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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 third winner of our July 2020 Muse of the Month contest is Sangeetha Bhaskaran.
Lalita listened to the cuckoo clock’s irksome announcement, counting each interruption till the motorized bird retreated and the little wooden door snapped shut. Silence. She had time to lie in bed before dawn broke and nudged her towards the day with a map; the same one everyday – chores, kids, husband, work, exhaustion, the occasional hint of purpose that could delight or disturb.
The printed red flowers on the curtains buoyed eagerly by the momentum from the spinning fan’s blades. Lalita thought of her own real flowers – her geraniums, her roses, her marigolds. After years of growing only what she needed – herbs and vegetables- she had recently taken up ornamental additions to her garden.
Gopal slept beside her, with his arms stretched out and folded into a V on either side and his hands tucked beneath his pillow. The posture reminded Lalitha of the pinball machines at the arcade she used to take Siddhu and Shree to once a week when they were younger. He slept the same way every night. Even after their monthly ritual of sex, he held Lalita for a while before kissing her on the forehead and turning away and into this pinball pose.
She hummed to herself and toyed with the idea of baking a loaf whole-wheat bread in the evening. When the sky lightened to a shade of indigo, she got up and brushed her teeth.
Lalita put the milk to boil, took out dinner’s leftovers to pack into lunchboxes, and made upma for breakfast. After brewing herself a cup of coffee, she sat at the table with her phone, scrolling through messages, articles, and funny videos.
Within an hour, the silence dissipated as the other members woke up and bustled about. Siddhu ran around the house trying to find gel to tame his dry curls. Gopal puttered in the kitchen, cutting fruits, and making tea.
“Amma, there’s no shoe polish left! Give me something to wipe with please?”, Siddhu shouted as he stuffed books into bag. Lalita handed him a square of printed cloth, one of her old nighties cut into pieces and kept just for such emergencies. Siddhu wiped his black shoes in a hurry, slipped them on, yelled a quick goodbye, and left to catch his bus.
It was nearly 8 and Shree was nowhere to be seen. Lalita peeked into the bathroom and balcony.
“Gopal, did Shree leave already? She hasn’t taken her lunchbox…”, she asked him as he buttoned his shirt.
“She must have left. Okay listen, Vinay has invited us home for the weekend for their anniversary party. Figure out some gift to buy or order online.”
After Gopal left, Lalita ate her upma and then did the dishes. She went to the children’s room to pick their clothes from the laundry basket and was startled to see Shree slumped in a gap between the wardrobe and wall, staring at the floor.
“Shree! What happened? I thought you left already… “
Lalita dabbed at her forehead to check for a fever but her skin was wasn’t warm. Shree didn’t acknowledge her mother but continued to stare ahead fixedly.
“What is this? Get up and tell me what is wrong, then only I can help you. Is it about the exam results? Don’t worry da, whatever you get, we will be proud of you. Look at Appa and me. He was a backbencher and I was a topper. And now… he is more successful, and I sit and fill forms for people for a living!” Lalita took her daughter’s palm into hers and caressed it.
Shree remained wordless. Her hair framed her thin, pale face and Lalita stared at it, her patience turning into worry, and then anger.
“Shree! Get up and talk you stupid girl! What is it? I have work to do. Get up and get ready, I’ll drop you to school.”
Lalita got up and gave her a hand to lift her up but Shree’s eyes didn’t move from the spot on the ground she’d been staring at since her mother came in. Lalita’s instincts were now prickling, and she knew it. In all of sixteen years, she had never seen this look in her daughter’s eyes. She sat before her and held her shoulders, shaking her, screaming at her with rage, asking and asking because she had to know.
“I’m pregnant Amma.”
Taking a deep breath, Lalita released her hands from Shree’s shoulders and let them drop to the ground. Her head bent low with the weight of the words, she put her hands on her own face and pressed her eyes shut.
When she was a little girl, her father had taught her the art of Japa, repetitive chanting of mantras to calm the mind. ‘Pray to Hanuman if you want this. Pray to Shiva if you want that.’ Japa had given Lalita strength whenever she needed it; in the throes of labour, taking care of a sick and infuriating mother-in-law, in the face of financial distress when they had loans to pay and kids to feed. It was her gift – to be able to withdraw from a reality filled with immediate pain.
But now her mind was blank, her body enveloped with fury. Her child was with a child. She had held her in her womb, then her arms, then in her mind and heart for every moment of every desolate day with the hope that it would all be worth it eventually. And for what, this?
She caught hold of Shree’s hair and yanked her up to make her sit on the bed. Shree’s screams and cries salved her anger.
“Sorry Amma sorry… please Amma sorry… please…”, she wailed.
Lalita slapped her. Left. Right. Left. Right.
“I TRUSTED YOU … YOUR FATHER TRUSTED YOU …”
When her palms burnt, she used her knuckles to dig into her shoulders with all her force.
“What kind of a girl are you? Only sixteen and …”
Shree grabbed her feet and begged her to stop, snort dripping down onto her mother’s nightie.
“This is all my fault. I let you talk to that boy… I let you believe in yourself… I gave you the freedom I never had. Very good Lalita – YOU deserve this.”
She pounded herself on the head with her palms, an attempt to drain her disappointment in her daughter, herself, this pathetic journey of life.
And then it was quiet. They sat across from each other on the floor, with shame and anger shimmering like a heat wave between them. Lalita’s mind had switched gears now and she was thinking, not feeling.
“I will talk to your father when he comes in the evening. Then we will see what to do. Go sleep. I don’t want to see your face.”
They did not eat all day and when Siddhu came home, he was surprised to his mother and sister at home.
“Mass bunk or what?”, he asked as he rummaged through the fridge.
Lalita swirled words in her head and resisted the urge to pick up the phone and call Gopal home immediately. She longed for his rationality. He had always been the problem solver while she drifted away with emotional chaos. Yes, Gopal would know what to do.
The cuckoo clocked chimed every half hour, punctuating the tension. When Lalita finally heard the keys jangle at the main door, she shuddered with relief. He walked in, took off his shoes, and went to the kitchen to rinse his tiffin boxes. Lalita followed him and waited till he turned.
“What’s for dinn…hey what happened?”
Lalita fell into his arms and wept, comforted by his vast arms that emanated the sour odour of sweat.
“Is it your mom? Did something happen at work? What is it?”, he asked as he tried to pull her away from his chest and look her in the eye.
“What about Shree? Tell me.”
Gopal watched and waited till Lalita said the words. Then he filled a glass of water, drank it in a few gulps and walked to their bedroom. Lalita went after him and waited as he changed.
“What do we do Gopal?”
He took off his watch and placed it neatly in the top drawer of the dressing table, opened the cupboard to choose a shirt to iron for tomorrow.
“What Lalita? What do you want me to say? Should we invite the boy and his parents over and arrange a wedding?”
“I’m angry too Gopal.”
Gopal laughed. It was his ugly laugh, the kind he used when he was bitter or vengeful.
“You used to fight with my mother when she told us to be careful with Shree. YOU talked about raising your son and daughter equally. So now here we are. And you’re angry? Why should you be angry?”
“Oh, so now all the decisions we took have become decisions I took?”, Lalita retorted.
“Think of it however you want. You made me look foolish in front of my mother, like I had no say in how to raise our children…”
“Gopal, what are you bringing up now? This is not the time for that conversation. We have to figure out what to do now about Shree …”
“Not we, darling, You. You have to figure out. You wanted to raise an empowered girl, right? Now go fix this mess yourself. Leave me out of it.”
Lalita took a deep breath in and shut her eyes. She chanted and hummed, filling her mind with blue space, seeing her blooming flowers and their splendid colours. Of course, this was what it would come down to when you became a mother; suckling your children, waving them off to school with hope and prayers, listening and teaching, absorbing all responsibility and blame. You were everything and nothing.
She went to the kitchen and measured flour, yeast, salt, oil and water. Slowly, she kneaded a ball of dough and set it to rest. She would bake it tomorrow.
They ordered dinner and sat together at the dining table. Siddhu talked about his cricket team, Gopal listened half-heartedly, Shree nibbled slowly on a dry naan and Lalita stared at the vibrant green palak gravy on her plate. Gopal did the dishes and Shree cleared the table. He called her to sit with and watch the news and talked to her like nothing had happened.
“Go make me some green tea please,” he told her.
She made two cups and they sat together watching an angry news anchor lambast guests on his show.
Later, Lalita lay in bed, listening to Gopal’s deep breathing. She scrolled through her phone, reading about teenage pregnancies, searching through forums for advice. Her sister had sent her a few clinic numbers and she resolved to call them tomorrow. She crammed her head with as much information as she could.
Lalita didn’t sleep all night. She went to the living room and took out old photo albums, made herself a cup of coffee and went through each page slowly. Shree in pigtails, frilly frocks, sitting in a ride at the amusement park, holding her teddy bear with a crooked smile. Shree, happy, wild and innocent.
When the sun rose and swept the darkness away, Lalita got up and went to her bedside. She slept peacefully on her side, her hair rolled into a bun. Lalita lifted the cotton comforter and lay down beside her, curling her arm around her waist. Shree stirred and turned to see her mother’s face.
Lalita kissed her cheek and whispered softly, “Shhh… everything is going to be okay. Now, tell me everything.”
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.”
Sangeetha Bhaskaran wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: a still from the film Badla
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