of preserving the harmony and maintaining the status-quo of the joint household. That was of paramount importance and had to be adhered to at all costs. For those whose husbands lived and worked in a different city than his parents right from the start, it was a different matter, of course (though not completely) — but she belonged to the rapidly shrinking other group in urban India, where three generations lived under one roof.

Her only respite was sharing her agonies with her elder sister-in-law, who, with many more years of marriage and a child, was more seasoned in household affairs than she. Invariably, the commonality of their experience as bahus of the same house ensured that they went through the same phases of anger, outrage, depression in response to the same (or similar) situations that they faced. And it extended to the matter of unspoken, unarticulated grievances as well. Knowing this was some relief for her, and when together, they even managed to joke about it. Though that did not really stop new instances from happening, the precedents did help when they tried to console themselves. Thus, when a fresh surge of anger would overwhelm her, she would remember what her elder “sil” (in keeping with the acronyms that they had both agreed on quite early in their relationship) had once told her over the kitchen sink (the only place where they talked while clearing up the dishes after dinner). After a cold war (which, in her case, almost always had to do with something regarding the feed of her daughter — about what was better and what was not, what the child herself liked and what she did not and who knew best about it), she was at her computer in her bedroom, playing ‘solitaire’ (her only indulgence in a dreary existence) with “mil” retired in the next room. And what was she doing? Sitting there, in front of the screen, arranging cards in ascending and descending orders, she mentally went through all that she should have said five minutes before in the drawing room.

By the time she had exhausted the list, her game was over.

Rituparna Roy heeft het grootste deel van haar leven in Calcutta geleefd, waar ze Engelse literatuur doceerde. Ze verliet haar fulltime positie aan de Basanti Devi College om zich bij haar man in Nederland te voegen, en werkte in Leiden aan een onafhankelijk postdoctoraal project bij The International Institute for Asian Studies. Ze schreef twee boeken, South Asian Partition Fiction in English: From Khushwant Singh to Amitav Ghosh, en Writing India Anew: Indian English Fiction 2000-2010. Momenteel doceert ze aan de Leiden University College in Den Haag.

Daarnaast schrijft Rituparna een column voor de IIAS, en behandelt ze de Indiase film op haar blog Kaleidoscope: Celebrating 100 Years of Indian Cinema.