Yelahanka is a green suburb of Bangalore. Ideal to live in, ideal to study in- so people say. They don’t mention the power cuts, or that there are precisely two affordable places to eat in. They don’t mention that the closest shopping arena is an hour away. But instead of a panoramic viewpoint, let us focus instead on the linear settlement parallel to the Yeswanthpuram Railway tracks. It has been building up for ages now; generations of people from Andhra Pradesh have fled to Bangalore because of the lack of availability of jobs back in their hometown. Or that’s what they say. Running is such a commonplace activity, so much so that what does it matter if they are running towards a better life, or running away from persecution? Within the community from Andhra is a smaller subset of people who weave with silk and cotton and jute, transforming them from raw fibres to threads, and then saris of exquisite detail- and it only boosts the economy of Yelahanka.
They have converted the bright orange, neon green, and blue (a blue that matches the concave of the sky) houses into their little factories. The factories are not compatible with the steel stained, marble floored, smoke-puffing images; instead of open spaces there are corridors so thin that just a single person can venture forth at a time, openings on the sides, rickety staircases that creak with every footstep, shaking a shower of spiders and cobwebs on the already dusty ground, and more corridors and enclosures- where looms are housed. The click-clack of the looms is a common sound to hear around that area, even comforting, because it is a sign of life in a deserted community of a deserted suburb. Shops and auto-stands have sprung up around these weavers; carts of coconut sellers with coconuts ranging from palm green to olive green, ready to engage in a tongue clacking bargaining session. Occasionally a train ambles past, screeches, or tries to, to a halt, and travels about a hundred metres before it complies with the dictionary definition of stopping.
I push the door and it creaks open. The half rotting lemon and pungent red chilli that are strung together on a thread drop down from the top rail and oscillate in the sudden wind. Before entering I glance quickly at the ground to see if there are any chappals lying around that can provide an informative social influence. I see none, and proceed, therefore, in my orange and blue Nike shoes. The clacking sound of the looms is almost deafening; it is omnipresent, despite the fact that the looms are housed only in two out of the four enclosures, and none on the second tier of the house-factory. I see a stout woman in a rippling ochre sari who, from afar looks soft and placid and seems to be overlooking some work and giving instructions to an employee at the loom. The employee in question is wearing a white vest, and various black bristles run from his navel and stop just before his neck. Drops of perspiration dapple the back of his neck and a teardrop of sweat hangs tantalizingly off his nose.
She sees me and makes her way. Suddenly I am struck by my own idiocy; this isn’t Delhi, it is Karnataka. Who knows if we have any mutual ground in languages? But in heavily accented English, (I heave a breath of relief), we manage to communicate and get the idea across that a school project requires me to converse with her on cotton and jute threads. She shakes her head. This is a silk factory, it turns out. I ask her if she knows the whereabouts of a cotton sari factory. She doesn’t. Alright then, I say. Silk it is. Have at it. It is a sultry day, and to top it all, I am wearing a black polo-neck full sleeved tee shirt. Not dressed to acquaint myself with the heat, you see.
She leads me up the staircase. There, the balcony protrudes slightly over the wooden floor, as if it wanted to hurl itself into empty air, and in the attempt, has frozen in mid-flight. Deliberate, she tells me. There was barely any space in the first place, and a person of ample girth like her – she pats her belly with a guffaw- needs ample space.
Inside the enclosure is a diorama of threads. In a corner, there is a hexagonal wheel-structure that is refining the fibres into a single thread of consistent consistency. To give me a clearer view, the lady pulls out a strand of the refined thread and twirls it in her gnarled fingers with careless ease. The fibres they get from China, apparently. On the side is a network of white threads pulled taut by two wooden frames, one vertical and the other horizontal. The threads are like steel lines and thin as cobwebs. The lady provides a swift commentary in the back. (She has already told me her name is Jyeshtha, the third month in the Hindu lunar calendar, and her parents didn’t have much imagination) The threads are going to form the warp. I run my finger along one and promptly cut myself, staining the thread a light shade of pink. Feeling like Eklavya’s cousin, I turn with an apologetic expression, and hold the finger up like a maut ki ungli, the finger of death. Jyeshtha shudders, and runs to the thread, inspecting it. A drop of blood, like a blob of garnet hangs from it, and she shudders once more, reaching into the folds of her sari. She produces a pair of scissors with wickedly sharp blades, moves as if she is about to cut the arresting thread, and then stops, inspecting the pattern instead. She puts away the pair of scissors with a sigh.
Tea? She asks me with visible effort. I, of course, apologize profusely, which mollifies her, but only slightly. I wonder why she hasn’t kicked me out already. Southern hospitality means taking a lot from your guest, it seems.
So she brings me a cup of hot, sweet tea, and glowers at me with hooded eyes. The sound of the cup clinking against the rings on her fingers fades away into nothingness, just like the cinnamon flavoured steam of the tea becomes aromatic air. The silence is awkward, particularly because Jyeshtha is no longer radiating geniality. I ask her where she is from. Andhra, she says crisply. Land of architecture, culture and history. I contemplate asking her why she chose to come to Yelahanka, but in light of recent events, decide against it. Lack of opportunities back home, probably. I search for another question. But maybe it’s time for me to leave? I end up asking her: What do you do? (A ridiculous question, I think at the moment)
We weave dreams, she says. Oh? Is that a special kind of fabric, I ask. A sapna fabric? A Sapna sari for Sapna Stores? I vaguely remember a brand of saris in Delhi that deals in ostentatious (a euphemism for dodgy) silk fabrics with the aforementioned as its catchphrase
I surprise a laugh out of her. No, she says. Definitely not. We weave real dreams.
That’s beautiful, I murmur. I have never met a weaver of dreams before.
How does one manufacture dreams then, I ask, as a logical successor to her statement. (All that I know about the subject is what is contained within The BFG.) We weave saris, Jyeshtha tells me. I understand that, I say, but how are you able to capture air and thoughts and make them into something tangible? We weave on a loom, she says, clearly not comprehending that I do not comprehend her. As comprehension dawns on her face, she stretches her arm out. Come, let me show you, she says and points towards a bolted door shrouded with curtains. I turn, following her finger, and hear muffled rhythmic thumps. Through a slit of translucent slate, I see copper bodies in diaphanous white saris, copper bodies with muscles that send ripples across the skin, oiled black hair pinned at the nape of the neck, chiselled forearms gripping cuboids of wood. They move in a rhythm, forward-backward, together, as if all of them are rowing a single, gigantic boat. I get up and press my nose against the slate. A shuttle moves; they are weaving fabrics that ripple with colour, a ripple that is felt more than it is seen, like the tints that you see in a silk sari.
Are those dreams, I ask slowly. Jyeshtha nods. It must take an awful lot of time, I say. Why do you not use power looms instead? It would save so much of time, and you do not seem to have a dearth of them. Well, she says, turning over my question seriously, it is the satisfaction that is lost. You are a writer; you should understand when I talk about satisfaction.
How does she know this? Never you mind, I just know, she says as she reads my face, not stopping the torrent of words. Would you rather write down your thoughts with pen, or have a scribe who notes them down, she asks. Obviously I would prefer penning down my own thoughts. Precisely, she says. Every one of those fabrics has a story. We weave and ply our craft because of an inherent love for it. Do you think you are the first person who has questioned our ways? Some traditions are best left untouched.
I sense that I stepped on a nerve. Yes, I know what you meant; Jyeshtha says impatiently, her demeanour discouraging further questions. (If she smoked, I could imagine a trembling bidi held between her trembling fingers.) But I am still curious. How do you weave images from people’s minds, I ask her. There are people who have written fantastic pieces resounding with thought out of something that is based on a dream, and there are others who have been driven to the grave by them. She shrugs, settling herself back on her chair, like a bird smoothening ruffled feathers. You dream what you are, she says. You dream what you want, and you dream what you don’t want. Our duty is to present these …options; you might call them, to you. You are the one who must choose wisely. Many don’t.
“Our?” I say. Of course, she says. Once we were widespread throughout South India. (Few know about it now though, she mutters under her breath) Have you ever heard of the Kanjeevaram sari, she asks. I nod. Well, it used to be a very special kind of sari, she says, with a bittersweet sigh. But the craft dies out as we move further in time. Kanjeevaram saris are still renowned for their beauty, and ridiculously expensive to boot. I can’t see why, when their beauty is just skin deep. She pauses for a while as she travels backward. It was one of ancient India’s most renowned crafts, she says, as she relives a better, brighter time. Our process was to weave and release, like fire lanterns into the sky, and some people would catch them, some wouldn’t. People see what they want to see. Well, that hasn’t changed, she shrugs. Out of all the things that had to remain static.
I let my eyes flit over the room. Curtains, mats, the whirling fan. The door, slightly ajar, with wind blowing in leaves and wisps. The purple embroidered cushions against which I lean and the seashell pink sofa that I sit on. I am struck by a sudden thought. Are they all dreams, I ask suddenly, jerking my head towards the curtains. You noticed, she says, the closest she comes to approval directed towards me. Yes. Some of them are.
How do you know when a dream is finished then, I ask her, looking at the finished products interspersed in the surroundings, hanging off rods, framing the ground. We don’t, she says. Then how can you separate the fabrics out, cut them up into these curtains and mats? That would make the dream…I stop in my sentence as I realize that the very word I was going to use is a perfect description of a dream. Distorted, she says. Abrupt? That was the word you were looking for, isn’t it? Dreams are both. They have to be, she says. The process demands it. Weaving is like …she casts her mind around for a word. Writing, she decides. Weaving is like writing; using perhaps the only analogy she thinks I am capable of imbibing. A weaver weaves with threads to tell a story, a writer weaves with words, she says. When a weave isn’t tight and even, what do we do? We unpick it, and re-do it. Every stitch is a dream, and every stitch a complexity in a dream. Don’t tell me that it isn’t similar to what writers do. I gasp a laugh. She’s got me there for sure. And as for when a dream ends, she continues, aren’t all dreams part of the Great Dream, a blink of the Great God’s eyes?
The Great Dream? A blink? Maya, she says. Life. Weaving is life. She picks up a leaf that has fluttered onto the ground. Look at this leaf, she says, twirling it in her fingers so that it catches the light. At a glance, you see a single vein running through it, dividing it into half. But when you look closer, you see the vein branching out into other veins. Look closer and you see more branches. Every individual is so myopic that he sees only the most obvious detail of the surface. But his life is a single thread on the loom that intersects with many other threads. Our lives, therefore, are not solely ours. Cut one, and you change the course of the pattern. Move one, and a new pattern is formed, to an extent even the weaver cannot foresee. But, then, how is it possible to see all, she reflects, darkly humorous. After all, (she quotes) Varuna has but a thousand eyes, Indra a hundred, and I only two.
Her ochre sari ripples with purple as she falls silent. Purple. I say it aloud without meaning to. Her expression changes from wistful to suspicious alacrity. She gives me a squint eyed sly smile. You see it, she says in a tone of surprise, more a statement than a question. The ripple? I’m not blind, I say. You would be surprised how many people walk around with their eyes closed, she tells me. People see only what they want to see.
A wooden house lay nestled within the interiors of a shadowed mountain. The eaves of a corrugated tin roof dripped with water. Inside, a niche in a brick wall contained logs of burning wood. Preeti sat by the fire on a wooden board, rolling chappatis. She would toss the raw, flattened flour between the palms of her hands and then place it onto a black tava perched atop the flame. While it cooked, she would devote her attentions to yet another flattened flour cake. While putting it onto the tava, she would toss the replaced chappati into the swelling red embers beyond, and as it expanded with hot air, she reached into the red coals with her bare hands to retrieve it; it was blackened in circular patches. When she had first been introduced to this task by her mother, her skin had burned easily in red and blue patches. She had applied a paste of flour and water to conceal the patches- no woman wanted a delicate flower as a daughter in law! Even now, after years, her skin would still swell red at the treatment it was subjected to, but at least now, she had a more sophisticated version of the flour and water paste to apply- it was even waterproof.
Besides, cooking was a task she did not have to apply herself to; these recipes were as familiar to her as mother’s milk. Shallow fried potato wedges with coriander seeds, black soy cooked in a big black iron pot along with a watery vegetable soup of spinach leaves. Perhaps even chutney made from the herbs and leaves that grew in their garden of various steps. These days the family had guests over; that meant extra work for her because she was the one who worked and toiled all day long. She was used to early mornings and late nights, but she couldn’t help but begrudge the additional work, though she did her best to be hospitable. The two girls who were staying with them as part of a home-stay initiative of the nearby NGO were as quiet as mice; except for occasional rumbles and tumbles at night. Sometimes she would feel horrible for holding such antipathy towards them when they had done nothing wrong; they ate what was served to them, only asked for extra water. That was the day she had made jalebi’s for them as an evening snack.
About a year and half back, she had been pregnant with her first child. She had been married at about the same time too; she couldn’t remember; all the days blurred into one. She had heard how women worked even when they were heavily pregnant, but she hadn’t understood it until she too was heavily pregnant and had to climb trees and venture down slopes when her big stomach would scarce provide her a glimpse of her own toes, let alone the boulders in her path. She was given no break from her daily routine; she still had to cut grass and feed the cows and cook and clean and scrub pots and cut up vegetables-not counting the days when she carried loads on her head of mass exceeding her own; all while her husband made googly eyes at their son. All this a woman would do, and still be regarded as the weaker sex. Her mother had often told her that it was a man’s world, but were they so blind that they couldn’t see that a house could only stand when both sides pitched in? But then she reprimanded herself. Her husband was her pati parmeshwar; akin to her God, and everything that she was wont to do since she kicked that pot of rice over the threshold was in the name of her husband and his family’s welfare, her own needs came last, always.
A piece of cloth was wrapped around the middle finger of her left hand- she had cut it while scything grass. She massaged her wrists wearily. Sometimes she felt as if her wedding bangles were her shackles to this life; a beast of burden that broke their back and sweated and toiled all day only to get up the next day and realise that it hadn’t, in fact, been a dream. When she had been a girl, she dreamed of studying at Kumaun University. She was a bright child; she could have won a scholarship, she knew it. But what was the point of dredging up the past; it was nothing but a barb in her side now; an alternate future, a could-have-been. But ever since her home had been volunteered as a home-stay, her constant interactions with the young college students sprinkled salt into newly re-opened wounds. They had a life that she could only dream of- a dream that she had put to bed long ago. It was her brother who had always been sent off to school eagerly; she would be sent reluctantly because her brother and she were inseparable. Her father would tell people of the village proudly that his son was learning to read and write; the first in the family. He did not speak of his daughter; she would soon belong to a paraya ghar, another house, and therefore, he never really considered her his anyway.
She would come back from school to wash clothes- both her own and her brother’s and help her mother out with the cooking while her brother would run amok with his friends. Her brother was quite myopic, but sometimes pathos would impel him to rinse his mud splattered clothes with water before they were drubbed thoroughly by the women; and his father would laugh at him and shoo him away from “women’s work”. They were born to cook and clean and wash dishes, but you, son, he would say, you were born to do greater things. Do not let me catch you helping out the women ever again. This last sentence was uttered ominously.
Her son wailed, breaking her concentration. Her mother in law rushed to placate him with a cup of hot milk, and a sudden indignation choked her. Preeti only got to hold her son a few times in a day. She wanted to hold him more frequently, but where was the time? The only time she got off to herself was when she ate. Her son was so adorable, so love-worthy, with his drooping cheeks and sudden shy smiles whenever someone looked at him – even the way he would lift his shirt to reveal a rotund stomach, and rub it in a satisfied manner after a meal. Before she had had him, she had doubts about her lifestyle, but after her child was born, the maternal love that seized her was as unexpected as it was strong. Perhaps that’s why, she reflected wryly. Perhaps that’s why the son is encouraged to get the wife with child as soon as possible- it makes her more compliant.
Life was hard, but harder for a woman. The woman woke early and devoted her attention to the seamless running of the house, and the man was complimented on it. The woman prepared banquet- like feasts three times a day and the man would thrust his plate away if he felt more like drink than food. Heaven forbid she let out even a squeak of a complaint. Her brothers had beaten their wives enough number of times for her to be aware of what happened when men got unhappy along with alcohol in their systems. Surprisingly enough, she had never seen that side of them; to her they were her elder brothers, her loving and protective bhaiya’s, and she had no doubt that if she was on the receiving end of a beating, they would step in to protect her, like armed guards. Why was it, she thought wryly. Why was it that man behaved differently with wives and sisters? It was almost as if they differentiated the world of women into two categories; those who were their sisters, to be loved and protected, and those who were not, and therefore, fair game.
“Apple chutney?” she asked, reaching up to the mantelpiece and bringing down a steel bowl with maroon liquid jelly. She had spent an extra few hours working at it because her husband had felt like eating apple chutney. She had made it two days ago and he hadn’t tasted it yet. Never mind, she told herself resignedly. Never mind that she hadn’t a taste for apples. She had no doubt that the rapacious appetites of the girls would soon see an empty bowl. The way they licked their chops after a meal did gratify her, if ever so slightly.
The worst part of the situation was that she could see herself become as jaded and demanding as her mother-in-law. Her mother in law too had been a bahu once; her life too had revolved around the whims and fancies of Husband and Co. She knew how it had been, why could she not be more understanding? But perhaps that was the very reason why she was so inexorable in her demands – because she too had been in the same place; she had done it all, and so would her bahu when the time came. It was a vicious circle that would never end. And her son would see the women of the house work all day long and grow up with his own prejudices that were set in stone.
The elder women of the family had already started asking for another child- and she didn’t want one, but prayed nevertheless, that it wouldn’t be a daughter. What she could not live with was this: She could not introduce her daughter to the alternate uses of flour. She could not bring up her own daughter with hopes and ambitions that had been her own and then extinguish them by assurances that the correct path for her was one step behind her husband. To do that would be to die a second death. She blew into the firewood and the embers swelled red and emitted sparks into the air that burned bright fleetingly before being crushed by the smoke.
“More dal?” she asked. “More sabzi?” She reached out with a ladle of vegetables ready. But they both shook their head. Her mother in law, who was in the corridor, guffawed.
“I still have to teach her loads about cooking food. “She said. “Give them something to sweeten the taste in their mouth instead!”
So Preeti reached up again to the mantelpiece and brought down a steel box, easing off the lid using her nails; sprinkling the steel with flour dust. She picked out brown cubes of mithai, and placed it on each of their plates. “It is a special Kumauni sweet.” She said. “You won’t get it in the plains. “
After serving dinner to the guests and family, she got a few moments respite; she ate three chappatis with vegetables straight from the kadhai, folding the potatoes within the roti in a morsel, while the rest of the family, having finished their food, proceeded to stack up the used plates outside in the pouring rain. She held her son for a few moments as well before her husband picked him up and proceeded to carry him around, mistakenly assuming that he was distracting her from her eating. She clutched on to her son’s hand, shaking her head. But her husband felt generous today. Why was it that their generosity was always at conflict with the situation, she thought. But then, her mother-in-law entered the room, taking her grandchild from her son’s arms. Her hair was blacker than it had any right to be and her skin was brown as a walnut with earrings hanging from the top of her ear to her lobes. The grandchild welcomed his dadi’s capable hands- hands that had raised two hulks of sons and eased more than a hundred children into the world.
“My Golu, “she crooned at the child in her arms. “Mera laadla, my darling.” Golu wriggled in her arms and split his mouth into a smile, revealing two sharp incisors in an otherwise toothless jaw. Golu was the reward she had waited for all the long years of her life. She had been unable to devote much time to her own sons; they had been raised by her own mother-in-law. But to Golu she would be mother and grandmother both, she resolved. She placed Golu down on all fours on the woven reed mat next to his mother.
“Where is the turmeric milk?” She asked Preeti. Preeti passed her a cup of milk wordlessly, and Jaya tried to convince Golu to drink it. But he had already spied the plateful of cucumbers. He pointed at it with a little finger, and Jaya burst into a smile.
“Ise kakori chai ho; he only wants cucumbers!” she laughed. “Have milk first, and some roti, “she coaxed. “After that, then, we can eat cucumbers. “But Golu was adamant that he wanted a slice of cucumber that very minute, and so, Jaya picked up the thinnest slice and held it in front of Golu’s mouth. Golu bit into it delicately with a crunch, and then allowed Jaya to tip the cup of hot milk inside his mouth.
“I hope the next grandchild is as compliant as this little darling” she said in a conversational tone, tucking the child securely with a shawl as a cold wind slammed the window against the sill. It had been nearly a year since Golu had been weaned off the breast. But Preeti did not answer. Every time Jaya or some other elderly matriarch of the family brought up the topic, she would begin talking about the devil that Golu was, and how she wanted him to grow older before providing with a little brother or sister. Those were the same women who would bless her with polysyllabic platitudes regarding the birth of sons, and only sons. A friend of hers from the same village had given birth to twin daughters during the navratris; the time when the birth of daughters is auspicious because they are believed to carry the spirit of the Devi herself. But they had clucked like hens and clicked their tongues at the new mother’s misfortune. Then there was that time about two months after Golu’s birth, when a woman with salt and pepper hair had approached her and asked her when she was having her next child. The pains of childbirth had not been forgotten, and Preeti looked at her incredulously. “There isn’t going to be a next child” she said. Naturally, Jaya was not too happy. But her husband was relatively mild mannered and content enough with one son to carry on the lineage, and did not nag her about it too often.
Today was not one of those nights. There were families with three, four, five children, he told her. Having one more was hardly asking for the moon. She wearily tried to explain to him that having a child right now would not be great- for either her or the child. Her hand crept into the folds of her sari, to clutch a circular box. She still felt weak and weary sometimes. She thought: what does he know about the rigours of bringing a child into this world? All that he did do last time was to pat her hand awkwardly when she was having contractions, and then disappear around the corner and faint, when it was she who struggled for sixteen hours. And then there was the secret that she hugged to herself- the possibility of having another child was almost zero; Dr. Priya had told her quite sternly that she had narrow hips and another birth could kill her. She had insisted on being the harbinger of the news herself, but somehow, she had managed to convince her that this piece of news was something that only the concerned woman could convey. It had been over eighteen months since, and she had told no-one. She feared that once the news would break; her role as a womb with legs would be over. She would be worked to the ground, driven to the ground. Why would anyone need her then?
So she told her husband yet again that now was not the right time for the family. He grunted angrily, threw the covers of the bed at her, and walked out; stooping to avoid hitting his head on the casing of the door. She exhaled, watching his retreating back, her hand relinquishing hold over the object. She would have to placate him. She would think of how to placate him- but tomorrow. Right now, she would sleep.
Deep into the night, when a torrential downpour had cut all lines of electricity, the door of the room slammed against the wall, and Preeti woke with a start in utter darkness, clutching the blankets to herself. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she could make out the outline of a figure lumbering inside the room. A triangular head, thick-set shoulders- it was her husband. She moved to call out to him, but then bit her lip. She must have made a small sound, because her husband stopped lumbering around and craned his head in her general direction. He had a bottle clutched in his hand. Suddenly, he only lunged at her, crushing her throat. The close proximity of his face revealed bloodshot eyes with dilated pupils.
She pushed him away, her heart growing cold, and her forehead growing clammy. He slapped her full across the face, jerking her face sharply to the side. The stinging told her that there would be a purple bruise on her face tomorrow. She tried to reason with him as the hand came towards her again. She clung onto his fist wordlessly, pleading with him to keep it quiet; their son lay in the other room, as did the parents. But in an inebriated fury, little can permeate through the brain; he smashed the bottle against a hard surface-Preeti felt thankful that he had not broken it on her own head- and brandished glass at her, threatening to cut her if she didn’t let go of his arm. But Preeti clung and wept and pleaded, putting her entire weight on his arm, so that he had no choice but to lower it. He made a sudden sound of fury, and threw the remnants of the glass bottle on the floor, shattering the air and threw himself against her.
Just before marriage, Preeti had paid a visit to the town in the valley along with many of her friends-varying between wed and unwed to being engaged, like her. As she was inspecting a stack of green bangles that had taken her fancy, her married friend, Kavya, drew her away silently while the rest of the gaggle were going gaga over earrings and hair-bands and clips. Wordlessly, she slipped a small circular box into the pocket of Preeti’s lilac cardigan. Preeti dug her hand into the pocket and pulled it out. It was a Lakme concealer for peach coloured skin.
“I got it for you last month, when I was in Delhi…” Kavya said. Preeti stared at it in incomprehension.
“Trust me, you’ll need it.” Kavya smiled at her, a smile that was the stretching of muscles in sallow skin. Preeti clutched at her wrist as Kavya made to turn away.
“Kavya, “she said. “Kavya, does Abhimanyu hit you?
Kavya pulled her arm away from Preeti gently. “Forgive me, I won’t be able to get you a wedding gift when you get married, I spent all my spare allowance on this,” she said. “When they see imprints of their nightly handiwork, it works them up even more. I would have got you a vase or a mixer, but I think this… “She trailed off.
But Preeti put the concealer back into Kavya’s hands, closing her fingers around it securely. However, far from being placated, Kavya threw her head back and laughed. “Abhimanyu and I were a love match, Preeti, “she said. “ All men hit their women; don’t be so naïve. This is how things have always been. I learnt the hard way. Now what have I got to show for it? A child of ra-“She stopped before completing the word. She smiled again, with an effort, as she saw the shocked expression on Preeti’s face.
“You’re right.” She said. “Yuvraj is a good man. But keep this anyway; in case you burn yourself, or get a pimple or something! We need you to look your best for the ceremony anyway.”
Preeti had made aloo paranthas and scrambled eggs in the morning to warm the chill of the rain that had crept into bones. No one dared to look at her face; for once she was glad that Golu was still sleeping, uncomprehending infant that he was. That morning, she had applied layers and layers of concealer on the dark purple bruise on her cheekbone, reducing it to a pink blush that anyone could discount to a healthy morning walk- and massaged a dot of pink lipstick on the other cheek, rendering it the same shade. Everyone ate steadily, using the paranthas to mop up the last bit of scrambled egg from their plates. Jaya finished first and waited for the rest to finish as well, stacking up their plates onto hers, one-by one. She patted Preeti’s cheek as she passed by to place the plates outside. “Pretty child,” she said nonchalantly, alluding to the colour in Preeti’s face.
After that, things seemed to fall back into their usual pattern. Preeti carried on with her usual days. Yuvraj went off to work; she walked down to the fields to cut grass for the cows. She would return to cook meals and wash dishes and clean the house, and finally, get some respite to herself in late afternoon, when the sun was turning cold and orange, like the yolk of an egg. She would cook dinner in the evenings for herself and the two girls, fill up their bottles of water, and then, after feeding the rest of the family, sleep in a cold and empty bed at night- for which she was grateful. Sometimes, the rustling of the blankets would inform her of her husband’s presence in deep night, other nights, when she was sure that he would not return, she brought Golu into the bed with her. One of the village belles who was rapidly ripening into maturity had started giving herself airs about a certain married man who was planning to get rid of his old, decrepit wife for her. Well, Preeti thought. Better you than I.
When the girls left, they presented her with a beautiful silk sari that they had bought from Almora for her. Jaya had been quite disgruntled about it, and therefore, Preeti kept it away, locked in a chest under her bed where it gathered dust. A month passed by when Preeti’s body finally confirmed what she had suspected for some time; a double edged whetstone, as it pacified Jaya immensely. Sweets were distributed in the village; Jaya could once again begin boasting of her daughter-in-law’s fecundity; barely two years into the marriage, and already expecting another child! Yuvraj began to haunt the bed again. The village belle that he had been courting surreptitiously was married off to a widower in the neighbouring village. Preeti did not expect that marriage to be a happy one; but then, what exactly was a happy marriage? She had recently come to know a group of women who were beaten so often that they deluded themselves into believing that a raised hand was a sign of their husband’s love.
But her piece of happy news did not mean that Preeti was given respite from her daily collection of back-breaking work. The exhaustion felt by her body began to manifest in her face; with each passing moon, her face grew waxy and waned. There was a puffiness about her ankles that was not a good sign. Her stomach grew big and heavy; bigger and heavier than it had been when she had been expecting Golu. Her countenance was that of a fruit laden stalk; the bigger the fruit grew, the thinner the stalk became, until it became a dry and papery wisp.
Her mother visited, and during her stay, prescribed a variety of herbal teas when she saw her daughter’s pallor. Not for a minute did she consider the alternative; that of rest and relaxation. Preeti’s mother had worked throughout her own pregnancies, once, right up till the time her water broke- when she was in the fields tending to the cattle. But Preeti did try to tell her mother the truth in the few moments that they could snatch together; for she was obviously not the first woman whose body did not comply for more than one swelling. There was the afternoon when Jaya had generously offered to take upon Preeti’s duties for the rest of the day, so mother and daughter could have some time together. Preeti’s mother, a born opportunist, decided to use the time to massage oil into her daughter’s head- to make the hair silky and lustrous.
“How long was it since you last oiled your hair?” Her mother exclaimed, rubbing her scalp with apricot oil; a specialised product from that region. She seemed more than willing to keep up a steady stream of chatter regarding cosmetics and beautification. But every time Preeti brought up the topic of the possibility of an abortion, her mother grew silent for a long time, so silent that only her breathing could be heard, so silent, that Preeti was not sure if she had even heard her words, the movement of the fingers on Preeti’s scalp relentless and unfaltering. But then, you cannot ask a rock to be soft. You cannot ask a tree to stop growing upright. You cannot ask a woman who has gauged her life by the number of children she has borne to provide advice on the possibility of never having children again, because then, what sort of life would she imagine? So this visit too, came and went, without bearing any fruit.
But something unexpected began to happen when Preeti’s stomach began to distend-something that hadn’t even happened when she was expecting Golu. The apple chutney that Preeti would make began to be consumed by Yuvraj regularly. Once, Preeti bent with difficulty to serve Jaya- it was an assortment of potatoes and bitter gourd; a vegetable that Jaya considered Preeti’s waterloo. Barely a bite had she taken when she began to praise the food to high heavens. “This is one of the best karela sabzi that I have ever had.” Jaya declared.
So things seemed as if they were turning around. One night, a month before the date of delivery, Preeti was at the stove making that very karela sabzi. One moment she was standing, a hand on her swollen stomach, and the other stirring the pan with a spoon, and the next moment she was on the ground in a dead faint, a cluster of half-cooked bitter gourd and raw potatoes tumbled next to her. The howling gusts of wind covered up the sound of her body hitting the floor, but Jaya looked up when the door slammed, and there was Preeti, on the ground, with a puddle of water around her legs. Her pulse was weak, and her skin was the colour of paper, and somehow, someone managed to call a doctor who worked at the nearby NGO. Dr. Priya, who had been working late at the ward, arrived with an army of reinforcements. She took one look at Preeti and the puddle of water around her legs, turned white, and barked sharp orders for hot water and towels to be brought immediately, while Jaya eased a groggy Preeti into a sitting position. She was barely conscious -it seemed that the contractions had begun. Preeti’s body had no longer been able to support the child and had broken down. It was a wonder that she had managed to hold out for so long, the doctor said. And as they battled to bring the child into the world, the sky turned from black to purple and then streaked with yellow- and Dr. Priya told the family the secret that Preeti had been hugging to herself for eighteen months.
The sun was a blood red circle in the sky when the child finally entered the world; two children; twin boys, trumpeting their arrival with angry cries. “She is blessed.” Jaya said tearfully, as she held her twin grandsons for the first time, tears streaming down her face. They were pink and ugly, as babies are wont to be, but to Jaya, they were the most beautiful children in the world.
“Preeti, come hold your children, “she said. She had one on each arm as she turned to look at her daughter in law.
But Preeti could not answer, nor could not be the judge of her own fortune. She was too far gone to be revived; her body had been inadequate to support one child, let alone two, and the price of this birth was her life. And as the nurses carried away the bloodstained sheets, one of them closed Preeti’s eyes in a gesture that looked as if they were checking her temperature.
Her body was cremated and the ashes were poured into a clay pot covered with foil. Her belongings were put aside. A portrait of her was framed, garlanded and put up in the house- and she began to be upheld as the paragon of all women. And since Jaya refused to wear a dead woman’s sari, the sari that Preeti had received as a gift; a sari that had cost a full five thousand rupees, the sari that Preeti had never worn, too was cast away.
In time, Yuvraj became the very widower who was considered an eligible match for young women with a finger pointed at their backs, and eventually, he married one, treating her with as much contempt as he felt such a woman deserved, regardless of his own philandering. She bore him more sons in addition to the three that Preeti had given him, and he beat her often as well- he was encouraged by the men in the village, and by Jaya herself. His new wife took it all quietly; and slowly, her body hardened and grew mottled with bruises. She began taking to wearing full sleeved kurta’s; and even when wearing a sari, would drape a shawl carefully around her shoulders. One day, after being slapped by Jaya, she was rummaging, dry eyed, through the cupboard of her clothes. She found a small circular box with a scratched label. It had a peach coloured paste inside it. When she tried the paste on her arm, the bruise on her skin disappeared. She was glad. She could start wearing half-sleeved kurta’s again.
“I am not a Bangladeshi” affirms Shehnaz as we prod her about her birthplace. She readjusts the pink dupatta over her head as she speaks- the wind pulled it off, revealing oiled, jet black hair, coiled into a knot on the top of her head. She is from New Delhi; born and brought up in a Muslim household, from the Ghaziabad region, the thirty-sixth sector. This year, she ruminates, she will complete eighteen years of marriage. We congratulate her, because that is what you do. For many of us, venturing into the stormy turbulence of first loves and relationships that threaten to crumble like a brittle marigold biscuit, eighteen years is a big number. But she seems too young to have completed eighteen years of marriage; she cannot be beyond thirty surely? I do not yet see any lines on her face. But we do not question, because how do you phrase a question like that? She sees it on our faces, because she tells us that she was married when she was twelve. Custom, she says. And anyway, she left her husband six years ago, and hasn’t heard of him since.
She smiles at us then; in the snatch of her smile, there is a glimpse of paan stained teeth. We sit, stunned, or rather, the lack of anything to say. We bite our tongues, and cringe at our inadvertent blunder. But Shehnaz doesn’t pause. He was a drunk, she says nonchalantly, and would drink away all my money. Conceiving a child doesn’t make a man a father, she says. Three sons, she has, and he wasn’t there for even one. What was the point of staying with him, she asks?
There is a deep rooted, but nevertheless, incorrect belief that domestic violence and such is prevalent widely only amidst the lower class women. I know now for a fact that it isn’t true-and also the evidence before my eyes pleads otherwise. I always thought it was the women of a lower social status who were unable to break free of the clutches of society, despite the many stories out there that cry to contradict it. I only paid attention to the scandalous stories in US Weekly, Filmfare; the flashy posters that grabbed the eye, and the headlines that screamed it. It is known as the availability heuristic; retaining information that supports an already preconceived notion. Besides, for people who already have so less, what is there to lose on leaving a husband who doesn’t pull his weight?
At any rate, for Shehnaz, there is not a single day she can take off. They live everyday on the basis of the trash that they collect; their daily bread depends on it. Plus, being a woman, there are always dishes to wash, vegetables to cut, food to cook, trash to segregate. She is relatively new, and the people in the surrounding societies do not know her, so she loses out on the extra five thousand rupees that she could earn as household help. What work do you do, we ask. Everything, she replies. The poor cannot afford to be choosy, she says. Besides, her sons used to go to school, but she took them out because she needed the money. Remember, there is no man in the house, she reminds us gently, and they do have to eat.
Perhaps the lack of a man in the house creates problems. She and her friend Naseema interact, yes, but still…she trails off into a silence. You have to understand, she says, that group activities are not the way of the community. There is quid pro quo, yes, but everyone fends for themselves. Even the trash that we saw, although scattered within the community, has some logic to it. Each mound belongs to a different family. We had walked up behind her when we entered the community-surprised her when she was washing dishes. There, on the skin between the nape of her neck and the arc of her kurta, were three pink welts rimmed with blue that ran down her back and threatened to impinge upon her neck. They looked as if they had been inflicted by a belt made out of leather. We ask her gently about it, in a roundabout way. Perhaps you fell into some shrubbery? There are a lot of prickly plants around, dried branches with extensions like knobbly fingers. No, she says. There is nothing on my back. She denies the existence of these wounds.
There is another dwelling in the settlement. There, the people are relatively well off because they work as field hands when they go back. But they are not good people, Shehnaz says with a shake of her head, almost dislodging the dupatta again. She tells us about an altercation that had broken out between a man from that dwelling and one of her sons. Naturally she had to intervene. My mind goes back to those welts. Perhaps the absence of a man in the house does have its negatives, despite the fact that her aadmi used to drink, and I suspect, perpetuate domestic violence. I feel like applauding her for leaving him, but what is the point? Feminism is all and good but it hasn’t made her life any easier, and how many Gulabi Gangs can exist, especially for itinerants? Despite biased thought, the fact remains that it is easier to exploit women of these conditions, because who can they tell? It is almost as if beatings are a predominant part of life, so leaving an abusive husband is mostly a question of choosing between the devil and the deep blue sea. She chose the sea, because although it is turbulent at times, it can also be counted upon to be tranquil, while a drunken husband can always be counted upon to be a menace.
The cold hard fact is that they don’t have much- apart from their thoughts. Being alone with your thoughts is dangerous ground. Socrates was executed. Others were beleaguered by society. But what about those who in their time off, can do nothing but think, because they do not have the resources to submerge their thoughts under layers of junk? And what if no constructive solution can emerge from these thoughts? I asked Shehnaz about her recreational activities, asked her if she likes to sing. On one of our first interactions, she graced us with a baul song- “The golden hearted bird”- a song about longing and separation. She declined that thought. Sewing is something she likes to do too, but it isn’t recreational, strictly speaking because there are always hand-me-downs that need to be equipped to size; and it has already been established that it is every man for himself.
Being lonesome with your thoughts when you don’t see a brighter future can put one into a very dark space indeed. Shehnaz told us quite plainly that the poor cannot afford dreams. It is not as I had thought then- a child of poverty does not require a fertile imagination to escape daily drudgery. Dreams just make the grounding harder, Shehnaz says, and they cannot afford it. I wonder if she is talking about the dreams or the subsequent fall. After all, it is not a young girl’s dream to grow up as an itinerant; to wash dishes and mop floors for a living. It is not a young girl’s dream to live in a ramshackle house made of cloth and tin and bamboo and a leaking roof, to have three children whom she can barely provide for.
I ask her if she misses her home. With a smile on her face she talks about the rain that threatened to flood their village on an annual basis- and succeeded too. She moved because of gang violence in her desh; there was an altercation when a few members of the gang poisoned the water supply. People dropped like flies, she remembers. Her village was excluded because the elders guarded the boundaries. But when they returned after a prolonged absence, all she could see were torn remnants of huts, splinters of wood and corpses. The topic of death leads her to the topic of injury, and she tells us about a snake that she had stepped on in her girlhood; a cobra that she had mistaken for a coiled rope on the ground. These memories flood back to her in a gush as she speaks , and as she links it to her inability to educate her children, she breaks down and bitter tears start coursing down her cheeks! Tears well up like relentless waves and she buries her face into her dupatta. We sit, startled, helpless before such unexpected grief. We could not have been more shocked if she had suddenly started disrobing.
Through hiccups and occasional catches in her throat, I make some sense of the incoherent words that are pouring out like a torrent; a waterfall from which the boulder has been removed. What was the point of it all, she cries. What was the point of marrying a drunk, what was the point of having children when the bleak future holds for them a life no better than their mother? Out of her three sons, perhaps only her eldest who just entering adolescence is destined for a slightly better life; she plans to teach him driving. He is still a bright eyed young boy harbouring dreams, and she fears that he will eventually become hard and bitter and curse his mother for not educating him, when her sore heart cries out that she would if she could, but she couldn’t!
Many of these villages impinge upon Maoist territory. Shehnaz says she is from Delhi. But from her stories emerge a far different world; a world where the sea laps upon the land, of fish and nets, of running feet and perpetrated violence. Even the words she uses to draw us into her story contradict their meaning. Their dialect, you see, is different. While Bengali is a language of shells and seas, Bangla requires one to force out a sound by placing the tongue between the teeth.
But then I think: how do you differentiate between a single land of composite culture by drawing a line across it and dividing it on the basis of religion? Language breaks up into different dialects as one proceeds along a road, it is something that happens. But she would feel culturally similar to a Bengali rather than a Marathi or a Gujarati, I should think. And for Shehnaz and Naseema, what do borders matter? For them it is just a bit of Bangla scoured away by the rain; a slight camouflage provided by the falling water.
They do not broach the subject of land or belonging; unless they stray into it inadvertently. When they realise it, they switch subjects, which, although is as smooth as a practiced evasion, fools no one. Makes one think- what information is so important that they won’t hint at it, even when unguarded? Their words, however speak far more than they realize. Shehnaz tells us with barely a tremor in her voice that there used to be Bangladeshis in the community, two or three, but they left some time back. She is from Delhi, she affirms yet again, tapping herself on the chest. Perhaps she even believes it now. After all, if you say something enough number of times, you start to believe in it – and nothing is harder than the pain of not knowing where one belongs. They have been forced to alienate themselves from their motherland and live in a nation that doesn’t accept them. Shehnaz spoke of how for many years she has not felt joy. Her wishes still include a cow or two that would eventually grow into a herd. A pakka house; one made of concrete, with a roof that isn’t buffeted by the wind as easily and frequently as their lives are.
She wipes her face with the back of her hands. I look at her callused palms and wonder how many tears it holds. She still waits to reap the fruit of her work. The stacks of plastic and newspaper around her flutters as she cries, as if moved by the very force of her grief. It is bound up, ready to be sold. I wonder if they should use it instead, to make a thousand origami cranes.
I found myself first taking breath when people started to clamour all around me. That was also my first waking moment. It was only when people started responding to my form that I finally acquired life; it was the final ingredient to the mud and the coconut fibres (which I would have much rather preferred on my poor, balding head, rather than forming my flesh) and the bamboo that formed my bones. Skeletally speaking, I would be an unimpressive structure, I think. Just a few broken pieces of bamboo holding my limbs together; one responsible for the awkward tilt of my head. They would be more like knitting needles holding pieces of wool together.
No one likes visiting their infancy. Maybe that is why memories are so fleeting; we barely remember our childhood because we don’t want to remember what fools we all used to be. In my case, I wouldn’t really like to imagine that I was once dry mud- hard to do when someone keeps trying to “fix” you with the occasional smoothening of water over your limbs, which would be like a caress if I didn’t shrink under it. They say that that’s how humans were created; that’s how my own creators were created, out of unformed clay, and then God whispered into their ears and ran his hands gently over their bodies and infused a soul into them. I just wonder somehow if gods aren’t just a little prejudiced. They created their own world with crustaceans, and amphibians and the cats and everything else, but ultimately, at the top of the food chain was someone that they created in their own image. Perhaps to reinforce the idea who was the true ruler of them all. A sort of vicious circle, it would seem. Good for me, because if my gods choose to make a whole line of me, I would be the first man. I would be Adam. And they could touch my fingertips and breathe life into me so that I could move, and then when they created the rest of the world, I would be the God. A real, vicious circle.
I don’t remember much when I was just mud and bamboo. I can tell you how it feels, alright. Feeling something became a variable that I could play with only once I was done being created; my body was done being formed. From the mud splattered feet, the colour of sienna with a reddish tint applied carelessly like poorly applied alta, and then looking at my own burnt skin, the colour of a walnut, I can deduce that I was stomped upon on liquid form more than a few times. There are other brick like rounds piled just behind me; I can see it with the corner of my vision- no wait. Feeling would be a better word; I can somehow feel what will become part of my flesh, like a magnetic attraction. Pity. I like how I look right now, all unformed and frozen and bubbly. I can feel hands trying to smoothen the curve of my shoulders; one on the lower back. I watch a bamboo-bone being pulled out of my knee with disinterest, and then plunged back, once, twice, creating to holes that crustaceans can bury themselves in. Perhaps in a few couple of hundred years when the world is run over by water, and I somehow, keep my form, I’ll look fossilized, with seaweed forming my hair, and crabs coming out of my insides. I do wish I had more hair, even if it looked like a balding spot. At least it’ll prove that I wasn’t born bald, that I did have some hair after all.
I’m sitting like someone looking at the sun for the first time, but that concrete water-dripping flyover blocks my view. One hand is behind me, and one hand extends in front of me; there are about three gods clustered in front trying to form my appendages. They extend all five, and then remove a lump of my flesh as determinedly and ruthlessly as Shylock, and start again. There are a cluster of people all around me, every direction, some are just watching, and they have been watching me take form since my very beginning. I feel annoyed. Why can’t they just go away? I feel that they know more about me that I do myself; they know me before I was, before my “I” even existed. I’d really like some time to deal with myself right now. One of the gods, a small, petite one, pushes away a few, and she’s my favourite. The Compassionate One, I imagine. God of kindness and compassion. Oh, but if they could only touch my fingertips already! I’d so like to point at her instead of the wailing fleet of vehicles which I am supposed to be looking at like I am falling in love with them. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The process of manicure and refinement continues for a while. My feet are formed; one girl extends a calf and a similar curve is impressed on my own beautiful foot as well. I liked the undulating curves on my leg. Someone is trying to make my head into an oval. Another grips my torso. . There is a hush then, and people begin to move away slowly from me, their hands outstretched, mud still forming on their hands, which they wipe callously, on their shirts, in buckets of water, and even on me, to my outrage. Imagine butchering someone and then wiping their entrails on the living body itself! My outstretched arm has one finger extending towards the traffic. I decide that I don’t like this very much. I wish that I could point this finger at them instead. I don’t think I like being alive. I thought I would be able to move, but I can’t. I’m rooted. I don’t want to be.
“She’s ready.” They say in a hushed whisper, and an explosion of thunder begins to reverberate around me. I am more than a little surprised. Wait. They’re happy because they created me? What about me now? Am I just supposed to be left here, to fend for my own self? What about the dogs who will come at night- and I know they will- and lick my shoulders, the steamroller than will not think twice before crunching over me, the car that will speed past, the one I will point at, sending a wave of dirty water to drench me? They don’t seem very concerned about me now. Two already left, bored before I was made. My outstretched finger begins to crumble as a line seeps through it like a ripple of water, like a fracture line in an earthen pot. With a sigh, that finger collapses, making my hand a clenched fist. Just as well. It’s more appropriate to my mood.