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Deepak stared at the two women with disbelief and angst seethed through his body. He wanted to lash out against them. He wanted to scream at his mother for taking his wife’s side.
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Meha Sharma is one of the winners of the November 2020 Muse of the Month.
Meera adjusted her mask as she peered out of the window. A soft wind rustled and blew an errant hair on her face. The cool October breeze seemed to warm her heart. For some time she lost herself and there was nothing in the world that bothered her. She closed her eyes.
The bus stopped with a jerk and broke Meera’s sweet reverie. It was time to get back to the race called ‘life’. As she reached the door of her humble two-bedroom rented flat, she sighed. She quickly made a mental note that vegetables had to be bought. Only cauliflower lay in the fridge and Deepak hated it.
“Mummy, you know what happened today? We had a science test and I got ten on ten.” Daksh her eight year old couldn’t contain his excitement as he stood opening the door for his mom.
“That is great. But, let me come inside first. Then I will hear all about it”, Meera tried to feign excitement but she was tired to the bones.
The living room presented the usual mundane scene. Her husband Deepak was perched comfortably on the grey coloured couch watching cricket and an array of cushions lay scattered all over the floor.
“You are back! Got a seat on the bus?” Deepak asked without taking his eyes off the screen.
“Yes, I did.”
“But, one seat would not have been enough for you na”, Deepak looked at her this time around and smirked.
Meera clenched her fist but it was something she had got accustomed to. His jibes at her plus-size body were nothing out of the ordinary. It was an everyday affair for her. And Meera had enough problems at hand than to address these minor insinuations. She was the sole earner of the family. Deepak used to work in market research once upon a time but six months back he along with many others was laid off. Since then he tried getting another job but to no avail. The pandemic didn’t make things any easier. Though he did get a job a month ago, he felt it was beneath his qualifications and it didn’t pay as much as his last job.
Meera worked in a reputed school which paid her well. And it was she who kept the house running.
She not only worked outside but managed the house and looked after her aging mother-in-law. Deepak had always taunted her for either her weight or her looks. But of late his insults had aggravated. He would never miss an opportunity to poke fun of her and jeer at her.
More than once Meera thought of retaliating and giving him back. But, one look at her frail old mother-in-law and she would decide against it. The house was already under the pall of gloom since Deepak lost his job and sat disgruntled most of the time. She couldn’t add on to the existing air of discontent.
Moreover, her mother-in-law understood her plight. She didn’t speak much and needed support to move around the house. But, she looked at Meera with those listless eyes and when Deepak shouted at her for some utterly frivolous thing, many a times she would see maaji tearing up and turning her head in disdain. Her silent empathy was enough for Meera. She could bear and go on.
Meera reached the school panting profusely. It was time for the first class and she had reached in nick of time. They were supposed to take online classes from the school campus. The school looked barren without the hustle-bustle and the mischievous chatters of the children. But, there was little they could do about it. Meera was happiest when she was teaching. The children made her feel loved and even from the screen of her laptop she could feel the warmth emanating from the faces of her students. It meant a lot to her and for some time she could bury Deepak’s barbs that stung her more than she liked to acknowledge. Here at the school, she was not a machine, she was someone who added value and who was respected for who she was.
The Primary Coordinator had called all the teachers to her office. Though the school had resumed for the staff, proper measures were taken and social distancing was maintained. Everyone was beseeched to wear masks and there was no mingling. As Meera stood in the coordinator’s office, mentally chiding herself for forgetting to change maaji’s bedsheet, the coordinator spoke, “Good morning! Today I have asked you all to assemble here for a special reason. You all are the backbone of our institution. But, in the past few months, with the pandemic catching us unawares, you have risen to the occasion and how. I must congratulate you for prodding on despite everything. So our principal has decided to organize a small party tomorrow. We would of course maintain proper distancing and stick to the protocol. But, since you all come here every day, no harm in having some fun. You all deserve it. We will have games and there will be prizes galore”.
Everyone cheered and hooted with joy while Meera looked at the white wall that faced her. Her mind was a jumbled up mess and the thought that dominated everything else was ‘would she be able to come to school for a party on a Sunday’? Sundays at her home meant work. It was the only day she got to wrap up the pending chores of the week. Deepak demanded his favourite food and she gave a long bath to maaji. Maybe she could go out and have some fun on one day. It won’t be that bad, she wondered as if convincing herself that it wasn’t unreasonable.
The alarm clock sprang to life and Meera woke up with a start. On Sundays too her alarm clock buzzed at the same time. She woke up and looked sideways to see her son sleeping with a cherubic smile lingering on his face. She grinned. Deepak snored away to glory as if he had no worries in the world. For once, she felt an iota of envy tingling through her body. How she wished she could be as carefree as him.
A minute later she found herself standing in front of the mirror. A visibly plump woman with disarrayed hair stared back at her. Perhaps Deepak was right. She was fat and unappealing. She should try and cut down on her calories and take time out to exercise. But, as she jogged her brain, she realized that she hardly ate anything fattening or unhealthy. It was probably PCOD that was playing tricks with her body. She didn’t have time to exercise. But, she did walk to the bus stand everyday which was 2 miles away from her home. As these thoughts ran amok in her mind, making her restless, she peered at the clock. She had to get ready if she were to reach school in time for the party.
“Maaji you should wear this kurta today. It looks so good on you. Wait, let me iron it.” Meera wrapped the towel around her mother-in-law who looked worn out after having a bath.
While combing her hair and pleating it neatly, Meera spoke, “Maaji I have to go to the school today. There is a small party for the staff. It wouldn’t look good if I skip. I have cleaned the kitchen and made lunch.”
“What party? A party on a Sunday at a school? Bullshit! Since when have schools started throwing parties for the teachers? Don’t they know women get just one day off to look after the chores at home? Every other day they make them toil away screaming their lungs out disciplining wayward kids. You are not going.”
Deepak had appeared from nowhere and Meera was taken aback at his sudden spurt of backlash.
He didn’t stop.
“And look at yourself. Don’t try and compete with those suave looking sophisticated teacher friends you have. You think you can be like them? Whatever you try and do, you will be a lowlife fatso. Know your place”.
Meera suddenly felt tears brimming the edges of her big brown eyes. Her lips quivered and as she was about to lose her balance, she felt someone’s hand on her arm.
Maaji’s puckered hand touched her arm and she looked at her holding her tears.
“It is fine maaji. This party is not that important. I will not go.” Meera managed to blurt out. She did not want to upset maaji and she did not want to upset Deepak. This party was not worth hampering the peace of her house.
“She will go to the party Deepak,” maaji spoke with defiance in her voice that was hard to miss.
Meera looked at her mother-in-law befuddled while Deepak’s brows furrowed like they always did when someone said something that didn’t please him.
“Yes, Meera will go to this party. And Deepak, it is high time you stop venting out your frustration by ridiculing your wife. It is not her fault that you are jobless. And by mocking her, your bruised ego is not going to get any better. She is doing everything she can to look after you and the family. And you know it.” Maaji spoke with a fervor that took Meera by surprise.
But as she looked at Deepak’s contorted face, she uttered in a meek voice, “It is ok maaji. It is not that important. Why make a furor over such a petty issue.”
“It is important Meera. You deserve to go out of this pigeon hole and spend some time with your friends every now and then. You deserve to have some fun. You deserve to laugh till your stomach hurts. There is nothing more precious than laughter. And do not let anyone make you believe that ‘you’ are not important. You are the daughter I never had and I am ashamed at how my son derides you. I am sorry that I couldn’t do anything to stop him. But, enough is enough. I might be a frail old woman. But, I can no more be a mute spectator to all that’s wrong.” Maaji suddenly stopped speaking as she gasped for breath.
Meera quickly poured some water in her glass from the copper bottle that she had kept on the nightstand a while ago. Maaji sipped the water slowly as Meera patted her back fondly.
Deepak stared at the two women with disbelief and angst seethed through his body. He wanted to lash out against them. He wanted to scream at his mother for taking his wife’s side. But, in the end, he just stood there gaping at the two women.
The bus prodded on the usual path and Meera looked out the window. The crimson sky looked breathtakingly scenic as the evening sun pulled the curtains on another day. Meera felt a sudden tinge of happiness pervade through her body. It was not just because she had won the charades game at the party. It was because today, right at this moment she felt she was not alone. She had an ally who made her realize that she deserved to be happy. She looked at her reflection in the window and saw a woman who was smiling from ear to ear.
Yes, maaji was right, there is nothing more important than laughter and for once she laughed heartily as her fellow passenger looked at her agape.
But today, she didn’t care.
Editor’s note: Mexican portrait painter, Frida Kahlo, was an influential artist who combined traditional themes with a contemporary style and also helped to promote the role of women in the art world. She had to make her style big and bold as an artist, as it was the only way at the time to succeed as a woman in a male-dominated industry.
Self portraits were to dominate her career, as the artist in her constantly experimented with new twists around this same theme.
The cue is this quote by her: “There is nothing more precious than laughter”
Meha Sharma wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: a still from the film Badhaai Ho
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