Marienne doesn’t understand the ways of the world. At least, that is what she has been told since the past seven years. All her teenage years were a prolonged reminder of her surfacing womanhood; times of great mental agony rising from the ashes of her smoldering childhood. She tries to take in the view outside. The grandfatherly trees have been replaced with decadent buildings. Unlike the melodious chirps of her village, what awakens her here is the blare of two-wheelers in a narrow lane, of vehicles colliding, and egos clashing in the following duel. She sits by the window and tries to spot the sparrows that carelessly peck at the former battlegrounds. She doesn’t like her new dwelling place. She misses the smell of earth after it rains, the cleansed greenery of leaves, the soiled trouser ends of men returning home, the spotlessness of the sky when all black clouds have been shredded into infinite drops.
Marienne looks around, taking in the stillness of her life for the thousandth time. On the far end of her room lies a small lopsided pot, the sole dissenter of the omnipresent taciturnity, as it rocks back and forth in a ghostly sort of way. The other props in the room include a small round table and a creaking cot, upon which rests her corpse-like companion, Minamma. The old lady is fast asleep. Marienne stares hard at Minamma, hoping to find a stirring evidence of life inside her. The ends of Minamma’s saree are unraveling and her tattered blouse loosely hugs her bosom. Her shriveled skin, white hair and emaciating body do not indicate a bright future. Minamma groans occasionally, like a human alarm clock which is enough to make her believe that she’s alive. She’s saddened by the thought of her once-ferocious Minamma dwindling into a skeletal mess.
Marienne continues to survey the unattractive room. Her eyes retrace the cracks on the dull blue walls, which would deepen to a point before crumbling into debris. She knows what life is. She knows every beginning has an end and happy endings are a rarity. She may not be as articulate as others but her thoughts have wandered far away, strayed from the ordinary, and embraced the waves of modernity and rebellion. She was brought up in a suppressive household. Her mother used to add two inches of cloth to all her knee-length frocks. Her father and elder brother considered her sanctity to be the trademark of a religious home.
And yet here she is, having broken through the barriers of orthodoxy. She doesn’t like reminiscing; it brings back such bitter memories that will haunt her for nights to come. She remembers her mother’s ominous voice booming from a weak body and a stern face, “Do not be friends with boys. All boys except your father and brother are furtive bastards who want a good look at the swells of your chest.”
Her mother had always been a ruthless preacher of righteous conduct, whose unwavering aim was to protect her daughter from prying eyes and libidos. When the two women used to return from Kali Maa’s temple at dusk or when she returned from her school, her mother walked two steps ahead of her to fend off the licentious rustics who lined up on either side of the road. Mother would time and again examine her; signal her to drape the dupatta properly and to reveal no skin at all. Mother was one of those thousand Indians who had mistaken sin for shame, who believed carnal urges in men were a woman’s doing.
Four years ago, on a dry Sunday morning, a sixteen year old Marienne had dared to take milk from the milkman’s lad. She remembers how she had bent low with the container in her hand to allow the lad to pour milk. Mother, having noticed the sacrilege had stormed out of the house.
“Marienne, go inside.” Mother had thundered and violently snatched the container from Marienne’s quivering hands.
“Could you not see the boy’s roaming eyes?” she questioned Marienne later.
Marienne had no answers. Her heart was a ball of terror wrapped in unbroken silence.
The men in her family were no different. Her father, whose surreptitious affection was clogged under authority and discipline, had never really been close to her. Being the head of the family, he had an air of formidability around him. Father dined first, and alone. Father would give them money, an extended token of love that was meant to fill in the voids of detachment between him and the family.
It wasn’t so hard after all, to drift away from her old life.
Marienne tries to brush away such memories of her family. The truth is that she has left her blood relatives behind, only to end up in a city full of strangers. The truth is that all that her mother said has started to reappear as a brutal reality. She used to think her semi-literate mother was unaware and unenlightened. But the truth is, neither did Marienne really know the ways of the world then nor does she know them now.
Her train of thought comes to a sudden halt as Minamma groans again, this time louder than before and finally wakes up. Minamma puts her feet down and tries to stand up. Her little wobbly head and thin body frame are delicately balanced on two shivering legs as she walks away towards the bath. Marienne expects her to fall, to scatter like pieces of glass but she makes it safely. Marienne exhales in relief.
On some mornings, when the sun rays uncover her from darkness she almost forgets about the past three years. She wakes up with the bittersweet taste of a nasty delusion at the tip of her tongue, but slowly the truth pervades her being and reminds her that every moment that has passed has been as real as the specks of dust in sunlight.
She sticks her face out from the gap between the iron rods of the window and looks down at the narrow lane. A group of boys chase a black and white ball. Older women are perched on balconies, some stare down like hawks, some seem a bit hesitant and some have posed like swans against the backdrop of dilapidated doors. Quite often they make an eye contact with her but she turns away instantly. She doesn’t want to be known. Anonymity has become a way of life for her now. Many young men eye her slyly when they hit sixes and look up to relish their sporty feats. The stink of manhood rings a bell of caution in Marienne and she steps back.
The lane is inundated with dwellers and peddlers. There is color and chaos. Not a single known face, she thinks. Just strangers and more strangers. The swanky hustle-bustle downstairs barely shrouds the eternal insipidity of city life. The children play, the men work and the mothers cook. All these lives have been scraped out of oblivion and are deigned to die in obscurity. A jewellery peddler enters from the other end. He’s a young boy, probably fifteen and a victim of malnutrition. His eyes scrutinize the street, looking for prospective buyers. He moves towards a swarm of young girls and their elder sisters with his glittery wares.
At the same time Minamma emerges from the bath, one side of her saree is tucked up till her waist.
“This hot water comes from hell. From hell.” she mumbles to herself. Minamma rants for another five ten minutes before settling down.
“You should not wait anymore Marienne.” She says.
Marienne turns to look at Minamma. Her eyes have carried some glow of the tawny jewellery to their dingy room. A smile tugs at the edges of Minamma’s lips.
“Why don’t you go down for some time?’ she asks.
“I will, just not now.”
The short conversation that seems to have ended now, never really dies in Marienne’s head. The words lurk in her mind and stab her conscience. She knows she doesn’t have to wait anymore. She has waited for countless days, wailed for innumerable nights and wallowed in self-pity for months. She’s on the brink of a breakaway, one that ensues from an incapacitating heartbreak.
Marienne’s story of heartbreak is three-worded; she’s a deserted second wife. She came to this city riding on false promises, ensnared in the arms of a betrayer.
Like all demons, he has a name, Ashok Dutta.
Ashok Dutta had come to their tranquil neighborhood five years ago when Marienne was fifteen. He was in his early twenties at the time.
He had come from the city. There was something about him, stronger than gravity that pulled Marienne in. Something in his dark brooding looks, something in the swashbuckling arrogance with which he walked, something in the screaming emptiness of his eyes and muffled disquietude of his soul; He was tall enough to overshadow all of Marienne’s fears. He had olive skin and a husky voice and a strong Bengali accent to go with it. With those looks and that aloof demeanor, he grabbed the limelight almost effortlessly.
Marienne’s mother succumbed to her death after three years of incurable cancer. A lonely Marienne could find no solace in her father’s distant demeanour. Minamma tried to piece her together, but nobody could do what Ashok did. He had his ways, be it flirtatious or ferocious; they fixed Marienne.
“See Marienne, that’s Proxima Centauri. Its five billion years old, which is just a little older than my love for you.” He would say with a wink.
It wasn’t just love, but the feeling of companionship that swept Marienne off the ground. She used to think that God had made it up to her, through Ashok.
On some days he quoted Austen and Dickens and some days were just days of foolery. He gave seven books to Marienne.
“You must read Marienne, take a dip in these words and they will never desert you.” He told her.
A small piece of paper, hedged at the other end of the window, snaps Marienne back to reality. She feels a slight rush, not of the good kind. The gourd-like aftertaste of unpleasant memories refuses to leave her.
No matter how hard she tries, she never forgets that uneventful morning that flipped her world upside down.
Marienne was deep in sleep when a huge fist thumped on her door at five in the morning. She woke up to that noise, not expecting any good. What might have befallen her path, who could say.
“Oh Ashok! Where were you? Come in.” a harrowed Marienne confronted Ashok’s leaning figure. He stood at the door and refused to come in.
Seeing Ashok at such an untimely hour had not made her happy but roused a fresh fear in her heart. He had left her in this lonely apartment thirty five days ago and in that span Marienne had only had her feelings and his promises to hold onto. Marienne dreaded what was to come. A little voice in her head screamed “It is over.”
“Marienne.” He started and in that beginning she could see an end. All these times he had taken her name with devoutness, but that day there was an uncanny hollowness.
That moment she could feel her bones shake. Her steps were falling on the cracks of the ground. She wrapped her fingers around the latch for support.
“Marienne, you need to go back.” He said.
“Why Ashok?” she tried to act baffled, whilst her insides came crashing down like a castle of cards.
“Just go back. My marriage with you is not legal.”
“Ashok what are you saying?” she could barely see him by now. The opaqueness that her tears were offering was probably an indication that the monster didn’t deserve to be looked upon.
“I have a wife.” He said. He looked straight into her eyes. “You are just a beautiful mistake, Marienne. I deviated. My wife and I have not been on good terms for the past four years. I have a son also, Marienne.” He bent his head low, eyes finally downcast with shame.
“The night you came here, I ran into her. She told me she wants to fix our marriage. For our son. I have to go back. My son needs me. My wife needs me.” His voice had become softer. “I used to come here every day, but never before was I able to muster up the strength to confess, Marienne.” He was looking at the ground, at Marienne’s bare feet, at her small toes that peeped out from her saree.
Marienne was looking at the ground too. She was looking at the uneven surface of the improperly kept apartment. She didn’t know what to say. Few moments ago she thought Ashok’s love had been custom-made for her and now all of a sudden, she hadfound herself to be so incongruous, so unfitting in the same man’s life. In place of an irreparable breakdown, Marienne felt cold numbness. Ashok had not broken her heart into pieces; he had scraped it out entirely, in one single scoop and left behind a vacuum that made her gasp for air.
The following month was the most excruciatingly painful month of her life. A second stab of bereavement hit her. Nights brought insomnia and days left her languid. There was timelessness in the pain. For days, an impenetrable darkness engulfed her. Ashok never visited her again. His life-sized claims of loving her were just tall lies. The small box of coins, that she and Minamma had carried from their village, weighed lesser every passing day, and that’s when Marienne started to recover. The lesser the money got, the quicker her practicality returned . She was no expert but she knew she had been wronged, not just in an ethical sense but also in worldly ways. If she narrated her sad story to a policeman, there was sure to be some rule that would punish him for all that he had done, she thought. She might be given money, for her bravery to come out, for her help in jailing demons like him who belonged with neither of their wives.
She often wondered what Ashok meant when he said their marriage was not legal. She was a Hindu, he was a Bengali. They married under the stars, in the lap of the universe. They took seven rounds of a small fire and Minamma witnessed it. That is a marriage, a legal marriage. A boy weds a girl. What else was there to it? It wasn’t like she had married a woman and by far that was the only illegal marriage she could think of. So what if the entire village didn’t feast on traditional delicacies? Theirs was a silent, private affair. What was so illegal about the silence? And what if Ashok had a wife already? A marriage is a marriage. There have been so many men with two wives. She thought of Dushrath, the father of Hindu God Ram, who had three wives. Nobody ever said his marriages were illegal. These questions plagued her existence as much as the desolation did.
Marienne never thought all her questions would ever receive an answer. But one afternoon, things had changed. Minamma had gone down to bring Marienne’s favorite jalebis. The warm jalebis came wrapped in newspapers. As Marienne opened her hot bundle, her eyes fell on some darkened words that were arched over the little ant-like ones. She spread the out paper carefully.
“Minamma, give me the paper that you have. Don’t throw it away.” She told Minamma.
Minamma eyed the insignificant wrapper and passed it on to her. Marienne aligned the two cuttings together.
What do you tell the Second Wife?
It’s not only the heart of her husband but the legal system too that makes her existence dimensionless on the plane of justice and dignity. The Court’s decision in Yamunbai Vs. Anantrao conveniently denies the second wife her right to maintenance on the ground that her marriage was void in the first place. In the present case, the second wife who approached the Court for the enforcement of her rights to maintenance was left deprived of justice on grounds that can be viewed only through the lenses of law and not through humanity. The Hindu Marriage Act, 1956 declares all such marriages void where the first spouse of the person contracting marriage is still alive and hasn’t been divorced. This Act boasts to have carved out a new face of Hindu laws on marriage which it surely does by giving the first wife a legal recognition, a right to redressal and a right to dignity. But what goes unnoticed in the celebratory drama, is the fact that the Act poorly fails to take into account the aftermath of its somewhat insensitive and biased form of redressal. You give the first wife a legal status. But what do you give to the second wife? What do you tell the second wife? The second wife is stranded in a remediless limbo. When she knocks at your door, you tell her that she’s not a wife at all. You laugh at her innocence and simplicity for blindly falling in love with a man who cunningly hid his first marriage. You laugh at her family that was befooled by the riches of their son-in-law. You leave her in the lurch. You make her shadow-less under the sun of justice.
That’s the piece of paper Marienne has in her hands, the one that she keeps hedged at the other end of the window. That’s the truth of her life scribbled through the angry hands of a social activist. Just when her feelings of loss and hurt had subsided and an urge to procure peace and justice had appeared, the jalebi revelation happened. She didn’t understand the entire article but she did extract her answers from it. She dipped herself into these words and they never deserted her. She knows she stands no chance of making it in this cruel world. She is a second wife and second wives like her do not have a legal redressal. The law doesn’t right heartbreaks. Her marriage with Ashok exists only in her head and that is the end of it. Marienne really never knew the ways of the world and now she doesn’t even want to know them.
-Kaumudi Srivastava, V-III