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“Right from childhood, I was raised as someone’s property. For every demand, the standard reply would be not to expect anything, but just be content with what I get. As if they were doing me a favour!”
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Shilpa Keshav is one of the winners for the March 2021 Muse of the Month, and wins a Rs 750 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. About this story, our author juror for this month, Andaleeb Wajid says, “I love reading stories where the women take control of their lives. This is just the kind of narrative I love to read!”
“Hey Vani, why did you call me here so urgently? Is everything alright?” Sheena asked her friend.
“Not exactly, dear. I couldn’t speak with you in the office. That’s why I called you here in the canteen. Sorry for the trouble,” Vani said despondently.
“Chuck the formalities, ok? And tell me what happened?”
“Well, I hadn’t told anyone about this before. I had appeared for an entrance examination for PhD in Bangalore. This morning I received an e-mail from the University that I have been shortlisted for an interview.”
“Wow! Isn’t that great news? Isn’t that your dream? Why are you upset then?” Sheena asked puzzled.
“It’s my dream to pursue higher education. But… but my parents… they would never agree,” Vani said tearfully. “I had written the exam just for venting out my frustration. I had never expected to clear it.”
“Vani, we have been friends for only six months. I have always seen you secluded from the rest of our colleagues. I guess I am the only friend you have here. So, please feel free to share your sorrow. You’ll feel better. And I promise not to judge you,” Sheena held Vani’s cold palm.
“Yes, Sheena. You are right,” Vani sighed. “I need to speak with someone like you. I have to release my vexation that’s been bottled up since ages!”
A plate of hot bhaji-pav arrived. Digging her fingers into the buttered pav, Vani reminisced her childhood.
“This is ma’s favourite food. But she never makes it at home, as papa is gluten intolerant. And Geeta bua, papa’s eldest sister has strictly banned the entry of all wheat items at home. Ironically, ma is a vegetarian, but still she has to prepare non-vegetarian food because papa and bua love eating them,” Vani smirked. “Though my parents have never differentiated between me and my brother, bua has always preferred him over me. He would get new clothes during festivals, while I was asked not to keep high expectations as I was to be married off one day, and I shouldn’t expect such royal treatment from my in-laws. Right from childhood, I was raised as someone’s property. For every demand, the standard reply would be not to expect anything, but just be content with what I get. As if they were doing me a favour!”
Sheena patted Vani’s back. She smiled.
“Fortunately, papa was different. He gave me freedom- to study as much as I wished to, to buy my favourite dress, to eat whatever I liked. He even bought ma her favourite bhaji-pav when bua wasn’t around,” Vani giggled. “Bua stayed with us as her house was under renovation. However, she never went back. She permanently moved in with us, to my utter dismay. After I completed BSc, there was immense pressure from the family to get me married. My other cousins were all married soon after their graduation. Oh, by the way they were ‘allowed’ to get a degree not because they wished to, but to solely exhibit to the prospective groom’s family that they would be gaining an ‘educated housewife’,” Vani scoffed.
“You were ‘allowed’ to pursue post-graduation?” Sheena quipped.
“As I said, papa believed in me. He convinced his family with great difficulty. However, my aunts had warned him of dire consequences. They said getting a suitable groom for an over-qualified girl would be difficult. Or what if I ran away with a boy of my choice? Too much freedom would ruin my family’s reputation, they warned. After completing my Msc, I bagged a good job in a multinational pharmaceutical company. I was reprimanded by bua for the way I dressed up or the time I returned back from work. Geeta bua and her sisters constantly nagged and taunted my mother for being lenient with me. I wasn’t too close with the people at work for these very reasons. They would all make plans to go out somewhere after work. To decompress, they called it. To have fun. I had to come back home so that my parents didn’t worry about anything untoward happening to me. But it was more to satisfy the wagging tongues of the many aunties in the family who were appalled that my parents were ‘letting me work’ instead of getting me married.”
“That’s so depressing,” Sheena gasped.
“Exactly! It was all so distressing. And the final nail on the coffin was when Geeta bua invited some people to our house for ‘seeing’ me. Even my parents were kept in dark about this. I was furious. And disheartened. My life’s decisions were remotely controlled by everyone else except me and the people who birthed and raised me. I lost my cool and very impolitely voiced out my opinion in front of everyone. The guests were scandalized by my ‘misbehaviour’ and I earned a tight slap on my face by none other than bua.
‘Isn’t your house not renovated yet, bua? Or is it that your son and his wife hate your interfering and intrusive attitude, and they drove you out of the house?’ I asked her nonchalantly.
Bua’s eyes spat fire. Red with rage and embarrassment, she locked herself in her room for the rest of the day. Mom chided me for my insolence, but I was unapologetic. I was so done with all the nonsense. I wished I could work in some other city, and take my parents with me where no random people would poke their noses. That’s when the entrance examination caught my attention. And I just gave a shot. But now I’m not sure of anything.” Vani sighed, cupping her face between her palm.
“You are an ambitious and intelligent girl, Vani,” Sheena remarked. “A brain like yours should not go waste. Invest it into higher studies and research. You know that’s what you want, right?”
Vani was lost in thoughts.
“Don’t give in to societal pressure, dear. They are not responsible for your future, you are!”
“Thank you so much, Sheena,” Vani held her hands. “I guess I know what to do.”
“What? Are you going to run away?”
“No way. That would mean I’d be fulfilling my aunts’ prophecy, right?” Vani chuckled. “Convincing my parents is what I need to do.”
Back home, Vani tiptoed into her parents’ room at night and locked the door.
“Vani, is everything fine?” her mother asked surprised.
“Ma, papa, I have something to tell you both. I am grateful that you have never let down my dreams and have been the wind beneath my wings. I… I have got an opportunity to do PhD in Bangalore and need your permission to go.”
“What?” Vani’s mother almost exploded. “Do you know what your bua ji will say? Already we have heard enough from her. No way she will agree to this.”
“I don’t need her permission, ma!” Vani slumped on the bed. “I need your permission. For God’s sake, think from your own mind, ma and not from others’ perspective.”
“This girl has lost it! Why don’t you put some sense into her brain?” Vani’s ma told her husband. “Why are you quiet?”
Vani’s father was lost in deep thought. He got up from his bed and opened the steel almirah. He opened his old briefcase and took out a laminated paper and some photographs. Vani’s mother looked at them tearfully.
“You still have them?”
“What’s that?” Vani asked curiously.
“These are your mother’s trapped dreams and future,” her dad said melancholically.
Vani saw her mother’s certificates in athletics.
“Ma, were you a state champion in running race?” Vani asked astonished. “And who is this man giving you award?”
“He was the Chief Minister of our state. He was very proud of your mother’s achievements and had mentioned her name in his speech. She was also awarded a state government job based on her athletic performance. But… but we cut off her wings,” Vani’s father choked as he spoke. “My family never supported a working woman. And your mother agreed with a heavy heart. Geeta didi had asked me to burn her certificates, but I never had the heart to do that. I have always preserved them as a reminder of my incompetence and inability to support my wife.” He wiped a lone tear that escaped his eye. “That’s why I never let you face the hardships that your mother had to face in our patriarchal family. And today, you have my support. You ought to dream and work towards fulfilling them, Vani.”
Vani couldn’t believe her ears. She hugged her father.
“I wish all girls had a strong and loving papa like I have,” she pulled his cheeks and kissed them.
“But what about Geeta didi…” Vani’s ma asked.
“I will handle her. It’s high time I stood for my family, and not let others decide for me,” he smiled. “Our Vani is going to be Dr. Vani, and I’m so proud of her. It’s time we heard our daughters and let them shatter the glass ceiling.” He kissed her forehead.
Image source: a still from the film Thappad
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