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Short story

The odd one (Vegli) by Urmila Pawar: A Marathi story in translation

Print edition : Apr 08, 2022 T+T-
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The short story “The odd one” is from this book, which Zubaan published in 2013.

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Urmila Pawar is a Maharashtrian writer with several short story collections to her credit. In 1988, she co-authored with Meenakshi Moon a history of Dalit women’s movements published by Zubaan as “We also Made History”. She has also written travelogues and plays.

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Veena Deo, the translator of this story, teaches at Hamline University, Minnesota, U.S.

Translated by Veena Deo.

THE housing board sent her a notice about a vacancy. Nalini was ecstatic. The notice said she could take possession within ten days of the payment of twenty thousand rupees. The price wasn’t high, but for Nalini it was a lot. Besides, she wasn’t sure if her parents-in-law would approve. That pressure dampened her enthusiasm.

Ayaa , look, she got an order within a year of her application. How lucky. We applied before her and we are still waiting,” said one of her friends.

“These are reserved for Dalits. I read about them in the newspaper. Some housing was supposed to be set aside for middle-class Dalit families in every housing scheme. Don’t you know?” another co-worker explained.

“She is going to get an apartment in the Pant Nagar area in Ghatkopar!” exclaimed a third enviously.

“Dalits really have it good these days. The government pampers them. They are always first with promotions, housing…. Don’t ask what else.”

“What I want to know is, if they get all these privileges, what about the rest of us? All it means is that they will get ahead and leave us behind. What kind of equality is that?” Now there was anger.

“Isn’t that the truth? Everywhere these people have assigned quotas. Just be grateful there aren’t any reserved spaces for them in buses and railway trains.”

This housing order boiled like a debate around Nalini. When she was promoted, people had said exactly the same things. Nalini wanted to scream, “Look here! Our ancestors suffered injustice because birth privileged you. Even today most of us are suffering without equal opportunities. We have been degraded, humiliated, ridiculed and continue to be victimised. The government isn’t giving us anything. It is their responsibility to level the playing field. Shouldn’t there be some deliberate redress now?”

She wanted to tell them off, but she knew no one would listen. Her simple cotton saris, her seriousness and dedication to her work always set her apart from everyone. She was the odd one. Her co-workers made fun of her. This time too they continued their conversations as if she weren’t even there. Nalini’s face showed the pressure within.

She left the office a little early that evening and went to her husband’s office. She felt reassured when she saw him.

“How come you are here today?”

“Want to guess?” Nalini spoke playfully after many days.

“You must be here to complain about either my mother or my father.”

Nalini was visibly disappointed. She wanted to tell him, “Is that what I do? Complain? Come to think of it, I put up with everything I can.” But she said nothing. Instead, “I have good news,” she said.

“News? Good news? Did you get promoted?”

“Is that all you can think of? Promotions and wage increases? Read this letter,” she said handing him the notice. Her husband read the notice and for a few seconds he too seemed excited. The next minute he said cautiously, “Where are we going to get that kind of money from?”

“We’ll find a way, but will they allow us to go to another apartment?”

“Why won’t they allow us? They keep suggesting that we look for other apartments, don’t they?”

Aho , that is usually because they are angry with me about something. I am not sure they really want us to leave.”

“No, that’s not true. They are really very nice people.” He emphasised nice while his voice got a little emotional. “If they object to our leaving, it will be for their grandchild’s sake. We both go to work. So, who will take care of our baby?”

“We shouldn’t worry about that too much. There are lots of good childcare facilities in Mumbai these days.”

“But our own parents take care of children with more love than….”

“Oh! Really! You think mother-in-law does a great deal more for the baby? What I notice is that the baby lies in damp clothes and the milk in the bottle is sour…!”

“Even so, she does all she can, doesn’t she?”

“Yes, she does!” Nalini exclaimed, fuming. She thought about her mother-in-law as someone who always bounced around energetically like dry peas on a plate rarely doing any housework. She treated her daughter-in-law like a servant. Nalini swallowed her anger.

“How do you propose we solve the problem of the money,” he asked.

“I can always get five thousand rupees from my retirement GPF; you get us one thousand; we can borrow ten thousand from the bank…”

“No, the bank won’t let us borrow without some guarantee. If we had some jewellery that would help.”

“Maybe there is a friend who can help us. We should not let this opportunity slip by. If you talk to our father, perhaps he can help us.” Nalini didn’t think that would be possible, but she wished to encourage her husband.

Both of them headed home which didn’t seem like home to her. It was a typical Mumbai chawl for municipal workers. It looked like a garbage bin in the midst of a posh area.

After she got married, Nalini got herself a transfer to Mumbai from a smaller taluka town. Her move was like the arrival in hell. She hated the living conditions and the ignorant people in the chawl. Nalini was a working woman and educated, something the people in the chawl didn’t like. Her mother-in-law thought her work outside the home was a headache. At first, she had asked her son, “Vithal, you work and your father works. Why do we need her to work? If she really wants to earn something, we can always take in boarders to feed and she can earn something that way. Everyone does that.”

That was her mother-in-law’s fantastic idea and her father-in-law supported it. Somehow her husband too agreed with them. But Nalini wanted nothing to do with it. Their family discord started right from the start. As soon as Nalini got home from her work, her mother-in-law started her recitation, “ Arey , how much am I supposed to do? How am I to take care of things up, down and sideways all at once?”

Nalini never left her the kind of work for which she would have to look up, down and sideways. The other daughters-in-law in the chawl always remarked, “Here comes the schoolmistress,” or they’d say, “Look at her petticoat shining!” or “What’s the point of all that education, after all you too have to blow on the cooking fires.” The fact that she wore a five-yard sari unlike the others made her the butt of their ridicule.

At first Nalini tried to make friends with them, but each one of them set her aside as if she were grit in the rice. She neither liked wearing the nine-yard saris they wore, nor did she like sliding coquettishly and invisibly around the corridors of the chawl like a mouse, as the young daughters-in-law did. She didn’t eat paan, nor did she brush her teeth in public with the black sooty powder and spit in the corners of the chawl. She constantly felt like the odd one out, even among her peers.

As Vithal and Nalini walked closer to their chawl, Vithal said, “Why don’t you go ahead? I am going to stop and get some cigarettes.”

She knew, cigarettes were only an excuse. Vithal knew that his mother would go berserk if she saw them coming home together. His attention to his mother’s whims had made her very angry, but she swallowed her anger and walked past the toilet to get to their one-room apartment. Her mother-in-law sat with her legs spread out at the threshold applying black tooth powder to her teeth. Her forehead wrinkled to show her dissatisfaction as soon as Nalini stepped indoors over her feet. Inside, the room looked chaotic. Dirty dishes, pots and pans lay in the corner with flies hovering around them. Unwashed clothes were waiting for her in that same corner. The floor had rubbish strewn everywhere. Her baby son was lying on his belly in the midst of this garbage on the floor and putting something in his mouth. Her father-in-law was resting on the bed. The bucket he used to gather garbage for the municipality, and his other tools, were tucked under the bed.

As always, Nalini saw all this and was truly disgusted. At the same time, she was a little relieved that she would be getting out of this dump soon.

Nalini placed her purse on the hook on the wall. She picked her son up and put him in his crib. Her mother-in-law started her usual recitations and complaints. The baby started crying. Nalini ignored his crying and walked to the corner of the room to take charge of the dirty dishes and the clothes. Just then, her husband came in and picked up the baby.

Nalini cleaned the dishes, cooked the evening meal and washed the clothes as quickly as she could. She was very hungry, but she sat down in a corner to feed her baby while her mother-in-law served the family their meal and her sisters-in-law passed the plates around. Her husband brought up the possibility of their new apartment when they sat down to eat, but her father-in-law said nothing. He kept shovelling balls of rice into his mouth rapidly.

“I think we should all move there,” said Vithal.

His father then looked up from his plate, and widened his eyes. With a ball of rice in his hand he said, “Why must everyone go? Take your wife and go. She doesn’t like living here anyway. Take her along and be happy!”

Vithal looked up at Nalini as if to say, “I told you we’ll get their permission.” But Nalini heard the sarcasm in her father-in-law’s tone clearly and was not convinced.

Arey Vithal, we got you married to her because my hands were too full. We thought she would be helpful to us. She grew up in a poor home. We thought she would take care of her husband’s people with respect. But we didn’t know her hand is also heavy with weapons,” spewed her mother-in-law.

“That’s not true, Aaye. This house is so small. Besides, if we can get a bigger place for a little more money, where’s the harm in getting it? And if we get the place, someone needs to go and live there,” Vithal tried to reason.

Arey, now this room has suddenly become small for you, has it? Why make up excuses? Why don’t you tell the truth? Your wife doesn’t like being a homemaker. Housework for her is like a weight on her chest,” said his mother glaring at Nalini.

“But Aaye , she never complains about housework. As a matter of fact, she does everything she can in spite of working outside the home.”

Arey , but we tell her to leave her job. She doesn’t listen…” started her father-in-law.

Aho , wait,” her mother-in-law stopped him, “what kind of housework does your wife do? All day long she sits in a chair in her office and brings some money home. That’s all she does, doesn’t she? You say all this because you are tempted by her money.”

Arey , go burn your money and hers. I can take care of my family on my earnings alone. I am not going to die yet.” Talk about her husband’s possible death made mother-in-law wail. Everyone dropped the subject.

Nalini figured this would be the end of it. There would be no more talk of the new apartment and no one would be able to move. However, Vithal seemed to hang in there more confidently than she thought possible. Next morning when they left for their offices, he met up with her on the way and said, “Apply for the GPF anyway. I’ll take care of the rest of the money.”

Nalini felt a little more assured. She knew that sometimes a little dogged perseverance was the only way to get anything done. In a couple of days, they were able to arrange for the money. Both of them went together to the housing board and paid the twenty thousand rupees for their apartment. On the way Nalini kept reminding him that he should keep his resolve all the way to the end. He kept responding by telling her that he was not as stupid as she thought he was.

A few days later, they had a holiday. Both Nalini and Vithal took two weeks off alongside the holiday and decided that they would leave home with just the clothes on their backs. Nalini was sure that at least her sisters-in-law and her brothers-in-law would follow them to the new place.

For a couple of days, there was peace in the house. Mother-in-law and sisters-in-law helped with some housework on their own. Nalini was sure this was nothing more than a shifting colour of the chameleon. And bound to change in three days. After all, by now she knew her in-laws well. Whenever she asked her sister-in-law to help, her mother-in-law responded, “She’s your sister-in-law, not your servant.”

The day they were going to leave, Nalini was very nervous. She kept stealing glances at her husband to make sure his resolve was still firm. She tried to finish all the housework as quickly as she could. The bathroom in the corner was cleared and cleaned. She sat near the stove making chappati s. Her father-in-law was rubbing tobacco between his hands. Her mother-in-law spread her sari palloo and lay down on the floor to rest. Vithal was playing with the baby and thinking about the exact words he needed to tell his father that they planned on leaving that day. Suddenly his father asked him, “So, what have you decided about the Ghatkopar place?”

When he replied, “We paid the money yesterday,” his mother got up from the floor in a hurry.

“So, you are going to leave then?” His father said.

“Yes, we thought we would go today. It is important to take possession as quickly as possible.” Both of his parents now sat up, alert.

“What’s wrong with where we are now?”

Aho , why are you asking stupid questions? This place is not bad for him; it is bad for his queen. I told you she was going to break up our household,” said his mother.

“She hasn’t done or said anything, Aaye . The decision to move out is mine.”

Arey , don’t you think I know what your thinking is like? You are the stool under your wife’s buttocks. If you thought for yourself, you wouldn’t have broken up our house like this. You wouldn’t leave us.”

“I am not breaking up our household, Aaye . Even if I go live there, I’ll be sending you some money every month and will be visiting often.”

“Oh, burn your money! Feed your wife special foods with it. Keep her calm.”

“We’ll take care of ourselves. Don’t worry about us,” father added.

Her mother-in-law probably thought that their conversation wasn’t having the right effect. So, she got up and brought three other neighbourhood women for dramatic effect, “Come and look! Tell me I am the bad one and my daughter-in-law is a saint. Now come and look for yourself. Vithal is taking his little baby son away because of this woman.”

Like mad buffaloes, the neighbouring women glared at Nalini. Her father-in-law performed to the audience too and started insulting her in every way he could. The neighbours too spoke about how the house was now overrun by evil. They took Vithal to task, “Vithal, is this what you have learned?” His mother started crying as soon as she felt supported by other women. She bawled saying, “It’s just my broken fate. Look at all the other daughters-in-law, they are all happy with their families. The neighbours all have very good sons. But I have no one. Oh God! I hope you will find a way to deal with this terrible woman.”

More people collected around their door and started peeking in. Her mother-in-law loved the audience and got even more excited. She walked up to Vithal and waving her hands in front of him said, “Vithal, you go. You don’t want this room or your parents or your siblings. All you want is your wife. Go take her away. But remember, before you leave, I am going to throw myself under a train and kill myself. Then you can leave happily.” His mother ran towards the door. The neighbours tried to hold her back.

“Move away. Let me go!” But people held on to her. “ AgaBaaye …” she said and dropped to the floor.

Everyone started talking at once, “Oh Look, the poor woman is fainting.” Vithal’s father and siblings started to cry too. Some offered to get onions; some offered relief by running a leather slipper on her body; some ran off to get a doctor. “Vithal, what are you doing? Go and take care of your mother,” someone said. Vithal was so distraught, he fell to his knees in front of his mother and sobbed, “ Aaye , I won’t go. We won’t break up the family. Aaye , open your eyes, we really won’t go.”

Nalini heard her husband’s words with rising anger and frustration. She quickly got up with her baby son in her arms and said, “Aho, wait; don’t say we won’t go. If you don’t want to go, that’s fine. But I am leaving.” Nalini didn’t wait for an answer. She simply walked out with her baby. Her mother-in-law’s eyes opened in shock instantly.

Story selected by Mini Krishnan.

Reproduced courtesy of Zubaan, 2013.

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