Aronee closed the door behind her. Softly, very softly. She was always soft. “Soft,” “polite,” and “quiet” were the epithets her friends and relatives used to describe her. As a child, a teenager and a young woman, she was always the good one—the sacrificing one. At forty-two, she was still considered a caring wife, a loving mother and a concerned daughter. As a teacher, she was well-loved.
She looked at the mirror in her bathroom. Her hair was still raven black. A slight frown etched her smooth forehead. But it was her eyes that signalled that something was very, very wrong. Her eyes that were usually calm and reassuring were dark and stormy. Aronee could not remember that she ever felt so furious in her entire life. She closed her eyes and counted up to 10 before opening them again. It did not help.
She turned the tap and let the water run. Looking at the running water, she tried to think straight. How did it come to this? When? How? What did she do wrong? She thought of herself as a toddler. She was the doll of her family. They always told her so. Sweet-tempered Aronee never threw a tantrum like her other siblings or cousins. She used to stare at Ashik, her elder brother, who yelled at the slightest discomfort, or Alena, her younger sister, who screamed incessantly when her whims were not fulfilled. As she grew older, she learned to be patient, accepting things rejected by Ashik or Alena. Sometimes, she did try to complain, but her mother told her reproachfully, “Aren’t you a good girl, Ronee?” Being a good girl sucked, she often thought, especially when Alena got away with the best things, and she had to make do with the leftovers. But Aronee was beautiful. Whatever she wore, however she dressed, she appeared elegant, composed and lovely. And Alena was forever jealous of her elder sister.
Her only comfort was when she heard her mother say to others, “She is such a doll, my Aronee. She never complains.”
Her grandmother said, “Be patient, my girl. Allah will be good to you.”
What was the definition of good, and what was bad, Aronee unmindfully wondered, trying to catch the running water in her fingers. But the water slipped away as did time.
“Ronee, Ronee,” the whimpering voice of her sister carried over from the past. She refused to call her “Apa” as she was only 15 months younger. Aronee raised her eyes from the book she was reading to see a pouting Alena. “I can’t find my white petticoat. Can I borrow yours?”
“No,” replied Aronee swiftly.
“Why not? And you know Ammu will tell you to give it to me if I tell her,” said Alena half-laughing. “She hates it when I yell.”
Aronee looked at her sister witheringly. “The last time you took my blue Jamdani, you tore it at the bottom. Aren’t you ashamed?”
Alena went quiet. And then she looked up at her elder sister smiling, “You are so good, Aronee. And you preserve your things so well. I just looked at the white starched petticoat of yours and felt that mine looks crumpled and dirty.” She changed her tone and wheedled, “Please, Ronee, can I have your white petticoat? Please?”
Aronee sighed. “Okay, go ahead. Just be careful, okay?” Alena jumped up and kissed her sister and ran off gaily, “You’re a doll, Ronee.” Aronee shook her head and concentrated on the mystery novel she was reading.
Ashik had gotten into the most horrendous mess possible. He got his cousin Shabnam pregnant while being engaged to his girlfriend Myra. He was not even particularly perturbed by it—putting the entire fault at Myra’s door. “Well, she said she would not sleep with me before marriage,” he had shrugged. “And Shabnam was available; more than willing actually.”
Then there was pandemonium.
Myra cut him off completely, and for the first time in his life Ashik was forced into giving in. His father went livid, and Aronee heard him yelling at his wife, “It’s all your fault. You never reprimanded him for anything. Now look what your darling boy has done. If he doesn’t marry Shabnam, I will throw him out of the house without a penny. And I mean every word I say.”
Aronee’s mother tried to speak up, “Shabnam is not innocent. She seems to have no…” – her husband immediately intervened – “Don’t. Whatever you’re about to say, don’t.” He paused and added, “She is my sister’s daughter. You wouldn’t have acted this way if she was your niece. Just make sure that he marries her. If he does not, you can move out of the house too.” He stormed out of the room.
Aronee was listening to the hubbub, astonished at Ashik’s audacity. She had to agree with their father. It was always like this—he could get away with murder with his mother as a staunch supporter.
When Aronee approached her mother, she was in tears, “How can Shabnam be my son’s wife? And she got pregnant out of wedlock too! Oh, Allah, my poor son! How would I know that it is even his?” Then she turned to Aronee, “Ronee, tell your father that Shabnam has another relationship. He will believe you.”
Aronee stared at her wailing mother and realised how pathetic and unscrupulous she was. Would she have been able to say the same things if it was Alena, or her? Aronee felt ashamed. She said quietly, “Bhaiya has already admitted to his part in the matter. And even if he did not, I would never blatanly lie. Amma, how can you? What if it was me, or Alena?”
Aronee’s mother sprang up. “My daughters would never bring such shame on the family. I have raised them differently,” she said proudly. “It’s all Rahela’s fault. Like mother, like daughter.”
“And yet,” thought Aronee sadly, “Your son did it? How did you bring him up?”
But then he was a son, that too the only son of her parents.
On her wedding day Alena winked from under her bridal veil, “Aren’t you happy now? I won’t be bothering you anymore.”
Alena was getting married before Aronee, at the age of twenty-one—to the man of her dreams. No, to the man of their dreams. Aronee had loved him in silence for years, but Alena was vocal and she claimed him. Aronee did not know back then that Swaron also loved her, and not the sister he was getting married to. But since Aronee kept silent, knowing about Alena’s infatuation with him, he did not know what to think. Meanwhile, Alena went on pestering him, and he gave in.
Aronee looked at her sister critically, “The make-up is a bit too much. They have virtually white-washed you!”
“Let it be. Let me be fair for one day,” Alena rolled her eyes. And then sighed, “You will always be the more beautiful one, Ronee.”
Aronee tsked, “You are getting married to the man you love. What more do you want?”
Suddenly Alena whirled around, “You,” she whispered. “I’ve always been so jealous of you, Ronee. Everybody loves you more. Even our good-for-nothing big brother thinks you’re an angel. Can you teach me how to be like you?”
Aronee sighed, “There you go again! You’ve been blabbering like this for the last three weeks. What’s got into you?”
Alena threw her arms around her elder sister and started bawling. “I’m so sorry Ronee. I know I’m a terrible sister! Please, forgive me. Oh, please.” It took a while for Aronee to calm Alena down. “Hey, you’re my little sister, remember? Annie, what’s wrong? We all love you so much… look at me. Your make-up will be ruined in no time.”
Finally, Alena calmed down and allowed Aronee to fix her make-up. But the perky, lively girl that got married one summer evening lost her spirit soon. Everybody noticed the change. Whenever she came to visit her parents, she seemed down and pale. No, it wasn’t Swaron—he was attentive. He never mistreated her or said anything nasty. But nor did he look at Alena the way he looked at her sister. His countenance lit up whenever Aronee was in the room but he gave Aronee her due respect as an elder sister-in-law. But Alena knew. She had always known. Only she thought that, like everything else, she could make Swaron love her. She failed miserably.
If Swaron was abusive and complaining, she could have said something. But he did everything correct. He paid her attention, took her shopping and out to dinners. They had gone on their honeymoon. And all the time, she felt that his heart was in an impenetrable glass box. She could see it, but could not touch it. Once, she had pleaded with him, “Swaron, you married me. Not Aronee.”
Swaron looked at her, his eyes like glass, “Yes?”
“Can’t you love me a little?”
“I told you long ago that I love your sister, not you. Yet you persisted—you threatened to tell your family that I had compromised you. I warned you that I would never love you. Why are you complaining now?”
Alena looked at him helplessly. Yes, he had told her, but she thought time would change things. They change in movies. Now over a year into the marriage, nothing changed.
Finally Alena made a bitter confession to her sister. By that time, she, too, like her brother had caused a huge uproar. Out of anger and frustration, she had run away with a neighbor, who had been trying to get her attention for some time. Their father had a heart attack and became paralysed. It was Aronee who was strong during those days, who took control of the household. Her brother’s marriage had not worked out either; after two years of stormy conjugal life, Ashik and Shabnam parted ways. And stupid Alena had said, “You can marry Swaron, if you want.”
Aronee shook her head, “Are you insane, Alena? Or do you pretend to be dumb?”
“Why not?” sniffed Alena. “You love him as well.”
“Love is not the most important thing in the world,” retorted Aronee. “Can you imagine what will happen to our family? How people will talk?”
Alena just stared at her. Aronee simply said, “The paths of heart and duty are not always the same.”
She never thought otherwise, until that day. She looked at the woman in the mirror. “What did I do wrong, can you tell me?” she whispered.
Aronee married, of course, but according to her parents’ choice. Her husband Taufique was an engineer from a respectable family. They were not in love when they married, but they came to a good understanding. They even came to care for each other and had a good partnership—something most marriages lack. They had two children, Abeer and Trina. Now, after 14 years of a steady married life Aronee realised that all she stood on was a sham. Wasn’t there anything called stability and truth in life?
Aronee waited. She sat in the veranda and looked calmly through the bright orchids she had planted and the ivy that ran down the red brick wall. The place she had called home for over a decade was not her home after all. The course of her life was crystal clear.
When Taufique came home late at night, the apartment was seemingly empty. There was no sound of Abeer and Trina, or even Aronee. He had informed her that he would return after a business dinner. The lights in the dining room were turned off. Nothing unusual. But for some reason he felt something different. He stood at the door of the bedroom that he and Aronee shared. Yes, she was there as she always was. Suddenly, he felt guilty. He had been feeling uneasy for some time now. He realised that he needed to talk about Shuvra, except what could he say? That Shuvra made him feel like a man? That he felt like taking care of her? Or that Aronee was so strong and capable that she made him feel less than he was? The woman who sat in the middle of the room looked up and Taufique’s heart gave a little leap. Her coffee brown eyes were calm, but there was a tremendous sadness in them.
Taufique walked in, faltered, and stopped. Didn’t he tell Shuvra that Aronee would be devastated if she knew? Instead, why did he feel so weak? And helpless?
Aronee looked at him steadily and he realised that no confession was necessary. He felt like a little boy caught stealing jam.
“Why?” whispered Aronee. When he did not answer, she simply said, “Abeer and Trina are visiting their Nanu bari. I guess, it will become temporarily permanent.” She paused and said, “I stayed on to tell you that I am leaving. I will file for divorce. You can contest if you like. But considering everything I hope you won’t.”
“You’re taking Abeer and Trina? Just like that?” Taufique’s voice was a hoarse whisper.
Aronee was calm. “You want them with your future wife?”
“They are my children,” he choked, feeling completely unmanned. Aronee may not have liked Shuvra, but Shuvra was raising her two younger siblings. She knew all about children. But Taufique suddenly realised that the sentence he had been rehearsing for many months was pretty dumb.
“They are mine too,” responded Aronee. “I certainly won’t allow my son and daughter to be raised by a whore.” The emphasis on the last word shattered Taufique. Why didn’t he ever think that Aronee would object to him having custody of the children? Or, maybe because he was so absorbed in Shuvra, he never examined his stance on them. Now he knew that Aronee would not budge from her position. Good girls like Aronee acquiesced most of the time. But when they finally took a stand, they did not give away an inch.
“You can’t leave. Not like this,” he almost whimpered.
Aronee turned away from him and picked up her large brown bag. She was wearing a deep blue striped handloom saree. Her face betrayed no emotion.
“You can contact me at my mother’s landline. Just don’t try to call me on my cell phone. I don’t want any alimony. But Abeer and Trina will still need you. I hope you will act accordingly.”
The door closed softly. To Taufique it seemed like a bang.
The doll had finally awakened.
Who exactly was Shuvra?
Taufique felt like a dead man.