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The landlords did not want a single woman with a child and said they preferred a ‘family’. What were they then, she thought.
The fourth winner of our July 2020 Muse of the Month contest is Janani Balaji!
She has just finished reading the story of Ghatotkacha to her now 11-year-old son. “I like Hidimba,” he said. Indeed, Hidimba was a special woman, an unsung part of the Mahabharat, a rakshasi who had boldly confessed her love for Bhima.
Had she made a mistake in proposing to Rakesh, she wondered. She had always been practical and no-nonsense. Rakesh and she had been study-buddies at college, and he was a refreshingly sensible boy. He never had that dumb gaze that most men she knew got when they saw her. He was smart and full of dreams. They had the most brilliantly thought-provoking intellectual arguments. He didn’t scoff or hide a roll of his eyes when she spoke about equality or gay rights.
They had continued to meet often, as they moved into their careers, and when there were murmurs of arranged marriage for her, she made up her mind. After a lovely lunch, she proposed to Rakesh. It was not a head-over-heels kind of love, but she was proud to call him a friend, and wasn’t a best friend the best husband there could be?
Rakesh had hesitated. Dipti was a stunning woman but he also knew the girl with a strong mind. She had her eyes set for the sky and with her talent, she would get there too, he knew. It was not as if he had not thought about her. He had known her for five years now. His mother had been pestering him to look out for a girl before he went to the US as well. She would be such a lovely companion to have for life. Smart, funny, pretty…
“Yes, that sounds like a good idea,” he had said. And she had broken into that delightful loud laugh, and that had settled it.
The first year had been almost perfect. He was glad to not have to find romantic ways to please an overeager wife while they were at home. Dipti was twice as busy as he was, trying to start an NGO alongside her job. Yet whenever they were together, it was like an old t-shirt that they could just slip into to relax. They cooked together, ideated together and lifted each other up, just as two best friends would do. She smiled as she remembered the horrified look on her friends’ faces when she had explained her proposal at an office party.
“You are too sensible. Women should be romantic, else the men will stray,” a well-meaning colleague had advised.
“No, no! She is so gorgeous. Rakesh should consider himself blessed and guard her well,” another had countered.
Dipti could barely stop herself from shaking her head at these women and their views. She knew the strength of their relationship had nothing to with her looks, it was a special friendship that few could hope to find.
Then, little Arjun was due soon. Fate seemed to be planning her break as Rakesh got a project in California. A break year for her was due anyway, she thought happily. Little did she know what lay ahead. She was not prepared for Rakesh turning into this super-strict, disciplinarian parent. He was a stickler for rules but she hadn’t even imagined he would be an old school ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ type of parent. While she had never missed a romantic boyfriend, a caring and affectionate father was still necessary for a child’s growth, right?
By the time Arjun was five, Dipti dreaded coming home. As she grabbed Arjun from the daycare centre, she would sometimes whisper to him, “Here, finish these Oreos before your dad finds out.”
She was sick of his lectures on not giving junk food. It was not like either of them were junk food fans! She couldn’t fathom why even an occasional oreo or chocolate seemed to drive him up a wall. To make matters worse, Arjun was a bookworm. He showed absolutely no interest in outdoor games and cringed at the mention of any sport. Rakesh, however, was relentless. Constantly warning a child about a little tummy! What she couldn’t understand was that Rakesh was not a great sportsman either, he also read his books on AI and watched National Geographic! Yes, Rakesh exercised regularly but Arjun was also just a child.
Arguments grew. They spilt over into areas that had never been an issue. Words that had never been said now made daily appearances. She resolved each day to stop this nonsense and just hold her tongue. But if it felt unfair, there was just no way she could. Then, he would just quietly go shut himself in a room or walk away, as she fumed and wept alone…
Then one day she saw Arjun, 7-years-old with his eyes full of tears as she and Rakesh yelled at each other. She looked at them through his eyes for the first time. What kind of parents were they? That night, she lay awake for a long time. It was not the first time she had thought about leaving Rakesh. She could see herself, in fact, screeching it out many times in their fights. She didn’t like what she saw. The morning after the fight, the sensible, practical her had always managed to reason it out, “You are overreacting. He is a good man. He has not done anything wrong. Just different approaches”. And Rakesh had been in her life for a long time now.
What about Arjun? What would he think of her? Should she deprive him of a father? What about the pain of a divorce? Did she want to raise her son alone? Her whole body felt cold as a heavy sadness enveloped her. The thought of walking away from her home seemed to rip her apart and a strange fear – a staggering worry of what was right gripped her.
“Mama, are you there?” a little voice squeaked.
“Yes, Arjun, where will I go? Come,” Dipti said hurriedly, wiping her tears as she reached for the night light.
“I was worried you had left the house like you told Papa,” he said as he clambered on to the bed. She hugged him tightly as a fresh set of tears dropped gently on the comforter.
The morning rays shone on her face. She woke up feeling light and happy. She had made her decision.
“Rakesh, I think it’s best we split. We are barely even a shadow of who we were and it’s not at all what Arjun should see of us,” she said calmly to him as she chopped the onions for the omelette as he juiced the apples for breakfast. He had stopped and looked at her in a way that had hurt and healed at once. They both knew it was for the better. But would Arjun accept it?
Her entire family tried to convince her to reconsider the split. A few friends even suggested she leave Arjun behind, as she would never find a man who would accept a woman and her child. So ridiculous, she thought.
Rakesh was the one who had suggested she move back to India. She got a transfer to the Banglore operations centre. They had called it a move she needed for her job to Arjun. The more she stayed away, the more she knew she had made the right call. Each time there was a call on Arjun, they had argued even on the phone…now even the calls had slowly diminished. Arjun had settled remarkably well and seemed to enjoy the numerous people he got to interact within sharp contrast to his US days – the dhobi, the driver, the house didi – all had stories to tell.
Being a single mum in a gated community, however, had not been easy. The landlords did not want a single woman with a child and said they preferred a ‘family’. What were they then, she thought.
Even after she managed to get a house, she was still not a part of the ladies’ groups and dinner events in the building, where they called over each other’s families. Not to mention the insecure wives, who looked at her as if she was waiting to nab their husbands as a dad for Arjun. The worst was the school report days when all parents showed up in pairs, and she kept checking Arjun’s face to see if he worried or was upset that he had no dad to stand beside him. But Arjun’s wide smile and the chatter that echoed through the school corridors were enough to silence these nagging problems.
Four years had whizzed by. It had not been easy doing double duty as a working mom and single mom, juggling mom and dad roles as well. Her mother had not still forgiven her for her “stubborn foolishness”. Her friends still looked at her as if she was some strange mythical creature – a single mom and happy! How strange! Rakesh and she were still friends…or civil co-parents, but being in two countries had separated their worlds.
She had just gotten promoted that afternoon, so extra hours and travel seemed like a distinct possibility. She had to take it, she was considering better piano lessons for Arjun and they had seemed rather pricey. She would have to find someone to take Arjun to cricket practice and arrange for snacks as well. (Interestingly the driver’s tales about Sachin Tendulkar had got Arjun hooked on to cricket). Her morning school carpool would have to be flipped as well.
As she tucked Arjun in, she picked up I Am Malala from his nightstand, he must have been reading it earlier. As she started making her long list of things to be managed with her impending travel, she remembered an appropriate quote from the book, “At night, our fear is strong but in the morning, in the light, we find our courage again.” And she was glad she had found that courage.
Editor’s note: Malala Yousafzai has been an inspiration for girls all over the world since her story became known. At the age of 15, she survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban. Patriarchy most fears a girl or woman who can read, think, and has her own opinion, and will make her own choices. This was taken to an extreme by the Taliban who were on a mission to eradicate all forms of learning for girls and women.
Malala has since then been in the spotlight for many reasons, most notable of which was the Nobel Peace Prize she shared in 2014 with Kailash Satyarthi. She has also lent her voice to many whose voice wasn’t being heard.
The cue is this quote by her: “At night, our fear is strong but in the morning, in the light, we find our courage again.”
Janani Balaji wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
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I am Janani Balaji. A grade 9 student, 14 years old and passionate about writing
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