Mehnat ki roti

The office is having an audit, so the work-load has been immense for the past ten days. Returning home is being delayed everyday. Today I get off at the bus stop and quickly buy potatoes, peas, mushrooms and what not from the vegetable vendor. Now it is necessary to get a rickshaw not that home is very far away, but my legs are giving way. Then there would be the cooking. This year Mrittika is in the twelfth class preparing for the Board Examinations, otherwise I might have gotten my daughter to help out in the kitchen.

Across the street there is a line of rickshaws. Seeing me look, one of the rickshaw-pullers comes forward-

“Come along didi”.

“How much to Neeladri?”

‘Four rupees’.

‘What rubbish. I give three everyday, we too get our bread from hard work.’

The man grins, revealing a set of perfect teeth — “Yes the bread from hard work is the sweetest”. He probably uses a neem-twig for brushing his teeth. Whether the bread earned from hard work is the sweetest or not — I do not know, but when you are hungry, bread does taste sweeter.

For a moment my mind flashes back —

We thirty-odd college students — boys and girls, got off at the Verawal station with Sujatadi, our history teacher. From then on it was by a tonga to Somnath. We all were thirsty and hungry and dying for a bath. At such a time Utpal broke into a throaty song — “I am a traveller —.”

The road to Somnath was lined with dense pine forests. The light of the waning moon made us feel like body less wraiths — the six tongas in a line, the steady sound of horses trotting, their bells ringing in their flat monotone — it seemed we were travellers to an unknown land.

“Utpal, you are quite something! Here we are dying of hunger and you sing”, Beejoya’s voice.

“You know nothing of singing, or you might have understood, it is no good singing with full stomach”.

“Don’t try to act smart — you are just trying to impress Indrani. You think we are stupid.”

Shivratri was only four days past. There was virtually no crowd at Somnath. We easily got accommodation at the lodge Annapurna run by women. We bathed quickly and made for the dining hall on the ground floor. Along the two walls, mats were set in lines to sit on. Two other sets of mats were laid at the centre that made the diners squat back to back. In front of each mat lay a steel thali with numerous bowls and a glass.

The kitchen could be seen through the door. Rotis were being made on a massive tava. Four women rolled rotis from the dough; two others baked them while another fluffed them in a nearby fire. Clubbed with four vegetarian dishes, arhar daal and pickle, those thin rotis were delicious. I would never forget their taste….

Meetu opened the door. Keeping the vegetable-pouch on the dining table, I quickly washed up and set the tea on the boil. My son Probal sat grimly with a sullen face.

Meetu explained — “Ma, Probal is getting insolent and stubborn. He returned from play and wanted to eat something. I told him there was nothing else except the jam and toast I gave him, but he managed to blow his top — I can’t eat bread everyday”, he says.

I put tealeaves into the pot and made a cheese-omelette for Probal. An eleven-year-old boy how could I expect him to understand!

My husband Amalendu lay reclining, reading the newspaper. Under normal circumstances, he would have made the tea. Probal too would not have to sulk; Amalendu would have made him whatever he wanted. Because of his duty being in shifts, he is home everyday from afternoon onwards.

But what mattered today was the cold war between us. So to ‘teach me a lesson’ he had ceased all work, from bringing milk from the booth to feeding Probal.

The contentious issue is my job. About ten years ago, the financial situation at home had reached a critical stage. We had obtained membership of a co-operative group housing society; the instalments to be paid started affecting the domestic budget. All the savings had been diverted to the building of the flat. Amalendu had a notion that he would get some money from his father. But on hearing that his son was building a flat in Delhi, notwithstanding the ancestral home in Calcutta his rage burst forth. A big row ensued, and of course the money never came.

It was then that I, a small-town girl from 24-Paraganas, knowing neither Hindi nor English, landed up to this job with the help of one of Amalendus friends. Probal was not even a year old then. Only I know how I managed to leave him at a day-care centre to keep my job. A number of times, when he was in fever, I gave him some medicines, and left for the job. Leave did not come easy in a private job.

It was during those times that Amalendu had learnt the elements of housekeeping, even cooking. Returning from work, I never had to make my own tea those days.

But now, our finances were much more sound. We were sitting pretty in our own home. My in-laws had been here once. Seeing my work-pressure, Amalendu’s father reproved my husband. Seeing her son do the household chores, the mother had expressed her dissatisfaction. I would not blame her — a woman of her own time. She would naturally believe that I was not taking proper care of her son.

Amalendu often says now-a-days — “Enough, leave the job now, it’s high time you had some rest”.

“Let me think”… I would say and avoid the issue. But these days whenever Amalendu returns from the night shift to an empty house, he does not like it. ‘There isn’t a soul to make me a cup of tea… he complains.Whenever he has a day shift the gas-delivery man turns back seeing a locked door. The family seems to be facing a few such problems because of my job.

“Meetu has her final examinations, you aren’t home all day; is your job more important than our daughter’s future?”

“Your duty in shifts is an advantage to us, Amalendu. Couldn’t you arrange your duties for the next few months such that you are home during the day? This has been a difficult job to come by. I have slogged for ten years to make a niche for myself at the work place. I can’t leave it at the drop of a hat”.

“Why should you?” The tigress has smelt blood’. I exercised all my will at keeping my self-control.

“Could you be a little clearer?”

“Don’t know what could be clearer! All the attractions of the outside world, so many acquaintances — so why leave the job. So it is I who should shuffle my duties”.

“Try to remember why I had to take the job in the first place!”

“That’s what I am trying to say. Then we needed it now we don’t”.

I lost the urge to argue. My mood remained glum all day. I suppose those days of financial crisis were better than this. Amalendu moved much closer to my heart then.

Lalitadi, our section in charge saw my forlorn face and seemed to gauge my mood — “Don’t mind my asking but you seem depressed today. Do tell me about it, we might have a solution.”

I told her all I could.

“See Sumitra — the decision has to be yours. But I can say for sure — the problem is not working women but women not working. You never know when there wouldn’t be another financial crunch. See if you can explain that to your husband. Meetu is old enough. Try discussing it with her. If necessary, go on leave for a few days. I’ll talk to Mr. Sharma and arrange for it.”

As I cooked, it was Laliladi’s words I kept thinking about.

Probal appeared — “Ma, I need an outline map of India for my Geography homework”.
“Don’t you have any?”
“No, finished”.
“Couldn’t you have told me before?”
“I forgot”.

“Wait, let me finish this…. But it’s eight-thirty already. I hope the shops are open”.

Today at the end of twelve days, I thought I detected a chink in Amalendu’s armour. “I’ll go” he said, putting on his shirt.

Keeping dinner on the table, I called everybody. Probal asked — “What’s for dinner?” Hearing about daal, potatoes and mushrooms, he grumbled — “It’s been so many days since we had any meat.”

My son is very finicky about his food. He is particularly averse to vegetarian dishes. Because he never gave me any trouble in anything else, I try to comply with his wishes whenever I can. Moreover, this is his growing age. But because there was no meat-shop nearby and I was getting late everyday, it had been these dishes all along.

As Amalendu sat down to eat, he addressed Probal, “I’ll get meat tomorrow.” Seeing his anger waning, I was inwardly happy. My frayed nerves were asking for some relief too.

I cleared the table and combed my hair. Now it was time to turn in. I remembered that the plants at the balcony had not been watered. Tomorrow then — I thought; and lay down to sleep.

“Sumitra, you have changed a lot”.

He was right. It was I who had changed more. Amalendu still had the same temper, the same stubbornness and hard-headedness. Just like his father. It was the same temper for which his father had not given the money for building the flat, the = same rage, which had prevented him from setting foot in this house for five years. He would not have come at all but for the wailings of his wife.

These flare-ups with Amalendu had never before lasted for more than two days. I myself used to give in grounds and reconcile. Those two days seemed to be the most distasteful then. And now these things escape my mind whenever I set foot outside the house. The fact that his temper and stubbornness is a flaw in his character seems to have become fait accompli to me. There is another factor which has changed in me. My body seems to have lost the sexual urge, but Amalendu is the same as before.

It has been two odd years since Alka Kapoor had joined the Accounts Section. Very well behaved, very good at her work too. Had been studying to be a chartered accountant. She had given that up and taken this job when she had been unable to pass the examination after repeated attempts. She had been having a romance with a classmate Amit for the past five years. Now, Amit insisted that she would not work after getting married.

With one word Alka had dismissed the marriage — “How possessive — shit!”

Alka reserves this one word for everything she dislikes — “shit.”

I had asked — “All these years together, doesn’t it mean a thing to you?”

“It does, but it doesn’t mean I can comply with such demands of his. Tell me, can one start a life with such decrees?”

Right! Girls nowadays have a great deal of straight thoughts.

“But tell me”– I returned to reality with Amalendu’s words.

“You are right. It’s I who have changed a lot. But it is the world around me, which has changed me so. This is one change I do not have the strength to resist, and I do not think it necessary to do so”.

“It sounds like a riddle”, Amalendu says. He desires intimacy — “You seem so far away now a days”.

I try to wring myself, ooze out, uphold his honour. Could he not have waited for another night, I wonder.

Last Sunday’s newspaper supplement carried a feature on the sex-workers of G.B. Road. Goodness knows what agony they go through satisfying goodness knows how many clients a day.

God! Make my Mrittika like Alka Kapoor.

Translated by Uttiya Bhattacharya from Bengali.

Prominent Bengali short story writer. Writes in a simple, appealing style dealing with various social issues.
Traslates from Bengali to English.

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Prominent Bengali short story writer. Writes in a simple, appealing style dealing with various social issues.

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