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Oh, but it is true, child. For most women, the waiting comes from their earliest years. Waiting to be asked to choose, waiting to be heard, waiting to be loved, to be appreciated.
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Ujwala Shenoy Karmarkar is one of the winners of the October 2020 Muse of the Month.
The plane taxies and comes to a halt. Typical of a small town airport, the airport building is just a few metres away. Quickly alighting and picking up her overnight bag, Kala ducks into a washroom to change out of her jeans and sleeveless top into a salwar kameez.
Some things just never change, she thinks with a sigh, as less than an hour later, she is standing outside her childhood home. The mansion that houses four generations of her extended family.
As twilight gathers around her, she gazes at the silhouette of a structure that looks like it has sprung from the earth around it. Solid, rooted in tradition, timeless. Welcoming, yet menacing. Beckoning you to an embrace that will engulf and swallow you in its entirety and demand the surrender of your identity.
She sways slightly, feeling lightheaded….recalling that she has not eaten anything all day. The phone call had come in the morning just as she was starting her ward rounds and the sheer despair that followed has kept her from eating anything. The rest of her day had been spent in arranging for and giving over her patients to her locum and packing her bag (which had entailed a frantic search for ‘respectable’ Indian outfits) before rushing to the airport for the sole flight of the day that would take her home.
Taking a deep breath, she opens the gate. Minutes later, she is in the huge drawing room, touching the feet of every senior member of the family. She is embraced by her mother and aunts. Her father and uncles give her a brief aloof nod. Yet another thing that was unchanged….
“Arre wa! Amchi doctor aali!” (Our doctor cousin has come home!) is the chorus from the youngsters. A muted chorus, no doubt, given the reason for her visit. She looks towards Aji’s room hopefully. Usually Aji would be the first to limp out, ignoring her painful knee, just to hold Kala’s hands in her own and gaze into her eyes for a misty moment before relinquishing her to the rest of the family. Today, however, the door is closed.
Kala turns towards the door. But her mother stops her.
“Wait ! You look ready to topple over. Eat something…” she says with the intuition that a mother always has about her child. So saying, she pulls Kala into the kitchen, seats her at the table. She puts a plate of besan laadoos and a glass of warm milk in front of her.
While Kala eats, her mother looks at her, drinking in the sight of this girl-child that she has brought into the world. A girl who has done things and achieved more than she as a mother had hoped for. Recalling the day of Kala’s birth, she suddenly shudders. Kala looks up, a question n her eyes.
“Your Aji has been waiting for you,” she says to Kala. “Now that you are here, she will be at peace.”
Kala holds her tongue, her gaze accusatory.
“She made us promise, Kala, so we waited till your exams were over. Your Aji insisted that we give you a day to recover, and tell you in the morning after you had a good night’s rest.”
Trust Aji to think about others even when she was dying.
“I want to see the reports. Maybe we can do something.” Kala declares in a choked voice.
“Yes. Do that. But I warn you that she refuses to get any treatment. She’s just…. waiting to go.” Kala’s mother says.
As Kala enters the room, Aji looks at her with love and pride. She is thinner, frail, her skin papery. One of her sons (Kala’s uncle) and two great-grandchildren are in the room. Kala rushes to her and holds her tight. The aroma that is so specially Aji, redolent of sandalwood, talcum powder, spices and love. But now overlaid with the clinical odours reminiscent of a hospital.
Aji sits up slightly. Then she says to the others, “I need to talk to Kala. Alone.”
Soon only Kala and Aji are left, confidantes, co-conspirators, the age-defying-other-half of each other, just as it had always been, until Kala left for the big city to fulfil her dreams. It was admittedly at Aji’s insistence and encouragement, but still it was Kala who had left. And now, Aji was leaving…. leaving forever.
Kala swallows her tears, schooling her features with effort.
“Kala, my special one….majhi laadki (my favourite)!” Aji says.
Although Kala has always known this, she is a little alarmed and concerned at the far-away, almost musing tone of this declaration. It is as if Aji is in some mode where she needs to speak the truth and nothing but the truth.
“Close that door. Sit close to me.” She commands Kala.
“Now, Kala! I know that you want to tell me to get treated. I’ve decided that I will not be. But we will speak of that later.” She pauses. “Today I will tell you something…. Something that should not be recounted or retold ever. But also never forgotten, never forgiven, and never repeated.”
Kala sits obediently.
Aji says, “You were born just twelve hours after your grandfather died, twenty two years ago. I am sure someone in the family has told you this already. Your grandfather’s death was a shocking blow to us all. He was a pillar of the community, respected, feared by all. But not loved by anyone.”
Aji pauses for a moment. “Have you ever wondered why I only have sons and no daughters, and why all your uncles have only sons, no daughters. You are, in fact, the only girl of your generation. The youngest daughter of my youngest son. “
Kala feels a jolt. Was Aji saying what she thought she was saying?
“Whenever a baby girl was born, she was whisked away by your grandfather. And we never saw the baby again. And never spoke of it again.” For a moment, Aji stops… lost in her bitterly painful memories.
“I clearly remember the night that you were born. Your grandfather had just died, all of a sudden….he just clutched his arm and was gone! Anyway, that day, all the men got busy with the rituals… the cremation. I was in shock. Wondering what was to come. And then, your mother went into labour, a full month later than the due date. She had been having pains all day, but didn’t tell us, anxious to not disturb the last rites of your grandfather. So, there were no men around and with all the vehicles at the cremation ground, we couldn’t take her to the hospital; you had to be delivered right here. I was the first to hold you….ahhh, the miracle….a new life coming after a death.”
Aji smiles at Kala.
“Wailing and crying loud enough to be heard all over the house… you wanted to be heard, even then. It was an omen. As I held you, I realised something. I could not save the others, but I could save you. I held you close for weeks afterwards. Never letting you out of my sight. My sons, your uncles, did not have the cruel streak of their father. So you saved yourself by arriving late.”
Aji was crying now. “You had waited to be born until that monster that I married had died. You were meant to be my little saviour, the atonement for my sins.”
Kala said, “Don’t say such things, Aji.”
“Oh, but it is true, child. For most women, the waiting comes from their earliest years. Waiting to be asked to choose, waiting to be heard, waiting to be loved, to be appreciated. I waited for my husband to realise that I was more than a vessel for his heirs. That I wanted girls, my daughters. But that never came.”
Aji holds Kala’s hands in both of hers. “But you…..you waited to be born so that, I, Shashi, a woman of many sins, who could not save so many girls, could fight to save one and be saved in return. “
Aji pauses in her narrative, exhausted. Kala pours a glass of water and holds it to Aji’s lips.
She takes a sip, then continues.
“Kala, I‘ve always seen to it that you could make your own choices. But I may not be around for much longer. So, I have made arrangements for money to be transferred to you. All that heavy jewellery gifted by my husband. I hated it…never wore it. As soon as I knew that I was dying, I had it sold. Use the money. It’s yours by right. I know my sons. There will come a time, when you may have to defy this family to walk on the path of your choice. Promise me that when the time comes, you will use it.”
Kala was openly crying now. “Yes, Aji, alright.”
“Don’t wait for anyone any more, child. I’m so proud of you. Live for yourself. Fly higher and higher, my little birdie. Fly on your own terms. I’ll always be the wind beneath your wings.”
Editor’s note: Shashi Deshpande is a multiple award winner, the most notable of which is the Sahitya Akademi Award. While she has been widely published in English, much of her writing has also made its mark in Kannada and Marathi literature, the languages she speaks in her personal life.
Daughter of a Sanskrit scholar, she has read most of our mythologies, and, as she says here, ‘which she reads “against the grain”, from her own, feminist position.’ Her short stories, books, and essays are all ‘woven from Indian women’s lives, their day-to-day living deeply impregnated by religious, social, and political traditions, and gender relations determined by male power structures.’
The cue is this quote by her: “But for women the waiting game starts in childhood.”
Ujwala Shenoy Karmarkar wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: a still from the film Chaukat Raja
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