Ruma startled out of bed. The heart-wrenching music of the drums was blowing still, though a little bit fainter than before. Ruma got out of bed, heading towards the pitcher at the farthest corner of the room. She drank a full glass of it.
“What was it?” she asked herself. The vision in her dream-what was that?
Ruma was absolutely clueless.
She tried to stand up, but a strange numbness was overpowering her muscles. Somehow, she gathered strength and reached the end of the bed.
In two days’ time, Ruma would be married off. The lights were still switched on in the adjacent room. All were engaged in the preparations of the ‘auspicious occasion’. Her aunt Seema and her mother had been toiling day in and day out for the last couple of days, in order to make the occasion a huge success. Gathering the flowers, the garlands; arranging seats for guests, making provisions for eatables, mopping the floors with cow-dung, drawing out beautiful little white designs on the floors-the duo were really on a mission!
Ruma sat down with a thud. It was a cold winter night but the perspiration rate was at its peak. She mopped her forehead.
The darkness of the night was surrounding her from all sides, to engulf her to the last morsel, the last bit.
“What does she want from me?” Why is she always coming to my dreams?” questioned Ruma. She was in an utterly confused state-a maze was there in front of her, directions weren’t provided, the destination was never to be reached!
Ruma and her family have been staying in Charmadi for years. Ruma has known it as her birthplace. She has observed the world through the glasses that Charmadi has worn for years. It was everything for her. Her mother, Leela, though always told her that they are not natives of the place. They have migrated from a different place in the second year of her marriage. Ruma’s father was a farmer in the fields of the village zamindar- Ratanlal. He had no land of his own. Ratanlal was a cruel landlord, making everybody work to his maximum possible capacity, but paying extremely less. Ruma has two elder sisters, who were already married.
For Ruma, Charmadi was her paradise.She has lived in the place for nineteen long years now. She has often played round those lush green paddy fields, the barren land at the end of the village area, has made swings in the tamarind and mango trees at rear side of her house. She remembers to have often quarrelled with her friends for it.
“Get down, it is my swing. I have made it,” has often been her command to her friend Rita. Many a times, she remembers to have beaten her up for this crime of hers.
Rum was nineteen now. Her friend Rita has been married off the previous summer.
Ruma was lost in her thoughts. She was unable to decipher what the face wanted to say. She knew her, it seemed. She did not have the least idea about her intentions, her purpose.
“Is it a dream at all? Am I awake or asleep?” Ruma had no answer.
The face was disturbing her all the time. Ruma decided to shake it off. She got up and proceeded to the adjacent room.
Her aunt and her mother were chatting away gaily. The room was a small one. At one end, the flower garlands were scattered throughout, the other corner occupied by the earthen utensils. Some steel ones has been borrowed from their neighbour- Shyama di, her mother called her so. Rum never liked her. She was too prudent, she thought. She always kept on boasting; it was unbearable!
Ruma entered the room.
“May I help?” she asked Seema.
“No dear, you have no work here. Just go and sleep,” Seema replied, without looking at her. She was busy selecting the flowers from the whole lot.
Now, that was totally unexpected. Ruma has yearned for sleep many times, while toiling hard with her mother, helping her in the household chores. Nobody had instructed her to sleep, then. And now, when she doesn’t need it, she is forced into it!
Ruma smiled. She took up a marigold in her palms and left.
She came and sat down in her room.
She sat there looking at the flower that she was having in her hands. It was of a bright yellow hue, it was beautiful.
Once again, the face peeped at her through the veil of her incoherent thoughts. She was unable to reach up to Ruma, the same was with Ruma as well. She wanted to speak out to her, to understand her problems but was unable to fathom the distance. It was exhausting her. The same process continued, with no declaration of results. Both were there, and both were not.
It was long, long back.
Ruma was three or four-she couldn’t recollect. Her mother was going to have a baby for the fourth time.
Ruma was too small to understand about the process, then. She smiled at how she thought that someone had cut out her stomach and inserted the child inside, like the injections the doctors usually give. Ruma thought it too cruel of the person, whoever he was.
“Doesn’t he know that the child won’t be able to breathe inside? Wicked man!” she had told herself, others never paid any heed to what she said.
Ruma’s mother had already borne three daughters. Everybody was now in an anxious anticipation for a son to be saviour of the family. Ruma’s father was the most anxious one. He was desperate for it. He needed a son to look after him, his work, his everything. The girls were already becoming an unbearable burden for him, they were not the ones who could look after him during his needs. They were absolutely of no use, no worth!
Her mother was anxious, too.
Fate has always had the final word, the last say.
This time again, for the fourth time in a row, she gave birth to a girl child. Ruma observed her mother- there was no elated feeling visible in her features. She sat there, like a sculpture carved out of stone.
Ruma was, but, extremely excited. She took up the child in her arms; the feeling was overwhelming.
She took her sister to a sojourn through the fields, showed her the river at a distance; she made her listen to the murmuring sound of the waves; she made her hear the parrot’s cries up in the mango trees.
“When you grow up to be like me, I will take you to this swing. You know, I have made it. Till you grow up, I would have already told Baba to bring in new ropes for this. Then, both of us will swing together. I will not let Rita swing on it, then. She is so stupid. She doesn’t get down after getting on it once,” told Ruma, to the newly born. She jumped off in ecstasy, a wild exuberance was overpowering her. She boasted away about how she had made the swing under a lot of difficulties- father had declared a ‘no’ in the beginning, to her proposal. Eventually, but, she emerged triumphant, she defeated her father!
That day, when she returned back home, she was in one of her most cheerful moods. Pleasure was flashing out from her face, in all dimensions.
Everybody in her home were in a gloomy mood. An air of gravity and seriousness prevailed. Nobody spoke, nobody came running up to her to take the baby in their hands. The silence was really awkward; it seemed that even her rushing heartbeats were audible!
“Baba, look at her. She is waving at you. Take her, take her,” she called out to him.
Her father backed away, telling her to take the child away from his sight. Ruma wasn’t expecting this, she was shocked at such a behaviour exhibited by her father. She looked at her mother. She was having a dark, sullen, gloomy expression. She did not protest.
Ruma looked down. She left with the baby in her hands.
Now, she knows what had happened that day and why. Now she knows about ‘their’ plight.
After the day, for a couple of days, the condition at her home became like that of a courtroom. There were serious discussions all the time, in which she had no permission for entry and intervention. She was eager to participate in those discussions, but could not. Her father was the judge, the lawyer, the convict, as well as the defendant. Her mother was the silent audience, she had no say in it.
On the third day, the discussion took a new turn, the gravity was raised by a level of infinity. Her father was agitated. Her mother kept mum. She nodded at last, reluctantly, in approval. The face showed a profound pain, which remained untouched, not understood, not attended to.
In the evening, her mother had dressed Ruma’s sister up in Ruma’s beautiful little white dress which she had worn during her childhood years. She put the black soot on her forehead. She looked like that doll, with a broken arm.
“Where are you going? Are you taking her too? I will go too. Please, Maa, take me with you,” she pleaded.
After the long argument, Ruma succeeded in her attempt to convince her mother. She agreed with a nod.
It was dark. About seven in the evening. Ruma’s father took her sister in his hands.
Ruma was glad to see her father accepting her sister at last. She was relieved.
Just then, her father took a black piece of cloth and covered her face. Ruma was at a loss for words.
“Maa, tell Baba not to do it, she won’t be able to breathe inside it. Why does he need to cover her face like that?” questioned Ruma. She looked at her mother. She had a gloomy expression pervading her face. Ruma thought that she saw a tiny drop of tear fall down her dark, brown cheeks. It was all dark. She wasn’t sure whether it did.
“She would catch cold, Maa. Where are we going?” enquired she. Her mother did not answer. She decided to keep mum. She just signalled her to keep quiet. Ruma couldn’t understand a single bit of it. Everything was so baffling, everybody was so distanced. Her mother did not answer, her father was unapproachable. She was tired of their silence.
They reached the bank of the river. Ruma could not decipher any meaning in it. She thought it stupid of her father to come up to the river, in such a cold weather’ just to take in the cold breeze!
He went up further. He took the child and in the flash of a second, threw it into the river.
“Baba, Baba…” Ruma shrieked.
She went up to her father, running.
“Why did you throw her? She doesn’t even know how to swim. Please, Baba bring her back. She will die otherwise,” Ruma had pleaded.
Her father didn’t reply. He walked off. Her mother said nothing at all. She was defeated in the battle, the entire women folk had lost.
Ruma remembers to have gone to the same place thenext day in search of her sister. She was nowhere to be found. She was lost forever. The same river had frightened her ever since. That river, whose soothing murmur provided her solace, whose rippling waves’ enchanting sound she made her sister listen to just after she was born- it was now a source of intense fear for her. She had lost her sister in that!
She had not noticed when the marigold had fallen from her hands. It was now, there lying on the ground.
The sun’s rays were already pouring in through the window. It was morning. One day later, she would leave her parents’ house forever. Tears filled up her eyes. She tried to hide them but all her efforts were in vain.
That day was a very hectic one. All the guests had arrived. Ruma’s sisters were there along with their children who were scurrying forth in all directions, with utmost enthusiasm. There was a great hustle and bustle all around. Drums were beating at their full rhythm, shattering Ruma’s heart to pieces, with every single beat.
She would leave the place forever, the next day. The strong bond which had been there between herself and Charmadi , a nineteen year long relationship would be terminated.
After the busy schedule of the day, everybody was exhausted. All were on their way to their beds. The next would be another ‘phenomenon’, one very important occasion was to be held!
Ruma went as well.
She was completely exhausted. She dozed off as soon as she laid down.
“Don’t marry, Ruma.
If you bear girls, your husband would do the same as Baba did to me. Please, Ruma. You promised to take care of me but you couldn’t. Will you be able to attempt to initiate a struggle, a fight for your children?
No Ruma. You won’t, nobody would let you do so. They will kill them
Run, run away Ruma.”
Ruma got up with a start. It was her tiny little sister, who died long ago. Ruma fell into a deep contemplation. Everything she said was correct.
Ruma remembered her mother’s reluctant approval to her father’s arguments. The single drop of tear in the darkness, falling down her cheeks –all became the fragments of the painting that some tragic artist has made on an exclusively large canvas. They constituted an entire picture. Ruma could see it. It was a pathetic sight!
Ruma needed to take the biggest decision of her life. Time was ticking away at its own pace.
She looked around the room. Everybody was in his deepest of sleeps, no one stirred. She got up.
She scrambled through the clothes and took in two dresses, the doll whose one arm was broken, and a pair of old slippers. She tied them all up in a bundle. There were some coins in the earthen piggy-bank, she took it to the rear end of the room and broke it open, causing the least amount of noise. Taking all her belongings, she carefully opened the door.
She reached the verandah, closing the door behind her. Her father was sleeping at one corner. The moon was at its best, shining out bright. Ruma cautiously tip-toed to the fence, crossing the garden. Her father coughed. Ruma stood absolutely still. She felt her heart pounding faster; a chill was running down her spine; she was completely out of her senses. When she finally came back to her senses, she turned back to look at her father. He was there, sleeping soundly as before. He did not stir. Ruma heaved a sigh of relief.
Getting on the other side of the fence, she looked back again at her home. Everything was so peaceful, so tranquil, so serene.
“But tomorrow, everything would change-everything,” Ruma anticipated. She was leaving her parents’ place forever, indeed.
Ruma started running-in search of herself, her own life, her own identity.
“RUN, RUN AWAY RUMA” rang in her ears incessantly. She was running away. The paths were unknown, the distances were yet to be fathomed. She was on the journey with no guiding star to lead her into the right or wrong paths, she was her own teacher now. She had escaped from all the chains of her life, nobody would be able to enslave her. She had tasted her freedom with the most welcoming apetite.
Leaving her own world far behind, crossing all the boundaries, she had escaped.
She kept on running, running and running away…
Mekhala Chattopadhyay is a student of English Honours, B.A-3rd year, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org