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With the anger and shame, that day, Sharmi had seen, in her mother, the face of a woman who had had enough. She had seen resolve in place of forbearance.
The fourth winner of our June 2020 Muse of the Month contest is Abarna Sekaran!
She sits in her usual spot, away from the throng of identity card clad, almost-identical humans on their work break chattering away with their chai and samosa. She sits there even though there are better spots in their small tea shop. And she sits there even if it means that she must endure the wrench of the overflowing garbage bin near her.
The tea that Sharmi gave her a few minutes ago, sits on the table untouched, forgotten by its consumer. The said consumer lost in her thoughts. From her counter – where she sits in her chair with her crutch beside her, from where she takes the tealeaves-soaked solution in a tumbler, mixes milk and hands it over to the people who interact with her only to tell her how they want their tea – Sharmi has an undisrupted view of her. She is here without the husband, but she doesn’t seem as happy as she does when that happens. No, she isn’t happy at all. Sharmi wonders why.
As Sharmi watches, a fly, buzzing, falls into her tea and her trance is broken. She seems confused, as if she doesn’t remember how the tea came to sit before her. Then she sighs and stands up with her purse in her hand. She goes towards the bill counter, presumably to buy another tea.
Swami uncle is at the till and he bills her for a chai without her having to ask. With no luck finding cash in her purse, she takes her phone out to pay. Her phone tries to make sense of the black bar of seemingly indecipherable codes.
Meanwhile, Sharmi notices the woman’s countenance has changed from stoical to something slightly resembling anger. Sharmi imagines that she is remembering an incident that happened a few months ago, the first time she noticed the woman.
Sharmi must have seen the woman and her husband before the incident too, probably regularly. But until then, the woman had been indistinguishable from any other working mom in her mid-thirties. She was weary, resigned, a belly bulge that stayed postpartum, dark circles and premature wrinkles that would soon announce to her in the mirror that slogging away at home and work has its price.
That day when she came in with her husband, Sharmi was at the till. The woman and her husband ordered a tea each and the woman took her phone out to scan the code on the sticker and pay. Her husband intervened and told her, rather arrogantly, Sharmi thought, that she was using the wrong app to pay.
The husband was wrong, and the woman tried to explain it. Even though the sticker said in block letters the online payment company’s name, it was in fact an all-in-one payment code that can be used with any app. But the husband wasn’t convinced and pushed her aside to pay using his phone.
Sharmi wasn’t all that intrigued by this so far. It was, after all, normal for men she had seen in her life to dismiss the women. There had been manhandling, but in the grand scheme of things, it was irrelevant, unremarkable even.
But when she turned and saw the woman, Sharmi remembered something she had long forgotten – her mother’s face when her father hit her. It wasn’t the first or even one of the earlier ones, it had happened sometime in the year ten of their marriage. With the usual anger and shame, that day, Sharmi had seen in her mother, the face of a woman who had had enough. She had seen resolve in the place of forbearance.
From there, it had taken her two months to leave her father. When Sharmi later asked her mother, what pushed her over the edge, she said that it was his indifference. He had kicked her aside as if she was this thing on his way. She knew that once relegated to the inanimate, there was no coming back. There was no trying to make him see her, much less respect her.
Sharmi, seeing the same resolve on the woman that day, understood two things. First, there are so many ways men, if they wanted, could make women feel small and second, the woman was going to leave him someday.
It was months ago and from what Sharmi could see and overhear occasionally, the husband appears to be more or less the same. Once Sharmi heard the husband tell the woman that she should join the gym, the postpartum thing had been going on long enough.
In another instance, Sharmi heard the woman ask her husband, if he wanted to go to a movie about a housewife who pursues a career in dancing at fifty. The husband said that it was too soapy and whiny for his taste. He still doesn’t let her pay the bill using her phone and the woman still stands there, staring at him indignantly.
Last week, Sharmi heard them arguing about the woman’s job. The husband, for reasons best known to himself, wanted the woman to quit and the woman said that without her work she would be nothing. He told her that it was regressive to think that way, she was still a wife and a mother, and good women took pride in that. The woman responded calmly that she respected the women who wanted just that, but it wasn’t all that she wanted. Now, the husband clearly wasn’t having all those, with a tone of finality, he said that if she didn’t quit, it would be the end of them.
Sharmi surmises that the job thing is why the woman looks gloomy. The husband joins the woman after a few minutes and if there is something resembling love in the woman’s eyes for the husband, Sharmi doesn’t see it.
Sharmi hears them talking about the job again and this time, the woman is pleading, crying, she lets go of that last bit of dignity and bawls. People are looking now, and the husband shushes her and asks her to stop the drama. She whimpers quietly now and continues begging.
Sharmi reckons that the only reason the woman would quit her job to stay in this loveless marriage, like her mother did for years, is because she is scared. She is scared that the world would not be kind to a woman without her husband, that it would expect her to fail. And she is scared that she would prove the world right.
Sharmi doesn’t blame her. It is easier to stay and slowly let the time erase the parts of yourself that know the taste of financial independence and the identity that your job gave you. Despite this understanding, Sharmi doesn’t want her to give up, not if the only reason for staying is because the world and her daughter think that she would fail without a man. No woman, if it can be helped, should set herself up for such a miserable life.
Sharmi decides to be that help and moves towards the couple with her crutch. As she moves, she sees the tableau getting uglier. The husband, red and angry, raises his voice, and pounds on the table. And the yet-again-untouched tea is knocked over in the process and falls to the ground.
The woman, crying, drops on the floor to pick up the pieces. Sharmi hurries over and helps the woman, and the husband ashamed of the scene he caused, leaves. The woman, defeated, sits on the ground and watches him go. She has stopped crying now and turns to meet Sharmi’s eyes.
Sharmi can choose to say one of the many things that are whirling in her head now, that would be okay. And that an educated woman like her would be back on her feet in no time. That the world is changing and there are other women like her to guide her. And she doesn’t have to be scared.
But what comes out is something her mother used to tell her all those years ago when her legs started failing her – you cannot let the fear of falling stop you from walking. So, she says that, and the woman stares at her unblinkingly.
Sharmi fears she has offended the woman by her unsolicited two cents, but the woman breaks into a smile and thanks Sharmi. She stands up to leave, and Sharmi, dumping the glass pieces in the bin, waits for tomorrow to see if the woman walked.
Editor’s note: Oprah Winfrey has seen all possible reasons to be underprivileged in her life. A black girl born to a single mother in rural Mississippi and raised in poverty in the inner city Milwaukee. Faced sexual abuse in childhood and early teens. Was pregnant at 14, her son born premature and dying in infancy. But she did not let all this drag her down once she decided to pick herself up and work to raise herself above all this.
She began as a co-anchor at the local radio at 19, and thereafter has risen to be known globally for her trademark style of talking and interviewing – an emotive, personal connect with those she speaks with, an unstoppable force to be reckoned with. Oprah, has today become a household name.
The cue is this quote by her: “So go ahead. Fall down. The world looks different from the ground.”
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Picture credits: Still from movie Lipstick Under My Burkha
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