It was a June evening with heavy rain showers and a cool breeze blowing. Little Junti was delighted to see the raindrops falling on the trees and flowering plants in the orphanage garden. Standing on a small wooden stool by holding the two iron rods of a window, she watched the rain. She smiled, giggled, and murmured with ecstasy.
Pallavi finished her hot cup of ginger tea and softly pulled Junti back to make her sit on her lap. Pallavi was the warden of the orphanage, Konmanir Ghar (House of the Little Children) in Guwahati, Assam. They exchanged smiles and Junti said, “Can you tell me a wonderful story, Pallavi aunty?”
Pallavi nodded, “Yes, Junti. Listen to my story of a young girl.”
Pallavi caressed and cuddled Junti’s arms and hair and began to speak. She told the little girl of another little girl who liked to grow flowers in her garden. As the story progressed, the warmth of Pallavi’s lap and the love in her arms eased Junti into sleep.
Pallavi carefully put Junti to bed and sat beside her. The sounds of rain vividly reminded her of one such rainy evening three years ago when Junti had come to the orphanage with two other children.
It was the month of July and Pallavi saw from her window that a white van had stopped at the orphanage entrance. Three children got out, two girls and one boy, with two men accompanying them. Pallavi hurriedly came downstairs to meet them.
Minoti, one of the staff at the orphanage, came to Pallavi. “They are asking for you.”
“I saw them coming; I will go meet them.”
The men were from a local NGO (Non-Governmental Organization), named Puhar, which works in relief and rescue operations for the flood-hit areas of Assam. Curious, Pallavi checked their identity cards to learn their names and addresses. The men introduced her to the children who had lost their parents in the flood when it hit the Nalbari district of Assam.
One man from the NGO said, “The village Santipur was devastated due to flooding. These children had lost their parents. So, we brought them here.”
Pallavi nodded, “That’s terrible! Are their parents dead?”
“They can stay here. The orphanage will take care of their food and shelter.”
The pale children looked terrified and Pallavi’s heart broke for their plight.
Pallavi learned their names and their parents’ names.
The older girl was Pratima, a 9th grader. Subhash, the boy, was in the 7th grade, and Junti, the youngest, was just four years old.
Junti looked at Pallavi with her small shining black eyes. Pallavi took the small girl in her arms and tightly hugged her and wiped the tears that had begun to fall from Junti’s eyes.
Pallavi asked Minoti to bring some clothes for the children. Minoti helped the children shower quickly and dressed them in new clothes from the children’s common wardrobe. They served them cookies and warm milk. The older girl, Pratima, talked to Pallavi and expressed her grief about the flood havoc that devastated her village.
The older girl, Pratima said, “Every year, the floods hit our village and we are displaced. The government gives us relief camps and food supplies. But…Pratima’s voice cracked as she tried to remain strong. “I lost my mother this time. The flood washed away my mother.” Pratima cried inconsolably.Pallavi became emotional hearing Pratima.
When she could speak again, Pratima noted “The NGO men saved me. I lost my father when I was two years old. My mother raised me by herself. We survived by farming our small piece of land.
“Are Subhash and Junti your siblings?” Pallavi asked.
“No, they are my neighbour’s children. We play together.” Pratima could not say more and began crying as the loss of her mother swept over.
The NGO men had been listening. They’d seen this before with victims of great tragedy and took over the narrative. “We came to know from the rescued villagers when Pratima was a baby, her father died. Her mother was a farmer. Subhash’s parents worked in the village rice mill and sometimes farmed on other’s land, with permission, for extra money.”
Junti remained silent, observing everyone as if searching for somebody.
Pallavi called the doctor to check the children. “They come from a flooded village.”
After examining them, the doctor said, “Physically, they are fine. But they need love and proper care.”
After dinner, Pallavi put them in the same room to sleep. She went to check on them and found Pratima lying in her bed struggling to sleep. Subhash and Minoti were in bed talking to each other. Junti smiled at Pallavi and tightly hugged the doll that Minoti had given to her. Pallavi smiled back.
From the moment Junti had come, Pallavi thought of her dead daughter, Surabhi, who looked a bit like the little girl now in her care. Pallavi touched Junti’s small face and silky soft hair and sat beside her, an arm around her. Junti gazed back at Pallavi.
Pallavi gave the young girl a doll and slowly started thumping Junti’s back to help her fall asleep. Soon, three of the children fell asleep. When the young girl had drifted off, Pallavi turned to Minoti. “Please, stay in the room and let me know if the children need anything or can’t sleep.”
Pallavi visited the other children, as usual, in their rooms before closing the main gate of the orphanage for the night. The security guard was in his small wooden single room near the entrance. It was still raining but not heavily.
Pallavi went to her room and switched on the lamp near her bed. She lay on the bed scrolling through her cell phone photo gallery looking at Surabhi’s photographs. Soon, the memories of her hit hard.
Pallavi turned off her phone, but the face of her daughter had burned into her retinas. She sat up, unable to sleep. Her mind travelled down five years of memory lane to when she was a housewife juggling her household chores and marital life. Her husband, Biplav, was always busy with his office life.
Biplav rarely had time for Pallavi or Surabhi. He wanted a son, but in fate’s reply, a daughter was born to Pallavi and Biplav, and his dreams of raising a son vanished when the doctors spoke of Pallavi’s poor health after the delivery. They asked him to take some time to plan for a second baby if he desired.
The doctor said, “Pallavi is suffering from calcium and vitamin D deficiency. She is weak post-delivery. So, Biplav, take good care of her and feed her medicines regularly as advised so she can recover properly. And I advise you to wait for at least two years before planning for a second child.”
Biplav simply nodded. He was not happy to hear this.
Pallavi could sense Biplav’s disdain towards her. As a conservative man, he wanted a son but they had a daughter.
As the weeks passed, Pallavi bore the new taunts from Biplav. Biplav once even said, “Pallavi, I am not happy with you. This is a forced marriage by our parents. Somehow, I am managing with you. But I want a boy to carry my family’s name forward. But the birth of this girl. I don’t want her.”
With raised brown and curled lips, Biplav angrily pointed at Pallavi and said, “I did you a favour marrying you. You are not educated, you are not up to my level. You cannot make me happy. You are worthless. Why don’t you leave?”
She knew Biplav’s temper and dominating nature very well. An explosive reply from her would only scale up his anger. Pallavi remained tightlipped, though she felt a flush rise in her face. She forcibly maintained her calm as she let that moment pass.
Instead, she cried alone and ignored Biplav’s rude behaviour towards her. She would maintain peace in the house.
This anger from Biplav persisted as time passed, even in small household matters, like their daughter crying or the food not being up to his precise standards that day.
He would taunt “Pallavi, I can’t tolerate your presence in my house. Why are you even here? I have asked you to leave my house, yet here you remain. Are you not ashamed?” Pallavi remained silent and avoided his eyes.
She engaged with household chores and take care of Surabhi. And to keep her calm, she played and sang lullabies to Surabhi, meditated, and devoted time to worship.
Biplav’s anger and arrogance only grew.
The next two years of their arranged marriage were difficult as they adjusted to each other. Like a traditional Indian woman, Pallavi’s mother used to tell her how important it is for a married woman to protect and secure her marital life. She advised Pallavi to have a baby soon to strengthen their relationship.
Pallavi’s daughter Surabhi was born in the third year of their marriage. Pallavi was delighted but she did not see the same happiness on her husband’s face. She felt that only time would heal his mood and diminish his arrogance.
Pallavi thought Biplav’s attitude was the usual dominating nature of husbands over their wives. She consoled herself with this and remained calm most of the time.
She knew she would not be able to confront him about the rude manner in which he treated her and that divorce was nearly impossible, due to the way she had been raised. Her traditional parents would never approve of her finding this freedom in divorce.
When Surabhi turned one year old, Pallavi happily gave a small donation to an orphanage in the city out of her savings to celebrate her daughter.
For Surabhi’s birthday, Pallavi arranged for an intimate family gathering. Her husband reluctantly agreed to attend to honour potential family concerns. But Biplav was not happy.
Pallavi’s parents and a few other close relatives attended the celebration. Surabhi delightedly ate her birthday cake and Pallavi delighted with her. Biplav remained unmoved.
After dinner, the relatives left. And Surabhi soon fell asleep. Biplav took a glass of wine to his room, soon also falling asleep. Pallavi switched off the lights and silently washed the dishes and cleaned the gas stove, her husband’s silence killing her from the inside.
The night grew dark and she took Surabhi to sleep with her in another room that night.
Pallavi did everything possible to raise Surabhi in a peaceful atmosphere. She tolerated her husband’s mood swings and anger for her daughter’s happiness, but she was slowly losing her mental peace.
Biplav had always favoured the drink a little too much, but now he was chained to the monster. He often skipped eating his meals at home so that he might go visit a modor dukan (wine shop) instead.
Once a friend dropped him at home after he had been heavily drinking at a colleague’s job promotion party. He sat down at the table where the meal awaited. “Pallavi, you made my life hell! I will not eat your garbage.” He angrily threw the food at her and walked unsteadily and slowly, Biplav went to his room.
Pallavi watched silently as he left the room, then picked up the strewn food and cleaned the floor. She skipped her own dinner, restless but trying to remain calm. How could she raise her daughter in such a terrible atmosphere? How far would she have to test destiny before their destruction?
Pallavi gathered strength the next morning and asked, “Why were you rude to me last night? What have I done this time? I want to be a good wife. But you always find fault in me or whatever I do. Please, cooperate with me.”
Frowning, Biplav responded, “You are responsible for my rude behaviour and declining career. You ruined my peaceful life! You have proven to be an unlucky woman for me! You couldn’t even bear a son.” He leapt from his chair and rushed away to the office.
Pallavi suddenly realised that Biplav was using his lack of a son as an excuse for everything – his poor behaviour, his lousy work ethics, his anger, his rudeness – and that meant he blamed her for everything. His words and this understanding deeply wounded Pallavi.
She wanted to express her emotions to someone safe, so she rang up her mother. “Ma, I am tired of adjusting to Biplav’s worst behaviour. I want to give up this relationship. He will never be good to me.”
Her mother patiently listened to her and said, “Pallavi, you must be a brave woman. Think first about your daughter’s future. Try to adjust to Biplav’s mood and forget the bad moments quickly. Don’t take things too seriously. I have experienced such anger, mood swings and verbal abuse from your father.
But I didn’t give up on my marriage. I had to raise you, my child. So, I tolerated things and handled situations peacefully. It takes time. But I did it. I want you to be emotionally strong. I love you.”
Their conversation ended on a caring note, with Pallavi feeling connected to and like her mother in child rearing philosophies like her mother. She said to herself, “I have responsibilities to fulfil like a dutiful mother. I cannot be so emotionally weak and helpless. I am neither highly educated nor a working woman. How could I raise my daughter alone?”
After that, Pallavi tried to be patient, calm, and less responsive to her husband’s anger. One day, she heard a woman’s voice coming from the bathroom while Biplav was inside. The phone was on the loudspeaker while he was shaving. Pallavi knocked at the bathroom door, holding a towel in hand. Biplav took the towel from her while talking to other woman.
Though Pallavi could not hear their full conversation, she wondered how Biplav could be so nice to other woman and not to her. “Is he dating someone?” she wondered.
She said nothing and silently left the room.
Pallavi often felt betrayed and frustrated, asking herself, “Why did fate hitch me into wedlock with Biplav? What did I do wrong? Am I not trying hard to sustain my marriage? How far can I deal with an unloving husband?
As days passed, their conversations grew limited. Pallavi lost her love and affection for Biplav and simply adjusted to him.
Doing her usual household chores one morning, Pallavi heard her husband awaken and go to the bathroom. She prepared his breakfast and lunch box and checked on Surabhi, taking a morning nap between two pillows placed on either side to prevent her from rolling off the bed. Pallavi went back to the kitchen to finish preparations for the day.
Eventually, her husband came to the dining room to have breakfast. Pallavi prepared some tea for herself, and holding the tea cup, she went to the bedroom to look in on Surabhi. The tea cup shattered on the floor as she opened the door and looked inside. Surabhi was somehow lying on the ground. Pallavi ran to her and picked her up.
The bruise on Surabhi’s forehead was dark and her nose was oozing thick blood. Pallavi called to Biplav in a panic. Biplav came running, entered the room and stared in shock.
One of the pillows was displaced and a few newspaper pages lay scattered in its place. The pillow was placed upright on the bed attached to the wall. Biplav quickly rubbed his daughter’s back but she lay motionless and unresponsive.
Biplav and one of their neighbours hurriedly took Surabhi to the nearby hospital, leaving behind Pallavi. She called her parents; they rushed over and arrived half an hour later
After some time, Biplav brought Surabhi’s body home, wrapped in a thick layer of white cloth. He placed her on a handloom-weaved mat. When his daughter was alive, Biplav never loved her like his beloved daughter, but this unfortunate incident shook him. He sat numbly and gazed at his daughter’s dead body.
Shock ebbed to incessant crying as Pallavi prayed while watching over her daughter’s body. “I accepted a terrible marriage to raise Surabhi, but the cruel hands of death snatched her away from me. I am left alone, devastated. God, why didn’t you take me? This can’t be true! Surabhi, you can’t be gone! Wake up! Wake up!”
Pallavi’s sorrow turned her body numb while her eyes drowned in tears. Two hours later, Surabhi’s dead body was taken for cremation.
A silent and numb Pallavi could only helplessly watch as her daughter was taken away from her to the cremation fires. With teary eyes, Pallavi’s mother said, “Pallavi, Surabhi is dead. You need to accept the truth and calm yourself.”
Pallavi slowly and silently got up and walked towards her bedroom with her mother. She sat on the bed, leaning on her mother’s shoulder. Her mother added, “Pallavi, it was destined to happen. Let’s pray that Surabhi rests in peace, dear.”
Pallavi’s parents stayed with her that night but in the morning she insisted that they leave. Biplav would neither speak to Pallavi nor with her parents.
At some point in all of this, Pallavi learned that Biplav had removed the pillow keeping Surabhi in place. His negligence led to the terrible accident and they both now had to live with this knowledge.
Two days passed, but Biplav neither spoke to nor shared in the grief of their loss. Then a week. Then several weeks passed. Pallavi struggled daily with her loss, trying to engage herself in household tasks and offering prayers to heal from the trauma of Surabhi’s death, but she was not at peace.
She could no longer tolerate Biplav’s drinking, his wild mood swings and anger, and the silence that prevailed between them. Loneliness encompassed her; the sudden death of Surabhi and the frustration of a failed marriage finally forced Pallavi to leave Biplav’s house.
A broken and angry Pallavi texted Biplav, stating, “I am leaving your house forever. I will not punish you for what you did to me. But the Universe will one day punish you, make you feel guilty and remorseful for what you did. Because I believe in the law of Karma.”
She gathered her luggage and went to an orphanage she knew in the city, hoping it would shelter her. Pallavi knew Revati Devi, an older woman in her 60s and the warden of the orphanage.
When she reached the orphanage, Pallavi told Revati about Surabhi’s untimely death, uncontrollable tears streaming down her face. Revati pulled her into a motherly, tight hug and invited her to stay there.
The next day, Pallavi told her parents about leaving the house and her wish to stay in the orphanage. “I want to live with the little children here. Fate snatched my inner peace with Surabhi’s death. I want to regain my peace serving the orphanage children. I desire to experience motherhood again by raising the orphanage children.
“Papa, Maa, I don’t want to be a burden on you. And we know our society isn’t progressive enough to accept women from broken marriages living with their parents. I want to stand on my own. Please, understand and accept my decision.”
“Pallavi, your mother and I want to see you happy, always. We are with you. I wish I had focussed more on your education than your marriage. I am really sorry”, said her father.
“Papa, you did what you felt was best for me. I don’t want you to feel bad about anything. I want you and Maa to understand and support me now.”
With a broken heart, Pallavi’s mother said, “I always advised you to be a good wife and a brave mother like a traditional woman who values home and family more than her own self and desires. I should have asked you to gather courage and leave your broken relationship! I will regret this all my life, Pallavi.”
“Maa, you did what you believed in and valued. I know your love for me. You just wanted to see me happily married. But destiny had other plans. Marriage is not everything”, said Pallavi.
Pallavi decided to serve the orphanage children all the rest of her life. After a year, Biplav and Pallavi got divorced. Two years later, Revati Devi died of age-related disease. Pallavi became the new warden of the orphanage due to her wholehearted service, love, and affection towards the orphanage children.
Pallavi took her responsibilities seriously and was made the warden of the orphanage for her dedication. She would teach them, and play along, singing and dancing, with the little children. She frequently organised charity programmes with the help and cooperation of staff members, like children’s dance showcases, to raise orphanage welfare funds.
She invested much of her time befriending the kids and grew familiar with their personalities and likes and helped adoptive parents learn everything about the children that they could before they brought them home. The staff thrived in her generous and selfless love towards the children and the staff.
Pallavi impressed Minoti and the other staff members were quite impressed with her deep empathy for the children.
“Pallavi has turned the atmosphere of this orphanage into a happy home. She gives so much love and affection to the children. They eat, sleep, and read like children growing up in regular homes and she cares for and understands their pain or happiness as if they were her own children. We are blessed to have her with us.”
Overhearing Minoti say this of her filled Pallavi’s heart with joy and contentment, grateful for the dedicated staff that cooperated with her selfless work and love for the orphanage children.
A loud knock at the door interrupted Pallavi’s memories and made her return to that rainy night. She flicked on the lamp again and sat up. “Yes?”
She got up from her bed and opened the door quickly. Minoti was at the door carrying Junti in her arms. “She is inconsolable,” Minoti said, carefully handing the young child to Pallavi. Minoti smiled and left, knowing Junti would find comfort in the arms of Pallavi.
Pallavi put Junti into the bed and switched off the table lamp. The moonlight scattered across the room and they could see each other in the dim light. Pallavi lay down beside Junti, feelings of nostalgia welling up inside as tears rolled softly.. “I wish you could have met my daughter, Surabhi,” she whispered too quietly for the girl to hear.
Pallavi thanked the almighty and kissed Junti on her forehead and cheeks. She tightly hugged her and smiled. Junti could sense her love in the dim light and stopped crying, softly smiling back and sniffling away her own tears. Soon, she fell asleep. Peace fell over them and they slept through the night, safe and loved.