At the High-Tech hospital in Dadar, there was an uproar. Maya the daughter-in-law of the rich and influential Mandakini Rao, had disappeared.
“Did anyone see her leave?” asked the visibly agitated Dr. Jyothi, “And she’s taken her file along? Who was responsible for this serious lapse?”
The junior doctor blanched.
“I wanted to do her ‘vitals’ before the anaesthetist arrived. But I was called away to see another patient, and left the file there.”
Maya had only a five hundred rupee note in her pocket. Shridar had pressed it into her hand when she went for her check up.
“Mother will pay the bills, so you don’t have to worry,” he had said, “But keep this in case you want to buy something.”
A casual remark by an elderly nurse at the hospital had triggered her panic button. The nurse was a blabber-mouth, but her insensitive comment had worked in favour of Maya, and alerted her to her predicament.
“So you’re the new bride from the Rao Mansions? I was under the impression that they had chosen Dr. Alka. Probably it was to buy her silence. It was a pity about the other girl – the second son’s wife. She died after a difficult abortion, all because the family didn’t want a girl child.”
Maya could feel her heart thud against her chest.
“Oh my God! How much do I know about this family? How many skeletons do they have in their cupboard? Well, I’m not waiting to find out.”
She pulled out the pages from her file and stuffed them into her roomy handbag.
All was quiet at the Nursing Home. Even the watchman was soundly asleep in his cubicle. Maya tip-toed out of the building, then kept to the shadows until she had cleared the gate. She walked briskly, hoping that no unsociable elements were on the prowl.
“Where can I go at this time of night? I am so unfamiliar with this city.”
Then she saw “Dadar Railway Station” emblazoned across a building, and made a dash for it. The train to arrive shortly would be touching Nasik . She knew this was a place of pilgrimage, so she bought a ticket.
Maya managed to squeeze into a seat in the overcrowded compartment. People had spread out on the berths, the floor, and every available space.
“What am I to do? I can’t go home because that’s the first place they’ll come looking for me,” she thought.
Maya’s father had been scanning the matrimonial columns for months. He was to retire soon, and wanted to see his daughter settled before that. Shridar Rao’s advertisement came as a God-send. Maya fitted the bill perfectly – good looking, educated and homely!
The boy’s party arrived at Maya’s modest home in Satara, in a gleaming black Mercedes. Mandakini Rao a pretty woman with an imposing personality was followed by her five sons, immaculately turned out in suits. Peeping through the curtains, Maya smiled mischievously and whispered to her mother, “They look like mechanical toy soldiers programmed to behave in a particular way.”
“Yes,” agreed her mother, “The lady calls the shots alright. I just hope she won’t turn you into a robot too.”
Mrs. Rao directed only a cursory glance at Maya, as though she had already made up her mind.
“We want a very simple ceremony. Though we have the means, we don’t believe in flaunting our wealth. Shridar is a very private person. We also like to have the wedding as soon as possible – say within a fortnight.”
“But that’s too soon. We can’t make the arrangements in such a hurry,” protested Maya’s father.
“Then we’ll have to look elsewhere.”
Mandakini was not used to having her diktat challenged. The man buckled under her imperious gaze.
Mrs. Rao was still smarting from the insult of another prospective alliance that had gone awry. The marriage of Shridar with Dr. Alka had been forecast as the highlight of the season. The Raos were rich and could afford to splurge. The Wedding Planner had been given carte blanche , with only one stipulation, that it should outdo all other marriages in ostentation.
“My son must be married with a flourish of trumpets. He’s the scion of the Rao Hospitality Industry, and his wedding should have our competitors, friends and relatives drooling.”
But something had gone terribly wrong. En route to the ceremony, Alka had stepped out of the car and fled, leaving her shocked parents to face the music.
Mrs. Rao put on a bold face. “My Shridar will find the best girl yet. We will not have to wait very long.”
Her five sons rallied around her.
“Perhaps the girl is mentally unstable. It’s a good thing she ran away before and not after the marriage. There is no dearth for girls, and we’ll find someone better.”
Maya’s wedding at Satara was a low-key affair. Most of the guests were from her side. Her parents were overwhelmed by the generosity of Shridar’s family.
“Not only have they waived the dowry, they insist on footing the entire bill,” said her father.
“Look at my girl,” thought her mother, “They have adorned her with jewellery fit for a princess. They must be stinking rich, what with hotels all over Bombay and property in their native village!”
The young men too were an instant hit with the guests, moving freely among them and making small talk. A brilliant exercise in Public Relations!
But the moment Maya set foot in her husband’s home she had this strange premonition that she would never be happy here. There was something about the place that made her uncomfortable.
“Sixth sense working overtime?” she wondered, “Or is it plain homesickness?”
She hadn’t heard Mandakini’s parting shot to her parents.
“Your daughter belongs to us now. You don’t need to worry about her, or visit us unless you are specifically invited. “
Her smile was intimidating, and Maya’s mother worried whether this attitude augured well for her daughter.
The nuptial suite was on the second floor. Done up in exquisite taste, it would have thrilled any young bride. When Maya touched a button on the music system, the strains of “I’m in a mood for love” wafted through the room.
“Happy?” Shridar asked, throwing an arm around her, “Ask for anything you want and it will be yours.”
Then he drew her close, looking down into her eyes as his lips sought hers. Maya’s body trembled in eager anticipation. She expected sparks to fly when they were locked together in their first kiss. But that moment of intimacy was shattered by the shrill voice of her mother-in-law.
He jumped back as though caught in a clandestine act, leaving Maya with eyes still closed and lips parted.
“I’m coming Mother,”
He was out of the room like a shot.
“God damn you woman!” Maya cursed, “Must you break up our first kiss? Is this going to be a pattern of things to come?”
At dinner, Maya observed her new family closely. Mandakini reminded her of a queen bee, with a brood of five love-sick drones, fawning over her.
“Doesn’t seem normal at all,” she thought. “Something kinky here – but I can’t figure out what. Perhaps the Oedipus complex in overdrive! It keeps them tied to her apron strings.”
They were intelligent men; good business minds who ran their chain of hotels efficiently; well-mannered and polite. But the feeling of being the odd one out persisted. Shridar seemed to have forgotten that she was his new bride.
“You’re looking bored dear,” Mandakini said, “We still have certain business matters to discuss. Why don’t you go to your room and rest? I’ll send Shridar up in a few minutes.”
Maya didn’t know when Shridar came to bed. She had cried herself to sleep on her nuptial night. When she woke up in the wee hours, he was there, softly snoring beside her.
“My husband!” she thought, “Good looking even in his sleep. But what kind of guy would ignore his bride on their first night together? I had always dreamed of a macho man who would carry me into that seventh heaven of bliss even as we became one flesh…….Guess I’ll just have to wait.”
She soon realized that this would be the pattern for her future. Lonely days and hurried moments with her husband at night! The house was run entirely by male staff, and she was sure that her activities were closely monitored and reported to her mother-in-law.
“Have a nice day!” Shridar had said, “Do whatever you want. If you like to go shopping, the driver is at your disposal.”
A week later, she asked him whether she could make herself useful.
“Couldn’t I work in some capacity in one of your hotels?”
“Not on your life. Do you want tongues to wag? I can give you whatever you want. You just say the word.”
“It’s only because I’m very lonely. There’s not a soul I can talk to. Can’t I teach in a school for free?”
Shridar laughed. “You’re just homesick. But that will pass. Find something to do at home. You could redecorate the house if you wish.”
And so, when Maya discovered that she was pregnant, she was thrilled. She hugged her secret for a good three months, before she broke the news to Shridar.
“You naughty girl! Why did you keep it from me for so long? I’m really ecstatic,” he said, giving her a big hug. “I must tell Mummy.” He dashed downstairs.
Shridar was a long time in coming back, and Maya wondered what his mother’s reaction had been. Was she pleased or was she not? She detected a hint of worry on his face.
“What did Mother say?” Maya asked.
“She was happy for us.”
But Maya wasn’t convinced.
Mandakini was all concern, the next day.
“Get ready,” she told Maya, “We must visit the doctor to see that all is well.”
The doctor led her into a cubicle where she scanned Maya’s uterus.
“It’s alive and kicking, and it is a girl,” she announced.
As she was ushered out of the room, Mandakini and the doctor were in close conversation.
“I like you to stay overnight for a few tests,” the doctor said, “It will save you the trouble of coming back early in the morning tomorrow.”
“But I feel fit,” Maya protested, “Why do I have to stay here?”
“Just routine my dear. We want to assure ourselves that you’re in fine form, and my first grandchild is well too,” Mandakini chimed in.
Now here she was, fleeing for her life. The nurse’s information had alerted her to her plight. The Rao household was strictly a male preserve, with room for only one woman – Mandakini! Maya was merely a decorative wall flower. But another girl child would not be tolerated. The doctor was in cahoots with her mother-in-law.
At Nasik station, she looked helplessly around.
“Where will I go? To whom will I turn for help?”
A young nun who had also alighted from the train, looked concerned.
“Are you lost?”
“Hopelessly lost. I don’t know what to do.”
“Then you’re in some kind of trouble?”
“Major trouble,” Maya blurted out, tears rushing to her eyes.
“Perhaps you’d like to come and rest at our convent for a while. We’re within walking distance.”
They did not talk until they reached the convent.
“Would you like an early breakfast? I’ll ask the cook to rustle up something for us.”
While they waited, Maya poured out her story.
“It’s a queer family I’ve married into, but I didn’t expect cruelty. Under the pretext of tests, my mother-in-law would have had me aborted. A girl child didn’t exactly fit into her scheme of things. I just wonder if my husband was in it too.”
“What do you propose to do?”
“I must find a job to support myself. I’m never going back. That’s for sure. I’m a trained teacher and I can earn enough for my baby and me.”
“I like your spirit. I think we can accommodate you at one of our schools.”
The months that followed were agonizingly lonely. If only she could go back to her parents! But that was fraught with risk. Mandakini would find her. Who knows how many people were already scouring the city in search of her!
The sonogram report was wrong. A few months later, Maya delivered a bouncing baby boy. Now she was determined to expose this unscrupulous doctor. The woman was guilty of double felony – capitalizing on the gender bias of foolish women who wanted to kill off their female offspring, and making false diagnosis for profit.
“Do you realize that your in-laws will also be exposed? They have enough money and influence to destroy you.”
“The doctor has already killed off one poor girl from their family. Who knows if I would have met a similar fate? My mother-in-law must be exposed for her wickedness. I may be doing her sons a favour by setting them free from her influence.”
Maya took her complaint to the State Commission for Women in Maharashtra , who ordered a raid on the Nursing Home. The extent of the doctor’s medical malpractice shocked the entire medical fraternity. She was a famous specialist in Assisted Reproductive Technology, but it was a front for her other unethical activities. Greed for money had taken precedence over ethics.
The Media went to town on Mandakini’s abnormal hold over her sons. It raked up earlier suspicions regarding the death of another daughter-in-law. It hunted down Alka, to unearth her reason for backing out of a celebrity wedding.
Mrs. Rao retaliated with a defamatory suit against Maya. She contested the claim that Shridar was the father of her child. The case fell flat when the DNA results came through. Shridar was given a lesser sentence than his mother, for being a silent partner to her criminal intentions.
Maya walked away, glad that she had come through without harm, and eager to put the traumatic incident behind her. All she wanted for her son was a brave new world, where men and women would mutually respect and support each other.