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Only If I’ve Actually HAD A Life

It seemed strange that Amma could have an existence independent of Appa. Did her mother even have a personality of her own, or opinions that weren’t her father’s? She didn’t know.

It seemed strange that Amma could have an existence independent of Appa. Did her mother even have a personality of her own, or opinions that weren’t her father’s? She didn’t know.

Our Muse of the Month series this year focus on stories that pass the Bechdel test, and are written on inspiration from a new prompt every month. This month, the prompt was “Fearless. Because I’ve been Afraid”, and the story should pass the Bechdel Test, that is, it should have at least two well crafted, named women characters (we differ here slightly from the classic Bechdel test, in that we require these characters to be named),

  • who talk to each other
  • on topics other than men or boys.

The first winner of our June 2018 Muse of the Month contest is Devika Rajeev.

Only If I’ve Actually HAD A Life

Sunita dropped the bag on the bed with a thud and said, “This is your room, Amma.”

“Really?” asked Amma, surveying the room with a hint of distaste.

It wasn’t much to look at. It was the “half” in the 2.5 bedrooms in the house, and it was barely wide enough for the single bed and almirah it contained. There was a small window, uncurtained, which showed the wall of the building next door and let in little light.

Sunita knew it was a far cry from the large house and garden that Amma had been used to at home.

“I’m sorry, Amma. Earlier when you and Appa visited I could get the kids to sleep in our room for a couple of days. But it doesn’t make sense this time.”

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“Yes, you’re right. After all, it’s just me now,” Amma said.

“I mean, I meant…” Sunita fumbled.

“It’s okay, Sunita. Don’t worry, I’ll brighten this room up.”

Sunita smiled, relieved. Her mother could be relied on to deal with anything in her own quiet way.

She considered Amma. As usual, she was clad in a dull cotton sari and a matching blouse. Her grey hair was in a careful bun. But she seemed taller than before, somehow. Had she lost weight? Well, she couldn’t be blamed if she had. Losing her husband of thirty-five years must have been traumatic for her.

In fact, Sunita wasn’t sure if forcing Amma to come and stay with her in this claustrophobic city had been the best idea. But Anil had insisted. Daycare for the kids was such a big expense, and having Amma around would help them save that money.

“So what do you plan to do now, Amma?” Sunita asked, as an opening statement. She would somehow bring the topic around to the kids.

“Now that my husband has passed away and I have no reason for living, you mean?” Amma responded with a strange smile.<

“I meant…” Sunita asked, flustered. Why was her mother looking for deeper meanings in everything she said?

“I know what you meant,” Amma said, still smiling. “Don’t worry, I’ll find something. I’ve started painting again, by the way.”

“You used to paint?” Sunita was startled. She had never known that about Amma.

“Yes, till I got married.”

“Why did you stop?”

“Oh, I got too busy, I suppose.”

Sunita wanted to ask more, but she felt unsure of herself. Which was strange, because she had never felt that with her mother. Amma had always been a quiet and retiring woman, a meek mouse to her father’s autocratic tiger. In fact, throughout Sunita’s childhood, she had never heard Amma’s voice raised. Her father had done all the shouting in the house, whether at his kids or at his wife.

In fact, she suddenly realized that she didn’t really know her mother very well. For her, her Amma and Appa were one unit. It seemed strange that Amma could have an existence independent of Appa. Did her mother even have a personality of her own, or opinions that weren’t her father’s? She didn’t know.

“By the way, I need to buy some new clothes,” Amma said. “I’ve given away most of my old clothes.”

“Sure, Amma. We have a nice sari shop not far away – good cotton saris, reasonable prices. You won’t need to buy expensive ones anyway, since you’re going to be at home.”

“No no… I don’t want to wear saris anymore. I want to buy salwar-kameezes.”

“Salwar-kameezes? Why on earth?”

“Why not? I used to wear them before.”

“Before? When? I’ve never seen you wearing them.”

“I did have a life before you came along, you know,” Amma’s reply was sharp.

Sunita was taken aback. Amma getting angry was something had never seen before.

“Don’t worry, you don’t need to take me. I saw a Fabindia showroom on the way here. I think maybe I’ll go there tomorrow.”

“FabIndia is expensive, Amma!” Sunita said, appalled. “Even I don’t shop there.”

“So what? I can’t shop where you don’t dare shop?”

“But such a waste of money, Amma!”

“Your father wasn’t exactly a poor man, you know.”

“So now that he’s dead you’re going to spend all his savings on clothes?”

“Why not? It’s not like he spent any of it on me while he was alive.”

Sunita didn’t know how to respond to this. When had her mother grown a tongue and learnt to talk like this? She and her brother had always been able to bully their mother, even as kids.

“But why do you want to buy expensive FabIndia kurtas when you’re going to be staying at home anyway?” Sunita changed tack.

“Why are you assuming I’m going to be staying at home?” Amma asked.

“What else will you do? You don’t know anybody else here.”

“That’s fine. I’ll go alone. I’m sure there are lots of places to see in this city. I have to do SOMETHING with my time, after all.”

“Actually, I thought you would help me with the kids. You know, look after them till I come back home,” Sunita admitted.

“Ah, so that’s why you were in such a hurry to bring me here. I thought as much,” Amma said, smiling. “Don’t worry, I’ll help you. Just don’t expect me to stay cooped up in my room like an old grandmother.”

Sunita rang the bell and waited. She wondered what fresh change she was going to see in Amma today.

In the one week since she had moved in, Amma had gone on a shopping spree. The first day, she had gone to Fab India and bought herself clothes, as she had said she would, though even in her new state she hadn’t been able to bring herself to buy more than a couple of kurtas at FabIndia prices. The next day, she had gone to Westside and bought an entire cartonful. Wearing these new colourful clothes, she now looked very different from the colourless Amma of Sunita’s childhood.

She had also bought herself new walking shoes. She had started going walking every morning and was thinking of joining the morning yoga sessions in the gym.

Sunita was angry that her father’s money was being spent this way, but there was nothing she could do about it. It was now her mother’s money, after all.

And it wasn’t just the money. Her maid had told her that her neighbours were talking about her behind her back. That her mother was the most colourful new widow they had seen. That instead of sitting at home and mourning her husband, she was out and about and building herself a new life.

Anil opened the door. From his amused face, Sunita knew that her mother had again done something new that day.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Go and see,” Anil said, smiling.

Sunita dropped her bag on the table and went to Amma’s room. She saw Amma through the open door and stopped dead. Amma was sitting on the bed and reading to the kids. The normally boisterous kids were listening to her engrossed, but that wasn’t what had shocked Sunita.

Her mother had cut her hair short! It was almost boyish, but quite chic in the way it showed off her cheekbones.

“Amma!” Sunita cried.

Her mother looked up at her and grinned. She turned her head to either side and asked, “What do you think?”

“Amma, how could you?”

“What?” Amma stopped smiling, confused.

“Why did you cut your hair?”

“I was getting tired of the long hair,” Amma shrugged.

“But… You know your long hair was always Appa’s favourite thing about you.”

“Yes. And that’s why I had to let it be for thirty-five years. Now I no longer need to.”

“Amma! Please stop! Why are you doing all this? I’ve heard of people being affected by their spouse’s death, but this is a little too much. New clothes and new haircut and new friends. I almost think you’re happy Appa is dead!”

Amma looked at her in silence for some time. Then she sighed and closed the book and told the kids to leave them alone for some time.

“Sunita, I’ve been trying to avoid telling you this. I thought there was no point in bringing up the past. But I can see you’re never going to be able to deal with this if I don’t tell you the truth.”

“The truth about what?”

“I’m not sure if you know this, but I wasn’t exactly very happy in my marriage to your Appa.”

Sunita was so angry that she almost asked, “So?” Her parents’ generation weren’t supposed to have emotions, after all. They got married, and they stayed married. They weren’t supposed to THINK about whether they were happy or not.

“When I got married, I was just twenty-one and I was doing my final year degree. I was the beauty of the college, the one who participated in all the competitions and whom everybody admired. Your father was eight years older than me. He was a policeman, and he was so dashing he pretty much swept me off my feet. My parents weren’t very enthusiastic, because he already had a reputation as somebody who had no problem beating people up to get confessions. But I thought I knew him, I thought he was different, I thought he was a softie inside.”

Amma sighed. “But after we got married, everything changed. He revealed what a horrible person he had always been inside. He made me stop my studies. He decided that I should no longer wear the salwar-kameezes I had been wearing till then. He bought me ugly colourless saris to hide my body in. He made me stop my hobby of painting, saying it was unsuitable for his wife. He ensured that I stayed at home and cooked and cleaned for him my entire life.”

“But you could have… resisted.”

“You know perfectly well that he had his methods.”

Sunita remembered. When shouting hadn’t worked, her Appa had sometimes resorted to using his hands. Again, on both his children and his wife.

“And so I withdrew into myself. I stopped talking, I stopped laughing, I hid my personality somewhere deep inside, so that he couldn’t find something else to take offence at.”

Sunita tried to take it all in. She couldn’t believe this of her Appa. She had always idolised her father, because he had been the tough guy in their town. Everybody had been scared of him. Yes, he had had a temper, which meant that he sometimes shouted or broke things or used his fists, but that was just because he had liked things done a certain way and her Amma hadn’t always been able to measure up.

“But that’s still no reason to be acting the way you are, Amma.”

“What am I doing that you don’t like?”

“Everything! Why are you changing yourself so much? At your age you should be sitting in your room and … I don’t know, reading spiritual books or something.”

“Preparing for the afterlife?” Amma laughed. “Sunita, don’t you see? I can prepare for the afterlife only if I’ve actually HAD a life. The thirty-five years I spent with your father don’t count. I need to spend at least a few years on my own terms, living as myself, not as your father’s slave.”

Sunita flinched at the word.

“In that case, Amma…” she said.

“You want me to leave, right?”

“Yes, Amma. I’m sorry, but I can’t take this anymore. Every day I come home dreading what you’re going to do next. We’ve already become the laughing stock of the neighbours thanks to you. I can’t take the risk of you bringing home a boyfriend next.”

“You’re so much your father’s daughter, Sunita,” Amma said quietly.

An hour earlier, Sunita would have taken that as a compliment. Not anymore.

Devika Rajeev wins a Rs 250 Amazon voucher, as well as a chance to be picked one among the top winners at the end of 2018. Congratulations!

Image source: pixabay

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