A Buharis Debt
When her husband offered to speak up to his mother in her defense, Sharmila quickly took Binita’s side. Binita was Sharmila’s mother-in-law. The last thing she needed was for her mother-in-law to say that she was man-handling the husband against his own family. Sharmila, knowing her husband’s temper, was afraid that he would go exploding into his parent’s room.
Sharmila put up both her hands, fingers splayed apart, and said, “No, no, I was wrong. I will try to do understand better how Mamihajur was just trying to look out for Raju. I must have missed something. I’ll try to be more conscientious about how to deal in such situations from next time.”
Sharmila’s husband, knowing his mother’s nature, didn’t look convinced. While straining to move forward, he blinked looking at Sharmila, as if unsure whether to do what was on his mind or not. But, he knew better. Living in a joint family, to unnecessarily get between the affairs of his mother and his wife was opening a can of worms that better lay tightly shut… and preferably even ignored.
Sharmila shook her head as she looked into the bedroom mirror. She delicately arranged the pleats of her blue stay-at-home sari. She unpeeled the red sticky tika that she had stuck last night on the mirror and aimed it between her eye brows as she got ready to go into the kitchen. Sharmila’s hands moved automatically but her eyes didn’t. They glanced around looking for an answer.
Anytime she was trying to discipline Raju, her Sasu would come in between like Mother Teresa trying to save the oppressed. Raju seemed to almost look for opportunities to do what he shouldn’t just so that he could wail extra loudly to attract his grandmother’s attention. Sharmila would advance towards Raju squinting her eyes at him in fury. Raju, would start hollering and yelling, “aiya, aiya” before Sharmila even reached Raju. Hearing the commotion, Binita would then come, hanging her lower lip and toss a loving, “Kathai…who is hurting my pooooor grandson…?” and scoop him into her protective arms. Sharmila hated watching Raju’s victorious grin peeking out at her from within the cave of his Grandmother’s embrace.
Sure Binita was being Raju’s favorite in the short run. But who was thinking of his welfare? Who was going to teach him what was right or wrong? Of course if he got lippy or was disobedient with the adults, it wasn’t their problem. They could afford to look offended that he was such a rude child and then compare him with some relative’s child that would not behave like this. If Sharmila was in the room she would feel the quiet unspoken words about her responsibility as Raju’s mother to teach him some manners. Whenever she heard their words, Sharmila’s lips would lock grimly as she felt a resolve tighten a knot in her. But what could she do?
Sharmila sat down on the wooden pirkha to help her mother-in-law, Binita, in the kitchen. She tucked her left foot underneath the saree draped arch of her right leg. She focused on the straight dark line where the blade surface paralleled the direction her nose was pointed. Sharmila clamped down on the base of the chulesi with her right foot, bouncing the cucumber from left to right. The vegetable sliced into equidistant pieces of ripe white cucumber flesh. Seedy white cucumber mucus dotted the shiny steel plate underneath the slant of the blade. Sharmila recognized the dish. It was one of the presents her father had given her in-laws as dowry. Sharmila’s hands moved effortlessly with the chulesi, like she was patty-caking with her girlfriends in father’s neighborhood. She knew she would sacrifice a tub full of vegetables through its erect saluting blade before the morning was over.
Before sending Sharmila off to her new home, Sharmila’s mom had sat her down and told her a few things. As the buhari, she had to keep herself accessible just in case anybody in the household may need her. Sharmila had nodded her head to her mom. And, her mom had continued, if she went anywhere, she should always let the servant know where it is that she was going so that she could return home as soon as the servant came to call for her. These were days before telephones were in all corners of Kathmandu. Sharmila’s mother was concerned that her daughter not do anything that would bring shame to her father’s household. Her mom pleaded to Sharmila that she should keep herself adaptable so that she was not seen as being rigid.
”A good buhari,” Sharmila’s mother explained, “is like an adhesive that can hold even a difficult family together by her flexibility.” Sharmila knew the trouble that her father had gone to collect dowry for her to get married. She had other sister’s whose marriage depended on how she acted at her in-laws. The last thing she would do was to do anything to lower her father’s Nepali topi to the ground. Sharmila in her red shimmering dress studded with shiny sequences, bowed her head to her mother.
As her hands moved about the chulesi, Sharmila glanced to the side. The little servant girl sitting next to Sharmila in the kitchen took the wooden toothpick like stick and stabbed two stacked leaves. She twisted it off breaking the toothpick in the wounded leaf; the two leaves knotted together. Then she took another leaf and wrapped it around the bowl-to-be, penetrated the slender stick in the appropriate place and broke it off. She looked up at Sharmila expectantly with what looked like a shiny green bota. Sharmila twitched a smile and nodded her head. The servant girl pursed her lips with pride as she tossed her bowl in the green mountain of rolling leaf bowls. She picked up another set of leaves.
Sharmila looked about to see what else needed to be done to prepare for the Janmastami festival. The alu ko acchar had already been made. A large tub of bumpy yoghurty-tumeric yellow sat in a corner. A bucket full of green pea pickle sat next to it. The yellow cauliflower wilting with ghee that would melt in the palms, and more importantly the tongue of anyone who ate it, was finished. A stack of shiny rice dotted with raisins, cashews, coconut sat in a pile. There were columns of green bowls littered in a container that the women had made the other day out of leaves. Sharmila smiled at how much just the three of them had been able to accomplish.
Dressed in a one-piece sari, in front of the clay firewood fed stove, Binita, Sharmila’s mother-in-law, stirred the rice with a thin flat aluminum spoon. The dancing flames enchanted her. She reached up to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear and touched her ear to tighten an earring that wasn’t there.
Humming the tune to “Sita-ram, sita ram,” Binita squinted her eyes and took the hollow steel pipe and put it to her lips. She blew a stream of air into the pipe. On the other end of the pipe, sparks flew up like hornets viciously attacking a fire-flies nest. Binita, crooned “Sita ram, sita ram, sita ram sita ram,” as flames laced out of the smoldering wood. Ashen smoke billowed into puffy gray clouds that floated to the top of the blackened kitchen ceiling.
Sharmila’s relationship with her Sasu had changed since she came here six years ago, but not by much. She remembered how she used to weep to sleep remembering Binita’s abrasive tones the days after her wedding. Sharmila had asked herself what she had gotten herself into. Binita was so arbitrary. It was only the second day that Sharmila had arrived in the house, and Binita had just abruptly stopped Sharmila in front of the servant as if Sharmila had made a huge gaffe.
“Sharmila,” Binita said, “I don’t know what you did in your father’s home, but we are not used to people acting like that in this house.” Sharmila’s face glazed into a gray smile as her eyes opened up trying to understand what she had done. Binita continued on. She castigated Shamila for being so simple-minded as to do what she did.
“If all you wanted to do was be a princess, why did you marry into our house? I’m sure you had many other options of being in other palaces,” Binita said.
Binita knew that Sharmila's family had considered that they were marrying up when they had married their daughter to Binita’s son. This is why Binita knew how much latitude she had in chastising her daughter-in-law with impunity.
Sharmila looked down at the floor while Binita spoke. She tried to mentally take the edge off of the slapping words she was swallowing. Remembering her father’s withdrawn face, Sharmila strangled the tongue in her being. Her tongue writhed in the darkness of her soul like an offended snake that would lash back at the first chance it got.
Binita had her reasons for treating her buhari the way she did. Rebellious and undisciplined buharis had resulted in embarrassment to the greater family in one too many aborted marriages. Binita wanted to make sure that her household would not be an example of one. She considered herself to be a very pro-active sasu in the sense that she was chastising the buhari before she even needed to be. How else would these uppity educated modern buharis know their place? It’s too late to show them where they stand when they are already dancing on top of the sasu’s head, right?
A week after getting married, Sharmila had gone to the Kamaladi Ganesh temple on Tuesday and offered laddus to Lord Ganesh. She had closed her eyes and prayed, “Please Ganeshji, make my sasu be a little tolerant towards me.”
Rita, Sharmila’s close friend since grade school, had told Sharmila that she had made a similar prayer to Ganeshji and had sprinkled the offered rice in the Sasu’s room. Rita had testified that this had done the trick.
After returning back from Kamaladi Ganesh, Sharmila furtively glanced about to make sure that no one was watching. She then tossed bunched up seeds of raw rice in different corners of her new house, including underneath where her Sasu slept. Then Sharmila quickly scurried away, relieved that no one had caught her in the act. The last thing she needed was for her Sasu to accuse her of witchcraft.
It’s not like Sharmila didn’t try. She tried to play the part of the dutiful buhari as much as she could. Sharmila had slaved away at the Gautam’s household all afternoon after going there at her mother-in-law’s behest. While stirring the deep frying pan full of oil, she smiled within herself imagining the compliments that she would receive.
Sharmila found herself mentally verbalizing her modesty, “So what’s the big deal if I’ve been here all day. It is my pleasure to cook for our Sanju babu’s birthday. Please, dijju, please don’t distance me by complimenting me. I am a part of this family too.”
Sharmila could see her sasu would be pleased that even in this day and age she had a modern buhari like Sharmila that Binita could count on to be sent to make sel and puris for relative’s birthday parties. But Sharmila stopped herself with a wry smile before getting too carried away with her dreaming. She quickly calculated the precarious position she found herself in that she had obediently volunteered to cook at the Gautam’s.
Since she had cooked at this relative’s house, she would naturally be expected to cook for the ones in the adjoining house as well. Otherwise, Sharmila reasoned, they would find a reason to complain to her Sasu saying, ‘What’s going on, these days, your buhari Sharmila seems to be getting very arrogant? Is she getting ready to leave your house with her husband or what?’
As she flipped a sel in mid-air, Sharmila sighed and shrugged realizing that a buharis debt was never paid. If anything, it seemed to only grow in relation to everyone.
Last edited: 26-Oct-10 04:05 PM