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Over time, while my palm prints still remained etched on the canvas, I had become an outsider. My marital status had invalidated my claim. What was home then?
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Lalitha Ramanathan is one of the winners for the June 2021 Muse of the Month, and wins a Rs 750 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. The juror for this month, Kiran Manral commented, “Highlights the unfair restrictions most married women face when it comes to visiting their parents, with sensitivity and firmness.”
“Vaibhavi, have you finished packing?” yelled Parth.
“Still packing! I have to make sure that the children’s medicines and toys are in,” I replied, a tad irritated.
Parth and I have been living in Boston for a while now. I am from Chennai, but shifted to Boston, as Parth’s bride, ten years ago. Our two daughters were born here.
It is December. That time of the year when we visit our family in India. Every year, we set aside two weeks for the India trip, of which four days would go entirely in travel. The annual trip is always bitter-sweet. Sweet because I get to meet my family and friends. Bitter because it’s going to be hectic.
I worry about my children, who seem to come down with something every time the weather changes. I have to protect them from mosquitos and upset tummies and make sure they drink bottled water. The packing will have to be perfect- tonics, fever medicines, diarrhea medication, all bundled meticulously into check-in, and swaddled with towels, to prevent leakage.
Every time we return from our India trip to the States, in one piece, I am relieved.
I have our ten-day itinerary committed to memory. The part that I look forward to the most, just like dessert after a meal, comes in the end. Three days, the allotted time for me in Chennai. Chennai, my hometown, where I am pampered by my parents. Where I don’t have to bother about running after the kids, because my parents would mollycoddle them, while I put up my feet in peace.
Seven or eight days at Parth’s place. Two or three days at my place. This has always been the itinerary. Why did he have to be from Mumbai and me from Chennai? If we had both been from the same city, we could probably distribute vacation time more equitably. What is the point of ruminating over things that are not meant to be?
A treacherous voice inside of my head taunted me.
Even if you were in the same city, you would still get three days only.
In the first few years of marriage, I had complained to Parth.
“Why can’t we keep it equal? Five days at your place and five days at mine.”
Parth had protested.
“But Vaibhavi, we have to visit my uncles and aunts. We will never hear the end of it if we don’t see them. We go once a year. And then the visit to Shirdi. Don’t we need blessings? It’s not that we have so much annual leave that we can spend a month in India!”
In that mix of family politics, religious visits, and misplaced priorities, my misgivings took a backseat. And over the years? It had become the norm. A norm that I had accepted, however unfair it seemed to be.
I expressed my frustration to my mother. She just laughed, as though she found my rebellion amusing.
“You are married. Your home is with your husband, irrespective of whether it is the States or India. The day you were born to me, I told myself not to get too attached. A daughter is never fully yours. Her home is not with you. You have two daughters too. Remember this always.”
I felt indignant. Not my home? The irony!
In my childhood, we had moved houses many times, shifting from one rental apartment to another. Papa saved every penny so that we would finally have enough to buy a place to call our own. A place where we wouldn’t worry about the landlords kicking us out, before the contract was up, where we could make the modifications if we wanted, where we could live in peace.
We had a big box with a slit kept in the prayer room. It was our housing fund. Whenever anyone had extra money, we would deposit it in the box. The prize money I had won for elocution, the birthday money my uncle had gifted me, all made their way down that slit. We were elated when Papa announced that we finally had enough funds to buy our first house. Our house. Which implied that it was mine too.
During the Grihpravesh, we dipped our palms in the auspicious vermilion water, and put our prints down on a canvas. That framed canvas with all four of our palm prints, hangs on our front room wall, at our home in Chennai. Over time, while my palm prints still remained etched on the canvas, I had become an outsider. My marital status had invalidated my claim. What was home then?
Home was perhaps just this body I inhabited, and this too was alien to me at times, its folds and creases, its pains and needs. Home was everywhere and nowhere. Home, I realized now, was anywhere the heart slept in peace. Home was where one unpacked one’s cares and settled them into the wardrobe with one’s clothes. It was where one was complete.
I had a home in Boston. Yet, why did I feel so incomplete?
Because a part of me still wants to be that little girl, growing up with my parents in the house with the big veranda giant windows, swinging on the staircase railing, and being scolded for it. A part of me treasured the memories and the sense of belonging, all that were part of my identity. How did my identity transform overnight?
As I continued with my packing, I heard my two daughters speaking. The elder one was complaining.
“I hate the India trip. Like every year, we will be running all over the place. Maybe we should stick to one place instead.”
The younger one replied,
“Yes- let’s ask Mumma if we can just stay in Mumbai. We don’t stay for long in Chennai, anyways. We do speak to Grandpa and Grandma over video call. We can continue that.”
I felt a painful lump form in my throat. What kind of example had I set for my daughters? Tomorrow, were they going to reconcile to the fact that this was their fate too? That the home that we lovingly built together was no longer theirs? That they would need permission to stay with us?
I sat in the room, on a heap of unfolded clothes, with all these tumultuous thoughts flooding through my brain.
Parth came in to check if I needed help with the packing. He was horrified to see the room in an utter mess, with clothes strewn all over. Nothing seemed to have found its way into the suitcases.
“Vaibhavi! Are you OK? Do you need help?”
“Parth. I am not going to come to India this time.”
“Why? What is wrong with you?”
“Over the years, I have wanted to spend an equal number of days at your place and mine. But every time you come up with excuses. I can’t do this anymore. If we can’t be fair, I don’t want to go at all.”
“Vaibhavi! What has gotten into you?”
“Parth-you are father to two little girls. Imagine if tomorrow, your daughters were told that they no longer had a home with us?”
Parth was taken aback. I could see it on his face. He fumbled for words. Whatever his faults, Parth loved our daughters more than anything in this world.
“All I am asking is for two additional days. Forty-eight hours. So, five days at your place and five at mine. I have a right to visit my home too. The house I grew up in. Don’t you think it’s fair? I know you are going to say that others will be hurt. But do you think the emotions of your second cousin twice removed are more important than mine?”
I engaged in a glaring match with Parth. He knew it was futile to argue with me. I am usually a docile person. But once I made up my mind, nothing could change it.
He wearily shrugged his shoulders.
“Fine. I will reschedule the domestic flights. You better explain to my parents why you changed plans at the last moment.”
“I will tell them I wanted to go home.”
Editor’s note: This month’s cue has been selected by Kiran Manral, a writer, author and novelist based in Mumbai. Her books include The Reluctant Detective, Once Upon A Crush, All Aboard, Saving Maya, Missing Presumed Dead, The Face at the Window, The Kitty Party Murder and More Things in Heaven and Earth in fiction, Karmic Kids, True Love Stories, A Boy’s Guide to Growing Up, 13 Steps to Bloody Good Parenting, Raising Kids with Hope and Wonder in Times of a Pandemic and Climate Change in non-fiction, apart from short stories in various acclaimed anthologies.
The cue is from her latest book More Things in Heaven and Earth.
“Home was perhaps just this body I inhabited and this too was alien to me at times, its folds and creases, its pains and needs. Home was everywhere and nowhere. Home, I realised now, was anywhere the heart slept in peace. Home was where one unpacked one’s cares and settled them into the wardrobe with one’s clothes. It was where one was complete.“
Image source: a still from the film The Namesake
Lalitha is a blogger and a dreamer. Her career is in finance, but writing is
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