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.