by Chitra Gopalakrishnan
Vimla and Kanchan’s world in the old part of Delhi in northern India is one where the streetscape is continuous and the street ecology complex.
Theirs is a universe of a long, dense warren of narrow, potholed streets with no sidewalks, irregularly shaped blocks penetrated by yet another large yet indeterminate number of alleyways with no separation of homes, religious, educational and public buildings, shops, warehouses, and storage facilities or pedestrian movement or animal and bird wanderings, be they cow, ox, buffalo, horse, camel, donkey, goat, dogs, monkeys, pigeons, crows, and chickens, or vehicular movement, be they trucks, buses, minibusses, cars, vans, auto-rickshaws, motorcycles, motor scooters, electric bicycles, bicycles, cycle rickshaws, hand-powered tricycles, hand carts and a range of sometimes unrecognizable contraptions.
The entire living, breathing space in their vicinity is festooned by a web of lurching, black, overhead wires that hang crisscrossed, canopy-like, to provide cabling for electricity, telephone, television, and broadband. A bystander can never tell which wire is for what and it often makes for intriguing mind games among such newcomers.
This sphere’s disorderly, highly unstable rhythms beat over the 24-hour day of these two women as it does their seven-day cycles. The shrill calls from hawkers, incessant, discordant blares of vehicle horns, aftershocks of vehicular movement, and sudden releases of the stored energy of street dirt in the form of dust spirals rattle the structure of their home continually and this combined, noisy disarray seeps into their homes from the cracks between their windows, the slits beneath their door frames and through their various body orifices to settle immutably into the interiors of their home, their lives. Their curtains, cutlery, utensils, television, fridge, washing machine, furniture, doorknobs, the vases of plastic flowers, and their inner selves…all…bear marks of this intrusion.
The women are two stay-at-home brides in their twenties, married to two brothers, their lives and shared experiences have not bound by love or choice but by an accident of geography. That of an arranged marriage where co-habitation within a home of two-bedrooms, a kitchen, and a living room has become a habit, an obligation, a necessary way of life. The walk-in and feeling-through of each other’s daily lives happen irrespective of consent.
While the Delhi administration worries that public tidiness in this vigorous area might indeed be impossible, both these brides angst over their ambivalence towards each other and to the finely wrought network of family relationships of an extended family, of grand uncles and aunts, uncles and aunts, cousins and nephews, and an assortment of other relatives, all of who knock elbows with them by living in back-to-back habitations attached to their home. This crush of in-laws are meant to be treated as their own, or more than their own, especially as the parents of their husbands are no more. Social norms say so.
Both Vimla, petite, fair, light-eyed, high cheek boned, with over four years of matrimonial experience, and Kanchan, tall, strapping, relatively less-fair, curly-haired, with a two-year marital record, stop, reverse, squeeze and invert but most often just relentlessly push forward in their no grid-plan universe. They have seemingly perfected the art of adjusting their movements and expectations to somehow get through their lives by growing into a peculiar routine of crowded aloneness.
Not quite it seems. As is evident on this day.
An unstructured, unmediated personal confrontation that occurs over what is to be cooked, breaks their carefully-preserved veneer of civility, their endeavors to contain their pukka, unfeigned emotions from erupting, their feelings of malice that effervesce and spume inside yet are repressed from finding their way out in gesture, word or action.
The always sweet, smiling and serene masks of tolerance of these two home-bound women come off with finality for the first time as their frustrations against one another, their husbands, their relatives, and the world around them begins to discharge without restraint. Their nudging, pinching, fledgling arguments turn into a full-fledged battle, the rictus of hostility stretched across their faces.
Why this day? Why this issue? One cannot be sure. Maybe their tempers were already frayed while dealing with their husbands. Maybe it was the heat. Maybe they had come to the end of their endurance with one another and with everything around them. One will perhaps never really know.
“We will cook kurkure bindi, pindi chole, jeera rice and boondi raita for lunch,” declares Vimla firmly, keenly aware of Kanchan’s petulance since morning. Her face has a swell of resentment. Kanchan rebuts with inflamed passion, “My mind is set on alu mutter, paneer and salad.”
“What about the half-a-kilo of chickpeas I have soaked overnight for the chole going waste? The arithmetic of frugality is way beyond your understanding and you know we cannot serve it for dinner as it causes flatulence in our husbands,” retorts Vimla. “It is always your word against mine and I cannot keep deferring to you and your rigid cooking techniques simply because you are the elder daughter-in-law. I wake up every morning feeling nothing but resentment for you,” reiterates Kanchan.
“You really did not know anything when you arrived here. You could not slice vegetables the way they are meant to be, preserve pickles or paneer, season dishes with the right spices, fold clothes, keep your room clean or even please your husband. Your food tasted like offal thrown along the way and I had to groom you into everything. You have also been disrespectful to our relatives on several occasions and have broken family rules without thought or regard.” A proprietary thrill runs through Vimla as her verbal stabs that aim for accuracy deflate Kanchan. In this second, she is proud of her sharp and certain mind, one that is almost like a lawyer’s.
Anger peals back commonsense in Kanchan. She is tempted fiercely to knock Vimla to the floor, pin her down and draw blood. She is far stronger physically. Instead, she hits back with her opinion, with as much lethal effectiveness that she can muster, and a withering look. “I arrived with better dowry and manners than you and from a family far more civilized than yours. If I don’t say much it’s because my better education won’t let me demean myself or you. But you seem to have no such sensitivity. And, as for our in-laws, I am far more generous towards them than you are.”
In the next hour, their arguments expand shrilly onto two sets of hope. Into dueling dialogues on clothes, space on the clothesline, jewelry, bathroom cleaning routines, and choice of television serials. Their outbursts with chaotically flying elements, where good manners are deemed optional, push back and forth, sideways and upward, in anguish and anger, and make each of their language meaner and grubbier. A part of the seedy street walks into their home and finds a place on their slick tongues.
Even as their eyes and words are trained on each other, their sari pallus come untucked as do their carefully oiled plaits. Their bangles jingle, their bindis bob up and down on their sweaty foreheads, and their pulses speed. The fabric of their daily lives weighed down by this turf rivalry and emotional turmoil, its fury, leaves them disheveled and unguarded.
As their residual anxiety from the underside of their lives begins to drain, an ominous, stony silence comes to stay until Kanchan breaks into tears. Sudden, gulping, sobs that overtake her making it difficult for her to breathe. She begins to choke. Seeing this, Vimla panics. She rushes to the kitchen, pours a glass of cold water in a glass from their groaning fridge, and forces Kanchan to take slow sips from it. She manages to calm her down and shushes her sobs with soothing sounds.
When a modicum of calm settles between them, when Kanchan’s head rush clears, a sense of déjà vu descends on Vimla. This, she realises, is a replay of a similar scene that occurred between her and mother-in-law before Kanchan entered their home. Her widowed, mother-in-law had similarly won a vitriolic argument and she was soothed in the very way she is soothing Kanchan. As she trades this experience for the previous one, she sees herself distortedly reflected in Kanchan.
To a still whimpering and hiccupping Kanchan, she says, “During the day, Ma and I, very much like us, daily lived in the space left behind by her two sons when they went to attend to the shop. We were amiable on a few days but mostly quarreled where all I could see were her strong opinions, straight-talking, and fearsome anger. When she damaged her back and shoulder and I became her caregiver, she came to be more forgiving of my ways. Her indulgence and recognition of my skills advanced us gradually and gently to a place of love, compassion, mutual respect, and understanding. She said she understood how many of my ambitions, my desire to be a teacher, for one, I had given up to fit into her family, its ordinariness, its unnecessary routines and empty hours and she said she could see how alone and abandoned I felt on days.”
Taking a deep breath, Vimla looks at a photo of her mother-in-law on the wall and continues softly, “In return, I saw what an exceptional woman she really was underneath her unremarkable exterior and how she was full of stories similar to mine. Tales of confessed dread, of crisis of confidence, and of desire, her yearnings almost mirroring mine. Towards the end, she often spoke of the excessive, unfair and deeply ingrained expectations placed on mothers, perhaps she was just talking of herself, or perhaps it was her way of obliquely consoling me as I was not been able to conceive then as I am unable to do now. And maybe motherhood will happen one day for me, maybe it won’t but what is important is that she did not rile me about it. Instead, she bequeathed to me her recipes, jewelry, her saris and the secrets of how to preserve them, and her complete legacy with love. When she knew she was dying, she would often say to me ruefully, I wish we had come to this place of understanding much earlier. We have wasted so much time. I see her ever so often in my dreams.”
Vimla pauses to gulp some water from the bottle she has got for Kanchan and then carries on speaking. “The coincidence of our situation could be the universe’s plan or merely gratuitous randomness but it occurs to me that we are at a stage when we need to arrive at a balance, quieten our fraying nerves. We are both scared of our emotions, of putting them on show, of facing up to their inconveniences, absurdities, distortions, and pressures and so we forcefully rein them in. Yet if we let them surface and show our imperfections to one another, we could come by life-changing emotional revelations and recognitions. I am aware that you, like Ma, do not bring me down with the issue of my infertility and I want to nurture you as she did me and pass on all the learnings I have had from her.”
“Yes, didi (sister),” Kanchan agrees quietly and gratefully.
“In our cramped and meager world, we have to build bridges between ourselves, hold on to each other, share our shameful secrets, know each other’s un-loveable selves, our insecurities and bring up each other’s children like they are our own. That is the only way out for us as women indoors, for us as women who live in a world that does not care what we have to tell it and one that disregards our daily humiliations, which cut deep within, but means nothing to them.”
Moving closer to Vimla, she says, “In many ways, our bonds need to be stronger than the ones we share with our husbands, who are both in many ways insensitive to our needs and our striving, supportive ways, our lives of service. They consider housework, a task that takes over our lives, as nothing. I’d love to believe that the struggle for women’s equality happens in the larger outer world but I know that this battle really takes place within homes. We must be stronger through one another and for one another so that we can climb over the false assurances of our men, their indifference, their threats, and the undependability of their actions.”
“I am sorry, too,’ says Vimla, hugging her. “Let’s give each other the gift of friendship, lend a sense of correctness to what we are doing but with a twist of dare and fun. Small remedies to others maybe huge for us as we each other and ourselves the permission to lead our lives our way in our small world, the power to decide what to do about everything, how to run our lives, how much freedom we can have, and what attitude we need to maintain. Maybe, it will be a fight against our family yet we have to do it.”
“Didi,” says Kanchan, “I think we also need to learn together to build bridges to the outside world, a jumbled world that we are unfamiliar with. Its rules of engagement would require many learnings on our part yet we need to learn these new skills for our children’s sake, as their lives, for when they arrive into this world, will be outside not inside the home. We will fail them if we cannot teach them how to find their way there. Let’s then ride in the seat we choose, learn new things, and tell ourselves it will be fun to falter and gain together. Let’s find out, didi, how it is to dream and see what these dreams bring us.”
Kanchan sees a look of delight on Vimla’s face. She senses she has voiced something that this has been worrying Vimla for a while as well. They have both been fretting about this privately but now with a possible way to unfold this seemingly complex tangle, a way of female agreement and unison that could very well work for each of them as an expansion of their own self, their impatience with the world around and its unknown dangers settle to a degree. A hushed sense of exhilaration takes its place.
To have someone who can walk with you and remember the travel and its small epiphanies can turn life’s limitations to privileges. So to both of them, this part of the day, because of the understanding it has brought, feels like the start to another lifetime. Like a future that has arrived from the most unexpected direction.
The roar of the outside is music to their ears.
For the first time in their lives, the feel of fixed routines of their worlds falls away. “Let’s not cook today and order in something fun instead,” an excited Kanchan says. “Let’s,” agrees Vimla. “Let’s throw the soaked chole down the drain.”
About the Author:
Chitra Gopalakrishnan is New Delhi-based journalist and a social development communicator for 30 years, her works have appeared in Celestial Echo Press, Black Hare Press, Fantasia Divinity, Me First Magazine, Reedsy, Terror House Magazine, Unpublished Platform, Literary Yard, Truancy, eShe, Literati Magazine, Spillwords, Fleas on the Dog, Twist and Twain, Velvet Illusion, CafeLit, Scarlet Leaf Review, Little Somethings Press, Breaking Rules Publishing, and Runcible Spoon, among others.