Alina waited in line outside the taluk office, where the queue went all the way down to the teashop by the street corner. Mumbai in the month of May was sweltering. Ice creams liquefied before you could open the plastic wrapper and pull them out by the stick. She could only be thankful that the heavens had decided to take mercy on them and send the pre-monsoon winds a little sooner than usual. She would have melted under the direct gaze of the summer sun, piercing through the protection offered by her umbrella. Even so, she was bathed in sweat that the insipid breeze could do nothing to counter. She peered through the glass of a shop window, looking at the goods on offer. There was nothing else she could do while the people ahead of her shuffled forward like turtles on a beach.
The dingy warehouses looked especially uninviting today. Andheri West was never her favorite place to be, even at the best of times. The set of offices she was supposed to go to were no different from the warehouses that surrounded it. Their corrugated tin roofs were piled up high with unsettled dust, ready to fly at a moment’s notice if the wind wanted it to. It was grey, grey everywhere, relieved by occasional glaring patches of metal reflecting the light of the sun. If she didn’t have to wait in line, she would have passed by this road as fast as possible, looking for a more pleasant place to wait. Mumbai had those as well, places where bits of green and pink and white stood out amongst the traffic, where quiet lanes hid behind busy streets, their houses sleeping untouched by the passage of time. You could take a look at Mumbai and see exactly what you wanted to see, depending on how you felt that day.
Today, Alina only saw the squalor and filth that she wanted to get out of. It was a day of impatience and long lines, a never-ending monotony that seemed not so incongruous with the life she had led so far, and that made her hate it even more. Perhaps she would look back and see other memories, other associations, pleasant ones, but at the moment, she was not in that frame of mind. A man on the street jostled past. Alina knocked into the woman standing immediately in front of her, earning herself a glare. Her documents lay on the street, covered in dust, but the man who’d pushed her did not bother to look back for more than a moment.
If she were to describe Mumbai in one word, it would be movement. There was nothing static about the city. It was all about moving, moving, restlessly moving, without sitting still for an instant. Work had to be done, and it wouldn’t happen sitting still in a chair and meditating for a minute over a cup of coffee. It happened in the heady bustle of the streets, dinners eaten standing in the train, crushed between the bodies of a hundred others in the same compartment, desperately keeping themselves inside, sharing the same sense of desperation to get out. If you missed your train, if you missed a turning, if you got stuck in the morning, afternoon, evening or night rush, you were done for. You either ran with the crowd, or got trampled underneath feet too busy to stop. It was so easy for a newcomer to get overwhelmed, to get beaten down by the pace of it, to suffocate with the necessity of always being aware of the dispensability of oneself. It gave you a sense of confidence, surviving there, not only floating with your head above water, but actively swimming with the shoal, knowing that the sharks were out there, waiting for a single misstep. If you could adjust to living in Mumbai, you could survive anywhere.
In that frenzy, she was a stone. Unmoving, sinking. Neither buoyed up by the wave, nor carried with the current. She was just there, in the background, a rock forming part of the seafloor, worn away by the things happening around her, unable to change anything. Just there. But sometimes, just sometimes, after a long enough time has passed, and the surface of the rock has been worn away enough, layer by layer, it becomes small enough to move. Perhaps a chance push by a fish, or the tremors of an underwater quake, and it shifts. When it is displaced, it can never go back to where it used to be, a part of the algae-covered seafloor, lost to the darkness. It has moved, its perspective has changed. Unlike the rock, a human can keep on moving, keep on changing. Unlike the rock, they have their own will. Or at least, that was what Alina kept telling herself. She had the power to change. She was no longer buried in the sand, powerless to move.
“Why is no one moving?” asked Alina.
The line in front of her seemed to have lengthened while she had been gazing at the shopkeepers pulling their shutters halfway-closed.
“Lunchtime,” said the woman who’d glared at her before. “I hope we reach them before five, or it’s another day on the road for us.”
“What are you here for?”
“Address change. We just moved to the suburbs.” She sighed.
Alina understood. Moving out of the city meant less traffic, and more peace, but at the cost of increased commute time. She remembered the days when her father would take two hours to get to the office, and two hours to come back home. For her parents, it had been a choice between travelling a long way for work, and travelling to school. They chose the option that seemed obvious to them, and moved to a building that was less than a block away from the neighborhood secondary school.
“What are you here for?” asked the woman.
She looked at her name, printed in bold letters on her identity cards.
“Everything,” said Alina. “I’m here for everything.”
“Oh, so you’re changing your name?” She glanced at the henna and bangles adorning Alina’s arms. “I barely remember when I was a newlywed.”
She turned to face the office before Alina could say anything else.
Newlywed. The word took her back to last night’s conversation. She had been at the grocery store, when she bumped into someone she thought she recognized.
“I wasn’t sure if it was you. It’s been so long; I didn’t know anymore.”
Isha had been a classmate of hers during her bachelor’s degree that she’d had to leave halfway. Though she’d abandoned them, they still remembered her, and made sure to call her for any event or get-together they planned. She never turned up for any, but the fact that they still thought of her mattered.
“Are those tears? Are you getting sentimental now that you’re old?” Back then too, Isha used to tease her about being old enough to be a year ahead of the rest of them.
Alina had been born exactly three days after the deadline for the admission of young children to preschool. Three days. Three days had decided who her classmates, agemates and playmates would be. Three days had changed everything.
“My teeth are falling out, my hair is grey, and people get up to offer me a seat when I’m on the bus. It’s a hard life, but at least I get a senior citizen discount in all the shops.”
Their laughter earned them a glare from the man stocking the shelves. Chattering women were not buying customers. This shop was no park or beach to hang out with friends. This was a place of business, a temple of money and products for daily use. They were desecrating it with their nostalgia, their laughter, and their imperfect impressions of people they’d studied with. Even if it was only for a while, thought Alina, for a while, I’d been happy.
“Can you believe we’ve been on the planet for a quarter of a century now? Really makes you think about things,” said Alina. There were certainly things she had been thinking of for a while now. A long time, in fact. “It feels much much longer. Half of our class is married. Half of that crowd have babies. We’ve been aunts and uncles for years now. How can we only be twenty-five?”
“Did you know Sharon’s married too?”
Sharon? Marriage? Putting the two together in the same sentence was ridiculous.
“She didn’t like it at first, but now I think she’s used to it.”
Used to it. Like a kid getting used to braces.
“Is she still around here? I remember walking her back to this street.”
“No, she had to move to Bangalore. That’s where her husband’s from.”
“Oh yes. Of course.”
Sharon, married? That didn’t make any sense.
Alina remembered the time the head of the department called out Sharon’s name in the beginning of their time there. They’d just finished their first set of exams that semester. He’d stood at the door of the lecture hall, a balding man with a stoop and glasses so thick, they were nearly opaque. He hollered out her name.
Sharon stood up. Alina could still picture her trembling, a rabbit caught between a snare and a hungry wolf, smelling its own death in the contained bloodlust that was about to break free. Her eyes were wide, with tears forming at the edges, nascent pinpricks of galaxies at the center of the universe.
“You were the only one who wrote about the applications of Spirulina in the sports industry. Well done. You were listening to my lectures,” he said.
Long after he’d left, Sharon was still trembling, unable to get a grip on her pen. She didn’t eat that day at break, not even when Alina slid her tiffin-box across the bench. “You said you liked it when you had it the last time.” Her offer of gobi-paratha was returned with silence. “I made it. Won’t you try some?” Silence again.
Sharon always wore her hair in a braid, which did not come past her shoulder blades. The tight waves on the top of her head undulated like a river impatient to reach the sea. No matter how much her hair grew, the curls made the length disappear. Until the end of the second year, Alina had never seen her in jeans, only long kurtas which flirted with her knees, sleeves measuring the half-way mark between her elbows and wrists. When Alina asked her why she still dressed this way, when the college had a liberal dress code, Sharon told her that it was because she chose to.
“My mother wants me to experiment with my clothes a bit, or wear a ponytail once in a while. I just… I don’t know. I like it this way.”
Alina looked down at her own jeans and short kurta. “I’m wearing these while I still can. I don’t know what kind of family I’m going to be married off to.”
Sharon shrugged. Those things were still far away in the future. They didn’t have to worry about it just then.
The first year ended by the time Sharon could talk to a boy with any degree of comfort. Even then, it was only about notes and classwork. She left on time every day, and studied for two hours after lunch and a nap. She never talked to the others on the phone over the weekends, or ditched class for a movie. She’d never missed an hour in favor of lunch at one of the nearby hang-out joints. When the attendance lists came out, Sharon was the only one who didn’t have to check them for fear of seeing her name there, marked in red.
Sharon, who’d only ditched her first class in the last week of third year, egged on by the others. Sharon, who had never explored the roads and restaurants that lay beyond the walls of the college and her home. Sharon, who’d shuddered when faced with the prospect of talking to a senior for notes, was married. Alina could not begin to comprehend it. Was she unhappy? Sharon, for all that they pushed her to be more open, more experimental, more extroverted, more like the rest of them, was a person they couldn’t bear to see upset. Now, she was married to a stranger. A man she barely knew. Married. Of all the things in the world she could be, she was instead married.
Isha had chattered away happily about how her MPhil was going, oblivious to Alina’s fit of abstraction.
Marriage was supposed to be a happy affair, wasn’t it? Why was she so upset about it? Why did it seem as if when she met Sharon again, she wouldn’t find the same girl she used to know? Or worse, what if she never found her again?
The woman in front of her fidgeted with the pleats on her sari. They brushed against Alina’s fingers, bringing her back to the present moment. Back to the line where she was waiting with everyone else. How much longer was this going to take? Were they going to make it to the front of the line before they closed up for the day? Alina glanced at the paper calendar that hung at a nearby shop window, checking if the next day would be a government holiday. How many more days would she have to wait until her task was done? Her eyes went straight to the date she had been trying not to look at. The day she couldn’t forget. Wouldn’t. No matter what.
She’d got the news at around eight that evening three years ago. It wasn’t a phone call. There was no shrill ringing cracking open the silence, startling the crows from their rest in the banyan tree in the courtyard. A message, as if from the void, was enough to deepen the silence that had haunted her for years.
Alina, Hira’s gone. She committed suicide.
She supposed she should have seen the signs, even if no one else had.
In college, Hira was in love. Her cousin returned her sentiments. A suitable match. The same caste, same social status, their parents knew. It was smooth sailing. Her mother-in-law said it would be a pleasure to welcome a daughter-in-law who they’d known right from her childhood. They wouldn’t have to do a background check, for they knew all about the family. A pleasure all around to see her more often.
Alina had attended her wedding, though she wasn’t studying in the same college anymore. She never attended the get-togethers, but she made sure to be there when her friends were tying the knot, as if to witness the moment they changed families. The moment everything about them changed, from their names, to the people they lived with, to the people they now belonged to. The people they had given away their freedom to. She witnessed the moment they were no longer children, no longer in control of their own destinies, the moment their wishes became secondary. She was there, to watch it all.
Hira seemed happy. Genuinely happy. She hugged Alina, holding on for a moment more, before having to let go when the photographer asked them to pose. Alina didn’t want to get off the stage, she wanted to hold on to this fleeting moment, while her friend was still the girl she used to be, the girl who smiled brighter than the glinting of the sun on the Arabian sea.
They texted about books, about the news, about everything under the sun. Everything except their families and married life. Never about that. Not if someone held a knife to their throats. What if someone read it? They had to live their entire lives under those roofs, with the ones they’d joined their fates to. A year later, they met by chance at the bus stop. Hira told Alina she was leaving her husband.
“I love him. And they were my family before we got married. I don’t know what changed. I need to live my own life.”
They texted a little more sporadically than before. Only when they were in a shop, or on the bus, but never at home, not where a phone couldn’t be tucked away out of sight. Not where it could be demanded by a family member. Not where someone could read their messages as easily as the fate-lines on their palms.
A month or two later, Alina learned from a mutual friend that Hira was back with her family.
Is everything okay?
A risky text. What if someone else saw it?
Yes. I missed him. I’m back now. We’re fine.
They chatted a little about work. Perhaps she would have talked to her a little more, or tried to visit if she’d known. But is there anyone who can know the future? Three days later, she got the text that told her that Hira was no more. By that time, Alina was in a relative’s village. There were no buses that evening that could take her back to the city. It would be days after the body was cremated that she would reach Hira’s house. If she was allowed to go. She trembled with a desperation to tear something, rip it apart, anything that could dull the rage inside her. Like a blade, it cut deeper and deeper, the more she tried to force it in.
What was she going to do, even if she got there? Accuse the family of driving her to her death? Cause a scene? If anything, it would only malign Hira’s name further. She’d seen it happen before. A senior of hers had taken his life while in college. Whispers upon whispers about how his family had suffered, how he’d abandoned his friends. Not one person spoke about how his inner circle had caused his death. Would Hira’s case be any different?
She sat down, anger gone. Dissipated. Like a promised storm that never lands after the clouds are blown away by the wind. Alina didn’t go to Hira’s funeral. She would never open that chat again. After her phone broke, she didn’t throw it away. She packed it in a box, tissue paper at the edges and put it away in a drawer. Sometimes, when she had a lot to think about, she’d open the drawer and stare at it, drawing courage. Hira had never let it show. No one knew. Someone should have. She should have. But these are the sort of things one realizes when it’s too late.
It wasn’t always sad though. She knew that. Some of them were happier, much happier than the rest. Preeti, for instance. Forlorn Preeti who always stood at the back of the class, waiting for everyone to leave. She’d never seen her smile, not in the five years that she’d known her. Her wedding was one of the few Alina had missed. For her anniversary, Preeti shared pictures taken at her wedding on their class WhatsApp group.
She didn’t know what she’d expected. Perhaps the same sadness emanating from her photographs, as the sad girl in the back of the class. She’d been pleasantly surprised to discover Preeti smiling. Her face was transformed, the corners of her eyes curving upwards like dancers striking a pose. Without looking in a mirror, Alina knew her expression mirrored the one she was looking at. Preeti’s night-like eyes that had held only shadow were transformed into a skyful of stars.
Her hands stilled when they came to the last picture. The two of them, husband and wife, holding hands in front of a waterfall of some sort, taken perhaps on an anniversary. The newfound shine in her eyes hadn’t dulled. That was when Alina made her decision. It was not when she’d seen the sad ones, ones who should have asked for better, ones who needed it. A smile. That’s all it’d taken to make her realize. She had been heading towards a decision for days, weeks, months now. Step by slow step, towards a final destination. Sometimes, there were happy endings. Things could be better. They didn’t always have to be the way they were now. There was hope. There was happiness out there in the world. All she had to do was reach for it.
The woman in front of her poked her shoulder. “You’re wasting everyone’s time.”
This was Mumbai, and every millisecond mattered. Alina reached up to the counter and submitted her token.
The chubby, bespectacled man in front of her had a long red tilak drawn in the center of his forehead. He chewed on his tobacco, worsening his already heavy accent, making the words barely intelligible. He grunted on receiving her papers.
“What are you here to change?”
It was specified on the papers, but she supposed he had to ask for the sake of it. Why else would he take up this job if he couldn’t throw his weight around a little?
“All of my IDs, back to my maiden name.”
She slipped in her divorce papers through the little semicircle cut into the window on the tall counter, a little above her head. Just in case he asked. In case he didn’t understand why she had to do it. To be extra sure. Her hands trembled only a little bit.
She had earned those papers. It had taken a lot of effort to get them. Getting them from the lawyer, introducing the subject to her husband’s family, getting them signed, finding witnesses to attest them in court. Her friends from college were there, speaking up for her, when her own voice failed. Sharon couldn’t make it, but Preeti, who she had never spoken to in class, was there to hold her hand, while Alina’s mother-in-law glowered at them from the benches on the far side of the courtroom. Sacrilegious, that her friends had dared to interfere in the matters of a family not their own. They proved that she’d been forced to stop studying and withdraw halfway.
In spite of the ensuing drama – snide comments about her suitability as a daughter-in-law, her barren womb, her tasteless food, the long, drawn-out hostility taken to a point where the family could prove she wasn’t fit to be with them anymore, to save face – she had them. The papers were hers, to have and to hold. Finally. It was a struggle, giving them up for even this long. It was almost as if, if she lost them, her husband’s family would stake a claim on her again, and her freedom would be over. But how wonderful, she thought, to be able to make that distinction. My family, and my husband’s. To be able to think of them as someone else’s. To not be something given away to someone else. To unbelong. To feel, for at least a while, that the silence that weighs me down has lightened a little. The freedom of being able to move away from it all. A freedom she wished Hira had been able to share in.
The tea-glass clattered as a peon placed it on the booth. Tossing her papers back on the splintered surface of the table, the officer lifted it to his lips, misting his glasses in the process. As if in slow motion, she saw a fat drop of milky tea fall, right onto her papers, the indigo ink swirling into the ginger-scented ochre drop that promised to leave an indelible mark. A faded purple streak running the length of the sheet that declared she was a free woman. He paid no attention to it, chatting away with the man who’d brought him the tea. Alina cleared her throat. Loudly.
Glaring at her, the officer remarked on the line that waited outside the office. He took up her papers once again, without really seeing them. The peon left the booth, ignoring the longing stares that the people waiting in line directed at his tea-carrier. He looked a little like Alina’s erstwhile husband, as he left, the back of his head receding, fading into the far end of the corridor.
Fading. Five years of marriage. Five years of monotony, of emptiness, beginning with those three days. With the three days of ceremonies which changed everything. With the three seconds it took to say the two words, Qubool hai. Fading from her life. All it took was three words to erase them. Talaq, talaq, talaq. Five years, of silence, of monotony, of living like a motionless rock on the riverbed.
The glass in the officer’s hand slipped and fell, shattering on impact when it met the floor.
“What a waste of time!” he exclaimed.
Alina couldn’t help but agree.