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“Talking about rape in a marriage? That in itself is preposterous; and which decent woman speaks about such stuff like ‘sexual gratification’ in the open let alone write? Look for a decent job.”
On a balmy summer evening, Antara stood on the terrace looking at the passing traffic below, when she heard, “Miss Antara has hobbies other than cramming!” This sudden mention of her name made her turn around in surprise. There on the neighbouring terrace was Pankaj, her senior from school and annoying neighbour.
Antara gave him an exasperated smile and went back to looking down at the traffic. “What are you so lost in thinking? You can give yourself a break from cramming this month, you can continue again when the school opens next month,” Pankaj again chided her.
“I don’t need to cram, I put in the effort to understand and spend time with my books, you wouldn’t understand!” Antara responded to Pankaj’s taunting in an irritated tone, and turned around and walked away.
This was an everyday affair with Pankaj. Why couldn’t he wrap his head around the fact that doing well in exams required understanding the concepts and studying, it was not about cramming? wondered Antara. What baffled her was that she and a few other girls were the only targets of Pankaj’s taunts, the boys were never at the receiving end. She could never point a finger at the reason.
“I know what I am doing, don’t try forcing your opinion on me.” Antara heard her father admonishing her mother in an annoyed tone as Antara walked into her house. His plate of food lay half-finished as he walked away from the dining table, and she could see her mother standing there desperately trying to hold back her tears.
“Vidhi, when will you ever learn, men don’t like being told what they should do, they do not like their decisions questioned, least of all by their wife. He is not asking much, just expects you to be by his side and support him with a smile. He is a man and knows the world better, why do you have to keep playing this – I am the smarter game? Your daughter is growing up, set the right example for her.” This was Antara’s dadi chiding her mother.
“But ma, all I gave him was a suggestion, based on a news article I had read recently,” her mother responded in a choked voice.
Antara could see from her grandmother’s expressions that she was still annoyed, and she thought it best to head to her room, but her dadi’s words kept playing in her mind. She kept wondering whether questioning a man’s opinion was such a big mistake. Did he not like his intellect to be questioned by a woman; was this the reason her academic success bothered Pankaj so much?
Little did 14-year-old Antara know that life would present her with the answers to all her questions.
“But Papa all I am saying is let me finish my masters, and then we can discuss the wedding. A scholarship from Columbia University is not an everyday occurrence; this is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I cannot let it go just to get married.” Antara was fervently trying to convince her father that she was not ready for marriage at this point in time.
“But beta, this is a nice family, you only said the guy seems friendly, and higher education can continue after marriage as well. You might end up losing such a nice family, in your quest for this coveted scholarship.” Her father’s response angered Antara.
“Papa, I hardly know the family, I have met Samir hardly twice and both times at social gatherings; most people are at their best in social gatherings. What is the guarantee that I will get to continue my education after marriage? I cannot keep the acceptance for the scholarship on hold for that long. I am not refusing the marriage proposal; all I am saying is the wedding can happen in a few years. This will give us time to know whether they are actually nice people, and if I and Samir are compatible. I don’t see why this should be an issue. Of course, if this arrangement doesn’t suit him or his family, they can take their call, but I will not put my life on hold,” an angry Antara retorted to her father and looking at his eyes glowering in anger, she wondered if she had spoken too much.
“I gave you the freedom to seek your life and establish yourself and look at what it has come to. Which family would want a daughter in law who is going to dictate terms before the wedding? Telling a man that you are going to require time to assess your compatibility with him; preposterous! With that temperament you are creating your doom, do what you wish.” Her father stormed off to his room with this.
Antara looked at her mother, but as usual, her mother had chosen to keep her opinion to herself, and Antara’s vigour to execute what she wished only became more steadfast. If the world had a problem with a smart woman who thought for herself, she could not help it; she couldn’t be wasting her life to please the world. Life was giving her the answers to the questions she had asked years ago, just that it wasn’t pleasant knowledge.
“You are 30 now, when are you planning to tie the knot?” Antara was again faced with the one question that she detested. “As soon as I find someone worthy enough aunty,” Antara replied with the most sickly-sweet smile she could put up.
“Beta, you girls these days are too strong-headed, be a little flexible, you will find someone soon. Remember time is ticking away.”
Antara felt like a time bomb, who would blast any moment now. Such unsolicited advice was the reason she hated these family gatherings. It was her cousin’s engagement and she had not wanted to miss this, as she was very close to her cousin and was surprisingly enjoying the event till she met this annoying well-wisher.
But the worst was yet to come, she saw this lady imparting some more unasked for knowledge to her parents and Antara knew it spelled doom for her. She knew that for weeks after the event she would be subject to sermons on the mess she was creating due to her ‘high headedness’, and she felt particularly troubled when they would tell her how she was adding to their stress in their old age. She would be left wondering why could they not be happy about the fact that they had raised an independent daughter, who was doing well in life, and was capable of taking care of herself and also supporting them.
But unfortunately, these very qualities of hers were turning into the biggest sources of worry for them. Most marriage alliances they zeroed in on for her would turn her down because she was ‘too qualified, independent, and way too forward’ for their family. Antara wondered how in all these years men still hadn’t changed; they still seemed to want only the tall and fair beauty, and the brains that came along was a serious cause of worry for them.
Antara looked gorgeous in her baby pink lehenga and her hair tied in a low bun adorned with roses. More than Antara it was her parents who looked resplendent; it was Antara’s engagement, the day they had been waiting for, for years. Antara was happy to have found the man with whom she felt excited to share her life, and someone who did not feel threatened at her being herself. All Antara hoped was the happiness she felt wasn’t just momentary.
On a Sunday morning a few months after her engagement, Antara was woken up early by her phone ringing. She answered the phone grumpily and was surprised it was Sumit, he was not an early riser and that too on a Sunday. He asked her to meet him urgently and told her to head to his house at the earliest. Antara was not comfortable with the tone of his voice, but realized something was amiss and pulled herself out of bed and got ready.
As she headed out of her room, she could see her parents sitting on the living room couch looking livid. Her father was looking at the day’s newspaper and anxiously pressing his forehead. Antara wished them good morning and they looked back at her without any response. She could see they were extremely annoyed. Her father threw the newspaper at her and she could see he was reading her weekly column.
“Why now beta?” her mother asked in an irritated tone pointing to her write-up.
“What about that, it gets published every week. I work for the publication, it’s a part of my job, please let’s not make a big issue out of this.” Antara rushed out before things could escalate further.
Half an hour later Antara was at Sumit’s house and she was wishing she had stayed back home, her parent’s reaction seemed calmer than the hostility she saw on Sumit and his parent’s faces.
“What the heck is this?” Sumit threw the newspaper at her, and again it was open at the same column.
“Mind your language Sumit!” Antara glared at him.
“Really, you write whatever you wish, without caring a hoot about our reputation or what the world will think, and you are asking me to mind what I speak.”
Antara couldn’t believe Sumit could have such a constricted thought process. “Firstly, it’s my job and it’s a column I have been writing for quite some time, which all of you very well know. Secondly, it talks about a factual social issue; marital rape is not a myth, and neither is the fact that women are treated as mere objects of pleasure. It’s time the women’s perspective was heard, and that is what I have attempted at doing, so what is the issue here?”
“Shameless!” muttered Sumit’s mother.
“Listen Antara, there is a certain decorum and decency we follow in this house and we expect the same from you. If this is the kind of work that is required from you, then you are better off without this job. Talking about rape in a marriage? That in itself is preposterous; and which decent woman speaks about such stuff like ‘sexual gratification’ in the open, let alone write about it? Look for a decent job.” This was Sumit’s father.
Antara was reeling in shock at the turn of events. She looked at Sumit with hope but all she received was silence. She got up and walked out of the house. She knew her decision would only kick up a storm, but it was better to take the step now than regret later. Her bubble of happiness had burst.
‘Women and Voices’, Antara’s cherished project which had consumed a greater part of her life for the last three years has finally been published, and the reception had been roaring. While she cherished the appreciation she received for her bold writing, it was the incessant trolling she was facing for having “destroyed the moral fabric and polluting the minds of women in the country” with her book, which she chose to address through her social media post.
“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!”
This was shortlisted for our January 2021 Muse of the month short story contest.
Image source: a still from the film Badla
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