by Sushma Doshi
The evening sky is dark with angry thunderclouds. The rain lashes against the window panes of the car. I sit in the backseat of the car and watch the wipers moving up and down. The driver maneuvers the car through a vegetable market avoiding the puddles and potholes. I watch women and men with their children swiftly covering the wares they were selling, yelling at each other, and getting drenched. I catch the eye of one of the women running, holding a bundle in one hand and clutching the end of her saree over her head with the other. She stares at me enviously, pauses for a moment, and continues to run. I know she has seen a woman dressed in a pink embellished saree luxuriously reclining against the backseat of a car with glittering jewelry on her neck, ears, and hands. I suppose she can’t see that dark cloud of claustrophobia enveloping me.
“What melodrama!” Vikram will snap in a contemptuous tone if I think this aloud. “Many women will give an arm to lead the life you do. You have no clue how lucky you are.”
I watch the children running after their mothers, deliberately jumping into the puddles and trying to soak each other’s already wet bodies. I wonder how they will react if I step down and start dancing in the rain as the heroines do in Bollywood movies. I grimace. I have no idea about their reaction but I can imagine my mother-in-law’s look of horror.
“Do you know how expensive that saree is….the one you ruined thoughtlessly? You have no value for money. Do you even realize how difficult it is to earn money? Vikram slogs the entire day for you to go dancing in the rain wearing diamonds.”
Even the thought of dancing in the rain makes me feel small.
The vegetable market disappears as the car makes its way through roads with high-rise apartment towers on both sides. The dim lights in the windows of the apartments juxtaposed to the balconies with potted plants look inviting. One can imagine soft spoken sophisticated people residing in these homes leading busy successful days and glamorous exciting nights.
The car slows down and guides into the parking lot of one of the high rises. The driver steps out and opens the door for me. I walk towards the elevator holding my purse lightly in my left hand.
“Hello,” I hear a voice.
“Maya!” I reply with a smile. Maya, in loose trousers and a shirt with a big bag hanging on her right shoulder. Unapologetic and disliked for it.
We stand waiting for the elevator.
“So how was your kitty party?” Maya asks with a grin.
“How do you think it went?” I ask wearily.
“Why do you even go?” she asks with impatience.
She has asked me that umpteenth number of times. She never did get it. For me it has always been easier to give in and play the part that was expected of me.
“So… how was your day?” I ask, changing the subject.
We step into the elevator.
“Tough,” she replies.”The Editor is giving me a hard time.”
Maya is a journalist. She is a single mother of a ten-year-old daughter. My in-laws view her with contempt and Maya is aware they have told me…no…ordered me to keep my distance from her. A divorcee who smokes and drinks …that’s Maya for them. But what my in-laws are not aware of is the fact that the feeling of contempt is mutual.
I have often imagined what a newspaper office looks like. Computers everywhere. Papers were strewn around. Busy people with their eyes glued to the computer screen or striding purposefully towards an important destination.
“Call me sometime,” I tell Maya as I step out and wave to her.
“Sure,” she mumbles as she takes out her ringing phone from her pocket.
I know she won’t call me. She is too busy with life to seek someone who is playing dead.
I ring the doorbell.
The maid opens the door.
“So…how was the party?”
My mother-in-law, sitting upright on the soft and textured leather couch in a spacious living room, gazes at me intently.
“Great,” I tell her with a broad smile.
She nods with satisfaction.
“Was Sheela’s daughter-in-law there?” she asks.
“What was she wearing?” she questions. Her curiosity is laced with malice. She knows Sheela’s family is facing financial stress.
I have two options. One is to tell her the truth and the other is to make her happy. I picture an unabashed Maya flopping down on her couch in her living room with a squealing daughter and can’t stop feeling a surge of rebellion. I have never flopped down in this living room. My fourteen-year-old son, Rohan, talks to his ‘not even a graduate’ mother with derision.
“Oh…she was wearing a Satya Paul saree with matching jewelry,” I inform her.
My mother-in-law’s face changes. She understands the dig that Sheela’s daughter-in-law was better dressed than her own daughter-in-law.
I brace myself for a scathing attack.
“Considering your background….you should be grateful you are fit enough to party with those who wear Satya Paul,” she mocks softly.
Yes. My background. Papa was…no …still is…the owner of a tiny grocery store tucked away in the corner of the street we lived in. We…meaning ..my paternal grandparents..Dadi and Dadaji, my father..Papa, my mother..Ma, my two male siblings, and myself ….the seven of us lived in a small two-roomed flat with a bathroom and a kitchen. It was what is now called a one-BHK apartment. One room with a double bed was reserved for my grandparents. The rest of us slept in the other room. Papa slept on a single cot and Ma, my brothers, and I on two mattresses which were spread on the floor at night. These mattresses would be swiftly rolled up and tucked away under the cot every morning. Dadi, Dadaji, and Ma have passed away in the span of the eighteen years of my marriage. Papa continues to live in that house with my brothers and their wives. Today, I’m the rich sister they envy.
I wince at my mother-in-law’s barb. Yes. What she says is true. I live in an opulent apartment with four bedrooms, three maids, and two chauffeurs. But I am a “kiranawala ki beti”. The daughter of a grocery store owner. A “kiranawala ki beti” who married well. My mother-in-law’s eyes note my hurt with satisfaction. I move away from the living room towards the bedrooms. My son, Rohan’s room is towards the left. I open Rohan’s room to find him lying on his bed with headphones glued to his ears and eyes on his phone, oblivious to the sound of rain and thunder outside.
“What?” he asks impatiently.
“I’m back. What are you doing?” I ask.
“Nothing,” he replies brusquely. “Close the door on the way to your room.”
Yes. My room….where the colour of the walls was chosen by my mother-in-law, the design of the wardrobe and the brand of the television by my husband, and the brand of the cleaning agents required to wash the bathroom by me. There is at least that.
In my childhood, there had been nothing I could call mine. I was labeled as “paraya dhan” by my Dadi, ie, grandmother. It meant that I was simply a guest in my father’s house till my marriage and my real home was my husband’s house.
It hadn’t prevented me from dreaming. I was brighter than my brothers in school. I would look up at the sky when an airplane would roar past and dream of flying it. When the teachers would ask what we wanted to be when we grew up, I would loudly state, “Pilot”.
When my brothers heard about my ambition, they both collectively guffawed.
“Do you know how much it costs to become a pilot? Papa could never afford to pay for a pilot training program even for us….leave alone you.”
My brothers immediately reported my dreams back home and Dadi snorted dismissively.
“Fancy ideas in the little head of a girl…don’t forget who you are…..family tradition dictates that daughters are to be married not made to run around and earn…you should consider yourself lucky, “
“But..,” I tried to protest.
“Go…cut the vegetables,” Ma interrupted me with a warning tone.
I subsided. I knew if I continued, my Dadi, Dadaji, and Papa would come down hard on Ma for not raising me well.
“You are responsible for making her a dutiful daughter…one day she’ll have to go to her own house and take care of it,” they would often remind Ma. I was never allowed to forget it.
I gaze at Rohan. I want to ruffle his hair. I know if I do so, he will
flinch and draw away. Is he really “my son”? Vikram’s tone of pride when he claims Rohan as his son…it was never “our son”…
A day hasn’t passed in my life without being reminded nothing belongs to me.
Whenever there had been a discussion in Papa’s house about the division of the family property in the village, it was clear that my brothers were the sole legal heirs.
“What about me? What will I get ?” I would often ask.
Your dowry! You silly child!” Papa would chide me.
Whenever I would get better grades than my brothers, Papa would congratulate me and then laugh.
“Take it with you when you go to your rightful house. It’ll impress your in-laws.”
Today, I want to tell Papa that nothing about me impresses my in-laws. I’m like that pup you brought home from the streets to feed and kick around. You had shrugged when the pup died in the cold. “Maybe I’ll get another one,” you said. If I die today, Vikram will acquire a new wife in six months.
“Will Rohan miss me if I die?” I muse as I close the door of his room and walk toward the master bedroom. Vikram and I occupy the largest bedroom in the apartment. My mother-in-law occupies the one opposite us and Rohan, my son, the third. The fourth bedroom, Vikram says, is reserved for guests. No. It is for that unborn daughter I killed in my womb. Most women claim it was their in-laws that forced them to commit female infanticide. But I never blame anyone. I have accepted that even my children aren’t mine. When I became pregnant after six months of being married, Vikram told me we were going to the clinic for a sex determination test. I agreed. When the results showed it was going to be a female child, Vikram and his mother concluded that I should abort this child. I acquiesced. What would be the point in arguing? Why would I be willing to bring a daughter into this world so she could lead the same life I did? I had no resources to give her a different life. I would rather have her in my dreams. She is happier there. She visits me when I close my eyes and I can hear her giggles from that room.
It is quiet and I can only hear the thunderstorm mellow down to a steady drizzle. The furious sky seems to have calmed down to weeping mournfully. I really need to get over this melancholia. I enter the bedroom and sit on the stool facing an ornate dressing table to cynically appraise my reflection in the mirror attached above it. A slim woman with a glowing fair complexion stares back.
It was my fair complexion that weighed the scales in my favor in the marriage market. As soon as I finished school, Papa initiated the process of arranging a match for me. I objected strongly. Age had brought wisdom and I acknowledged without acrimony that it wasn’t possible for me to become a pilot. But I did want to go to college and study sociology. Papa brushed off my objections with a laugh.
“Don’t get so serious. Marriages take time to happen. We’re just looking at some proposals. There is a son of a rich businessman who will come to see you next week. His father has passed away and his mother is in a hurry to get him married.”
Vikram took one look at me and said yes. Papa couldn’t pay much dowry and my mother-in-law unhappily accepted Vikram’s decision.
“My son is fixated on marrying your daughter. She has bewitched him with her fair complexion,” she stated nastily.
I felt guilty …like I had trapped Vikram.
Ma scoffed at my feelings.
“You are being ridiculous. All mothers-in-law are like that…passing snide comments. You just have to learn to ignore it, ” she said gently.
“Besides, you are going to live in a beautiful new home with servants. This is more than I ever expected,” she continued happily.
Yes. Home, Sweet Home. Did the writer who coined this phrase ever think this has a sarcastic connotation? Pitter patter, pitter patter…that is how the sound of rain is described in books. I always visualize the sky as either screaming or sobbing depending on its mood. I unscrew the earrings from my ear lobes and tuck them in an empty case resting on the wooden top of the dressing table. I prise the bangles lose from my wrists and pulling out one of the drawers, I slide them in. After pushing the drawer to close it, I touch the ring finger of my left hand to drag the ring out. It’s not there. I check the rest of my fingers repeatedly to ensure it is actually missing, A sense of fear accelerates my heartbeat. I fall on my fours and hunt for it. Under the bed. Under the desktop computer table. Behind the closet. I can’t find it. I’m aware I’m being illogical. I had slipped it on before I left for the kitty party. I must have dropped it on the way somewhere.
I sit down on the bed. What should I do now? I take out my phone from my bag with trembling hands. I’ll call the restaurant where the kitty party was held to request them to search for a lost ring. I hesitate. Even if they did search and discover it, they wouldn’t return such a valuable piece of jewelry. My mind imagines the consequences when Vikram and his mother notice their ring is missing. I bury my face in my hands.
Rohan suddenly bursts into the room.
“My school is….,” he cries excitedly and pauses.
“What happened?” he asks gently. He seems to have forgotten his curt manner.
“I’ve lost a ring,” I whisper. I’m afraid to even the walls may be eavesdropping.
“I’ll help you…don’t panic,” he reassures me as he starts opening all the drawers of the dressing table and peering inside them.
“I didn’t put it there,” I tell him hysteria starting to tinge my voice. “I just returned and realized it’s not on my finger anymore.”
“OK. Please calm down,” he says. He turns towards me sitting on the bed and his eyes fall on the intricate embellishment of my attire. He extends his hands towards the folds of the saree covering my stomach and carefully extricates something from it. He holds it up triumphantly for me. A ring sparkles.
“I found it,” he laughs. “It must’ve slipped off some time and got stuck in your saree.”
The release of tension from my body drains my body from all my emotions. I feel numb.
“Aren’t you happy?” Rohan asks, disappointed at my lack of reaction.
I look at him. His eyes apprehensive ….loving.
Tears well up in my eyes.
“Mummy,” he says anxiously and sits next to me to hug me.
I hold him tightly. I start weeping silently. It has stopped raining outside.
Kiranawala: owner of a grocery store
Dadi: paternal grandmother
Dadaji: paternal grandfather
Paŕaya dhan: A concept where daughters are thought to be guests at their father’s house and rightfully belong to their husband’s house.
About the Author: Sushma R.Doshi completed her graduation in History from Loreto College, Kolkata. She went on to acquire a Master’s Degree, MPhil and Ph.D. in International Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is a homemaker today and dabbles in writing fiction. She currently resides in Patna, India.