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When she reminded him that even as she studied for her boards and engineering exams, she had cooked all the meals in the morning and taken care of the house work, he exploded, calling her ungrateful and dismissive of her wifely duties.
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Neha Singh is one of the winners picked by author Manreet Sodhi Someshwar for the January 2021 Muse of the Month. First titled ‘Daring to Fly’, this story, in Manreet’s words, is “a quiet story, poignant and life-affirming!”
The flight to Patna was not until 6 am next day, but Shyama had booked herself a taxi the evening of the previous day and reached the airport by 8 pm. She was prepared to wait out the whole night in the cold waiting area rather than risk taking an early morning cab to the airport. Unfortunately, as Shyama knew very well, one could never be too careful, especially if one happened to be a woman travelling alone in India.
Shyama was an experienced traveler since her job as a road engineering consultant meant that she often traveled, not just by flight, but by bus, train, car, auto rickshaws, at times even by bullock carts, to the farthest corners of India. Sometimes she even had to go abroad for training and observation purposes.
After a pretty uncomfortable night with hardly any sleep, Shyama treated herself to some hot coffee and chocolate croissants from one of the airport restaurants and made sure to use the toilet to freshen herself up, before boarding her flight. She had also pre-booked a window seat as the flying time was not much from Delhi to Patna and she preferred the privacy and pleasure of gazing out of the airplane window. If it had been a long flight she would have booked an aisle seat for easy access to the toilet.
It was so ritualistic how she followed these steps, every time she flew, to ensure her comfort and safety as a single woman traveler.
Another integral part of her travel ritual was to carry a couple of books or magazines, and download some interesting reading material and music on her smart phone. She didn’t much care for movies, but books had been her beloved companions since childhood.
Shyama glanced around at her fellow travelers and her eyes fell wistfully upon a mother and daughter. The little one had gone to sleep with her head on her mother’s shoulder.
It was a sweet homely scene, and made Shyama think of her own son who would be waking up in another hour or so to find his Ma gone.
Pranav would feel sad but she remembered how even at the tender age of six he would dress himself, eat the breakfast lovingly prepared by his Nani, and go off to school. Now he was ten, and very independent in his ways, perhaps too much so. His face never betrayed much emotion, and his joys and sorrows were all a mystery to her. Towards her he was affectionate in a muted way, unfailingly always polite and obedient. It was as if he understood that too much attachment, too much of his love would only make the next parting harder to bear for them both.
The air hostess came around with tea and breakfast, though Shyama didn’t really have much of an appetite anymore. She nibbled on some fruit and decided to read something to take her mind off things. She slipped her hands into her bag, stowed under the seat in front of her, and took out a book. She opened it at the point where the bookmark lay and her eyes fell upon these lines,
“Men love beautiful women. But when it’s beauty and brains, they don’t know how to handle it. Because we have no role models to emulate? Even our parents call such women ‘too forward’. When actually it’s the men who are backward. Women are racing ahead, having kids and careers, leaving men holding their dicks in their hands. You know, at one time, girls were sent to finishing schools to increase their market value? Well, guess what? It’s time for men’s finishing schools!”
Not long ago, Shyama thought to herself, she had had a debate with some of her male colleagues over some of the issues that the lines in the book invoked.
They had gathered for a team meeting but conversation had drifted to the horrible rape and murder of a young woman by a taxi driver as she returned home from work late one night. One of the male colleagues had suggested that their company should hold free martial arts classes for the female employees. Another had chimed in with his opinion that self- defense classes should be made free and compulsory for all female students. Shyama had emphatically told them then that even if she were a black belt in judo she would not really want to have to consider having to use it every time she had to travel late night for work. That changing the way men are brought up, teaching them to respect women from an early age would bring about a more meaningful change in society. Yes, Shyama thought, men definitely needed a finishing school, one that would shape them into real gentlemen. In fact, she wryly reflected, her ex-husband would have greatly benefited from going to one.
Shyama had been married off young, all because of her mom’s obsession with finding her a groom ever since she could remember. Since she was a child, her mom would oil her hair, forbid her from cutting it too short, stop her from going out in the sun, and control her diet strictly, all the while constantly telling her how she had to look pretty and fair to attract a rich handsome man who would treat her like a princess.
Of course, life had turned out to be nothing like that. She did end up marrying a fairly well-off, young, educated man, who treated her well for a couple of years. Since she had only completed her 10th class and then been forced to drop out to get married, at her repeated requests he ‘allowed’ her to complete her 12th.
Shyama did well in her 12th exams and got into the engineering college and course of her choice. It was when she finished college and got a lucrative job offer that, ironically, things strained at home. He felt that he had done enough from his side and deserved to come home to loving arms and hot piping food. When she reminded him that even as she studied for her boards and engineering exams, she had cooked all the meals in the morning and taken care of the house work, he exploded, calling her ungrateful and dismissive of her wifely duties. And at the time she felt guilty enough that she agreed to briefly drop her plans for a career in favour of playing the role of the supposedly ideal Indian married woman.
The first time he beat her was some six years into their marriage. It always surprised her that it took him so long to become violent. It was, as if he also was just playing the role of the typical Indian husband, and this was the next natural evolution of his character. The baby had been keeping her up a lot and she had rebuked him for not sharing the burden of child care. His slap had been swiftly followed by a tearful sorry and she had forgiven him quickly, believing he really regretted his action. But from that day the cycle of beatings and apologies never stopped till the day they got divorced.
The divorce was Shyama’s decision, a rapid and definite flight, as much to shield her son as herself. It was very hard to decide to leave financial security and social approval behind to jump into the uncertainty of single parenthood. But the hardest part was going back to her parents’ house feeling lonely, lost and shattered, while at the same time having to keep a strong smiling face for her little child. Shyama searched for a job not just to earn her living and support her family, but also to keep herself mentally and physically occupied and productive. To sit and wallow in self pity would have destroyed her. Little Pranav became her unwitting source of strength; his very existence became her reason to live, and not give up.
All throughout this difficult rebuilding process, as she started her job and put Pranav in school and daycare, Shyama had the support of her parents, yes, even off her mother. Pranav’s grandmother was his chief carer even to the present day, taking care of his food, hygiene, and emotional and physical safety. His grandfather taught him how to ride the bicycle, helped him with his homework, and played scrabble with him. Pranav was very close to them. His father never kept in touch after the separation.
Shyama sighed as she remembered all the important events in her child’s life she had missed. The choices she had made in her life were not always free or right, but they had allowed her to survive and to bring up her son with a considerable degree of stability, security and happiness. Her hard work, perseverance and positive attitude were things she looked back at with a considerable degree of pride. She was deeply grateful to her parents for the support they had given her in bringing up Pranav. But just as deeply in her heart, Shyama knew, as firmly as if it were engraved in stone, that she could never really forgive her mother for sacrificing her daughter and grandson’s happiness to fulfil some archaic idea of tradition or destiny.
Shyama opened her tired eyes that glistened wet with unshed tears, as the plane began its descent over Patna airport.
Editor’s note: This month’s cue has been selected by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar, whom we have interviewed here.
Manreet Sodhi Someshwar is a multiple award-winning and bestselling writer of six books, including the Mehrunisa series – The Taj Conspiracy (2012), and The Hunt for Kohinoor (2014), the critically-acclaimed books The Long Walk Home (2009) and The Radiance of a Thousand Suns (2019), as well as Earning the Laundry Stripes (2014) and her latest, Girls and the City (2020). Hailed as ‘a star on the literary horizon’ by Khushwant Singh and garnering endorsements from Gulzar for two of her books, Manreet and her work have featured at literary festivals in Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong, India and NYC. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, the South China Morning Post and several Indian publications. Manreet lives in New York, New York, with her husband, daughter and cat.
The cue is from her book Girls and the City, which had to be incorporated in the stories – whether at the beginning, end, or somewhere in between.
Neha Singh wins a Rs 750 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: a still from the Hindi short film Ghar ki Murgi
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