“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; 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 he would drink away all her 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 is prevalent only amidst 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 women of a lower social status who were unable to break free of the clutches of society, despite the many stories out there that contradict it. I only paid attention to the scandalous stories in US Weekly, Filmfare magazine; 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 when leaving a husband who doesn’t pull his weight?
At any rate, for Shehnaz, there is not a single day she can take off. She lives everyday on the basis of the trash that she collects; her 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 has friends whom she interacts with, like Naseema. Naseema’s husband looks out for Shehnaz’s sons outside the community , yes, but still…she trails off into a silence. You have to understand, she says. Although we live together in one area, we don’t do things together, we don’t contribute to other households. There is quid pro quo, yes, but every family fends for themselves, regardless of how many members it contains. 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, surprising her as 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 to their villages. 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 good and all 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, and she often sews for Naseema, but it is strictly speaking, not recreational. Besides, 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 you 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 a 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 as she relates an incident from her childhood, 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.
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 is 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 can’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, is as smooth as a practiced evasion, and 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.
This article was published on Offprint magazine