I want to tell you two stories.

Can this be told as two different stories? I don’t know. One story spans my life, the other just a few days, but those days are equal to, if not more than, the seventy-odd years of my life. I have seen many sawans in my life, but it is difficult to say how many. I was born only a few years after my dada bhaiya, whose family recently celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday. It was a grand celebration. After two days of Ramayan paath, all relations and acquaintances were given a bhandara. I aged unceremoniously.

Well, one is the story of my life, the other is of the time when my husband passed away.  That’s the saar of this story, or these stories. So, pull your aasanas and listen

I was an only child. Have no merry assumptions. I was not an only child by design. Can a girl ever be an only child by choice? It was the era of death and disease. None of amma’s children survived to become my brothers and sisters. But thankfully, two of my chacha’s sons lived—one older than me, the other younger. My pitaji spent all his energy nurturing the boys. It was their wives my amma played her saas tactics over. It was their children pitaji spoiled. I too loved my dada bhaiyas; they were lukewarm towards me. Love can be optional only for men.

That day, at my nephew’s son’s wedding, when I appeared holding my towel in my arms, my grandniece said, “Bua-dadi, why don’t you bathe outside? There are too many candidates for the washroom.” I carried my clothes to the porch, as directed. I held my petticoat and tied the drawstrings above my breasts. As I poured a mug of water over my head, my nephew appeared, “Bua, get inside!” he shouted. “If not for your shame, at least think of my honor. All my guests are passing from here.” I did not take another mug. Quickly, I went into the communal guest room where I had been allotted a mattress, opened the mini lock on my bag, and took out a fresh sari.

It was in the middle of my saree wrapping that I heard the uproar. “Bua! Where is bua? Bua!”

My husband had passed away. In the house I had entered as a new bride.

My pitaji married me well. All the misfortune that followed was my own destiny. There was even a nautanki performance at my wedding. The baraat stayed for nine days. I must be what, twelve or thirteen at the time? My dada bhaiya was eighteen and was happily married for five years. Bhaujai was a beautiful woman, who was more than aware of her beauty. Now that I haven’t described my bodily features, you may think that I am some humble-scumble girl. My skin too shone like turmeric and my body added fat in the right places at the right time. I was talking about my bhaujai. I felt glued to her aura. She bore three healthy children in five years and I stuck them to my chest. I was the one who woke up to light coals and warm the milk for them. One of them didn’t survive cholera.  It is a loss that has been echoing in my body these days.

My mother, being true to her role, would sometimes dampen the woods that bhaujai cooked on. But I’d sit there fanning the sparks as bhaujai blew the fire. I would spy on amma when she turned a jar of salt into the daal. The men too knew the game and didn’t think much of it. However, any day we had guests, which was almost every day, amma and bhaujai would labor together like a team. In my years, I have known women to be far less nasty than men. Men act like they are above petty human emotions, at the same time, they leave nothing for women.  

Those early years of rearing stayed with me. Are you wondering about my education? I think I went to a pathshala in the village for a few years. I remember plastering the floor, coloring the walls; I did not learn to read or write. Later, I learnt to draw my name for documents, but truly, I’ve been an angootha chhaap. I knew all that a woman should. I could make kande out of cow dung, fry chandiya from ground urad dal, and milk cow udders.

My husband was not a good man. He was weak-willed and suffered from too many flaws of character. To judge him any other way would be a mistake. As they say, for a woman it’s enough for her man to be present baithe-thaade, even as a lifeless statue. It would have been better if he were a lifeless statue. He was a living man with appetites and desires beyond my ability to cater to. When he died, there was nothing else I expected out of him. There was nothing left but to die. I knew that the respect that was bestowed on me would also leave with him. It is a joke to refer to that thing as respect.

I saw his transformation into that hollowed-cheek thing. His pan, which smelled sensual in our early days of copulation, later became a stain no cleanliness drive could get rid of. I remember the day when our hands were tied together in a yellow handkerchief for the first time. I was donated to that teen boy who could hardly tie his naara. His pyjamas dropped around his ankles in many rooms, before many women. I was not even the first among many, but the only one to be attached to his name. His name, that was known by rooms full of gold and silver jewels. The gold room, as it was known, doesn’t even house a harvest of wheat.

My early days of marriage were confusing. I remember weeping in the aangan one day as the red liquid oozed from down there. I went to my mother-in-law and confessed to having eaten pan. I believed it had shrunken my intestines, which were leaking blood. “You mad girl, you’re a woman now,” she told me. How has being a woman served me? In a few days, I was introduced to the snake between his legs. And I became another character in the story of his snake.

As my stomach ballooned, I became sturdier. I had my children in a dark room. I don’t resent that.  You need darkness to finally find the light. The first ray of light was my little girl. While not really ideal, she was everything to me. Older girls don’t look bad if they become little ammas to their younger brothers. My daughter gave way to two younger brothers and my uterus was finally knotted by another girl. Bearing children is not all rosy; it comes with bleeding breasts, a loosened vagina, sleepless nights, and raw pain. You would think that I was numbed to pain with this but my God! I didn’t even know what pain was with the children. All the light was shut down at once.

I attended all events at my brother’s home. I gave them all the heavenly rewards expected from a sister. I went with my lanky husband to grace occasions on Ekadashi udyapans, shraaddh ceremonies and bhaat celebrations. I invited my nephews to live in the grandeur of my house while it lasted. I prayed for sons for my brother’s household. I sang and danced at their happiness. Like a dholak, I thudded.

I was hurried into the house where my nuptial bed was first laid. I saw him lying there on a straw bed. I didn’t see my lord off. The thought seized me and I collapsed next to his corpse. I bawled for this childhood companion who taught me to play cards and light chimneys. Just yesterday he was sitting cross-legged and eating fresh deewlas in smoky winter. His palms glistened with ghee.  Weren’t we latched together for seven births? My granddaughter came and embraced me. No son showed up. My nephews arrived in cars one after another. My daughter came in and wept into my palm. Another daughter lay locked in an asylum. The daughter I wronged by marrying her to a man like her father. Why do daughters carry the destiny of their mothers? My daughter wasn’t a woman like her mother. Too sane for the world, she gave up. Her mother did not have the choice of insanity. I wept more for my daughter, again. My sons did not come. Their sons did not come. We waited and waited. Men roamed with phones pasted to their ears, calling my sons. Oh, the sons of penance, oh sons of my destiny! Why would you not come?

The moment of final undressing. I was brought to his side, my bindi rubbed off, my sindoor smudged, and my bangles shattered at his weak chest. I fell to his feet and wept. My sons did not come. Then she was ushered in. She wept as I did. She too cleansed herself of all emblems of suhag—bindi, sindoor, bangles. She joined her palms, both at me and his corpse. She did not touch me. She was quietly escorted back, her body heavy as she was dragged away. I was always light on my feet.

Her sons had come.

My man’s snake entered many women’s bodies, but she knew how to suck the poison out of his snake. She was known to have drunk it too. This is what made her invincible, the blue-throated woman. She made this farm brat into a delicate lover. As the man aged and his money waned, women exited his harem. At that unfortunate time, she became visible in the story of my life. She settled in a small hut on the outskirts of the village, birthed two sons, who had his nose and forehead. They were unmistakably his. I became an object of public ridicule and pity. My God knows, I acknowledged the woman’s existence and never spoke to a soul about her. I knew she tilled a small portion of land that formerly belonged to my offspring. She knew how to fend for herself. She didn’t need anything from him, definitely not his name.

She saw me. Even if I did not acknowledge her, she saw me. She saw me every time I came back swollen eyed after a niece’s bidaai. She saw me as I carried a basket full of maathas for my grandnephew’s dashthon. She saw my loneliness; she saw my eagerness. In a quiet manner, I always felt it—her gaze on me, like a light touch on my shoulder. I think I owed it to that to not talk ill of her. So, when women regarded her as a whore, her children as illegitimate, I would say that I have only my own kismat to blame. When your own coin is faulty, how to blame others? My sons were, however, angry. They could not wait to escape this life. This father. Their mother was just the background music in their story, never too important.

What all should I remember of the sons who left? Should I recount all that I did for them? How can a mother ask for the price of feeding, clothing and comforting her children? And so, I would not. Yet, they are the traitors in my story, not their father. When a woman can’t trust her own flesh, another man is another man. However, my son’s daughter has been the support of my old age. She held my hand as we stood in the queue to get my Aadhaar card made. She would appear the night before elections to take me to vote. When home, she would make me pua and read me the newspaper. At her wedding, she wiped her own tears as she faced me and said, “Amma, I’ll come back. This is home.” She was the one who finally took her grandfather to the hospital to be declared dead. Will she now accompany me to get my entitlements as an old widow? I hope she doesn’t have to.

They had to light the funeral pyre. My sons did not even promise to make it in time. Her sons stood there, attached to their mother. What respectful boys! I shot a kind look at them. I knew she saw it. Her daughters-in-law fanned her and her grandchildren looked at the scene in wonder.

Her sons had made their mother a large home with tiles and sunmica. The purity of her desire had made her story into a local ballad. She was accepted into the village society as a spiritual soul. Women often sought help from her. How could I envy her blooming household from my echoing crumbling antechambers? I knew she had a word ready for me on her tongue but swallowed it when she saw me. She never made our man visit her house. I think she did it for me.

My sons returned to get the property partitioned. They pushed back against any tenderness they had for me. When I wiped their faces yellow with haldi on their wedding day, had I thought that I would not radiate in their glow? They did not have an easy life. Maybe I was just a feeble character in their life stories. So, I would not spend any time making bridges from their life to mine. They don’t exist. My sons didn’t come.

I went to every function of every relation’s home. I did this and that. I rolled pooris at bhagwat bhandaras and cut barfis at lagun teekas. The steadiness of my hands saved me. I wish I could have earned my destiny through my hands, but that really wasn’t in my hands. So, life went on. His crimes unacknowledged. His negligence forgotten. My perseverance unheeded. Sons educated. Daughters married. Sons married. Daughter gone mad. Son’s daughter born. Son’s wife died. Son remarried.  Sons had children. Daughters had children. I remained housed in that house a little bit away from the hut.

My man was finally committed to the fire as I felt hunger rising in my stomach. My nephew’s wife sat before me with a paper cup of chai and a packet of Parle-G biscuits. As she fed me the soaked biscuits, she said, “Bua, we are all here for you”. And my God knows they remained there for me.  The next day another nephew arrived at my deserted courtyard with sacks of grain and announced that it was for terahvi. My sons did not come. The unmissable jabs at their absence did. I carried on dusting and wiping the floors in my pale saree. I wept ritually. My granddaughter made tea endlessly. People flocked on Mondays and Wednesdays and Fridays, the ritual days for visiting a house in mourning. A pandit came in the night to read the Garuda Purana and warn us about the next life.

Then the disquiet followed.

At the break of dawn, I went to shit in the farms. I had not yet adjusted to the toilet in the house. I saw the black patch where his body had been burned. I decided to shit at the spot. Then, fear crawled all over me. It struck me that no one will come after another week. It struck me that I had only two handkerchiefs full of savings. The loneliness struck me. It struck me that my sons had not come. Dropping the lota from my hand, I bawled on the land where my husband was turning into soil. What a traitor, the one who left me to this destiny. Women gathered around me and tried to bring me to my senses. “Call her granddaughter,” someone said. “Amma, stop weeping”. My forehead was blackened. Blackness was my sole inheritance. I saw blurred figures carrying a pooja thaali emerging from the hut-turned-big house. A man with a shaven head noticed me and dropped the thaali and rushed towards me. Taking me in his arms, he said, “Maai, enough of this! Let’s go home.”  She stood on the balcony and saw me through her pallu. Her son took me to our house.

Image by George Hodan

CategoriesShort Fiction
Shraddha Upadhyay

Shraddha is a lawyer, Young India Fellow and a researcher. She writes and translates poetry, fiction and non-fiction in both English and Hindi. She has contributed to magazines like Cycle. Five of her poems were included in an anthology called Kaagaz Ke Pankh published by Educreations. She recently collaborated with Conflictorium, a museum of conflict in Ahmedabad to write poetry for their Travelling Museum. She has written for various other portals like India Mag, Legal Bites, and Live Wire and served on the editorial boards of various student academic journals.