I wrote this for the Times of India Write India Contest. The author of the month gives a paragraph and you have to weave a story around it. Twinkle Khanna, a very inspirational woman, gave the paragraph (it’s in bold) around which I’ve written this.
This story is one of my first attempts at writing fiction. It is also close to my heart because the recent global wave for gender equality has provided impetus.
The painting is by A. Ramachandran. It adorns the walls of my room as a constant reminder of feminine power. The artwork made in 1995 shows Lord Vishnu, as he would carry statuesque women on his back in the reincarnation of a tortoise.
It was a Friday afternoon when Radha Patel and her husband Shankar sat on their verandah, sipping chai and reading.
“This bloody feminist movement around the world. How unnecessary. Women can do so much today. They can vote and work and wear whatever they want”, a hoarse voice grumbled from beneath the newspaper.
It was that time of the day when Mr. Patel would wear his white kurta, sit on the rocking chair and read, nay, whine about the happenings around the globe. His wife looked at him from above her glasses. She didn’t even bother to argue with him, could you possibly change a sixty-one-year man’s views? She went back to the latest book she was reading, ‘Tuesday’s with Morrie’ when her phone rang.
It was Aradhana, her beautiful young daughter. In that brief moment, when she looked at her caller screen, a little epiphany hit her. In the past few months, her relationship with her daughter had completely transformed. Before she left for college, Aru had taught her mum immense ways to keep herself occupied. She taught her how to upload blog posts so that her mother’s dying love for writing gets revived. She taught her how to order items from Amazon and pay for them online. She also made her memorise the way to her favourite bookstore in a narrow alleyway, from where she had bought the book her mother was currently reading. Aradhana had persuaded her to not be the sad bluebird that wallows after her babies leave the nest rather be the eagle who soars high above after freeing itself from restrictions.
“I guess we’re both learning to be independent in our own ways”, Radha thought.
She smiled and picked up the call, putting it on speaker (a message she read on WhatsApp last night enlightened her of the radiation mobile phones were emitting these days).
“Hi Maa!” a cheery voice from the other side chirped.
“I’m sorry I haven’t called in forever. College life is tougher than movies show it to be. The campus is really great though and my professors are pretty intellectual too. My room-mates though are all right, and the food…”
At this moment Shankar suddenly got up, shot a sharp look towards his wife and left. He preferred uninterrupted newspaper time over his daughter’s views on her new life.
With her lovely daughter telling her stories about the cute guy she met in History class, she couldn’t think of a single reason to stay with her husband anymore. Radha had finally untied the blindfold of denial which had stopped her from seeing the truth. But isn’t that the biggest tragedy of an Indian housewife? Even if she wanted to leave him, she couldn’t. Shankar had made them dependent on him from the very start. From bills to insurances and student or home loans. Radha had not a shade of a clue how any of them functioned. A divorce was such a long and tedious procedure, her society would outcast the couple on their separation. Thinking about it made her very anxious.
After about half an hour, Aradhana hung up.
Radha kept her cup of chai down, which had now turned lukewarm due to her daughter’s chattering. But she didn’t mind. Guess one of the parents had their priorities set right. She fed the cat, which was now growing quite plump with old age and tuna-dinners. She watered the tulsi in the verandah and called the plumber for repairs.
She went to have a bath at 2 in the afternoon. Before slipping out of her light-pink nighty, she took a long look at herself in the full-view mirror. She was a fifty-eight-year-old woman now, rolls of fat for a waist, wrinkles creased on her forehead and at the end of her eyes, grey hair sprouting from her scalp and a big ‘aunty’ bum. But you know what the worst part was? Radha didn’t care about any of this. More than any of these superficial flaws, she looked deep into her own eyes and earnestly asked in her mind,
“Is this what you’d imagined being at fifty-eight? A housewife to a man who probably never loved you and a degree in English which never really came to any use? Talk to your young self. I’m sure she didn’t have any of this in her mind when she thought of the future.
But why? Why can’t I just let go? How do I cut off from this string of insecurities which have chained me? What am I so afraid of?”
By this time, tears had welled up her eyes, so she had a long hot water bath and washed away the agony.
It was a Saturday evening; Radha and Shankar were having a silent dinner when the doorbell rang. Of course he wouldn’t open the door. Of course the woman of the house should always be the one to abandon her meal.
Radha left her seat, opened the door, went out and didn’t come back for a long long time. But when she did, she came with bloodshot eyes and a nuance of madness in them. With her was a young girl, probably in her twenties, looking slightly afraid.
She rushed into Shankar’s room, where he lay asleep, the television still had the match on. Highlights from the previous day. Pakistan was losing.
“SHANKAR! Wake up, you bastard”, she bellowed, vehemently snatching his blanket away.
He woke up in a second, trying to comprehend this form of his wife he’d never witnessed before. A hint of fear grabbed his nape. His eyes then fell on the girl behind Radha. The fog of sleep began to fade away as he tried to place her. He had seen her before, but when… and where?
In return to his inquiring gaze, the girl flinched but never lost eye contact.
“Remember her, you disgusting asshole? You put your hand up her skirt like a crass animal when she was a little girl. She was eight, Shankar. EIGHT! Imagine someone doing this to Aru-”
The first punch landed on her right cheek. It came simultaneously with an escaped scream from the girl’s mouth. He didn’t even bother verbally reacting or defending himself. The first defense mechanism was to shut the source of the truth up. Nobody likes to read the book of their dark, revolting misdoings now, do they?
Radha fell back, drifting into unconsciousness. But as she fell, she realized that for the first time in her life, she stood up. Not only for herself but for the young girl too.
Shankar rushed out of the house immediately after, as the girl’s cell phone was dialing 102.
The owls on a nearby tree hooted loudly with disapproval and agitation.
In the M.I. room, she got to know that a molar had been broken and the blue of the bruise would take time to vanish.
But the fact that her daughter was coming to meet her and that a lawyer had already been called to file the divorce, mitigated the pain. Even though the toughest moments of her life were about to begin from that one punch, there was an extraordinary zeal in her all of a sudden. Being alone, struggling to earn money and learning to link Aadhaar cards seemed so much better than living with a child molester.
The young girl was called Isha. She held Radha’s hand throughout the doctor’s treatment.
“I am so sorry that this happened to you because of me”. A tear rolled down her cheek.
“I wanted to forget it. I really did. But that incident has left me with such bitterness. I used to play in the park with your daughter. Aradhana was always so sweet. But one day when she hadn’t come to the park because of a fever, he was there. He wanted to take me for ice-cream and I trusted him and… well, I just thought the woman who takes care of every need of this man should know of his misdoings. I just feel so terrible that it had to happen so violently”.
She squeezed Radha’s hand gently and averted her gaze to the floor. Isha felt almost delirious about the thought that she had broken up a family just to unburden herself of some dark memories.
Radha gave her a sad smile and replied,
“Thank you, my child. Shankar was the biggest mistake in my life. A mistake I blame myself for because I could’ve taken action way before. I should’ve learned how to do taxes, gotten a job and left the first time the belt hit my back. But like a lifeless fish floating on water, I simply went with the current. I let life happen to me. But tonight when you came along, you were my sign. No, you were my billboard! If I would’ve simply shut the door and gone back to sleep next to a monster like him, I would’ve certainly died. So thank you.”
It was 3:47 a.m. when both of them sat in the hallway of the clinic. Teleshopping was on. An over-enthusiastic couple were almost screaming about how good this instant-thinning pill was. The medical bills and paperwork was getting finalized. Isha was kind enough to pay.
Trying to break some ice, Radha asked Isha,“What does your name mean?”
“Well, my mom told me that it’s one of Ma Durga’s names”, she replied.
“Ahh”, smiled Radha, “you do know the story behind our legendary goddess don’t you?”
“Yes, my grandmother used to tell it to me. A demon performed penance in the form of deep devotion for Lord Brahma. When he was granted a wish, he chose immortality. Since that was not possible, he altered it to- I should only be able to die by the hands of a woman. Overcome with invincibility, he terrorised the world. All the gods helplessly approached Lord Vishnu for help. Here, they created Ma Durga with all their energies. Sitting atop a lion and a trishul in her hand, she killed the asura. When men couldn’t save the world, a woman did.”
By the end of her narration, her voice was powerful and determined.
“Indian goddesses were always epitomes of rage and indignation. Look at Ma Kali too. I love that”, she continued.
“Me too. Me too.”
It was a Sunday morning when she woke up to an empty bed.
She opened her bleary eyes when the cat, all seven pounds of squirming flesh, climbed onto her belly. Squinting into the sunlight streaming in from the open window, she discovered that she was now the weary possessor of a pounding headache, and at some point, had managed to lose both a tooth and a spouse.
“Feeling better, Ma?” Aradhana had walked into the room with a plate of omlette and bread in one hand and a glass of water in the other for the medicines. Uncertainty masked her eyes. Isha had spoken to her and told her the entire story.
“Here are your pills”, she nervously handed over the breakfast and water.
There was a thick tension in the air, screaming ‘what now’?
“Yes, beta”, she said. “Listen, I am sorry, Aru. I am so sorry that you had to grow under such a parent. I cannot even comprehend how ashamed you must be feeling, having a man like that as your father. The way he spoke about women all these years, I always knew he disrespected them. But this was a… Anyway, now you better know that we aren’t going to live under his shadows anymore, alright? I am going to get a steady job, you are in college on scholarship so you don’t need to worry about that, till then we’ll live here with Uma Aunty. I’m sure she needs company after her husband passed away last month. We’re going to take baby steps and work everything out. It is going to be the bumpiest ride of our lives, but I swear, when we come out of it, we’re going to be the strongest versions of ourselves.”
This little monologue had pumped up some optimism into Aradhana. She nodded with her lips pursed and gave the tightest hug to her mum.
“Thank you for your strength, Ma. You finally did it. For all of us.”
They sat all evening in the verandah, talking and talking and talking. Uma joined in. Plans were made, laughs were exchanged, grief was shared.
The full moon came over behind the stupendous peepal tree. And the light it emitted only reflected the one thing in all the women’s eyes. Hope.