We are the Mukherjees. We lived in a four-story mansion in north Calcutta. Generations before us have been lawyers and doctors and scientists and everyone knew about us. We commanded respect and no son or daughter of the family has done anything to go against the values that have been set aside especially for them, with two brilliant exceptions, of course.
My father is a painter. My grandfather had thrown him out of the house when he voiced his desire to become an artist by profession. Granddad tried reasoning with him in the beginning.
"Why can't you study law and paint on the side, like a hobby? Why do you have to jeopardise what we have built? Why can't you be normal?"
My father, I hear, had kept quiet because he knew that no reason would satisfy his father and left quietly when he was ordered to do so.
With the help of his friends, he found a job as a designer with an advertising agency. There were no computers in those days and artists who could swallow their pride and actually surrender to commercial work were welcomed with open arms. He did pretty well actually. In the next five years, he got in touch with twenty writers, designers, sales people and opened his own advertising agency with an account for a hair oil given to him by a friend who worked for the company. In another year's time, my father and his agency had six major clients and ten other clients who worked with them intermittently. He bought an apartment in south Calcutta and began living there.
Seven years after being thrown out of his house, his father came to him, saw what his son had achieved for himself and begged him to return. My father didn't have any issues on that but he never sold the south Calcutta flat. He knew that property wouldn't be easy to come by later.
He was married to my mother in 1970 when he was 30 and my mother was 19. My father was extremely annoyed that his parents would fix his marriage with someone young enough to be his sister, but they were persistent. My father was told that my mother was extremely good at running a home and would bring about a balance in his otherwise maddening life. I think my father had married ma pretty much reluctantly. I was born after seven years of their marriage. My father wanted my mother to finish her education (which she never did!) and not produce babies within a year of marriage.
I was a rebel child. I wore shorts and rode bicycles. I learnt how to fix the car and climb trees. I learnt how to knit, stitch, cook, paint, dance, sing, swim, play tennis, and ride horses and so on and so forth. My father didn't want another child and so he brought me up to be a boy and a girl at the same time. I was his pride factor. He named me Mrinalini, after his mother as I was supposed to have taken after her. It was my mother who called me Rashmi because she thought my formal name was too long.
I finished my graduation in English literature and continued in Linguistics at the master's level, much to my mother's horror and father's delight. Soon, my mother began to look for eligible bachelors for me and my father would discourage it all the time. I knew that if I wanted to escape the matchmaking acts then I would have to escape quickly. But till then, I was stuck. My degree was another year away. I had fallen in love for the first time when I was 15. He was my neighbour. Aditya played the flute and wrote love poems all the time. We had met during a local celebration and were together from that moment on. I would sneak out on Saturday afternoons when my mother would be asleep and go over to meet him. We would hold hands and talk about the future. It was rather silly, when I think of it now, but there was a major learning that lay underneath it all.
Aditya and I managed to get away on a Sunday (I still don't know how!) and for the first time, we had sex in a farmhouse that belonged to his family. I was eighteen. Sometimes, I wonder what my mother would do if she found out that her precious and eligible daughter was not a virgin anymore. She would probably hang herself. It's a risk I haven't taken yet.
It was after my high school that Aditya went away to Bombay for his graduation. We used to write to each other all the time. The Internet was our best friend. But it lasted only for a few months. The frequency of mails reduced and soon there wasn't much to write about either.
Both of us were busy with new friends and our new lives. College changed everything and I was swept away by all that. I also saw a few other guys casually and slowly began to grow out of my teenage romance. I think Aditya and I stopped corresponding altogether when I was in my second year of college. Later he wrote to me telling me that he was leaving for London to finish his studies in neurology. It didn't hurt me much but it was sad to say good-bye to a part of life you want to cherish forever.
Sometimes, I still wonder. When my mother talks about a 'nice' boy for me, I wonder if she would ever, by chance, of course, fix me up with Aditya. We were neighbours after all. The irony of it would be that I don't think I could accept being with him. Things were different then.
My thoughts were broken when I heard my father's car moving into the driveway. He had returned from his golf match and that meant lunch would be served soon. I looked at the watch and saw it was almost 2. Thinking sure helps time to fly. I ran down and met my father. He looked happy, must have had a good game. Lunch was served at 2:30. I noticed two of my aunts had decided not to stay for lunch.
After lunch, my father came up to me and said, "Can you come to the library after you have helped your mom to clean up?"
I wondered what my father wanted to talk to me about. I was a little scared, to be honest. It wasn't everyday that my father wanted to speak to me in private. After I had helped ma put away the dishes, I went up to the library.
My father was sitting on his favourite armchair with some papers in his hand. He heard me come in, so he looked up and said, "Sit. This is important."
"What is it, baba? Something wrong?"
I was too nervous to ask him anything specific.
"Mrinalini, you are no longer a child. I see you growing up everyday. And each day you make me proud. I don?t know if there is anything else I can expect from a son or a daughter. But there must be something that you would want to do for yourself as well. I have never asked you what you wanted because I wanted you to find it for yourself. I cannot imagine you as just someone's wife three or four years down the line. Therefore, I am going to let you go. I want you to go out into the world and make your place. You don't have to do it the way I did but I am sure you will find some way or the other. I don't want to be like my father who had to throw me out because we didn?t see eye to eye. Whatever happens, I will always see eye to eye with you."
With that my father settled all the papers he had on his lap and gave them to me. Along with that he gave me a key. Tears had welled up in my eyes. I couldn?t see what the papers read, I only wanted to hug my father tight and cry. The papers were a part of the property that he was signing over to me. And the key was to his flat that he had so preciously maintained for so long.
No more words were said. I took everything he gave me and went to my room.
Somewhere in the middle of the night I realized that it was liberation day for me. My father had given me the wings I dreamt for so long but was too afraid to ask for. I could take my first unquestioned step into the world.
I moved out two weeks later. My mother cried like a newborn baby and my father proudly drove me to my new home. He didn?t come up.
At the gate before bidding me farewell, he hugged me and told me, "I never wanted another child because when I saw you the first time, I knew that you were all I wanted."