By Saguna Shah
I feel the misogynists among the males greatly outnumber the feminists among females. Also, the relationship between gender and feminism is not that linear in real life; nor is the one between the rhetoric and reality. Preaching values is one thing and practicing them another. In this riveting and brutally honest memoir, Saguna Shah tells her story rather cathartically. Her story is the story of a large number of Nepali women who are born and reared under suffocating embrace of patriarchy and when they discover life for what it really is, they have paid so huge a price that despair comes to befriend them in one way or the other. Shah's story is all the more relevant because it also depicts her stunning come back to life after a bruising and draining battle. This piece was already published in Archana Thapa's "Telling A Tale " as 'Memoirs of Sanomaharani and the Pain Within'. There are 30 more female narratives in the book and it is also included in TU's MPhil course.
February 2, 2012 at 2:36pm
|Melancolia by Albrecht Durer (Source: Wikimedia Commons)|
I was born a second child after my mother lost a well gestated baby boy seven days prior to the delivery. Needless to say when I was born, I was my parents’ bundle of joy, the ‘sano sarkar’ or the ‘sano maharani’ as many would put it; a token of grandiosity for having born in an uber Shah family. Today I smile fondly at my innocence when my mother and one of my childhood friend muse over the fact that I had to be addressed only as ‘maharani’ if I were expected to respond back, thus validating an age of typical vulnerability where every bit of arrogance was condoned. In return I would call everyone ‘timi’,a relatively condescending term to someone inferior. Born in a palace and carrying a royal lineage of Prince Upendra Bir Bikram Shah - the second son of King Rajendra Bir Bikram Shah, the sense of royalty came in naturally.
My father, the most humble man I’ve come across so far, was unlike his siblings who led a flamboyant lifestyle. He worked for the government, and therefore my parents lived most of their years away from Bagdurbar, the palace I was born in. Since shuffling cities would significantly impact our studies, my parents decided to send me and my only sibling, my little sister to a boarding school in West Bengal, India. Me and my sister, who was a couple of years younger, shared a love-hate relationship like every other siblings did. Looking back, and pondering our relationship thus far, I couldn’t have asked for a better sister. Although my parents kept themselves acquainted with our academic progress and touched base frequently, I learnt to discipline myself in the lack of guardianship and to handle the limited independence.
Life was blissful until my darkest day as a child arrived. My father succumbed to cardiac arrest leaving behind my mom a woman in her mid thirties, and we children, on our own. Despite his exemplary health, his early demise is something we still struggle to come in terms with. My father shall always remain in my fond memories and even though he may not have been an ideal husband, he was a great dad a daughter could ever find. I still remember the days when he carried me around in his shoulder. For me, that elevation was more than that of mighty Himalayas. I shrieked with both joy and fear as he tossed me high up in the air. His untimely departure then commenced my mother’s eternal struggle as a single woman having two young girls to look after.
As a result of my father’s complete disregard to the enormous ancestral wealth when he was alive, my mother had to undergo an acrimonious battle with her in-laws to acquire what bequeathed to us. That incident marked an era where our mother had to battle for every possible rights there on. While it made her strong, it made us independent. In time, the three of us became the thickest of pals; we became best buddies who shared almost everything under the sun. My sister and I were given ultimate freedom which also came with my mother’s unfaltering faith, that we would do nothing wrong. I feel blessed to have these two beautiful women in my life. Until then, everything had been hunky-dory , life was good. But then came a day my mom probably faltered for the first time in her life.
I had just finished my school and was waiting for the results when she decided to get me married. I do not blame her. She became the victim of circumstances, manipulations, her ailing health and her insecurities being the single mother of two growing girls. Until then I had never felt discriminated for being an inferior sex. I was good at my studies, had never given mom any reason to be ashamed of yet I was unable to fathom the actual motive behind my early marriage. For the first time I was helpless and weak, primarily because of my gratitude towards my mom who left no stone unturned to raise us. After days of sleepless nights and relentless protests, I finally succumbed to her wishes. Somehow I pulled through almost a year after getting engaged, subconsciously praying my father to reappear, for things would have been different if he were alive. If he was present, mom wouldn’t have felt the need for a man in the family.
There I was all but seventeen at the new threshold of my life. ‘He’ was a man of humble background; someone who my mom thought would treat me as a princess straight out of a Disney fable. Little did she know that her ‘sano sarkar’, her darling daughter, had now become the ‘sano buhari’ a subservient daughter-in-law of an alien family. The transition of moving from a three women family to a bevy of relatives was astounding, a big change I would struggle to cope for remaining years. Before my wedding, I was a completely different persona as compared to my sister who delineated her feminine self more than I did. I never cooked like her; I never made beds or decorated the living room. I had always been the son, the torch bearer of my dad, but now my entire life had changed having the responsibility of a whole lot of things and new people. Slowly I adjusted to the new environment, the new chores and the restrictions. Despite challenges, my in-laws were kind enough to let me pursue my studies, something I have always been grateful towards. Despite being called ‘buhari’, a term used for daughter – in – law who was supposed to be servile, I was never treated like one. They were educated folks.
I always believed marriage to be a bond not only between two individuals but also between two families and as a wife; I had my own little dreams of having a marital relationship with mutual trust, compassion, understanding, compatibility and love. Paradoxically, ‘he’ was just the opposite, he was embedded deep into his own world. For a person who was barely out of her teens, he was not a husband I had dreamt of. He lacked flavor, he lacked hues, he was not affable and he was nowhere closer to be the lover from fairytales that I dreamt of. He simply did not care that I, as his wife had an existence of any sorts.
People would see the perfect family in us. ‘He’ had a good reputation, perfect job, perfect wife who took care of his old father, his kids and remainder of the family. We had a beautiful house, a nice car and all the material comforts, a life completely ‘fulfilled’ from a layman’s perspective. But little did people know of the true picture behind the façade, ‘he’ did not even support his wife and kids financially. All that while it was my mother provided all needed resources. His growing success, and wealth triggered a habit of alcoholism and also the physical and mental torture he inflicted upon me. I was physically abused since the early years of our marriage, something that I had kept away from everyone. The abuses could be for the silliest of reasons and they kept escalating as he realized he could get away with it. Divorce is a stigma in Nepalese culture and was something that never happened in my family. Therefore my best alternative was to put up with every misery and self educate myself. I took private exams and completely embraced academia. In between, I had to severe ties with most of my friends, especially boys he disapproved of and alienate myself from whatever social life I had so far. As time flew, I was clinging on to a mild ray of hope that things would get better, and that this marriage would eventually work out. Pity, it never really happened.
Then came the day when he chose to leave Nepal for a lucrative offer abroad, but the caveat was, he did not want to take us along. Although hurt by his decision, I knew that this would soon become a blessing in disguise both for me and our buckling relationship. I began ‘living ‘in the true sense by my free will after he left. I joined college for my masters’ degree and found friends I never had. It was euphoric to be a teenager once again, something I could not enjoy in the past. I was also sure things would change for better then. ‘Distance makes the heart grow fonder’ although sounded like an old forbidden cliché’, but it still holds true in modern times.
But as if ‘he’ had vowed to disapprove of everything I dreamt of, I witnessed an escalating alcoholism and endured more abuses every time he came home during holidays. I felt bad for my growing kids as our altercation began affecting them constantly. Once again, I battled thoughts of abandoning him but conceded since it would only result in having the children tagged of the broken home. Very soon, and as it was bound to happen, the levee of my patience broke, I walked out on him with kids in tow.
Fighting for legal rights single handed was difficult and humiliating most of the times. I did not want to wash my dirty linen in public. Finally after four years of constant struggle I have emerged as a winner. It may sound foolish to many, but I signed the papers without any monetary expectation. It was my way to bid adios to an evil marital life. I resented it so much, I wanted nothing out of it. At the moment I am content with my life. My elder son is going to college this year and the younger has few more years in school. They are with me and are my best buddies. As a mother, and having understood the role of a father in a child’s world, I have allowed my kids to visit their father at their will. They shuffle in between both our worlds now. And fortunately enough, their father does bear their expenses now.
As for me, despite experiencing episodes of melancholy at an early age I am still hopeful that life is good. I try to nurture positive thoughts. There are occasional emotional roadblocks and I go into seclusion, but then I feel as a god’s favorite child, it is his way of testing me. Hence I am not bitter. I feel blessed to have such wonderful children, my mother, my sister and my best friend and my other friends and family who have stuck to me and supported me through thick and thin. I am teaching literature and French language at different institutes, I occasionally pen down my feelings, I am learning new languages, I read more these days and have begun exploring the spiritual side by getting into meditation.
Despite perpetual pain, I still believe life could not have been better. Lastly, I have mustered up enough courage to write this and I sincerely hope my kids won’t take it in a negative spirit.
Saguna Shah is an educator by profession and teaches English and French to the students of bachelors. She is also an insightful essayist and an observant travel writer, writing primarily in English. Her articles which are mostly regarding the neglected issues prevailing in Nepali society, have been published in various journals and magazines. Besides them her memoir 'Memoirs of Sanomaharani and the Pain Within' published in "Telling A Tale," an anthology of 31 personal narrative fetched her acclaims. Saguna is known as an avid reader and a perceptive critic and she is best known in social media world as the person behind vibrant facebook group 'bookaholics'.