It was the seventies and India was changing for the better. A huge number of girls were getting into higher education. They were actively seeking a university degree, thanks to the feminist movement and the work of reformists. The practice of marrying girls off at your ages like sixteen had almost stopped in the urban areas, at least for the girls from middle and upper middle-class families. Thanks to the support of mothers and grandmothers inside the families. Since they themselves were deprived of the benefit of higher education, they fought for the girls in their families. They argued against the kind of patriarchy which meant to keep girls quiet, tame and at home. So, girl power surged forward.
That day the discussion regarding higher education was in full swing between two friends Jharana and Seema in the girls’ common room. They were in the most prestigious college of the town. Both of them were in the fourth year, on the cusp of graduation. It was a leisure period.
The both of them were also under pressure, since proposals for marriage were coming in for them thick and fast. They expressed their anger at the various known and unknown relatives whose sole aim in life seemed to get the girls to settle down. Both the girls were good students and committed to studies. They were looking forward to the day of their graduation ceremony. They both giggled about how they would look wearing the robe and the black caps on that day.
Seema asked, “So what do uncle and aunty say about the new proposal?”
“Well they are damn pleased. They want me to complete the course and get married as they believe there cannot be a better match for me! Apparently the boy’s family is considering two girls and they still haven’t made up their mind”, replied Jharana.
“My parents are trying to setup my match with the son of a certain Upadhaya family. They have approached the family through a marriage mediator. The mediator thinks I would be an excellent match for their son, who works in Calcutta. I think we should follow our parents’ advice and get married.”, Seema seemed to have made up her mind.
Jharana seemed to be lost in deep thought on hearing Seema’s inclination. Seema was not sure what Jharana was thinking about, but she suspected Jharana didn’t quite approve of her decision to get married.
After a brief moment, Jharana responded, “They are our well-wishers, I agree. But look at the opportunities we will be missing if we get married now. A job is well assured if we give it a good try. The boys will go after it without the thought of getting married right way, so why don’t we think that way? A career will give us economic independence, intellectual engagements and goals in life. One day we will hold senior positions, commanding authority and respect. Exciting, isn’t it?”
“But what about the flip side?”, Seema tried to reason. “Mostly we will be the first generation of women getting into the men’s territory in a large way. Previously there were few ladies working with men. Our society is still not ready to see women in positions of power and authority. We will have to struggle hard to break that glass ceiling. And another thing, will our husbands and in laws be supportive if there is a conflict between home and work? And again, who will take care of the children? Come on, let’s be pragmatic.”
Jharana went quiet, because she didn’t have answers to all of Seema’s questions yet. She still considered it unfair that it wasn’t a level playing ground for women who wanted to go for a career after university.
“Have you met this Upadhaya boy”, she asked Seema.
“No, not yet. His parents came to visit our family. They seem nice. The son must be good too. After all, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”, said Seema.
“And has the boy’s family seen you yet? Are they also from around here? Who are they?, Seema quizzed Jharana.
“No, they family hasn’t met me yet. But let’s leave all this for now. I think we have to go back to the class”, said Jharana, checking her wristwatch.
The leisure period was indeed almost over and it was time to go back to the class. It was clear that Seema was inclined towards marriage right after graduation, but Jharana wanted to give higher priority to a career. Jharana was also worried about her parents. They were intent upon getting her married right after graduation because they believed they had found the perfect proposal for her. She had to think of something.
Time moved on. Before the college broke for the long Durga Puja holidays both friends again revisited the discussion they had in July. Both of their parents had it in their minds to solemnize the daughters’ weddings by the month of May, the following year. The girls would have completed the exams by then. It was a very common trend back then. Girls would get married right after graduation, some even before they could finish their exams.
“Seema, I am still undecided – career or homemaker.”, said Jharana.
“So I am”, replied Seema.
“I can break this deadlock, Seema.”, offered Jharana. “Let’s go to the Bhagabati temple and with Maa Durga as the witness, let a coin toss decide our fates. We will accept the outcome as Maa’s decision – after all she is a woman herself.”, Jharana said with a smile.
The following day, both girls went to the temple. After prayer they decided, ‘Heads for career and Tails for marriage’.
“Since I came up with this idea, you have to go first, Seema”, instructed Jharana.
Seema’s turned anxious. “What would the coin toss reveal for her!”, she thought. Jharana tossed the coin up for her friend. Up it went and down it came. It bounced a few times, before landing on one side.
Seema had covered her face with her hands. She was too scared to look at the result. After a while, she peered through the gap between her fingers. Jharana was holding up the coin in front of her face – it was ‘Tails’!
It was a big relief for Seema. Maa Bhagabati had reinforced her inclination. She had been in two minds since her discussion with Jharana, but now it was clear. Marriage was the path that was picked for her.”
“Now your turn Jharana”, said Seema quite enthused.
“I don’t need to Seema. By confirming your instinct, Maa Durga also indicated to me that mine was right.”, said Jharana in a sombre voice.
Both girls laughed about Maa Durga had reinforced their respective wishes and removed any dilemma they had in their minds.
In the month of May, the following year, Seema got married to the Upadhaya boy. He was a Civil servant in Kolkata. Jharana couldn’t attend the wedding, since she had to head to Pondicherry to join a post-graduation in Economics. After completion of post-graduation she easily found a job in a bank. A few months later, she met Subodh, who was also a banker. They seemed to take a liking to each other and later that year, they got married. That was was 1976. The girls lost touch with each other as their lives took very unique paths.
They wouldn’t meet until the winter of 2001.
One evening at home, Jharana was reviewing the file in advance of a meeting she had to following day with a Government delegate to discuss her bank’s tie up with a cooperative organisation. On reading the meeting agenda, a name stood out. In utter excitement she loudly announced to Subodh, “The Government delegate I’m about to meet is Mr. Upadhaya, Seema’s husband.”
“Thats great news. We can finally meet this friend who I had heard so much about”, Subodh remarked.
After the official discussions the following day, Jharana took Mr. Upadhaya by surprise by mentioning that she was Seema’s friend from college.
“Oh, I’ve heard the name Jharana so many times from Seema, but I didn’t connect that you before our meeting”, said Mr. Upadhaya still recovering from the surprising connection. “Seema has also travelled with me. Would you like to meet her this evening. We are taking the early morning train back to Kolkata.”
In no time a dinner meeting was set up between both couples for the very same evening.
That evening, when the couples met, the long lost Seema and Jharana hugged each other. Their eyes turned moist. The husbands decided to head to the bar first to give their wives enough time to catch up. It was a perfect arrangement for a perfect evening.
The bubbly girls of yore being matured women, immediately exchanged updates on their children, husbands, congratulating each other on their individual successes.
“You look content”, Jharana observed.
“And you look assured”, Seema replied.
“We have changed a lot in the last 25 years”, the words came out simultaneously from both of them and they laughed.
“So how did you change?”, Jharana asked.
Seema appeared thoughtful and then said, “My husband is a very good man. He gave me full support to continue education if I wanted to, but I decided not to. I had realised very realised quickly that a successful housemaker has to prioritise duty and obligation over rational thoughts. The laws of maths or physics or economics or finance that we spent so much time mastering, do not apply at the home front. It’s futile when one has to balance delicately between parents, in-laws, children and husband. My education was useful only to tutor my children in their early stage. I wonder if it is worthwhile to go to university education only for that purpose. My real education only began when I had to manage my family and I really enjoyed the challenges of raising the family, taking care of my in-laws and everything else. I thank Maa Durga for the outcome I got from the toss that day. But enough about me. Are you happy with the choice you made that day?”
“Aha, it’s not that simple”, said Jharana.
“I think I have changed a lot since then. I realised the flip side of the career that we had discussed long time back in our girlhood days. First of all getting a foothold in a man’s world was a tough job. Juggling between work and home wasn’t easy at all. And most heart wrenching was leaving my children at the care of the Nanny. It was a decision I still regret. Taking it easy at work was not an option either. So I had to turn myself into a machine, working round the clock without much rest or peace. I always wished I could give more time to my children and my husband. My children are all grown up and left home now. I still don’t think I had enough time to know them well. I am less convinced about my decision back then. I wish, I had followed your path. There is no charm in becoming a workaholic machine.”, Jharana confided.
Both went quiet for a while. Both of the friends have poured their hearts out. But there was one secret which was yet to be revealed.
“I wonder what would have happened if I got a Heads that day”, Seema wondered out aloud.
“Seema, do you vividly recall how your coin toss went”, Jharana challenged Seema.
“Yes, I remember it like it happened yesterday. You tossed the coin up and I was too scared to look. Finally, when I opened my eyes, you were holding up “Tails” for me.”, Seema relayed the event as she remembered it.
“Well, there’s a part you missed. Your toss had resulted in a ‘Heads’. But I knew how dearly you wanted to follow your parents’ wishes. You had made up your mind to settle down and start a family. So I held up ‘Tails’ for you when you opened your eyes. I’m sorry, I cheated.”, Jharana confided.
“No, not at all. Actually, I should thank you. God forbid I went for a job and went through the grind you described – I wouldn’t have enjoyed it.”, Seema said, quite relieved.
Saying this Seema hugged Jharana with tears in her eyes. Jharana’s eyes turned moist too. She had always dreaded Seema blaming her for manipulating the result of the coin toss. She was very much relieved that Seema didn’t.
Just then the men returned from the bar. “Wow, we were gone a few minutes and emotions are already overflowing?”, joked Subodh.
“Yes, just like you fellas enjoy your drinks, we enjoy our emotions”, promptly came the reply from Seema.
After a few more minutes of chatting the couples bid adieu to each other and went their ways, promising to meet again very soon.
“So did you tell her?”, Subodh asked.
“Only the part about the toss.”, Jharana replied.
“When do you intend to tell her the rest”, Subodh pushed her further.
“Never, I think everyone is better off with that part being kept a secret”, Jharana concluded the dialogue as they got into the waiting car.
Many decades ago, that day in the common room, Jharana had learnt two things from Seema. One was that it was the same Upadhaya family that both their parents were in conversation with and the other was that Seema actually wanted to settle down after graduation and was positive about the Upadhaya boy.
By manipulating the coin toss result, Jharana nudged her dear friend in the direction she desired, but by doing so, she herself exited the race giving herself a chance to pursue her own wishes. It was very rare back then for women to continue education after getting married so Jharana was apprehensive that marriage would end her ambitions too.
Photo By: Daiga Ellaby
This is an entry from team Scribe Tribe of ArttrA-3 – A Game of Writers, co-sponsored by Diners Club International.
Check out the event guidelines here: https://writers.artoonsinn.com/arttra-3-guide-artoonsinn/
Follow Room8 for more updates of the event: https://www.facebook.com/groups/WritersAndReadersRoom/