Cover image: Photo by Neil Davidson, ‘Waterweeds – Booloumba Creek, QSL, Australia.
Ragini was lying on her belly in her room, room no 12 of Mahendra Tanaya Ladies’ Hostel, in the Berhampur University campus in Odisha, year–1995, and reading a poem by Sappho. It was a poem about the errant sexual behavior of a lesbian, her emotions described in fragments:
“Even in Hades I am with you
Andromeda…. Gongyla….My desire feeds
On your beauty, Gongyla. Each time I see your gown
I am made weak and happy ….You of all women whom
I almost desire, come to me again…
You lay in wait behind a laurel tree…You
A woman wanderer like me… I barely
Heard you, my darling…. You came
In your trim garments…..And suddenly
Beauty of your garments!
Hermes came to me in a dream. I said
My master, I am altogether lost…
And my many riches do not console me
I care only…….to die….. and to watch the dewy lotus
Along the banks of Acheron, river of hell…..
I have no embroidered head-band for you, Kleis
And no idea where to find one
While Myrsilos rules in Mytilene…..The bright
Ribbon reminds me of those days when our
Enemies were in exile……o Kleis……”
Ragini couldn’t help smiling to herself thinking of Sappho’s desire for all her girl friends, Andromeda, Gongyla, Athis, Kleis. So many? She had read somewhere that Sappho of Lesbos was a poet, writing liberally about her sexual desire for her female friends and her poetry was subjected to tremendous violence in the Christian West. She was a victim of the state mandated management of compulsory heterosexuality. Still her work survived and was oft quoted until in 1000 AD the church destroyed all her poems and quotes. In 1073, her poems were publicly burnt in Rome and Constantinople by the orders of Pope Gregory VIII. Still some Egyptian papyrus preserves her poems in the form of quotation!!
Ragini was amazed. A woman has to suffer so much of suppression, mutilation, censorship and disparagement, only because whatever she thought or freely wrote was thought ‘unnatural’ by a group of people? But in the norms of Indian civil conduct it is quite ‘natural’ when a woman’s soft emotions are crushed on the nuptial bed and she has to undergo marital rape throughout her life! Still she can be called a respectable married woman, feeding her limbs to a man whom she might not love, and drying his underwear proudly, lifelong, like the national flag.
The implications of the word ‘unnatural’ seemed to her quite unnatural.
She was reminded of her elder sister who was married to Rajib bhai at a very young age. She bore three children for him by the time she was twenty, yet his lust was never satisfied. He would shout at her at the drop of a hat, humiliate her for not being as qualified as him, call her names, but she had to be with him in the ‘natural’ circle of her ‘happy’ married life, without a choice. She had never seen him speaking to her softly, touching or patting her shoulder any time, even when she was in labor pain. He had never got a single rose for her even on her birthday. Since their father passed away leaving two young girls and a boy behind with an ailing widow, her mother, it was decided that her sister Shalini, who was in +2 first year Arts by then, should be married off to Rajib bhai, a Deputy General Manager in a multinational company. Their mother had got some amount from her dead husband’s office which was not enough for the higher education of three children. Shalini’s marriage ceremony was simple, but the dowry was not so. A Wagon-R car, refrigerator, T.V., and whatever else is required for a household, their mother arranged. After that Ragini was sent to a hostel since she got a scholarship. Since then, she has always been on fellowships, staying in hostels, now doing her Masters in the university, staying in a single room which she voluntarily shares with her friend Suni, Sunita Malhotra, from Chandigarh.
Ragini couldn’t divert her mind form the thought of her sister Shalini, how she went to her in-law’s house, scared, crying all the while, when she was just sixteen. After fifteen days she came home with a mangalsutra around her throat, bruises on her neck and nape, lips and eyes swollen. She had been to a honeymoon which Rajib bhai’s friends had sponsored, in Delhi, Shimla, Kulu and Manali. Their mother was so happy to see that at least one of her daughters was settled in life. She couldn’t see, or perhaps she didn’t want to see, her stony dead eyes, chopped wings and blue-black bruises.
Ragini had to get up with a start with the loud ringing of the bell for lunch or breakfast, whatever you can call it, at 10 am. Oh, she was late. Today the first period was to be taken by Prof. Mohapatra, her favorite teacher. He taught them theory – post-colonialism, post-modernism, ecocriticism, feminism, narratology and new criticism. She rushed to the bathroom. There was no water supply. Water supply was from 8.00 to 9.00am, one hour, and you have to queue up to get your turn. Or, perhaps store two buckets of water so that when the rush was over, you could bathe peacefully. Thank god, Suni was her roommate. She had collected two buckets of water for Ragini after she bathed in the morning. Suni knew, Ragini would study from six to ten in the morning, and she would never like to be disturbed for trivial things like water. So Suni had willingly taken that on herself, to help her almost every day.
“Thanks Suni-di, it’s very sweet of you.”
“Ok, ok, now bathe quickly and come to the dining hall. Today there is egg curry. I have asked Bhagban bhaina to keep two eggs for you.”
Ragini couldn’t have thought about her hostel life without Suni. They were two extremes – Ragini was a good student, serious about her future, because she never wanted a life like her sister Shalini. Or, it’s better to say that the life that had been imposed on Shalini. She had a secret desire that someday she would become an IAS officer; earn so much that it won’t be impossible to for her to rescue her sister from that snare. She needs a lot of money and empowerment for that; she has been focused in her career.
Suni was different. She had no such aim in life. She was the single child of rich parents, her Papa always on business trips outside India and Mummy was busy with her kitty parties. The daughter was left to the ayah; thus she preferred to share her life with her hostel mates rather than with servants.
That was how she was here, doing certificate, degree, diploma courses one after the other, aimlessly, just to be facilitated to stay in the university, particularly in the hostel, far away from home. During the first two years, she had a single room of her own, which used to be always locked. Because she never wanted to stay alone. She had befriended the senior girls and used to chit chat with them, help everyone with money and personal care. She had enough spare time with her. Whenever someone was ill, someone was upset, heartbroken, disturbed, had to go for shopping, had some relative in her room, Suni was there. She was so good-natured that within no time she became everybody’s favorite. She had long hair, great skin, a charming smile, she was a real beauty, and Ragini was very fascinated to see her in the dining room or T.V. room every day. She envied her, how much time she had! When did she prepare her notes? When did she study?
The fact was, she never prepared notes, never studied and never wanted to be ‘something’ in life. She was just living in the present. During the summer vacations when everyone was excited, shopping for their family members before going home, Suni had nobody to buy things for. Because she couldn’t find suitable designer saris for Mummy or suits for Papa from places like Annapurna Market in Berhampur where her friends preferred to shop. After all they had to buy fashionable yet inexpensive stuff. And there was no point going to a mall alone and buying things for Mummy which she may not like and give away to her servants. She wanted to breathe fresh air, live like her friends, be happy with small things in life. But she got only big things, big hurts;and she was supposed to fulfill the big hopes of her parents.
Like, on her last birthday–when her friends had arranged a tea-samosa party in the common room, she got a call from her Mummy.
“Darling, we are in the town today, for my speech in the Women’s Welfare Association of Odisha tomorrow. Why not come with me, I can buy some birthday present for you, and have dinner with you”.
“No Mummy, thanks. Actually my friends have organized a small get-together in the common room.”
“Oh come on! Forget that. I am reaching in ten minutes, now get ready”.
In the evening Suni came back to the hostel with a diamond ring, five designer suits, sandals, perfumes, and vacuum in her eyes.
Mummy sent her to the mall and then to the hostel with the driver with an order of what things to buy for her only daughter, because she met the local M.L.A.’s wife in the restaurant.
During long holidays, the hostel was closed, and the rooms were temporarily given away to the sportspersons coming for different championships from other states. So the hostellers had to vacate their rooms in a short notice, lock their cup-boards and suitcases. Suni would always leave the hostel on the last date, and come back on the re-opening day itself. Because there was nothing much to do at home. She never liked to join Mummy’s parties where the gossip was about the recent fashion trends or the personal lives celebrities or about saris and the diamond jewelry those socialite ladies were wearing. She was fish out of water in Mummy’s parties.
Some evenings when Papa was home, he would enquire a thing or two about her university and retire to his bed room. Mummy and Papa were like two parallel train lines, never to meet. But still they were together. She had never seen them talking, going out together, forget about ever holding hands or having any physical contact.
Was it natural?
Can two people share their lives for convenience? Papa had so many female friends; Mummy had many male friends, who would drop her home, drunk, at the wee hours of the morning. Papa had no objection.
Was it natural?
They believed in giving space to each other in their marriage. This concept of ‘space’ was beyond her comprehension. She felt trapped at home, and hostel was her rescue.
That was when she met Ragini. They had seen each other as two strangers, exchanged smiles in the dining room, but had never spoken to each other. Ragini was in the first year and Suni in the second year. Suni spent her spare time wandering through the market place. Making the rounds of shops had become her habit; she got a pleasure out of it. Hockey, chess, table-tennis and cricket were played at the university campus in the evenings. She never went to the university tournaments. She didn’t even bother with the daily newspapers, although many of the girls in the hostel including Ragini were regular visitors of the central library for newspapers and journals. But the game she liked even more than cricket was to select a shopper from the crowd in front of her and follow her. Roaming through the supermarket was her favorite pastime hands down. She herself stocked everything in her room; it was more like a household. She restocked on salt, lentils, rice, coriander and chilies, even dry shrimps in her room, which she had seen in the servants’ quarters at her place, and which she relished.
That day Suni was roaming in the basement and afterwards took the escalator to the main part of the store, to the cosmetics and soft toys section, where creams and rouge were displayed like magazines and lipsticks and artificial hair sets shimmered like wedding dupattas pinned behind the protective glass. The mannequins were inviting to the clothes section on the other side. Though Suni had never bought anything other them an Olay Total Effect, she liked walking through the cramped lanes of the mall, which was familiar to her in a way the rest of the town was not. She rushed her hands inside her coat pocket and found an election campaigning card with rich aroma and smiled to herself. Girls in the ladies hostel were least bothered about the qualities of a prospective candidate for the posts of President, Vice-President or General Secretary in the Students’ Union annual elections. They would smell and check the quality of the perfumes they sprayed on their cards and decide whom to vote. They would accept a bunch of cards from each candidate with all politeness, as if they were actually going to campaign for them inside the hostel; and then push the cards into each corner of their suitcases and cup-boards so that the aroma would stay with their clothes for some time.
Whose card is this? Devendra Bishoy’s? Suni smelled it and put it back in her pocket.
Then she spotted a girl from her hostel, Ragini, in the super market. The hostel gates would close at 6 pm, so Ragini had to pick the 5.30 road-train, which comprised two buses attached by a thick iron chain, and the first bus would drag the second one, like a mother dragging her naughty child home in the evening to study; this created a funny sight. Ragini was in hurry, picking one thing from here and one thing there, lest she might miss the road-train. She saw a lovely snow-white teddy bear, and checked with the price tag. No, it was beyond her budget. She was paying the bills at the counter when she heard the horn of the university bus. Suni wanted to help her with her bags, but was hesitating. She might think what was she doing in the market if she had nothing to buy? At that moment, Ragini, while trying to hold her handbag and the shopping poly bags in the left hand and pay with the other hand, dropped all her bags. Suni had to join her.
“You let it be. I’ll pick your things. You pay the bills and let’s rush to the road-train”.
“Oh thanks a ton!”
But they were late. That day the bus left sharp on time, unlike some other days, and they missed the bus. Ragini was very worried, as any first year student would.
“Not to worry, we can hire an auto. I am your senior, so it’s my responsibility now,” volunteered Suni.
“I am Ragini. You are?”
“Sunita, can call me Suni.”
“Yeah, I have seen you in the T.V room and the dining hall. You are in the second year, right?”
“Right. Yes, here’s a chocolate for you. I always wanted to give you one. Because I have heard that you were the university topper last year.”
“Oh yeah, thanks again. Even I always wanted to speak to you. Everyone says you are so nice and helpful.”
They had a nice chat. They spent 40 minutes in the auto talking about the university, their classes, departments, teachers, the road train and its antics, all fun.
The next day, they again met in the canteen and Ragini noticed that Suni was alone. Why was she always alone? She invited her to join her friends.
Ragini discovered that Suni was an introvert when it came to sharing her feelings with people. She seemed docile, feminine, quiet and lost in herself. That mysterious silence in her sad eyes got Ragini attracted towards Suni. They started keeping a trey for each other in the dining hall, whoever came first. They started sending a word for each other through the ward-boy if there was a good movie in Doordarshan on Sunday evenings. Suni gave Ragini a bottle of pickles which she had taken from the supermarket, because she saw that most of the days during the part-I university examination, Ragini would take her dinner to her room to eat after late night studies. But next morning the tray would be kept outside her room, the food only nibbled, may be because of the tasteless curries.
There was one thing common between them. Both of them were lovers of nature.
As soon as Ragini came from the department, she would toss a few morsels of food down her throat and hop away like a bird to join Suni in the garden. Suni had created a small kitchen garden beside her room where she had grown tomato, spinach and green chilly. Every weekend she used to cancel their meals in the mess and cook for both of them. She loved cooking. Suni would be busy with her gardening and Ragini followed her around and watched. During such hours Ragini’s hands and feet constantly itched for some achievement in the garden. But she was good at nothing except studies. Suni would pluck tender tomatoes and chilies and tuck them away in her dupatta. Ragini walked behind her, ineptly plucking leaves and grass which she thrust into Suni’s dupatta. Sometimes she would happen to touch a worm or a caterpillar; she would scream in horror and hold on to Suni and wipe her hands on her stomach. Suni remained untroubled, as if it was Ragini’s wall, not her stomach.
Ragini again became the topper in the part-I, M.A. examination, and Suni passed out after the completion of her second year. The day she was given her degree, she filled the application form for another M.A. course, so that she won’t have to leave the Mahendra Tanaya Ladies’ Hostel. “Oh Suni-di, I was upset thinking that you will have to leave this place and go home. It’s good that you are going to continue your stay here. See, I have no best friends except you.”
“But you know, I have to vacate my room and share the common room with the M.Phil, Ph.D girls,”
“Why, you can shift to my room. Being the topper, I am given a bigger single room this year. You can stay with me.”
Ragini’s life became smooth with Suni’s presence in her room. No more queuing up to bathe in the morning, no more worries, like “what shall I wear today?” She always forgot to press her clothes when there was power supply. Most of the times they had to manage with a generator which didn’t support an electric iron box. So she had to wear her crushed cottons to the department. She was allergic to synthetics, she was a pure cotton person, and cotton needs ironing.
Now Suni would get up at 6 am, with the bell of Ragini’s alarm clock, but had nothing to do throughout the mornings after watering the plants, bathing, storing water for Ragini, an elaborate puja and making two cups of coffee for both of them. So she would devote some mornings to arranging the wardrobes of herself and Ragini, some mornings for assembling Ragini’s study table, book shelves, notes, Xerox copies, pens, table lamp. Sometimes she would take out Ragini’s cotton dresses and sit down for pressing them with her iron box.
“Suni-di, please don’t do that. Let it be. I’ll do that in the afternoon after I come from the department.”
“When? When there is a power cut? You better concentrate in your Elizabethan World Picture or whatever you are reading. I can do this.”
“Why don’t you, too, sit down with me and prepare notes on your Home Science papers?”
“No… please don’t ask me to prepare notes. Moreover, what shall I do with a first class? I just need to pass. When you become an IAS officer, keep me as your Private Secretary, ok? You are such messy! Just look at your suitcase!”
She was right. Ragini’s workload was so much. Apart from the P.G. part II course, she was also preparing for the UGC NET examination in English as well for the Civil Service examination. You never know. You have to keep all the options open.
She learnt from Suni, what it is called to share and care. Coming from a family where her widow mother was harsh on her children, and a sister married off too early and brother, a spoiled brat, she had no strong family ties. She felt Suni was her mother, sister, friend and her family. During the morning hours when Ragini studied, Suni made it a point to finish her work in the room in an hour and go to the roof top with her wool and needles. She was knitting a sweater for Ragini; she had only one sweater. Suni would never disturb her while she was studying; rather she would lock their door from outside so that her classmates could not disturb her. Raji, Anamika, Sagarika, Mona, Damayanti, Parul, they were staying in the same row. Since Ragini was the topper, they had a kind of wariness, and they would come to Ragini and Suni’s room in some pretext, to ask for a book or some notes, to clear a doubt, and then waste her time with silly talk about boys in the department or about the boys’ hostels.
One evening Surabhi came to Ragini’s room to ask for some Glucon-C, which Suni used to store to give Ragini when she came tired from her classes. When Ragini opened the door with a book in her hand, all the girls in the row came to her room.
“Ay Ragini, don’t you get bored reading all the time? You don’t have a boyfriend either! Only mug up your books all the time. What a girl!”
“No yaar, I was just reading something. Come!”
“Give me your Glucon-C. I am feeling weak.”
“Why, is your boyfriend troubling you too much?” said Sarita and all started laughing loudly.
Reshma, the girl in the next row, had a cousin staying in the boys’ hostel. So she had most information about the boys,thus she was very much in demand.
“Reshma, what’s news? You are not sharing with us!” Rakhi asked her.
“Hey, you know, my cousin was telling there are the photographs of Hollywood and Bollywood heroines in two pieces in their bathrooms. All those boys go there and kiss those photos, they do all bull-shit in front of the girls’ photos, you know? They even do ‘that’ for each other,” she said with a giggle.
“Please don’t discuss all that here. Suni-di will kill me,” told Ragini; and Suni was already there on the door.
“You girls don’t have any study hours? At least think of the university topper. She has to study!”
The crowd dispersed.
“What is this Suni-di? I could have told them politely.”
“No Ragini, you don’t know such girls. They disturb you during your study hours, and then they will study throughout the night. And why should she borrow Glucon-C from you every day? Can’t she buy? But she can buy new kurtas every month, hmm?”
“No Suni-di. Her boyfriend gifts all that stuff.”
“Ragini! Please don’t tell me about boyfriends!” Then Suni got very upset.
“Why? Why do you hate boys so much?”
Suni hesitated. “Do you have some time? I can tell you tonight after dinner. The mess bell is on.”
That night Ragini could know that Suni was a girl with a disturbed past. Beneath her serene temperament like the Pacific, there was a hidden storm.
Suni’s Papa was one of the top class industrialists of the state. He was a successful businessman, and to be successful in business he had to make many compromises. One of those was, he had promised the local M.L.A. to marry off his daughter Sunita with his wayward son Samant, without her consent, even without consulting her. The boy was a rogue. He had somehow passed M.A. from some private university, and those days he was waiting to join politics in the next general elections. He had heard about Suni’s charm from his family and friends, and was waiting for her during last summer vacation.
Suni went home in mid-May, again to join her classes on 1st July. Pretty long vacation, and she was thinking to kill time by growing a kitchen garden at home too. So the next morning she was instructing the peons to get plants, manure and seeds and clean that area. At that point, a rough, shabby looking man in his late thirties entered their gate with full authority, parked the car inside and got down.
“Salaam sahib!” the peons told.
Who was he? Suni had never seen him! And why was he coming forward to Suni with open arms?
“Hi sweety! You made me wait so much!” and he almost pulled her to his chest in front of the peons and the servants. All looked down. Suni was still in her night suit, looking fresh and tender.
She got hyper, lost control and pushed the man as hard as she could.
“Who the hell are you? And how dare you behave like this?”
“Oh, your father hasn’t told you that I am your fiancé? What is this? Call that man, hey you!” He shouted at a servant.
Suni’s father entered the scene.
“Ragini beta, he is Mr. Samant, the only son of our M.L.A. sahib. I have given him the word that you and Samant are going to tie the knot next year. If both of you agree, we can have the engagement done during your summer vacations. Also, both of you will get some time to spend together. Why don’t you take her out today Samant beta?”
“Oh, sure uncle! She is such a beauty!”
“Papa! I need to talk to you, now!” and she rushed to her bed room.
“Samant, please be seated. I would be back in a minute. Actually I couldn’t tell her about you. She came home only last night.”
Samant waited, restlessly.
“Papa, please don’t do this to me. I want to study for some more years, am in no mood to marry now. I am not prepared. And this man is repulsive! I cannot marry him Papa!”
“What? How can you be so arrogant? He is the M.L.A.’s son, and your father’s future as an industrialist depends on him to a great extent. See Suni, I didn’t ask you to give me your decision. You have to marry Samant, whether you like it or not. And once you marry, you would start liking him.”
“No Papa, I’ll die if you force me. Please Papa!”
“Nothing doing. Just shut your mouth. He may hear it.”
Samant overheard everything. Repulsive? Ok. He would make her jolly well understand what a repulsive man is like.
Next few days Samant tried to lure her into a relationship. But Suni was adamant. She had no desire to marry. And if at all she has to marry, the boy would be of her choice. She is also the daughter of a stubborn father– so, nothing doing.
But destiny had something else in her store for Suni.
One night, the world turned upside down. There was an unlikely rain. Rain, more rain. The bird’s eye view of the landscape gave the picture of the Jurassic age. The crystal clear water-world was flanked by forest black-waters. The landscape got dotted with skyscraper ghettos and massive pylon. It became a different world altogether with wild beasts around. Samant lifted Suni under the nose her father to an unknown farmhouse.
Under the fading glow of the skyline, water divided beneath the bridge. Colonies of red ants encroached the unclaimed lands, the deciduous trees elongated that night, created an unlikely rain in Suni’s whole being. Her mind and body caught fire in the rain.
The next morning she came back to the hostel; but not a soul was there except the warden didi and her children in one room. Rest other rooms were allotted to the football tournament girls from Punjab Technical University. Suni lied to the warden that she had to come back early because her parents went to the U.S. for a month, and she wanted to come back for her studies. Warden didi liked Suni because she was a polite and nice girl. She allowed her to stay with her family for that month till the university reopened.
Suni hated men, all men, after that night.
“My god! Suni-di!! Oh my god! Oh my god! How can you bear so much pain in your heart and still smile? How can you be normal after all that happened? I will kill that bastard. How could your parents do that to you? Why didn’t you inform the police? Oh my god! I am so disturbed! Such upset!” Ragini started sobbing.
“Don’t cry Ragini dear! Informing the police was of no use. His father is the M.L.A., and my Papa supports his party. Anyway, the fortunate thing is that Samant found me frigid, cold,repulsive and unsuitable to be his wife. So he denied marrying me; Mummy called up the next week to scold me that I didn’t cooperate with him.”
Was it natural? Pre-marital sex is allowed for a man with any number of women, just to test who would be most suitable to keep him happy every night! If a woman adopts the same method?
Ragini’s immature brain was failing to define what was natural and what was not. She was sobbing, was most restless that night.
“You know Suni-di, my elder sister is married to Rajib bhai, with whom she has three kids, has also a painful story. Why men are like this?”
Ragini told her Shalini didi’s story at length. That night they spent the whole night talking, wiping tears and comforting each other. Unlike other days when they used to sleep separately, one on the bed and the other on the floor, that night they slept on the same bed.
The shadows of the neem tree near their window were softly reflected on the bed, cold breeze blowing; like white foam, the moonlight was falling on the bed in patches. The night had calmed down after the perturbing storm of Suni’s story. Ragini slowly put her head on her arm and stroked Suni’s long, silken hair. The sides of her temples were wet with tears, she wiped that with her fingers.
“Oh Ragini! This is love! This is heaven my dear! This is pure love, true love, which you have given me, and I have given you. I love you so much my dear! I would not regret if I die after getting such pure love in my life.” She went on whispering into her ears, and drew her close. She kissed her forehead softly, then touched her cheeks, chin, neck, nape, back, slowly she touched her everywhere, drew her so close that they were inhaling each other’s breath. Ragini was breathless.
Suni took the initiative. She kissed Ragini’s mouth, first softly, then she went on sucking her lips, for a long time, while her hands caressed her navel and her budding breasts. And she didn’t know when her hands delved deep, deeper, deepest, into Ragini’s being. Like two rivers, flowing into each other and merging in the sea, they merged through the body to the soul. Like soul mates.
Both of them felt at the moment– that was so natural! Like leaves coming to a tree, like flowers blooming in spring or migrating birds reaching their destination every winter, without fail.
Life was good, after all. This was not forbidden love, no.
Next morning Ragini was somewhat feeling guilty. But Suni showed no such sign. It was like every other day. Bathing, storing water, cooking for both of them as the mess was closed for the day; in fact Suni was very particular that Ragini should by no means feel disturbed.
‘You sleep for an hour now. I am going upstairs. I shall open the door at 10 am, you have your breakfast, then study, ok?” She kissed her cheek and went out. Ragini felt uneasy. How can she behave so normal after all that? Was she mad? Ragini was confused.
But Suni was not. As if she always knew it. Like Sappho, she knew that she would get her consolation, comfort and stay in a woman, never a man. She was made like that. She loved all softer emotions in life, which she could expect only from a woman, not a man. Precisely, from Ragini.
Ragini was her alter-ego. She was smart, slim, intelligent, outspoken, determined, ambitious, dedicated, childlike, immature, stylish, dependent on her, and at the same time an independent, modern, twenty-first century woman with a nonchalant attitude. Which Suni always wanted to be. But she was never made like that. She could never be that devil-may-care type.
So what? Ragini’s success was no less her success! Ragini’s achievements were no less than her own! Life went on. Ragini and Suni, both were comfortable now. They cared, shared, loved.
One day the seniors in the hostel ordered some DVDs in the T.V. room to have fun after Ganesh Puja. One of the movies they watched was Dipa Mehta’s Fire.
All the girls giggled. Oh shit! Oh god! What’s going on? What are these two women doing? Is that possible? They have a serious problem.
Ragini prompted, “Why not? Can’t you see what kinds of men they have in their lives? How can a woman love a man from whom she doesn’t get care, respect, comfort or emotional love? Is love all about having sex with a man? You all are so educated. How can’t you realize that love is a very soft emotion, which a woman can share only with a person who needs her emotionally, not just physically? Physical closeness is another way of showing one’s care and concern for the person whom one loves, be it a man,a woman or even nature. What is so unnatural about it? Being a ‘homo’ or a ‘hetero’ is not the setback in one’s character. There is a problem with us if we are pervert, indecent, dishonest, violent, cheat or evil. But how can someone’s different sexual preference be a problem to us? Why are we dramatizing our reaction to someone’s alternative sexuality? If one is sincere and honest, what is the problem? Times are changing, so why not change our mindsets? The thought of homosexuality creeps you out? Fine. Who is asking you to be one yourself? But how does that give you the right to be hyper-critical or mock someone who is a lesbian or a gay? At least stop judging people for feelings they have no control over! Nature has made them so, after all.”
All the girls exchanged a meaningful glance with a suppressed smile.
After that day, whenever the gossip mongers would see Suni and Ragini together, there would be some whisper and then some giggle.
But who cares? Where there are bigger things to care, one doesn’t get time to care about petty things like what people are gossiping about.
Ragini’s part II examination was on, and she had to study very hard. Suni had to take extra care that she was not disturbed by anyone.
“Suni-di, thank you so much, if I am doing well in my studies, the credit goes to you.”
“Hm…..keep your flattery to yourself. I am sure you want an excuse to go out with your friends for a party. Ok, go, but come back by 6.00 pm and sit down to study.”
What is a mother like? Is she like Suni-di?
“What would you do alone? Why don’t you come along?”
“Oh no, you all are a big group-eight boys and seven girls. G-seven, that’s what you call yourselves, no? I can’t stand those boys.”
“What’s wrong with them? They are so respectful towards you.” Ragini insisted, but Suni never went out with them.
“Hey Ragini! What’s the problem of that roommate of yours? She is weird yaar!” Reshma would say.
“Come on, she asked you that day to study during the study hours, so you are against her. But you might know that she is the darling of everyone in the hostel, including the Warden.”
“Oh…but she is your darling, for sure. We wonder, would you love your husband someday as much as you love her?”
“You guys have no other topic than boyfriends, husbands? That’s why Suni-di scolds me when I come out with you. She is right.”
All those girls thought she had airs. Attitude.
Has true-love ever been well accepted, anyway?
Ragini’s second year exams got over, and she came out with flying colours, as expected. By that time Suni had completed the first year of her double M.A. course. All first year girls of the hostel decided to throw a farewell party for the out-going M.A. students in Sonepur, a beautiful beach a few kilometers away from the university.
It was great fun. Throughout the day Ragini and her friends along with the junior girls jumped in the beach, got wet and wild, danced, sang, had sea food in the restaurant. Suni was watching from a distance. She never liked such wild fun. Even if she was junior now by capacity, but she was elder to all of them, and she liked to maintain that. She sat with the Warden and helped the cook, Bhagban bhaina, instead. And thought tomorrow she would fry some dry fish for Ragini. She loves dry shrimps.
Not that Suni was a morose and serious girl all the time. She also knew that Ragini was fun-loving, so she had to remain happy. On the way to Sonepur, the girls got down at four o’clock in the morning to freshen up near a village. Suni took them to a clean place, and asked them to relieve themselves when it was near dark. The girls were happy that before the day break at least they would be fresh. After the job was over, they went to a bore- well nearby and bathed or semi-bathed and changed into fresh clothes. While coming back to the bus, they discovered that the clean place where they had relieved themselves was actually someone’s large backyard, smeared with cow dung water the previous evening, may be for some function.
They ran and ran up to the bus and once inside it they were laughing all the while till they reached the picnic spit, to the surprise of the Warden and other staff of the hostel.
Suni knew that Ragini was a sea-food person. While roaming in Sonepur, she discovered good crabs somewhere. Then she asked Bhagwan Bhaina if he would allow her to cook in the hostel mess the next day, just for an hour. He agreed, but it had to be done at 6 am, when nobody would be around. Suni bought two kilos of crab, alive, and hid them in a bucket and kept it in a corner inside the bus. Before lunch, some girls came to the bus to collect snacks from their bags, and yelled. All the crabs had come out of the bucket and were roaming inside the bus, like dinosaurs, creating a weird scene. The cooks and others rushed to discover that scene, but Bhagwan Bhaina never disclosed who had kept them there. Suni was smiling to herself, Ragini could see.
“Suni-di, you did it for me, right? God! Imagine! You want to cook crab in the hostel for me? Let’s ask the warden to remove Bhagwan Bhaina, and you be our new cook, ok?” she whispered.
Suni pressed her palm, to keep quiet.
After lunch the girls requested the warden that they would like to spend that night in the beach and stay in some lodge at their own expense and then go back to the hostel the next morning. So the warden also had to book a room for herself and her kids to be with the girls.
They got two dormitory kinds of halls, where there were twenty beds in each hall, and they were sixty girls. Still, the girls agreed that they can share the beds, adjust, but stay back in Sonepur that night and enjoy the night sky in sea beach.
In the night, the sea was in her wild, wilder, wildest best. The silent, white, gloomy monsoon village light and the whimpering dusk did their bit to sway the girls even more. The unending wind intoxicated the sky; the earth bloomed in the embrace of the sea. Suni was whispering alone, “oh sea! Twist my life, release me from my mind’s clasp… let this moment be still, unmoving. What shall I do after Ragini, my little love, leaves this place next week? Embrace my soul, yearning. You are like the fertile creation, green and fresh like the mustard fields, wet and overflowing like a river, like shimmering rhythm. You come and grow in my restive soul, drown me in your blue eyes, mix my breath with your stormy breath. You are the music of creativity; let me bloom in your embrace. I have nowhere to go, not to the house of Mummy and Papa, and I can’t follow Ragini anymore. She has her career, her future. Oh sea…you are my only rescue now….”
Slowly she got up from her place and started walking towards the wild waves. She had almost lost consciousness. The girls were busy dancing around the camp-fire in the beach…
“Aap jeise koi meri zindegi me aaye– toh baat ban jaye…
han…han…baat ban jaye!”
“Sunita, what are you doing? Oh someone help! Help!” The Warden shouted. Ragini and her friends got startled. What happened? It was dark everywhere except the light of the fire and a crescent moon.
The fishermen, three of them, jumped into water and dragged Suni’s drowning, unconscious body from water.
The night was quiet, silent like death, in the dormitory. Everyone was upset, whispering in a suppressed voice, scolding the kill-joy.
“She has always been like this. Weird! A big show off!”
“She has attention problem, you see!”
“Don’t know how our poor Ragini tolerates such a creeper.”
It was 2 pm now. Everyone went to sleep in the dormitory after twelve o’clock, and the lights were off. Suni was given food and some sedative; Ragini gave her a piece of her mind, and asked her to sleep beside her. She was extremely worried. God! What if something would have happened? Now who is going to look after this girl after she leaves the hostel? She has her Civil Services Prelims next month, and then the UGC NET exam. She has to go home and prepare. They have to vacate their rooms tomorrow and shift to the common room till they get the hostel and university clearance. The girls were in a mixed mood, looking forward to the future. Someone was going to join some job and someone going to marry. Their public life starts from the coming week. Student career is over, so are all these irresponsible, funny, happy days. They were apprehensive, yet happy in a way. Exchanging addresses, phone numbers, e-mails, inviting each other for their marriages in near future.
Life was going to take a new shape.
Ragini had to qualify either the civil services or the research fellowship examinations. Otherwise Maa would be after her life to marry, like Shalini, and settle down. No, she was not going to marry. She couldn’t think of sharing her life with someone like Rajib bhai or that useless Samant .
Ragini tried her best to put Suni to sleep by patting on her head. She was on sedatives, so she must sleep. But Suni was not getting sleep, she was shivering all over. Ragini comforted her, put Suni’s head on her chest and caressed her hair, her eye-brows, and whispered, “Sleep…sleep…now sleep…”
At 3 am., Reshma woke up by listening to some strange sound from the bed beside hers, where Ragini and Suni were asleep. It was a scary echoing sound, as if a wild beast was gorging on some raw flesh and licking, relishing it. It was a sound she had never ever heard, never ever imagined in the weirdest of her dreams.
She got up with a start and imagined, perhaps some sea creature had entered the dormitory, coming from the sea waves, and was creating this noise, eating flesh. Perhaps the crabs had come back from the sea where they were thrown out of the bus in the morning. “Raji, Rita, get up and switch on the lights…. Please!” she whispered.
The lights were on. All lights from all directions.
Two girls, so close to each other, breathing through the nude bodies of each other, delving and drinking deep into each other!
Soul to soul.
Heart to heart.
Body to body.
Living only in that moment. As if rest other moments didn’t exist. Not breathing when not together.
So much comfort!
Such togetherness! Such closeness!
That was the last time when they lived. After that, limpness oozed out of their eyes, they never sobbed, cried,laughed or smiled. There was no wetness in the soil, no shower of light in the mornings. Only there was a rotten, musty, stinking wretched feeling as if they were in a bottomless pit.
Ragini left the hostel the next morning, so did Suni.
They were asked to leave, in fact.
Such moral degradation! Such violation of the laws of nature! Other girls may get misguided. Unpardonable! Most unnatural!!
Their parents were informed telephonically by the warden. Mummy and Papa were furious. Ragini’s Maa couldn’t understand a word of it—lesbianism !!What is that?
Both the girls were packed off; all clearances were given to them in an hour. No one spoke to them; they didn’t speak to each other either.
A silent good-bye. The last good-bye. May be, next birth, if there is any.
Suni gave her a gift, which she was planning to give her the next week, with a proper farewell.
Ragini, sitting in the train, opened the packet in tearful eyes. It was the same snow white teddy bear that she had seen in the supermarket last year, but couldn’t buy it. The day she had met Suni for the first time.
Suni was not articulate like Ragini. She had only written on the teddy, “It’s me….!”
Outside, there was a storm. Was the train moving very fast? The storm grew giddy, playing with Ragini’s unkempt hair, yet there was a cemetery like silence inside.
She was quietly watching the shadow of the train on one side of it. And her own shadow.
The shadow of a shadow.
Her life’s stress was caught up in the mind-web of her own. She just remembered two lines by her favorite poet,
“Ecstasy is rare in this living,
Rare is it in the heart’s beating…”
Nandini Sahu, Professor of English and Former Director, School of Foreign Languages, IGNOU, New Delhi, India, is an established Indian English poet, creative writer and folklorist. She is the author/editor of fifteen books. She is the recipient of the Literary Award/Gold Medal from the hon’ble Vice President of India for her contribution to English Studies. Her areas of research interest cover New Literatures, Critical Theory, Folklore and Culture Studies, Children’s Literature and American Literature.