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As she combed Sitara’s hair and helped her put on her nightdress, Akira found herself staring right at her own childhood.
The fourth winner of our March 2020 Muse of the Month contest is Sonam Chamaria.
It was nearing dusk. Akira wiped her sweaty forehead and looked out the kitchen window. Outside, in the shadow of the setting sun, two pairs of hands were making a paper kite. Their frocks soiled, their feet dusty, their faces full of unadulterated joy.
Every once in a while, the little girl would look up at the window and smile. “Amma! Look what I made!” she’d scream with happiness.
Akira waved at her daughter, a tinge of sadness lurking beneath her smile. Sighing, she pulled away from the window, pulling her dupatta tightly around her waist. Her husband Akbar would be home soon, and she had yet to cook dinner.
Standing on her toes, she reached out for the steel canister on the shelf above her. With acute precision, she measured out the flour and began kneading the dough. As her fingers moved nimbly through the flour and water, her thoughts drifted to her own kite-flying days.
Memories she hadn’t touched, for years, suddenly came to life. Her childhood home – the flat-roofed one-room house shared by her family of six with the huge peepal tree across the street. The squeaky sound of the swing her uncle had made out of a piece of wood, the wind on her face, the smell of roasted corn in the air and most of all, the dust beneath her feet. Her careless feet running after her brothers in their front yard. The sudden pangs of hunger that came from playing too much in the sun. Crowding in the tiny kitchen, sharing a meal with her brothers. Her Ammi’s tired face, barely visible in the glow from the oil lamp, as she served them food. Her Abbu’s disapproving look as he took in her appearance, his disappointment visible in the way he pursed his lips.
The memories brought a smile to her face. Akira moved the plate to one side and washed her hands. “I need to stop recalling the past, it never does any good” she reprimanded herself. She spent the next few minutes humming a song as she cut some vegetables. But try as she might, she found her thoughts drifting back to those times.
She recalled her childhood friend Fatima, and their long walks to school. And then, invariably, it hit her. The day her Abbu had come to collect her at school, walked her home and asked her to change into something “more suited” to a girl. The tears, the shock, and the sad look in her Ammi’s eyes were etched deep in her mind. What followed was no less dramatic. In less than half an hour, she was engaged to Akbar – a man she had never laid eyes on, until then.
Her school satchel and all her books but one, were handed to her brothers – “what good was education to women, anyway?” they said. Her tee-shirts were replaced by five sets of salwar-kameez – “maybe if you dress like a girl, you will start behaving like one” they told her. Her friend Fatima who was “too forward for her own good” was not allowed to see her anymore. And from that moment on, all her time was to be spent in learning how to cook – “what else did you think your duty was?”
A loud thud brought Akira back to her senses. With a jolt, she turned to see Akbar standing at the door, taking off his shoes. Outside, the din of the streets and the tingling voices of the little girls were louder than before.
“Oh, you are back,” said Akira, startled. Quickly, she stepped forward to help Akbar with his bags.
“Yeah, why is Sitara still playing outside?” Akbar asked curtly, glancing outside.
“She’s a kid – let her,” said Akira, arranging the groceries on the kitchen table.
“She’s always playing, this one” said Akbar, narrowing his eyes. “Sitara!” he called out. In less than a minute, four-year old Sitara was standing at the kitchen door, panting and trying to catch her breath.
Her father turned to her and was just about to say something when Akira stepped in. “Come, I will change your clothes,” she said, taking her daughter’s hand and steering her out of the kitchen.
As she combed Sitara’s hair and helped her put on her nightdress, Akira found herself staring right at her own childhood. With a sinking feeling, she realised that Sitara’s life was going to turn out to be exactly like hers. Tears welled up in her eyes as she thought of all the ways society had planned to take away her innocence and free will. For the next ten minutes, Akira sat still. She had only one thought – “I will not let Sitara suffer the way I did – I will choose better for her.”
It was 2018. In the warm wintry sunlight streaming through the window, a seventeen-year-old girl was putting some books in her bag. As she stepped away from her bed, she adjusted her dupatta. She glanced at the mirror one last time and smiled at herself, before stepping out of the room. Outside, her Ammi was eagerly waiting for her. “Come Sitara, we will be late – the cab is here!” she called out.
Sitara rushed out of the house with her handbag in tow. The rest of her bags were stacked neatly in the car’s backseat. Sitara turned to look at her home. Tears in her eyes, she turned to hug her Ammi.
“I love you – I will try and make you proud Ammi,” she said.
“You already have,” said Akira, wiping her daughter’s tears. “Take care and call me every day,” she said, a catch on her throat. “And sometimes, call your Abba too, wherever he is, he is still your Abba”.
Sitara nodded her head, wiping away her tears. “Now, now, don’t cry” said Akira lovingly, kissing her on the cheek and pulling her in a warm hug.
“As you go off to college today, here is something I wanted to give you” said Akira, pulling out a worn-out notebook from a paper bag. “What is this Ammi?” asked her daughter, her eyes wide with curiosity.
“This is the one school book I had somehow managed to keep all these years. It means a lot to me. And I wanted you to have it” said Akira, pushing it into her daughter’s hands. Sitara took it in her hands, a tad disappointed to be handed an old notebook.
Sensing her daughter’s disappointment, Akira quickly stepped in. “Now off you go, my sherni” she said, playfully punching Sitara, in an attempt to lighten the mood.
“Bye Ammi! I will call you” said Sitara excitedly, the rest of her life glittering in front of her eyes.
On the way to the station, Sitara pulled out the notebook to look at it properly. The cover was worn-out, the pages thin. And on the first page, scrawled in her mother’s spidery handwriting were the words:
“Success will be ours in the future. The future belongs to us.”
– Akira, March 1996
Editor’s note: It’s the new decade of the new millennium, and here’s a fresh theme for our beloved writing contest, Muse of the Month. In 2020, we bring to you quotes feminist women achievers around the world – we hope to bring you some food for thought, and look forward to the same engaging short stories that are a hallmark of our Muse of the Month contests.
Here’s the woman for March 2020 – March is Women’s History Month. And who epitomises Indian women’s history to where we are today, than Savitribai Phule, the woman who started education for girls and women, as well as for the Dalit-Bahujan samaj in the mid-1800s? As a co-incidence (there are no co-incidences, someone has said!), the anniversary of her death is on 10th March – she passed away on 10th March 1897, while helping people suffering from bubonic plague in Pune.
Savitribai Phule’s life and work was not known much till a few decades ago, to some extent as a result of the discrimination she faced as a ‘lower caste’ woman, promoting education for those traditionally kept away from any knowledge. But let’s not forget, that today we, Indian women, can read and write all thanks to her. She has recently been honoured by the naming of Pune University as Savitribai Phule Pune University. You can read a quick timeline of her life here.
There is not much saved of her words, though a book of her poems, Kavya Phule, is still in print in Marathi. A few of her letters written to her equally illustrious husband Jyotiba Phule while she was recuperating from an illness at her parents’ home, also survive, and the English translations are also available in book form – an excerpt from this book can be found here, from which I have taken the cue for the March Muse of the Month.
The cue is this quote by her: “Success will be ours in the future. The future belongs to us.”
Sonam Chamaria wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: YouTube
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Sonam Chamaria is a published author (From Stressed to Sorted), professional Tarot card reader (SoulSpeak
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