R.K. Shitaljit Singh
Translated by Chitra Ahanthem
“Who are you looking at? At your own self?”
Kombirei, who was seated in front of a mirror and combing her hair, was saying these words. There was no one nearby. There was just a striped cat with her on the wide verandah that spanned the length of three rooms. Perhaps sensing the sorry state of Kombirei who had no one to answer her query, the cat cried out “Meow, meow” and looked at her piteously. Hearing the cat, Kombirei looked at it and smiled softly. She felt content that there was at least this ‘petite being’ that felt a sense of relief for her.
Her combing over, she held the cat on her lap. Looking at it intently, she hugged it tight, “Arangbi, what makes you different from human being?”
The cat did not answer back but kept saying, “Meow, meow.”
Kombirei further continued, “You don’t know the difference? You know it but don’t know how to say it. Right? But the tone of your meow conveys your answer, Arangbi.”
Lost in her conversation with the cat, Kombirei was not aware of what was happening on the verandah. Looking on at the manner in which Kombirei was lost in her talks with the cat, the visitor did not dare to intrude. It seemed best that he remained silent, so he kept quiet.
Kombirei was asking the cat, “Why do you love me so, Arangbi? I don’t care enough for you.”
“It knows the reason, even if you don’t, Kombirei.” Hearing this, Kombirei turned to see who it was. Her face turned red when she saw the youth she had met on a few rare occasions and she turned towards the cat.
The youth asked, “Kombi, can you see your heart’s reflection in the cat’s eyes?”
With a soft smile, Kombirei said, “Yes, yes.”
“Do you know why?”
“Because of your closeness.”
Kombirei then sighed deeply and said to the cat, “Arangbi, go and play now. We will talk later after I finish my work.”
Hearing this, the youth said, “Kombirei, you really know how to let go easily.”
“How can I hold on just because I want to, Tada Subol?”
Subol did not reply. With a long drawn out “Hmm”, he turned his face slightly and looked at Kombirei.
Kombirei stood up and gave the mora she was sitting on to Subol. He sat on the mora and Kombirei sat down on the floor. Subol then said, “Kombirei, do you know why I have come?”
“No, I don’t.” All this while, tears fell from her eyes. She felt listless and did not bother to wipe her tears with her hands. The tears rolled down akin to a thin river flowing down a cliff.
Subol saw them but continued, “When will you ever understand me Kombirei? In which birth?”
“Not in this one, Tada.”
“Let me be off then.” And so Subol got up and went off. Kombirei stayed behind looking at him.
The next day, Subol’s mother Tharo was talking to her husband Choubhan as she sorted through and cleaned the vegetables for the meal. Choubhan was puffing away at a hookah as he lay on a mat. Tharo said, “Do you know? Our son does not see anything in this world except for Kombirei? I have cautioned him … said a lot but he does not listen … does not care. One day, we will surely pay for it if something happens.”
Choubhan did not reply. He merely listened and continued to smoke in contemplation. The hookah was big and made quite a noise. Tharo’s anger rose with Choubhan’s silence but the din raised by the hookah made it worse. Just as a dying person hates the noise of an engine, so also was her dislike for the noise emanating from the hookah. Her anger rising, she shouted abruptly, “Are you listening at all?”
Choubhan was startled by this outburst but calmed down and said, “Yes, I am.”
“Then why have you not said anything?”
“What if he brings the girl?”
“He is my son. You should not judge him wrongly.”
“I know he is your beloved son. But…?”
“It doesn’t matter, Tharo. Call Subol if he is around.”
Subol came at his mother’s bidding and stood with a subdued demeanor near his father.
Looking at Subol, Choubhan started, “Subol, has Kombirei agreed?”
Subol’s face flushed at the question. He remained quiet. Choubhan continued, “If it is OK, bring her once. Shall I go and meet her parents for their approval?”
Subol stayed quiet but Tharo, beating her chest with a clenched fist cried out, “Alas! All is lost! You both stay at this house … decide whom to bring as daughter-in-law!”
Choubhan looked at his wife calmly and said, “And you?”
“Rather than accept that uncultured girl as my daughter-in-law, I would …”
“Go back to your parental house?”
“So you won’t agree with your husband? How can you expect your son to obey you when you don’t listen to your husband?”
Tharo bristled at the suggestion; she was at a loss to reply and remained quiet. Subol went off while Choubhan continued to smoke the hookah.
After a while, Choubhan said, “Tharo, listen. Have you not been able to know your son from the time he was a wee baby? He will marry the woman he desires and you cannot interfere. I did not marry you by choice. I saw your face the day I married you. The ones I desired, I had to leave behind because my elders did not agree. I married because I did not want to hear their taunts anymore. But I still feel the loss of giving up whom I wanted, to this day. So, you cannot speak more on this. I will go and meet Kombirei’s parents.”
A month has passed by since Kombirei became Tharo’s daughter-in-law. Tharo continued to think that Kombirei with her lowly family background would not be able to fit into the ways of the family and to serve the elders with the decorum that was needed.
Kombirei knew that her looks alone would not be able to please her mother-in-law. But she still had to live in close proximity with the one person she had thought she should stay far away from.
One day Tharo called in her daughter-in-law and said, “Kombi. Isn’t it true that I was the cause for your tears even while you stayed at your parents’ place?”
Kombirei did not reply but remained as mute as a pillar. Looking at her predicament, Tharo continued, “Be frank and don’t lie. Tell me, isn’t it true?”
“Did you not say to Subol that you would have to go your separate ways for this lifetime?”
“Yes, I did.”
“That has not happened.”
“I don’t know.”
“It was your father-in-law. I constantly opposed it while Subol was caught in the middle. But Kombi, my feelings have changed. You have changed them. Your nature has impressed me, made me realize…”
Kombirei now knew she had been able to please her mother-in-law. Feeling a sense of contentment, she thought she would tell Subol of the development later in the day. After sometime, she asked if she could go.
Tharo stopped her with a “wait” and continued, “Listen, we women are immature. We stay confined to the house and stay ignorant. But we think that we are the cleverest in this world and do not pay heed to what our husbands say. We judge their words as mockery and make fun of what they say. You have corrected my wrong belief. Do not ignore your husband’s words only because you do not agree with it, but only if you know that they are wrong.”
She bade Kombirei to go and she went off to finish the household chores.
Choubhan came back and turned to Tharo, “Tharo, has your low born daughter-in-law still not managed to satisfy you with her conduct?”
“She has only exceeded my expectations.”
“I know. You only acted like you do not know. You believe that only you love your son while the father doesn’t. Isn’t it so?”
“Let it be. Now I realize.”
Subol who had come in while his parents were talking asked, “Why are you both shouting?”
“Oh! Your mother wants my daughter-in-law as her own. I heard that stealthily. I was only asking her over that.”
Tharo, “Eh! You listened stealthily? Isn’t that surprising?”
“Hmm, you will be surprised. You women will only live a life full of surprises. You will meet surprises at every step you take.”
Tharo then called her daughter in law to ask, “Ibemma, will you be your father-in-law’s daughter-in-law only? What about me?”
Kombirei listened with surprise but remained silent. Choubhan said then, “Ibemma, she was not part of it. I came to take you as my daughter-in-law. Do not be her daughter-in-law.”
Tharo spoke again, “Kombirei, don’t you have any affection for me? Will the anger you brought from your home still remain?”
Hearing her mother-in-law’s words, Kombirei bowed at Tharo’s feet and replied, “I am my father-in-law’s daughter-in-law and my mother-in-law is my most loved mother.”
At Kombirei’s words Subol asked her, “Kombi, do you know what made my mother say this?”
“From being close.”
(This translation of the short story written by the late RK Shitaljit has been recently published in Tamna, a half yearly journal brought out by the Manipur Chapter of the North East Writers’ Forum)