And then, ma’s words rang in my ears, “Do not ever wait for your destiny to shape itself, my child. Do not tarry, do not wait, do not seek.”
“You’re to be married to Arindam next week,” Baba pronounces my fate with a smug smile. “Your astrological charts have matched beautifully, you know?”
I take a rattling breath and struggle to speak with my parched throat. It’s been three days since I’ve been locked up in a dark shed without food or water. “Please,” I whisper. “I don’t want to.”
My father’s smile tightens until it looks like an ugly grimace.
“You think you have a choice, Prateeksha? After all that you did with that…that scum of a lad? Tell me, where did I fail as a father? Despite being cursed with a daughter, I accepted you as the Lakshmi of my fate. Let you have eggs when you wanted to, took you to the doctor when you were ill. Got you the finest dresses that no other village belle had and even paid heed to your pleas for enrolling you into a school first and then to that wretched college! But you!” he pauses, impotent with anger, “You have besmirched my name, my honour by daring to proclaim your love for that boy! He’s not even from our caste! You tell me now, should I not have drowned you in milk as Hariya did with his four daughters when I had the chance?” Baba breathes heavily and then shuts the door on my face.
I hear him say to my mother, “Just rice water for her now. Make sure she’s guarded at all times.”
I lean back, my head spinning. As his footsteps recede, I hear the door open and my mother’s bangles clink. She shuffles forward, sniffling a little and silently hands over the pot of flavoured rice water.
I grab at it greedily, not looking at her and drink it down in large gulps, smacking my lips as I crave for more. “Can I get something to eat?” I ask her, already aware of the answer before she shakes her head and starts to say, “Your father‒“
“I heard what he said. But I’m asking you!” I can feel the anger bubble up to the surface. Docile women like her who’ve never rebelled, never spoken or acted without permission have brought about the ruin of me today.
“Do you think I’m wrong too? To love someone of my choice? And to not agree to a forced marriage?” I demand of the silent woman I’ve called mother for the last eighteen years. Right now, I would give anything to shake her slumped shoulders.
I cannot see the expression in her eyes but the lantern casts a strange glow over her face. She comes closer and crouches near me, slipping a small pouch into the folds of my saree.
“Wait till midnight,” she whispers and then places a swift hand over my forehead as if checking for a temperature. I’m puzzled at her actions till I notice one of my uncles beadily eyeing us through a crack in the door shed. “You are burning with fever,” my mother proclaims loudly. “I’ll come back later with medicine.”
As soon as she leaves, I groan loudly for the benefit of all listening ears and roll over to my side, inspecting the pouch she left for me. Inside is a small bar of chocolate, mother’s gold ring, a tattered hundred-rupee note that I remember being buried in mother’s rice tin, a small knife and a letter.
A crumpled letter from the love of my life. It contains a single line that I read with tear-blurred eyes, “Meet me at the railway station. Love, Debu.” Reading this, a flicker of hope in my heart burns bright as I slip the chocolate into my mouth.
Mother is on my side! Debu is going to take me away!
Wait till midnight, she said. I start counting minutes. As I do so, I reflect on father’s words. The truth and the untruth in them. I remember the agonizing hours that passed before I was taken to the doctor whenever I fell ill.
When I go further back, I see myself clutching my skirt, hungrily looking at the dratted chicken eggs that my cousins devoured. I waited for someone, anyone to give me a piece. Then, I recollect my father picking up a rotten egg from the lot and giving it to my mother to boil for me.
Days passed in hoping that my father would give permission to attend extra classes and he never did. The loose-fitting dresses he brought for me in drab colours so that I would never attract attention. The memories of precious time lost in seeking validation for every little action, wanting approval for every desire, prick at my soul.
Is it because I’m born a woman, I wonder. It seems to me that if life were an endless sentence. Women are forced to punctuate it with the commas of inhibition, an em-dash of permission, line-breaks of perfunctory nods and periods of restriction.
Lost in a reverie, I don’t notice a shadow fall across me. I get up quickly but it’s my mother again. She helps me to my feet and leads me outside the door. My uncle snoozes peacefully outside the shed.
“Sleeping draught mixed in food,” my mother explains and then gives a frightened giggle. I bemusedly look at her, I didn’t know mothers could giggle.
She has brought me Baba’s cycle and my college bag. I peep inside to find all my ID cards and certificates, a bottle of water and some home-made sweets wrapped in a banana leaf. She kisses my cheek and then hesitates. Mom whispers something in my ears and I look at her with furrowed eyebrows. “Go now, quick!” she says, wrapping her thin shawl around me and sees me off.
The railway station isn’t far from my house. But I cycle quicker anyway as the desire to see Debu burns stronger than ever. Him, of the intense eyes that melted away the agony of my life. Me of the bashful smile, who captured the kindest heart of the college. The most admired couple of the college.
When our families came to know about our affair, Debu’s marriage had been fixed immediately. It was only imminent that my marriage would follow shortly. He had promised me that no matter what it took, he would find a way to be with me and me only. Our friends had stood by us and had vowed to unite us. I park my cycle and run to the dimly lit platform, looking for him.
Where is he? Perhaps, he got late. I decide to wait for him and settle down on a bench. There are not too many passengers waiting, considering the late hour. I tug my mother’s shawl around me tighter, covering my face. It would not do for me to be recognised.
My thoughts drift again to Debu. It’s well past midnight now. Have I been late then? He could have at least sent some friends to look out for me. This waiting kills me. But then, isn’t this what has always been referred to in poetry as ‘the woman’s creed?’ For a woman to know not for what she waits but to continue nevertheless?
Where is he? Errant thoughts tease me again. Is he coming for me? Wait, is he in love with me? No, wait…why did I think of this? Of course, he loves me. I distract myself with the sight of an elderly person’s colourful turban. He reads a newspaper by the dim light of a torch, chewing a paan with red streaks of spittle leaking from a corner of his lips.
I idly wonder what day it is and then something occurs to me. So, I walk up to him as calmly I can and ask for the newspaper. He frowns but gives it to me wordlessly. I check the date and know in that instant that everything has been futile.
The date of Debu’s marriage was yesterday. I throw back the newspaper and rummage around in my bag for the letter that my mother had given me. A single line. Of an invitation and the hope of a lifelong commitment.
But the letters ‒ I realise for the first time are not written by hand. They are cut out from a newspaper and messily stuck one after another with glue.
My mother’s handiwork. I smile, in spite of the situation, as I recollect her words that she whispered to me before I left, “Do not ever wait for your destiny to shape itself, my child. Do it yourself. Do not tarry, do not wait, do not seek.”
A train ambles slowly into the station. I think of all the promises made in the throes of passion. Then, I think of a poem I read about in the college library from Emma Lazarus. The poetess has remarked that there may be elixirs of death, sleep or forgetfulness but nothing for bringing back lost love and hence a “woman must wait and weep” for her truant lover.
I am not that woman, I decide. The wait can be so trivial, one might say. But for women, the waiting game starts from childhood. It never ceases, spiralling into unfulfilled longings.
I am tired of these games. Now I want to live without fruitless seeking appreciation and validation from others. I will find it within myself, I resolve as I board the train and take a last look at what I’m leaving behind.
Poems Referred: “A Woman’s Mood” by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward
“The Elixir” by Emma Lazarus
Picture credits: Still from Bollywood movie Cocktail
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