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“That’s what sisterhood is all about, Neelam. To stand with one another, to uplift the one who is sagging mentally, emotionally, socially and even financially. And that is what we have done.”
A warbler called in the distance, giant palm leaves rustled with the gentle breeze as a luminous moon brightened up the city’s darkest nooks. Anisha and Neelam had finished their dinner in a strange silence. As they cleared the table and washed the dishes, both were preoccupied with thoughts of an eventful day. The chores done, Anisha asked Neelam to go sit on the terrace. When she joined her with cups of some hot cappuccino a few minutes later, she found her still engrossed in her thoughts.
“Is something troubling you, Neelam?” she asked gently. “It’s a special day for you, then why are you so unusually quiet?”
Neelam had come to Anisha’s place a day before. For the last twelve years, she had been working in a government school as a teacher of Mathematics and had an excellent track record as an amiable, competent, and empathetic teacher. This year, she had been chosen for the year’s Best Teacher Award and the Governor had felicitated the chosen awardees in a gala ceremony that morning.
“Yes I am fine. I am so so delighted at this recognition but this award has also made me revisit my past. Those dark ominous nights…” suddenly she moved forward and held Anisha’s hand. “If you hadn’t…”
“Shhhh… this is not a day to think about the past. You have a bright future ahead, just be happy for what you have accomplished and rejoice in the glory of the moment,” Anisha patted her hand reassuringly.
“Yes I know but I can’t help it, can we just sit together for some time if you are not too tired?” Neelam looked at Anisha earnestly.
Anisha nodded. Both sipped their coffee in silent understanding.
And then she blurted suddenly, “You know how I felt that night when you held my hand and patted my back to steady my heaving body! When I had been crying myself to death in that dark corner and nobody from my family had bothered to check where I had gone in the dead of night… when you asked me why I was sitting there and handed me a glass of water in understanding, you were like a messenger from God telling me that I was not alone in the world.” She spoke rapidly as if in a hurry to relieve a burden hanging heavy on her heart. “You were almost a stranger yet you had come over to help when you saw a lone woman sitting in that obscure corner behind your flat. We were neighbours of course but we hadn’t interacted that much so you didn’t really have to be concerned.”
“But Neelam, that’s what anyone would do in that situation. I don’t think I did anything great that needs to be mentioned after so many years.” Anisha cut her in mid sentence to protest. She had never aimed at getting acknowledgements and gratefulness from anyone.
“Only I know what you had done for me with those few words of empathy. I never told you what had happened that night in my home; my husband of seven years, the father of my sons had listened silently as my in-laws hurled accusations of theft against me. I was asked to leave the house and when I protested my brother in law had tried to push me out. Terrified I had rushed out of our flat. My husband didn’t try to stop his brother. He didn’t stop even me. I had no money and no phone. I couldn’t call anyone, I couldn’t go anywhere leaving my sons behind.”
Neelam stood up and started pacing furiously up and down the narrow terrace. Bitter, ugly memories of that night were writ large on her freckled face.
“You didn’t ask anything but pacified me with your soothing touch and quiet understanding. I could think a bit clearly after calming down. Weary and still frightened, I went back home to find people a bit anxious at my long absence but nobody asked me a question because showing concern for a mere daughter-in-law would have hurt their ego. I picked up my kids, shut my room and tried to think of a way out of this vicious trap. Suicide was one of the strongest options I considered that long treacherous night,” Neelam laughed gutturally.
“No, don’t say that!” Anisha sprang to her feet, alarmed.
“No no, don’t worry. I never thought of that again. Even once,” Neelam laughed again, more relaxed now but her face was still creased, her plump body still taut with resurfaced agonies. “Then I met you in the market one day and you still didn’t ask me anything, you were just so understanding that I may not welcome any intrusion into my family affairs so you were keeping your distance. But I still remember that one thing you told me, ‘try to become self-sufficient!'” Neelam smiled, a bit feebly though.
“That set me thinking. What could I do that would not annoy my family further? I had a degree in mathematics and computer science and had worked as a graphic designer before marriage. But I had to quit my job to move to that small city which didn’t offer many work opportunities to women. Besides that my orthodox marital family didn’t like daughters-in-law going out to work. So years of being away from academics and work coupled with a series of marital discord and abuse had dented my self-confidence severely. Getting a job was hence ruled out at that moment. I thought of asking you for advice but being a teacher you were mostly busy. Then it struck, I could also teach! And I started giving tuitions. The in-laws smirked and jested, they taunted and jibed as I fumbled with the lessons of even grade 3-4 students but I persevered, I learnt and continued to teach. And when I had somehow managed to establish myself in a couple of years, a friend encouraged me to take up a job in her school, another helped me prepare for the interview…”
Anisha continued to hear her quietly, lest her words interrupt Neelam’s flow of thoughts. Empathy was what she had always offered Neelam.
“Throughout the years my parents and other family members had been telling me to bear the torture silently as ‘aise jhagde har family me hote hain’ (such disputes happen in most families) and that it was not our bharateeya sanskriti and parampara to leave the husband’s home on small pretexts. They tried to comfort me that ‘gradually everything will be alright’ but you – my friends pushed me to strike out of the web I was trapped within, silently again. You see, it was no longer about my husband, my children, my family. It was about me, my self-worth, self-esteem and my independence and I could not afford to fail,” Neelam was getting breathless recalling the days of her struggle for survival.
Anisha poured her a glass of water and pushed her back into the wicker chair. She needed to be calmed down.
“Yes Neelam, you had the capability and the strength within you. You needed to be given just the right push to resuscitate your dying spirits and how beautifully you rose! I remember how enthusiastically you grabbed the first opportunity you got to do your B.Ed. and become a qualified teacher, irrespective of the hard work it entailed and the immense time and family management you had to do with precision. You’re what you’re today because of your own grit and determination, my dear!”
“Thank you so much, Anisha! If I have been able to support and help my children study well, if I have regained respect from my husband and in-laws and more importantly if I am able to respect myself today it’s because of you and my many friends. When my own people tried to trap me into the quagmire of anonymity, you silently propelled me towards a glorious sunrise; when I was drowning in self-pity you guys rescued me from the ominous, imminent oblivion. You were always there when I had any doubts-personal or professional-to help me out with your sane, practical advice. You supported me yet maintained the discrete line between advice and interference,” Neelam slid out of her chair, sat on the rug and held Anisha’s hands in gratitude, tears glistening at the corners of her kohl-lined eyes.
“That’s what sisterhood is all about, Neelam. To stand with one another, to uplift the one who is sagging mentally, emotionally, socially and even financially. And that is what we have done. You drew out on your inherent strength and rose to be a winner today, to be the pride of your family, children, students and your friends. You’re the most important pillar of your family because of the way you’ve reinforced yourself and I am so proud of you, my dear!” Anisha ruffled her hair indulgently.
“Thank you for giving me all the credit, Anisha! But if I have been able to brace the darkest nights of my life, it’s because the brightest stars in the sky-you and all my friends-who steered me out of oblivion! Indebted to you for life, my guardian angels. Be there as my lighthouse. Always!”
“Chalo chalo, now you’re making me sentimental too! It’s a day to celebrate your award, not cry. Let’s raise a toast to the new you with another cup of coffee’. They walked towards the kitchen, singing gaily with a childish lilt, ‘We have overcome, we have overcome, deep in our hearts we did believe, we shall overcome some day.”
The full moon also rejoiced in the starlit sky.
A version of this was first published here.
Editor’s note: This story had been shortlisted for the Muse of the Month December 2018, but not one of the winners.
Image source: shutterstock
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