Years ago, one of my husband’s young colleagues invited us home for the annaprashan (the rice eating ceremony) of his twin daughters. The two little girls were adorable, like peas in a pod. And the proud parents couldn’t stop smiling as we cooed over them.
Six months later, their perfect world shattered. The mother of the not-even-a-year-old babies was diagnosed with cancer. The tumour had spread by the time it was detected. And in less than a month, she was gone, forever.
The babies were left to the care of their grandmother, who in just a few weeks informed the grief-stricken father that she couldn’t “cope”. There was no way out, he would have to get married again and bring home a full-time mother for them.
The wedding took place in less than six months. The babies were crawling around their new ma as she sat decked in her bridal finery, blissfully unaware that their future had moved into strange hands.
Fairy tale connection
I hated the bride on sight. The fairy tales I had read as a child — Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel and Snow White — had me convinced that the stepmom would make life hell for these little innocents.
The fact that the father was smiling when he should have been still shedding tears, and the rest of the family were fussing around the new bride, only strengthened my opinion that they had “switched sides.”
Months passed. Debraj Das seemed happy with his new wife, Sonali. I never enquired about her. But I did ask about the kids. In my mind they were tragic orphans who were being put through every imaginable torture.
Soon after, my husband was transferred out of Kolkata and we lost touch. It was over a decade later that we ran into Das again.
He pointed to the two 12 year olds by his side and said, “Remember Rani? And this is Ranu.” Both girls were smiling and looked far from traumatised. May be the step mom had left them, I thought to myself.
But even before the thought crystallised, Rani was weaving her fingers through the hand of an older lady and drawing her forward, “Here’s ma.”
Ma? The word was spoken naturally, lovingly. And for the first time, I looked at the second Mrs Das with new eyes. I’d heard that she’s had a baby boy. He was four, and a handful. “We have to run after him with a stick to ensure he doesn’t get up to some new mischief,” Sonali joked.
Since Rohan was her own son, she could reprimand him, even give him a rap on occasions. But Rani and Ranu were her step children and she’d have to think twice before pulling them up. Even though Devki wasn’t around, I’m pretty sure Yashodha wouldn’t have been allowed to forget her.
The children too would have borrowed memories of their mother, which they’d cherish even more as they moved into the rebellious teen years. Then the nayi ma would be a witch.. while the ma-who-was-no-more would be all things wonderful.
And in her effort to do right with her husband’s first-borns, Sonali might well end up treating her own child in a stepmotherly fashion and antagonise him too.
I didn’t envy Sonali. It’s not easy being a step mom. Good or bad, you are always wrong. Your love is always being questioned and your intentions are always suspect. I just hope that the next time I see the Das family, Rani will still have her fingers laced through Sonali’s and introduce her naturally, not grudgingly, as ma.