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Saba always noticed how Razia looked at the little children who played in and around the chawl. That twinkling of her eyes, that wistful smile.
In 2019 our beloved writing contest, Muse of the Month gets bigger and better (find out how here) and also takes the cue from the words of women who inspire with their poetry.
The writing cue for June 2019 is these lines from Indian-born Canadian spoken word and Instagram poet Rupi Kaur, whose poetry is some of the most quoted in recent times. Check out the lines here.
“what is the greatest a woman should learn
that since day one
she’s already had everything she needs within herself
it’s the world that convinced her she did not”
The fifth winner of our June 2019 Muse of the Month contest is Arva Bhavnagarwala.
The sobs once again woke up Saba. Living in the congested chawl, where the walls were as thin as paper, nothing was a secret in the families that resided there; and Saba, being newly married, found it unsettling.
She knew the sobs were of Razia aapa, the lady in her early thirties, who was living with her frail mother. But she wasn’t privy to the reason of her crying.
Saba wanted to talk to her neighbor, help her if she could, but her duties as the new bride hardly left any time for her. Sighing, she tried to sleep.
The next morning, as she stood in the queue for the toilet, she saw that Razia was just ahead of her.
“Aapa, I’m Saba, Khalid’s wife.”
Razia turned towards her and smiled, but did not say a word. She knew that if she tried to speak, she would end up crying. After doing her business, she quickly retreated to her dingy room.
Saba was surprised at her behavior and understood that may be she wasn’t ready to talk yet. She decided that she would take one step at a time.
There was no opportunity for Saba to interact with Razia in the following few days. The only sign that Razia existed were her constant sobs that travelled through the quiet of the night. But, Saba had made up her mind to talk to her.
The following evening, when her mother in law had gone out to meet some relatives, and the men of the house were still at work, she knocked at her neighbor’s door. The door creaked open.
“Sorry to disturb you, aapa… but can I borrow some sugar from you?”
Razia opened the door wider, as a gesture for Saba to come inside. The room was smaller than theirs and hardly had any ventilation. She felt suffocated and started coughing.
Razia came out of the tiny kitchen with a glass of water and some sugar in a bowl that Saba had wanted. Saba accepted both and gulped down the water in an instant.
“I’m sorry, this is the tiniest room in the entire chawl, but enough for both of us.” She said, pointing towards her mom who lay on the bed. She continued, “I know I may have come out very rude to you, but I don’t feel like talking to anyone.”
Saba shook her head in understanding, “It is alright, aapa. I was just worried, because I can hear you crying every night.”
“Oh….” Razia gasped and supported herself against the chest of drawers that was the only piece of furniture in the room. She had no idea that the walls were so thin, that even her silent cries would be heard. “I… I’m sorry, I didn’t know. I must have disturbed your sleep then… since so many days….”
She was about to cry again, when Saba held her hands and said, “Aapa, its okay. Tell me if I can help you. Please…”
Razia shrugged her hand away, “No one can help me. I’m not worth it. You go back to your house. Go…” She turned around signaling the end of their conversation.
Saba creased her brows and paced the common passage in the chawl. She wanted to talk to aapa. She had heard her in laws talking that Razia was a divorcee and had recently moved in next to them. But nothing more than that.
A few days later, Saba again knocked on the neighbor’s door. “I don’t have any more sugar,” Razia said. As she was about to close the door, Saba replied, “I don’t want sugar. Open the door. Please.”
Once inside, Saba started. “Aapa, I need your help. Khalid is bringing his friends home. And I don’t know what to cook for them. Also, I have never cooked for so many people. You will have to guide me.”
“Me? I’m a very bad cook. No one liked my food in my previous home. You ask someone else, or else I will spoil your husband’s party too.” There was a strange bitterness in her voice, which made Saba believe that it wasn’t the truth.
“It’s alright aapa, I know you can help me. Please.” After much coaxing, Razia relented. Together, they made a three course meal, which was later relished and appreciated by everyone.
When Saba informed Razia of their success the next morning, the smile on Razia’s face shone like a beacon of light.
“Saba, my dear, thank you for telling me this. I’m so happy after such a long time, you have no idea.”
“Yes aapa, I can see that on your face. Tell me, what took your beautiful smile away?”
Razia knew there was no way out of this. The woman before her was very determined and she wouldn’t leave until she knew everything. So they both sat cross legged on the floor and Razia regaled her past.
“My Abba married me off as soon as I turned 18. I had just passed my 12th and I wanted to study further, but he wouldn’t listen. I had to give up my dreams for him. My in laws were very kind to me initially. Aslam, my husband, claimed to love me a lot. I was happy and gradually settled into their family.
“A year later, I was pregnant, but unfortunately had a miscarriage. I was pampered and looked after very well post that.”
Saba listened with interest. Razia continued.
“We tried for another baby, but I had a miscarriage again. After this, I was sent to my parents’ house. My mother looked after me, but Abba kept taunting me. After staying with them for almost a month, I returned to my husband. Now, they treated me as an outsider. I did not know what was going on and when I tried to question Aslam, he would always brush it off, saying it wasn’t important. But, all these rebuttals, the off-hand remarks, the taunts were affecting me. I began to lose faith in myself.
“They never beat me physically, but the mental torture was too much. They kept finding faults in every little thing that I did. Every day, I died a little. They made me believe that I wasn’t good at anything anymore.”
Saba sat next to a now weeping Razia and patted her. Razia wiped her tears with the back of her hands, “Aslam and I kept trying for a baby; the physical intimacy being just a chore for me. I had 3 more miscarriages. I couldn’t take it anymore. I refused for sex once, and I had never seen such a violent side of Aslam before. He slapped me, called me names and went. I did not see him after that.
“On the day that Abba passed away, Aslam returned. He came with another bride. And with just three words; talaq, talaq, talaq, I was out of his house after 17 years of marriage… In one day, my entire world was destroyed…”
Both women sat hugging each other for a very long time. Then Razia spoke again, “We couldn’t afford that house any more. Abba had loans to pay. So we sold that, repaid the loans and came here at the suggestion of one of my uncles. I’m trying to understand myself since the last 6 months that we are here. I want to do something with my life; I don’t know what though. The fear of failing and worthlessness overpower me every time I decide to do something.”
Saba stood up and paced the small room, “Aapa, I’m planning to pursue a beautician course soon. You also should do something that you like.”
Razia stared across the room as she said, “Like? I used to like so many things, but I don’t even remember them now. My desires have been killed.”
“That’s rubbish. It’s all there within you.” She said pointing at her heart. “Whatever you need is there in you, only the world has convinced you the opposite.”
“I don’t know, Saba. But thank you for listening to me without judging me. Here too, everyone thinks it is my fault. That’s why I don’t talk much and keep to myself. Nobody here knows the entire story though, but they are quick to pass judgments.”
“That is true. We are all like that. At some point or the other, we have been guilty of doing that.” She paused in reflection, “But aapa, why do you cry every night?”
“I cry, because I miss myself. I miss that Razia who was so cheerful in her teenage years before the bond of marriage cut her wings. I want to be that Razia again, I want to be a free bird again, but don’t know how.”
“Aapa, don’t worry. I will help you. We will take one small step at a time. You will be a free bird again. That’s a promise.” Saying that she hugged the older woman.
2 months later…
“Saba… Saba… I got my first cheque…” An elated Razia greeted Saba. “Now, what?”
“Now, we deposit this in the bank. Don’t you have an account?” With no response from Razia, Saba explained to her, “It’s alright. Let’s open an account for you. I’ll teach you how to deposit this and fill one too.” She said pointing to the cheque.
It wasn’t a huge amount, just 1200 rupees, for a catering order that Razia had made food for. But, Razia knew that this was not her true calling. Yes, she liked cooking, but this was temporary, until she found her dream.
Saba always noticed how Razia looked at the little children who played in and around the chawl. That twinkling of her eyes, that wistful smile… Suddenly, a brilliant idea struck her.
The next morning, Saba explained animatedly to Razia about what she had found. “Aapa, it is just next to that institute where I’m doing my course. We can travel together. It will be so much fun…”
“Wait, my dear… I cannot do this… I’m not qualified. I cannot talk in front of…. And what about the fees? It’s too expensive for me.”
“Sshhh… calm down. You will be learning everything. It is called ECCE (Early Childhood Care and Education) Teachers Training Program. It’s a one year course. You will get a certificate and you will be able to teach there too.”
Saba clapped her hands, “And I spoke to the head there, Rashida Ma’am. I told her about your situation. She was very cooperative. She said you can pay how much you can and the rest will be deducted from your salary once you start earning. Isn’t that wonderful?”
Razia still looked torn. “I don’t know, how will I do it? I’m not sure at all.”
“I understand aapa, but do give it a try. Leave it if you don’t want to continue. But please, do not give up without trying. I have seen how you look at the kids around here. You will be laying the foundations for so many more children. Think about it…”
Razia was ecstatic. She had graduated from the teachers training program. The last year had been full of trials and tribulations for her. It was difficult initially, to be amongst so many other people, to learn again. She had been plagued by self-doubt often and wanted to give up; to go back and confine herself in that dingy room. But then Saba’s words always motivated her. ‘I can do it. I have it in me,’ was her constant mantra.
And it was the best decision that she had taken in her life… She was offered a job immediately in the same institute for her exemplary performance and creativity.
Razia was back on her feet and was a free bird who loved her newly found wings.
Aapa: Elder sister
Arva Bhavnagarwala wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: a still from the movie Lipstick Under My Burkha
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Hi. I'm Arva. A pediatrician by profession and writer by passion. A voracious reader,
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