Unwavering Love: Snigdha Agrawal

Snigdha Agrawal
Love in the time of plague

'Baanjh' ... 'Baanjh' keeps ringing in her ears even after fifty years of married life. The most demeaning word addressed to a woman.  A word that hurt much more than if they had called her a whore or slut.  The word that haunted her forever. And if it wasn’t for him, she would have been dead by now or become a basket case.  He had stood by her through thick and thin and came to her rescue every time she felt like throwing in the towel and walking out.  Not once but on several occasions, she remembers the humiliation she suffered at the hands of the ladies of the house. Those same women had welcomed her as the new bride with great expectations.  Expectations she could not meet. Not that she hadn’t tried hard enough, but some things in life are out of one’s control.

Pranati remembers dressed in bridal wear, stepping over the 'Choukat' with Ranjan following close behind.  She was told to kick the ‘Kalash’ of rice kept at the doorstep to the sound of conch shells blowing and ululating in rejoicing. Then being asked to dip her feet in the bronze ‘thali’ half filled with the red ‘alta’ and made to walk to her mother-in-law, seated on her throne, leaving behind her red footprints.  Ma had lifted her veil, kissed her forehead, and slipped in the red and white bangles inlaid with gold threads in a paisley design.  The 'loha' bangle gold overlaid was made to fit the size of her wrist.  "This is what proclaims you as Ranjan's wife. Never to be taken off", is what she was told in a firm voice by her mother-in-law.  Pranati understood its significance later when Ranjan explained the symbol of wearing the 'loha' to ward off negativities.  Worn with pride in the Bengali community.  Born into a North Indian family, this came as a pleasant surprise.  The 'loha' now hangs on her left wrist, two sizes too big. 

The drama all started after two consecutive miscarriages and on the auspicious day of her fourth marriage anniversary.  No greetings were forthcoming from Ma and other family members.  She noticed the look of concern on Ma’s face as she called aside Ranjan, speaking in low tones audible to her.  “Baba…it’s time you thought of getting another wife.  I checked with Pranati’s gynaecologist.  She will never be able to carry full term.  Repeated miscarriages will only harm her physically and mentally.  I’m not trying to break up your marriage.  It’s just that I would like to hold a grandchild before leaving this world.  You know of my health issues.  My days are numbered. Being the only son, I look to you for giving me a grandchild.  Is that too unreasonable a request from a mother?”

Ranjan stood speechless and visibly unsettled.  The blood rushed to his face, and his hands shook in anger, as he swayed from side to side, trying to process all that Ma implied in her guilt trip speech.  Pranati waited for his delayed response.  And he did with firmness. “How could you ever come up with such a preposterous idea?  Place yourself in Pranati’s position.  Would Baba have taken another wife, had you not been able to produce a child?  I think you are losing it.  Let me make it clear here and now Pranati is my wife and nothing can change that status.  It matters little to me whether she becomes a mother or remains childless.  We have each other and that is more than what we desire.  If God so wills, we will become parents.  If not, that too is acceptable.  Ma…there are so many options available for childless couples.  We could adopt…we could try through surrogacy…the list is endless.  If you ever raise this again, let me be clear, Pranati and I will break away from this family and live independently”.  This time Ma’s face turned blue as the message took time to sink in. She couldn’t afford to lose her only son, for the sake of a grandson.  Swallowing her pride, Ma refrained from following up on the conversation.

Pranati was close to tears when Ranjan found her standing like a statue near the bedroom window.  He held her close to his chest.  “You are my ‘pran’ Pranati and nothing can separate us.  You heard what I told Ma.  Forgive her if you can”.  Pranati put this behind her and pretended she had not heard the mother-son dialogue.

Then the cracks started appearing at weddings, auspicious occasions, thread ceremonies, and even during Shradhs (funerals).  In subtle ways.  Cracks that developed into deep chasms. She first noticed it at Ranjan’s niece’s ‘Haldi’ ceremony.  The ladies had gathered in the room to apply ‘haldi’ and bless the bride.  When it came to her turn, she was told the auspicious hour was over and that the bride had to go for her bath.  The next time was when she was standing in the cue to welcome the groom and their party at the reception venue.  She was swatted off like a fly with some vague excuse with stern directives from Ma to attend to the guests. Studiously avoided participating in any religious events. At first, she dismissed them as her over-sensitive mind playing tricks. 

The last straw on the camel’s back was at the sacred thread ceremony of Ranjan’s nephew when he turned thirteen.  She was his godmother; hence, her role demanded she participates in the five-day-long religious ceremonies.  As was customary, Pranati was to hold him back from taking the path to becoming a monk.  To her dismay, the door was slammed in her face, preventing her from performing her customary rights.  Ranjan was witness to the whole sequence of events.  The otherwise cool person that he was, exploded with anger.  “This is no way to treat Pranati.  You all seem to treat her like the plague, just because of her inability to carry a child in her womb.  Is that her fault?”  Without waiting for any response, he pulled Pranati by her hand and stormed out of the room.  

Ranjan and Pranati moved out of their ancestral home, ignoring the pleas and wailing of his mother, sisters and extended family members present. Pranati tried her best to dissuade him, without success.  “You have suffered enough humiliation at their hands.  No more.  I know how hurtful it has been for you all these years.  We are ending this now.”

Within a year of their moving out, Ma passed.  Ranjan the dutiful son, performed the last rites but still carries bitterness in his heart for the treatment meted out to his wife. 

Love took precedence over Mother, sisters and family honour. Ranjan went out of his way to protect Pranati from further acts of humiliation.  For Pranati the derogatory word ‘baanjh’ stuck like ‘quick fix’ in her mind.  

Baanjh = barren woman   
Choukat = threshold
Kalash = pitcher
Thali = edged plate
Alta = red liquid dye used to decorate hands and feet
Loha = iron bangle worn by married women
Haldi = turmeric (ceremony where turmeric is applied on the bride on the day of her wedding)
Shradh = religious rites performed on the 13th day after passing.
Pran = life

1 comment :

  1. Bravo! This is a masterpiece to motivate people to protect the honour of women and respect their individual space. Author Snighdha Agrawal, you did a great job!!


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