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I was lost for words and a bit ashamed that instead of greeting or talking to her I was taking stock of her room. What was she doing in this junk-room? Was she here for some chore or was it really her room?
Time hadn’t changed her a bit. Still pretty and petite! Although she had put on a bit of body mass and gained a few inches vertically in the decade I hadn’t seen or heard from her. I was able to recognise her instantly as a familiar quaint smile flickered across her lips.
The quaintness of her smile was comforting as well as reassuring. So I knew she had recognised me and therefore I didn’t need to introduce myself. We were childhood friends after all. And I had really no intention of introducing myself again after being treated to a curt welcome by an older woman, presumably her mother-in-law, who had been casting suspicious glances at me after I told her I was there to meet Lakshmi.
The woman was all smiles as she opened the door for me, and also courteously replied to my greeting, but after I uttered Lakshmi’s name and asked if this was her house, her demeanour changed. An expression of disapproval was writ large on her face and she clearly didn’t make any effort to hide it.
My interrogation began as soon as I told her that Lakshmi was my friend. She grilled me over and over again about my surname, caste, father’s name, my marital status and number of children I had and almost had a fit after I told her that I was not married yet.
“You should marry soon, otherwise it becomes difficult to bear children with passing age,” she said and warily accosted me through a spacious courtyard. She stopped right in front of a room, and knocked on the door. “Lakshmi, your friend has come to meet you from Delhi,” she shouted and then turned towards me, “Lakshmi is not well, so don’t be long.”
“Oh, what happened to her?” I was alarmed.
“Nothing! Don’t worry! Do you need some water, or tea?” She asked casually.
“Yes, I am a little thirsty,” I said hoping that my answer wouldn’t enrage her. “I will get you something,” she said and walked away.
The door squeaked open and I could see Lakshmi. She moved a few steps back, making way for me to enter the room. The room was some kind of storehouse full of some big brass utensils, electrical appliances that I assumed had stopped working, a broken tricycle, two bicycles minus brakes and mangled rims and some other junk.
“You haven’t changed.”
I halted my inspection of the room and looked back at my friend. “Yes, and you too,” I said.
I was lost for words and a bit ashamed that instead of greeting or talking to her I was taking stock of her room. What was she doing in this junk-room? Was she here for some chore or was it really her room? I couldn’t see any bed. My nostrils were battling a musty odour seemingly emanating from the dank walls.
“Nice to see you after…after so many years,” she said again, and it was my turn to talk.
I met Lakshmi for the first time some 15 years ago. My family had come down to one of the most beautiful hill stations in the north for summer vacation. We were lodging in one of the not-so-pricey hotels that had cropped up in the recent past to cash in on the increasing trend of travelling and exploring newer places instead of visiting grandparents and relatives during school holidays by middle class families such as mine. It was early 90s and India had just opened its markets to the world. The advertisements on television had attained a new flair, international brands were wooing middle and upper class and everything seemed moving in the right direction. National beauty paegent winners too were making it big internationally and we had recently produced a Miss Universe and a Miss World.
“Yes, we haven’t met for the past 12-13 years. So, dear, how have you been?” that’s all could I utter.
“Good!” She, too, didn’t have much to say.
“Well, it wasn’t difficult to find you although I wasn’t very optimistic,” I said recalling all the phone calls I had made to the hotels in Mussoorie and Nainital where her father worked as cook and caretaker and then my journey from Delhi to this remote village in the hills of Kumaoun.
“I can never forget my vacations I spent with you, Lakshmi. You were such an inspiration,” I blurted my heart out.
“Really? It’s hard to believe. I mean a city-bred girl saying this to… to…a…” and she was beginning to stammer.
“…to a village belle?” I completed her sentence. And we had a hearty laugh. It seemed as if the puzzling hesitation between us had been overcome and the vague qualm sorted out.
“Lakshmi, why are you and your friend so loud? What would our neighbours think?”
The older woman, presumably her mother-in-law, was standing at the threshold carrying a tea tray, her face red with fury. She came in, slammed the tray on a stool, and stormed out.
“I am really sorry. My mother-in-law doesn’t like noise…” Lakshmi had started to stammer again.
“It’s okay dear,” I touched her shoulders and tried to cheer her up.
She found a stool from the junk for me to sit on and also managed to grab a broken piece of furniture for herself that almost looked like a mini bench. Seeing her rummage through the junk thrust me into the memory lane when we, as little girls, became friends.
I didn’t like her much when I saw her for the first time as a kid. She was shy, didn’t talk a lot and I always found her head buried deep in books, or magazines left or forgotten by the hotel guests. She too had holidays and therefore helped her father with buying provisions, doing odd jobs around the hotel and running errands. We were roughly the same age and therefore passed cursory glances at each other whenever we crossed each other’s paths, mostly at the corridor and in the huge garden outside the hotel.
One day as we returned to the hotel in the evening after a visit to nearby tourist attraction, I asked my parents if I could take a stroll in the garden. They said yes and immediately retired to their room. I walked alone in the garden, smiling, touching, smelling, adoring and admiring the flowers and the orchids. As I reached the end of the garden, I could see Lakshmi through the kitchen window. She was emptying packets of lentils in huge containers.
“Hey, do you know the names of all these pulses?” I shouted from outside.
A puzzled Lakshmi looked in all directions to discover the source of this low-pitched voice. And then she looked through the window, and found me staring at her.
That was her reply. Short and crisp. And she resumed her chore, glancing at me intermittently through the window.
“Oh, I know them only by colour; names confuse me,” I said and waited for her reply.
She looked at me with astonishment and then burst into a luscious laughter, infectious enough to make me grin too, despite the knowledge that she was laughing at me.
“Really, is it so difficult to memorise the names of these seven-eight pulses?” She crackled again. And this time, I too laughed with her.
“Lakshmi, don’t laugh so hard, grandmother’s going to scold you if you laugh like this in her presence,” that was her father’s voice.
“But she isn’t here, Baba,” said Lakshmi as she pushed the last container inside a wooden cabinet and trooped out of the kitchen. That was our first interaction, through the kitchen window, that paved way for many such interactions and a beautiful friendship between two young girls who belonged to two different worlds but had similar dreams and aspirations.
“When did you marry, Lakshmi?” I asked her casually, as I took to sipping the hot beverage.
“Five years ago, and I have a kid too – a boy,” she smiled.
“Oh wow! I didn’t know that. I knew that you were married, but nothing about your kid. How old is he and where is he now?”
“He’s four and he has just started going to a playschool, only for three-four hours… will be back soon.”
“And, are you married?” She asked timidly.
“Oh no, I am not. Never found anyone interesting enough,” I winked.
“Oh, my parents found one for me. A girl isn’t supposed to find her own match around here. If she does, parents or family may not find it interesting,” she winked too.
“But what do you do? Some kind of job or are you studying?” she continued to talk, ask, and sip the tea. I could see that she was beginning to enjoy my company as I did hers in our childhood.
“I just finished my PhD, and now going abroad for a post-doctorate. And I am so happy to have met you before leaving.”
“Oh dear, I am so glad. I remember how your career choices changed every few weeks, I mean, when we were little,” she had another luscious laughter.
How true was that. I wanted to become a doctor initially, then an engineer like my father. But I realised that these two professions were very ‘dry’, uninteresting, and unglamorous. At one point I also dreamt of becoming a Bollywood actress, but lost the motivation after Lakshmi analysed that women in Bollywood never got powerful roles and were expected only to sing, dance, look good, cook or offer sacrifices. I agreed with her.
“And Lakshmi, you wanted to become a pilot. Do you remember?” I tickled her.
“An Air Force pilot. How can I ever forget?”
Lakshmi was a voracious reader and read everything she could lay hands on. She was 12-years-old when I first met her, a year older than I was. After our through-the-window interaction, I met her almost every evening for the entire month of my family’s stay in that hotel. We talked about everything under the sun and also about what we wanted to become once we grew up. Lakshmi wanted to be a pilot. She told me that Indian Air Force had just started inducting women pilots and she would love to join the troops.
“I need to work on my Math and Physics because these are two most important subjects one needs to become a pilot. And I also need to improve my English,” Lakshmi used to tell me while cutting the vegetables for dinner. I envied her; she was so focussed, unlike me.
But when we returned to the same hotel two years later for our vacations, she had changed her career choice. She was 14 now, more mature, and more aware of the worldly affairs.
“My grandma laughed so much when I told her that I wanted to be a pilot. She laughed for five minutes, not less than that. And then she turned serious. She was raging, almost seething. She looked at me and asked me not to have such high-flying dreams,” Lakshmi said in one breath after I asked her how well was she preparing to realise her dream.
“I am not even allowed to dream. My dreams shouldn’t betray my gender. Grandma said I shouldn’t forget that I am a girl,” she was almost crying.
I couldn’t sooth her because I couldn’t understand why wasn’t she allowed to dream. I was thinking of becoming an air hostess in an international airlines mainly to roam around the world for free but couldn’t muster courage to tell my friend about my new-found ambition.
We were together again for a month, mostly meeting in the evenings sharing trivia about our family, school, friends and whatever mattered.
“I eavesdropped on a conversation between my grandma and my father yesterday. She was telling him to keep an eye on me,” Lakshmi confided in me.
“She says I am forgetting my limits. School education is ruining my wits and one day I’ll bring shame to the family. But that’s what she says about every other girl in the village who goes to school and does well in studies. So I really don’t care.”
“What about your mother? What does she say?”
“Oh, she says nothing. She mostly nods to reply to my grandma. Yes, she talks to my father but they don’t get much time together.”
I gathered some guts to ask her if she had really abandoned her plans to become a pilot.
“Of course! No one in my family will support me,” she gave an upfront reply.
“So, what now?”
“I think I will be a teacher, like every other woman around here who wants to work and has completed secondary school or has been to university. I want to do something in life, to become something so that I am able to help my family financially. We are poor and I want my education to change our lot,” she was so clear and crisp.
So was she able to realise her dream?
“I am a housewife. I worked as a teacher briefly before I got married. I had to leave my job after marriage because my in-laws didn’t want me to work in a private school. They could allow only if I had a government job which unfortunately I didn’t…..”
There was some noise outside prompting Lakshmi to cut short her sentence.
“I think you have guests,” I said.
“Yes, my mother-in-law was expecting some neighbours. Don’t worry, they’ll sit in the drawing room for a while and then my mother-in-law will leave for a stroll with them,” she sipped her tea.
“And you? Are you not allowed to entertain your guests in the drawing room?” I asked her blatantly.
“Actually I don’t have many guests.”
“Is this your room? I can’t see any bed here,” I asked another blatant question.
“Actually you have come on a wrong day…” she snapped, took a deep breath and continued. “No, I am sorry; actually, this is the perfect day for you to be here. Had you come some other day, I wouldn’t have found time to sit and chat with you. I get up at 5 o’clock in the morning, take bath, cook for the family that includes my father-in-law and mother-in-law, two unmarried brothers-in-law, my husband, and my kid, clean the house, wash the clothes and everything else. And we have cattle too, and I am the one who takes care of them. My work is back-breaking, only that I don’t get paid for it,” she smiled, her smile was a mix of irony and misery.
“Oh gosh! And how come you are not doing anything today then?” I asked.
“Because I am menstruating today. I am not allowed to touch anything, or anyone, and hence no work for me for the duration of my menstrual period. And this room? I am confined to this room when I am bleeding. Yeah, you can’t see any bed here because menstruating women are not supposed to sleep on bed. I sleep on the floor.”
“Oh my God, Lakshmi. How do you tolerate all this? Do people still believe in this bullshit? In this day and age?”
“Yes, they do. A lot of them. My mother-in-law does. Her mother-in-law did too. The cycle continues. Bleeding women are considered impure.”
“You are not supposed to continue with this cycle of abuse. How does your husband see all this?”
“He has grown up seeing his mother putting up with all this, so it’s kind of normal for him. Just a way of life! But he’s nice, better than a lot of men or husbands I hear about…”
“And I am also expected not to touch my kid. My family keeps him busy and doesn’t let him come near me. He is so young, he needs me and I need him too. So, I grab him, when no one is around, to cuddle him. Can you imagine, not being able to touch your own flesh and blood because you bleed?” Lakshmi stops there, her features taut with an unspoken melancholy.
An uneasy silence shrouds the ‘junk-room’. She is unable to speak, and I have nothing to say. I couldn’t bring myself to believe that the little girl who dreamt of becoming a pilot and a teacher, and to change the lot of her poor family, had resigned to such a fate.
“Hey, but there’s a positive side to this too,” Laksmi breaks the silence and I listen intently to her in surprise.
“You know, there is so much of work here that I don’t get time even to straighten my back on normal days. But when I am on my periods, I cannot touch anything. So everyone is on their toes cooking, cleaning, bringing provisions and doing everything I do all by myself on other days. And my mother-in-law, who doesn’t like to move a muscle, serves me warm food, grudgingly though.
“Oh, so you are treated like a queen for these five days. I can visualise your mother-in-law serving you food,” I chuckle.
“Yes, she has to. They cannot afford me being sick; then they’ll have to hire a help and it will be a costly affair. But managing for four-five days seems perfectly fine,” and she smiles.
Her mother-in-law shouts from the drawing room. She is leaving with her friends and will also bring her grandson from playschool.
And it’s time for me to leave too. Oh, I have something for Lakshmi. I open my bag and remove a neatly-wrapped rectangular package. “This is for you, my friend,” I tell her.
“What’s this?” she inquires as she eyes it curiously.
“Nothing, just a part of our memories,” I smile, and she smiles back as she carefully removes the wrap to uncover a photo frame. A photo of us: Laxmi reading a “Reader’s Digest” and I simply gawking at the camera. It was clicked by my father during our stay at the hotel when we became friends.
“Thank you! This is precious. I used to read so many books and magazines those days. They took me to another world – and filled me with immense hope,” she sighs.
“Well, hope never dies,” I gaze into her eyes. “And certainly not until you let it die.”
“Yes, and I still carry some in my heart,” Lakshmi says as she tenderly meets my gaze.
We hug each other; our parting embrace has warmth of our old friendship.
Image source: shutterstock
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Journalist, photographer, blogger who loves to chronicle everything from mundane to magnificent.
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