THE VERY DIVERTING HISTORY OF MAYA
by Grace Singh Smith
Now the day has dawned and the lamp that lit my dark corner is out. A summons has come and I am ready for my journey.—Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali.
It was Fate, Maya thought. Fate who got her married to someone she did not quite love, but maybe, she would learn to love. In the beginning, she woke up feeling as though he was her baby, this engineer husband her parents had carefully selected. She remembers the ad they placed in the city’s best newspaper, The Shillong Times. The classified had described her as “wheatish in complexion” and “respectful of traditional values.” These, and other important details like: caste (Kayastha); languages spoken (Bengali, Hindi and English); height, weight, body type (average); and the occupations of her parents. Her father was “ex-Army” and her mother was “homemaker.” And she was also a Capricorn.
According to the pundit, Fate aligned her with the perfect match—Rajeev Majumdar—and the events that followed became in her memory like the pages of a book turned fast. All the rituals flowed into one another until she could no longer distinguish what had happened when. Did she fast all day after she ate doi first? Did she get smeared in turmeric paste next, eating bits of rasgullas and kaju barfis from many unknown hands that thrust themselves into her face, one quickly taking the place of another? So many rituals, so many people, so many days, so many people, so many rituals, so many days…
When she was a girl and wore red nylon ribbons in her hair, Maa and Dadi said to her every night: Fate will take you where you will be, child, and there is nothing you can do to fight her, so be good. And Maya had always wondered, why be good if Fate was going to take you wherever she wanted to? Why could she not find out where the other road leads…wherever Fate doesn’t take you?
This Fate occupied Maya’s daydreams as a child when she looked at the hammered silver bangles on her wrists and the payals that embraced her ankles and announced her steps, and she thought: Who am I? Who is this Fate, who has so much power over me?
Sometimes she thought of Fate as a kind-faced, wrinkled dadi, a grandmother whose lap was soft. On monsoon nights, when the rain pounded nonstop in a thum-thum cadence, her hands found comforting dark places in her body under the covers, and she felt freed by the blood that rushed to her brain and the warmth of her thoughts. Then, she was seized by a hatred for this Fate. One such night, it came to her that this other, who had now been created in her mind would help her defeat Fate. “Anti-Fate”—aha—that’s what she would call the other, she remembers thinking as she sat at her study desk, doodling in her no.7 exercise book where she should have been writing an analysis of “The Diverting History of John Gilpin.”
That afternoon, she looked into the mirror and instead of seeing her chai-colored face, she saw someone else who actually smiled at her. Anti-Fate.
So, on dark monsoon nights, she began to think of Fate as a Rakshashi—a demoness—whom she would defeat. She sang softly to herself, cheerful and cheerless tunes; and she told the Rakshashi, you cannot win, because I have Anti-Fate, down here, inside, me.
She remembered this on Phul Sojja night when she was sitting covered in flower-shaped ornaments on a bed covered with marigolds, waiting for Engineer Majumdar to appear and find her waiting, sitting with her legs tucked under and her eyes down, silent. When she heard the door open, she saw the face of Anti-Fate appear on the bed sheet. Does he think he is a Bollywood star, how slowly he approaches, Maya thought. Then, she heard the bed gasp under his weight. When he reached under the pallu of her sari to grab her face, there she was, again. Anti-Fate, right beside the head of the Engineer, making him look like the demon king Ravana. She winked at Maya, and Maya smiled at her.
“What a smile, my love,” said the Engineer as he pulled the pallu down and slowly began to unwind her sari, next undoing the blouse’s front hooks. In the night that followed, she did not feel anything, though her sari was removed from her body and she was overcome by the smell of Old Spice, sweat, and the marigolds all around and under her. She also could not stop thinking of the lines from that poem by William Cowper whose sixty-three stanzas she had been forced to memorize.
He soon replied, I do admire
Of womankind but one,
And you are she, my dearest dear,
Therefore it shall be done.
After the marigolds had been crushed and he had fallen asleep breathing like a well-fed dog, she wept with tears that would not cease.
Anti-Fate, you lied to me, where are you?
Because after Phul Sojja, when she winked at her from behind the henna-streaked hair of Engineer Majumdar, Anti-Fate did not appear—not even on the day when the Engineer hit her. He had apologized, of course, but in the corner of the kitchen, his mother smiled without even bothering to hide her face behind her pallu. Maya had put too many mustard seeds in the Ilish Shidho curry and he had asked her why. Her answer had been that she was not aware that he did not like too many mustard seeds and that she did not know she would be his chef.
“Because you are BA English major, too good to serve your husband? Nonsense this is.” These were his words as he threw his plate at the wall. The stainless steel plate had fallen CLANGCLANGCLANG on the cement floor while his mother invoked the name of Maa Kali. But Maya had seen her smile, before “Maa Kali”, and Maya knew then that Fate, that kind dadi who was meant to protect Maya in her soft lap, had left her. And Anti-Fate was gone too.
Six weeks went by and Maya now knew how many mustard seeds the Lecturer wanted in his Ilish Shidho, and she no longer looked for Anti-Fate.
One night, when the puja had been completed and the Engineer had eaten his five-course meal, Maya was called into the drawing room. She drew the pallu over her head, knowing that the Engineer’s mother would be present, and then she walked down the hallway that led from their bedroom to the drawing room. As she walked past her mother-in-law’s bedroom, she saw a reflection in the mirror that faced the door, the mirror with seashells hanging in strings over it. It was the face of Anti-Fate looking straight at her, smiling.
She sat on the varnished cane chair, facing the Engineer and his mother. They sat on the cane love seat with the red brocade cushions that had been brought as part of her wedding dowry.
Last night he had suckled her like a baby.
“Do you know that your family wants to renegotiate your dowry? After we have accepted you into our family?” asked the mother.
Maya looked down at her hands that were still decorated with mehendi, now faded beige instead of orange, and she stuck her feet out and then back under her sari.
Don’t cry, I am right here.
These words were whispered into her right ear through her pallu and she leaned her head towards it. Words were spoken: of sums promised to the Engineer and his mother now being reduced, honor, promises being broken, her family not holding up their end of a bargain. And what a reasonable bargain it was—an Engineer. And she, only BA English major, passed with no distinction.
She looked at their mouths and saw that it was time to tell them.
“Fate—Maa, Rajeev,” said Maya, “Fate decides where we go and no fighting it.”
“What strange things you speak.” said the Engineer’s mother, spitting out betelnut juice into a cup in a swift stream. It looked like blood, and in her mind’s eye, Maya began to see the beginning of many things to come: before, after. That night, the Engineer suckled her again like a baby, but this time he beat her after he made love to her. Maya did not scream once because she saw her.
Right above the bed, reflecting in the Oscar ceiling fan’s brass orb, was the face of Anti-Fate, and her eyes looked into Maya’s.
The next morning, when Maya went to pick out which sari she should wear, she decided that the bridal red would be the most suitable. Anti-Fate agreed, smiling down on her.
The gold letters on the wedding invitation had invited guests cordially to pay the family of Rajeev Majumdar the honor of their presence on the auspicious occasion of his nuptials to tie the knot with Maya Das, the daughter of Bijoy and Anupa Das. The card had also been red with two gold hands meeting in a “Namaste” at the top.
It will not take long, Anti-Fate whispered, her words reaching Maya as clear as the ululating she woke up to each morning.
The sari’s pallu—its end—was quite perfect for this auspicious occasion. It even had a peacock in gold thread with its chest puffed out when she laid it out on the bed to make tiny pleats.
S like the shankha they blew at weddings, round, round, round, one knot here, loose right there, over her, beneath her right ear. Now Maya offered up the pallu to Anti-Fate, and she could feel Anti-Fate’s warm breath of approval as she approached the Oscar fan to tie the knot. They looked beautiful in red. Then, Maya stood up on the bed where there had been crushed marigolds and sweat that smelled like Old Spice only six weeks ago.
She bowed her head to Fate, left the bed, and became one with Anti-Fate.
Grace Singh Smith was born and raised in northeast India where she worked as a teacher, TV anchor, and journalist. She now lives in Santa Monica, California, where she works at Santa Monica College by day and writes fiction by night. Her short stories have appeared in the Santa Monica Review. She is an MFA candidate at Bennington College and is working on her first novel.
Image credit: Souparna on Flickr