~ By Gauri Sinha
Grief is absurd. You cannot blame her for falling upon the threshold of your being with the most unexpected excuses, for it is her habit, but this was not supposed to happen, not now, not in the summer of 1952.
Baba, aged 59, lay in the middle of the room, eyes closed without any traces of discomfort on his features, he looked almost young, as though time had rubbed a salve on his rough face, he seemed like a stranger.
Ma sat by Baba’s head, gently touching his hair, whispering in his ear, “look, Baba, Aiyaat is here, she’ll massage your leg……Baba look no? Sharyaat has come from Delhi, he has got your favourite liquor from that English store in Chandani Chowk, I’ll set it out in the evening for us to enjoy…oh! I almost forgot, Mayuri has bought betel leaves, Baba, wake up now, look, everyone is here.”
Almost on cue, Mayuri Mausi flew into the room from the kitchen, quietly gathered the dirty linens from baba’s feet, and took them in for washing, she didn’t say a word, her face didn’t dance into an expression, it lay blank, like the moonless sky. Her ever fertile eyes had run barren, the kohl sat as it had in the morning, aggressively guarding the rim of her lashes. She hurried from one corner of the house to another, as if trying to outrun sorrow.
Her husband matching her speed, frantically ran across the verandah, fetching wood, cloth, the priest clad in the most beautiful shade of tangerine, with a straight white line splitting his foreheads into two hemispheres, smeared with vermillion powder, shamelessly spilling from one side to another, and Baba’s majestic portrait. Mausaji was barely attached to anyone in the house, let alone the patriarch who deemed him unworthy of his daughter’s hand. So, he busied himself in arranging the death ceremony.
Aiyaat sat like a mannequin in a corner, the only sign of life being her haphazard breaths. She allowed the tears out, with every paused blink, they carelessly caressed her cheeks and softly formed the noose around her neck. She felt stifled, so she vomited all the air her lungs held, only to suck them back in. She tried to create a rhythm to concentrate on, but focus was an ally of grief. She couldn’t take it in anymore, so she stood up and ran.
It’s easy to disappear when no one is looking for you, Aiyaat tip-toed away from the heaviness in her chest to the corner room. For her, the four walls married to their grand windows was the outdoors, and she desperately needed air uncontaminated with the steamy breathe of despondency. Aiyaat looked out the window, clenching onto generous amounts of scent the dirt gave off after a thunderous burst, she imagined it to be the very perfume goddesses dressed in.
Aiyaat too wanted to dress with this scent, to wear it like an evening gown, and swiftly walk down a majestic staircase. That day she would be looked at, by spectators and her lover. She would be acknowledged.
“Aiyaat! Aiyaat! They’re taking Baba away! They’re taking my father away! Please…” Aiyaat broke down. Grief was moody, and she missed her grandfather already.
Dusk turned to dawn as dates changed their name, house number 113, Aurobindo road, yawned to life slowly, stretched its back, and swiftly got out of its bed for the day’s mourning duties. Tea was served with a fresh slice of current affairs, Mausaji grumbled under his breath, and Aiyaat’s father grunted. Seems like the Women’s Association of India was taking out its fifth march for equal rights or something along those lines, and this time they had decided to grace her city. It was a three weeks affair, and Aiyaat couldn’t care less about it. What did she know about Meena’s rape and murder, just 10 miles away from her house? She wasn’t even allowed to walk ten steps away from her home.
Baba held the women of the house to be its honour, its Noor (diamond), and diamonds aren’t left for all the world to see.
But Aiyaat wanted to be seen, she often got angry with her grandfather for shutting her in, but always felt guilty after feeling so, after all, he was much elder to her, it was simply disrespectful, and he loved her very much, she knew he did, and she loved him very much too, how dare she think so!
“Unnecessary! Absolutely uncalled for! That’s why women need to be tied to the realm of their houses. If they are busy, such absurd thoughts wouldn’t brew in their minds!” – her father spoke, “Brother, what good will these marches do? It’s absolutely illogical. The world doesn’t function so.” Mausaji replied.
“It is a fact that women are biologically weaker than men, that is why the society is organized the way it is, I studied about this in college, and there seemed to be a consensus, now consensus doesn’t happen over illogical matters, right?” Sharyaat responded as he fiddled with the hardware on his jacket.
“Look at the women of our house, how beautiful, mannered and fertile, these wild spinsters have no love to give, so they go around spreading hate on the streets” Mayuri Mausi replied as she lightly set the china on the table.
“tsk, uf, Ma! the button on my shirt has come undone!” Mayur stated, well, ordered but Aiyaat couldn’t differentiate between an order, request or a statement. “Ma!”
“Saakshi, get the needles and the thread please.” Mayuri Mausi called to Aiyaat’s mother.
Saakshi Gosh, a 32-year-old mother, and the youngest of the two sisters, happily married to a wealthy merchant for 15 years, walked in with a sewing box, she wore an alluring shade of violet, blue and red on her jaw. In the silence, her presence stitched, Aiyaat caught her father’s face set in stone, only his eyes sparked a tiny sliver of guilt, and this reaffirmed their love for her.
“Mayur, you must bring the saris for the elderly women of the hospice today. We want top-class saris hm? This is crucial ok son! We want Baba’s soul to pass peacefully into heaven, don’t we? We need to act kindly.” Aiyaat’s mother spoke smiling, desperately trying to dismiss the smoke of silence.
“Yes, Choti Mausi, I understand.” He replied with a hint of sympathy. Aiyaat’s mother kept the sewing box aside and sighed, “Mayuri Didi and I are really busy today, if it wasn’t for that, we would have come with you…”
“I could take Aiyaat with me,” Mayur added.
“Aiyaat?” her mother asked “Yes…” He paused for a second “she can help me in picking up the saris, after all, she is growing older day by day, she needs to understand these tasks.” Mayur’s reasoning was deemed valid. Aiyaat felt like her heart would burst open, fireworks claimed her chest as their sky and her eyes declared glee as their kohl. A squeal escaped her lips and with a heavy skip, she ran into her room. She was going to the Grand Bazaar! She’d never been to the Grand Bazaar!
It was decided that a silk skirt would be perfect for her day out. She gathered her washed hair, and squeezed the week’s sadness, braided them neatly, and secured it with the most fragrant jasmine. Her long ears wore small earrings, and she faintly sprayed some stolen itar (perfume) over her palms.
Aiyaat felt like a bride, after all, it was her first night with him; the outside. She wanted to mug up every moment of their alliance.
Smoothening the pleats of her dress, Aiyaat walked slowly and bashfully into the courtyard where Mayur was waiting for her. “Uf Aiyaat! Be haste, I have to meet some friends later as well…where is your stole?” he asked, “Here Bhaiya” she spoke, as she mechanically veiled herself.
The bus stand was exactly 56 and a half steps away from their courtyard, Mayur purchased two tickets, and before Aiyaat knew it, she was crammed into the schedule of daily commuters.
Aiyaat was always a spectator, never a participant of a crowd, from the inside, she began to see it as a human being, with a pair of eyes, a nose and a mouth, speaking to her through the choir of chaos. She hated every moment of it.
Irritation razed through her bones as she clutched onto Mayur’s shirt, making her way to Ram Lala’s Textile store. The scent of sandalwood and dye met them at the doorsteps, they were warmly made to sit on stools and were served hot coffee.
Aiyaat hesitantly took off her veil and scanned through the shelves of sunset orange and tangerine, this was a wonderland where men responded to women’s wants, and Aiyaat enjoyed every minute of it.
Aiyaat’s decisiveness and Mayur’s impatience allowed the task to be completed in about an hour. Holding onto packets of saris, they made their way out of the marketplace, and towards the bus stand. The peeling blue paint of the steel seats warmed their presence as they waited for the next trip back home, to begin.
Suddenly breaking the monotony of silence, a man with a soft belly, chewing tobacco walked towards them, “Arey Mayur Babu! How are you doing?” -he smiled warmly, as his eyes disappeared into themselves.
“Namaste Shashwatji, what are you doing here in this lowly bus stop?” Mayur beamed.
“I had come here for shopping with the missus, saw you standing here, thought I would say hello… say, would you care to join me for a cup of coffee? You could tell me about your project, and I could spend some time in the company of my brilliant student?” Professor Shashwat asked, taking Mayur by surprise. He immediately agreed, a little too desperately.
“But Bhaiya, we need to go home” Aiyaat whispered. Mayur chuckled a little, smiled at his professor, and turned to Aiyaat- “Aiyaat, you can go home alone. When I was your age, I travelled across cities alone” -he smiled. “Bhaiya, I cannot travel alone.” She replied.
“Aiyaat, this is a very important opportunity for me ok? Just get on the next bus, and get off ten stops later, you know the way from there, besides, you wanted to explore the city no? here’s your chance! But don’t stray away too far away from home”
“What about Mausaji?” she asked. “Don’t worry about him, I’ll figure something out, ok?” he replied.
“But Bhaiya, I am a girl you cannot leav-”
“Aiyaat! do as I tell you, don’t argue with me,” Mayur spoke through gritted teeth. Giving her no choice, he turned on his heel, engaging his professor in a conversation about human rights in Japan, and disappeared into the crowd.
Aiyaat was beyond fear, she was angry, does he have no responsibility towards her? What if something was to happen to her? How dare he disrespect Baba like this? Had he not promised to protect her? Pouting, she waited for the bus, suddenly aware of every movement around her, the grunts of rickshaw pullers, the silk hum of car engines, the chatter of daylight, and the chesty sigh of the incoming bus. In a moment of annoyance, Aiyaat entered the bus blindly, almost as if she was throwing a tantrum. But, for what? Her own feelings confused her, she felt almost obliged to be mad at Mayur Bhaiya for leaving her alone like this. But somewhere in a corner of her being, excitement grew, immediately shadowed by guilt. She felt like she was disappointing someone, she didn’t know who.
Scouting for seats, Aiyaat realized that not one male passenger was seated in the bus, except, of course, the driver, because women didn’t drive, they were legally allowed to, but laws melted in front of the elder’s word.
After all, it is inscribed in the holy book to ‘respect our elders.’
Even if they don’t deserve it.
Even if Meena was raped by her respected uncle.
Aiyaat walked towards the only seat free at the back of the bus amongst the awkward group of strange women, unveiled, loud, and everything she wasn’t supposed to be. As soon as she sat down, loud claps erupted all over the bus, the women began cheering and laughing. This startled Aiyaat. Yet, a smile unconsciously spread over her features.
“Welcome sister, you are braver than most! We are so glad you could join us for the protest.” A woman in floral dress addressed Aiyaat, as she excitedly clutched her shoulder. Aiyaat felt her stomach lurch down a pit.
“P… P… Protest?” “Yes sister, didn’t you read the banner on the bus? A grave injustice has been done against one of our own, her name was Meena, tainted by her own uncle who raped her dignity away, she was but a flower, only 13. How old are you sister?”
“My father will kill me; I cannot be a part of this protest.” Aiyaat replied. “No one has the right to dictate our lives, but us.” A woman spoke softly, holding Aiyaat as she began to tear up with fear. “No! you don’t understand, this is the wrong bus, I’ve never travelled alone, I want to go home please.” Aiyaat chocked, panicking.
“Alright sister, tell us where your home is, and we’ll drop you there.” The women who seemed to be the youngest in the lot comforted her.
“Aurobindo Marg” Aiyaat replied.
“Oh! we’re going to a place nearby only, don’t worry.…”
“Aiyaat. We’ll get you home, you’re safe here with us.”
“Probably safer than you are in your own home.” The women in floral dress chided.
“Kamala! don’t speak like this.”
“Tell me Aiyaat, how old are you?” Kamala spoke, ignoring the younger woman.
“16. Do you go to a school?” she asked.
“I was homeschooled.” Aiyaat replied.
“What did you study?”
“English, Hindi, History, Sanskrit and Bengali,” Aiyaat answered.
“Why did you not study science or politics?” she asked.
“I-I- I don’t know, my grandfather chose the subjects for me.”
“hmm It’s not your fault, men have a tendency to choose for us.”
“I love my grandfather.”
“I don’t think I implied anything about the love you share with your grandparents.” Kamala retorted.
Aiyaat fell silent.
“Kamala, let her be. She is just a child.”
“You’ve never travelled alone? Why is that?”
“My grandfather says women are the gems of our household, they shouldn’t be left for everyone to see.” Aiyaat words were soft and laced with pride.
“Mridula! Does this sound familiar to you?” Kamala asked the youngest women, Mridula chuckled.
“Aiyaat, my Baba also told me such stories, it was only in college that I realized he was simply manipulating us to keep the power structure intact. If he cut of the supply to our knowledge, we would never realize our true potential or the fact that we can be self-sufficient. Apart from that, we cannot truly understand what is right and what is wrong if we are not-”
“Mridula, let her be. She is just a child.” Kamala mocked, as the bus erupted into a fit of laughter.
Aiyaat was confused. Power structure? Power structure exists solely in government or politics, not in her small family.
“Baba wanted his girls to be educated, he bought books for us, he did not cut any knowledge supply.” Aiyaat exclaimed.
“Congratulations! But tell me this, did he ever allow you to go to a bookstore and buy a book for yourself? Ok leave that, did he ever allow you to buy any books of your choice?” Kamala asked. Aiyaat fell silent again.
Stop by stop, the bus began to crowd over.
“Aiyaat, how does it feel to travel alone, do you feel proud of yourself?” Mridula attempted to change the topic. Aiyaat smiled, she was proud of herself, she really was.
The bus rattled to a stop, and a few ladies walked in. “Mala, did your husband beat you again?” Mridula was concerned “You should leave him.” She continued.
“and go where?” Mala Roy asked, she was 24 and married for 4 years to her husband who she knew loved her very much, so she allowed him to hurt her every once in a while, after all, he allowed her to go for all these feminist marches and talks as well as let her continue writing. And she knew her guilt-ridden husband would take her out for dinner to make it up to her.
“You cannot stay with someone who hurts you every day-” Kamala started.
“Does your husband love you?” Aiyaat interrupted.
“of course, he doesn’t, look at what he has done to her!” Kamala exclaimed.
“My father also hits my mother sometimes, but he still loves her, Ma says it is important to be disciplined when she or anyone has done something wrong.”
“Aiyaat no! No, no one should hurt you, that isn’t love! If your father does anything wrong, does your mother give him one tight slap?” Kamala spoke urgently.
“Goodness! Women don’t hit men.” Aiyaat gasped.
“Why?” Kamala asked. Aiyaat paused. Why can’t women hit men? They have arms just like them, a mouth to say the most wretched things, and legs to kick. Why don’t women hit men?
“We’re not weak Aiyaat, just suppressed.” Mridula smiled.
“But Aiyaat, know that not all men are like this.” Mala interjected.
“Mala! Enough men are, enough to make us quiver with fear, enough men are walking the streets claiming our garment at their liberty, enough men are holding the idea that they own us, our body, mind and soul. Men keep us in, locked in a corner, to protect us from other men on the streets, because they know what they are capable of.”
“Lucky are the women who are born into a family where they are valued by the man as an equal, they give them the opportunity to grow, to water their own roots, and rise towards the sky. It is what upsets me the most, that for our wholesome growth, we need a man to back us. But the human race is one of co-dependency, only one is crippled to being depended, and the other clamours under saviour complex.”
“I value such human beings who identify equality and liberty, but we shouldn’t pedestalize men for showing basic human decency.” Kamala finished.
Aiyaat really didn’t want to make sense of what Kamala just spoke, she outrightly wanted to reject it. No Kamala, that is untrue.
Women are weaker than men.
Women are weaker no?
Why are women weaker?
How are women weaker?
We marched with you when you allowed us to,
We took bullets with you only when you allowed us to,
Women’s contributions to the freedom movement have been marked nil.
We suffered more than you when you cut our country to two,
We moved with you, we cried for you.
We wanted to fight with you, and we did.
Azad Hind Fauj, women soldiers.
Rani Lakshmi Bai, woman soldier.
Writers, poets, historians, we’ve been them all.
How are we weaker than you?
Oh, right… Because Baba told us so.