I am getting to be a sucker for feedback. Last Monday, I was flooded with mails, 32 in all, and it felt good, though I have a sinking feeling that we’ve lost the Nobel Laureate’s surname sharer. Adieu HT, he wrote. My other critic, the woman, has forgiven me. Yep, that’s what she said — and I guess we’re friends now. Thank you, all of you.
I’ve got 10 mails since the last day of the last year ‘please referring’ to my photograph that came out on 31 December (purely by chance, not design: that day, the paper’s design demanded the writer’s picture accompany every article).
Why, they all asked, do I wear a mangalsutra?
Oh, all right. It belongs to my grandmother, my mom’s mom, and there I have one stupid sentimental reason: I love her. Then, I always assumed that the mangalsutra was north/west/south Indian, never east Indian. For us easterners, it was just a pretty-looking thing that Tulsi Virani would wear, not Mrs Bose. And, then again, I come from a family – my father’s side that is — where there are no ‘married tokenisms’.
My mother, for instance, never applied sindoor — at times with hilarious consequences. Let me tell you about one of them.
My paternal grandparents lived in a sleepy town on the outskirts of Calcutta — a place called Kalyani; when I was grown up enough to understand what ‘adult’ things like beer meant, I realised that it was where Black Label was brewed, till, of course, the brand fled from Bengal.
I was once — many, many moons ago — coming back from a weekend trip to the Grand Oldies, with my mother and my little brother. We were plonked on wooden seats in Kalyani Express; I was lost in Enid Blyton’s Peterswood, with Fatty, Buster and the rest of the gang, my mother was looking out of the window and my brother was colouring a drawing book with crayons.
A bunch of shrill, middle-aged (okay, they must have been in their late-20s, but in my pre-teens that was middle age), married (how did I know? The sindoor, silly) Bengali women sat down opposite us. They first subjected my mother to intense scrutiny. Then, one of them tapped my brother on his arm. “Little boy,” she said, “Where is your father?”
“Er,” my brother struggled, “I don’t know really – probably at work.” He went back to his colouring.
I was oblivious to what happened after that, but my mother later said that these ladies, in not-so-hushed undertones, discussed how my poor brother had no clue that his father was, well, no more. The Desperate Housewives also signalled to each other that since my mother was not wearing sindoor, her husband had to be a departed soul; in those days the D-word (I mean divorce) was probably unheard of, as was Dawood — not that either was applicable.
Cut to the 3rd millennium. My brother, who now lives in the National Capital Region, ensures that his recently-acquired wife wears sindoor. My sister-in-law wears it the way the bahus do in K-serials: the red tripping on to the forehead, unlike traditional Bengalis who let it go down the parting. She emerged out of her bedroom once, in a denim skirt that she wore just above her knees, a fluffy white top and some red on her forehead. She saw the horrified look on my face: “Your brother won’t have it any other way,” she winked.
Was this a throwback, I asked my brother who was hovering in the background, to the Kalyani episode? “Didi,” he said solemnly, “The world’s changed since then, but men haven’t.” Particularly, he sighed, men in this part of the country. The sindoor was a sign for them to steer clear of his wife. She’s taken, you see.