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As A Child She Couldn’t Understand Why Urmila And Irfan Mustn’t Be Girlfriend Boyfriend

She was elated. Here was concrete proof that these ungrateful girls didn’t need so much time on the internet. Look what happened if you gave them too much privacy!

She was elated. Here was concrete proof that these ungrateful girls didn’t need so much time on the internet. Look what happened if you gave them too much privacy!

The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women. 

Gitanjali Joshua is one of the winners for the August 2021 Muse of the Month, and wins a Rs 750 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. The juror for this month, Madhulika Liddle commented, “A hard-hitting story that examines several social problems—patriarchy, communalism and the fallout of the pandemic—skillfully and sensitively, without any of it seeming forced.”

It was night when they came back from the police station. The jeep was over-crowded and swerved dangerously, kicking up a cloud of red dust. Seema, peeping out from the window, wondered how the driver had room to drive with all the men packed in there. Three boys were packed together in the front seat, singing loudly.

Vinod-mama staggered out of the jeep, beaming his belligerent smile. His eyes were bloodshot from the sour-sweet alcohol he smelled of. He thanked his friends, swaying a little. They laughed and joked away the awkwardness of his gratitude. It was a delicate family problem, after all.

Amid all the hugs and laughter, one old man whispered something in Vinod-mama’s ear. He nodded meaningfully at Seema, who quickly drew her head in, disappearing from the window. And then they were gone, the jeep veering away on to the road, lights blazing, men singing triumphantly.

“Seema,” snapped Ma heading towards the front door to greet Vinod-mama, “go to bed.”

“But-”

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“NOW!” said Ma. She hadn’t raised her voice, but her tone left no room for argument. Seema went to the room she shared with Urmila-didi. Ma locked the door behind her.

Inside, Urmila-didi lay on her bed, staring at the yellow-grey ceiling. She had been locked in all day. On the table next to the door sat untouched plates with her lunch and dinner. The rice and dal had congealed. Two flies buzzed monotonously around the food.

“Didi?” asked Seema, tentatively, “Aren’t you hungry?”

Urmila shook her head and continued staring at the ceiling. Seema perched on the side of the bed, next to her. “Does it hurt?” she asked, gently touching the bruise on Urmila-didi’s forehead.

Urmila winced, but shook her head again.

They could hear Vinod-mama, outside. “It’s done,” he told Ma, proudly, “the case is filed. He got what was coming to him, rascal…!”

“Vinod…” came Ma’s voice, soft and conciliatory, “Is that really necessary? The boy did nothing –”

“Shut up, Uma,” snapped Vinod-mama. Seema winced. “Isn’t it bad enough that you raise your daughters to bring shame to our family?”

Their voices receded into the kitchen, as Ma tried to placate Vinod-mama with food and find out what sort of case he had filed and what might happen to Irfan.

Seema stared down at her sister, lying listlessly on the bed.

“Perhaps there is an advantage in being alone,” Urmila remarked, quietly. “One is spared the worry. I need to worry only about myself.” She shook her head. “And I have learnt not to worry overly about myself. What is the worst that can happen, after all?” she stared vacantly up at the ceiling, again.

Seema turned away. She hated it when Urmila used pretentious words to pretend everything was alright.

Life had taken a bizarre turn after Papa had passed away. One day he had been fine, sitting in front of his laptop, squinting at the screen through his glasses and grumbling about working from home; the next day they were taking him away in an ambulance, dressed in plastic clothes. He hadn’t even been able to say goodbye. Seema hadn’t expected to miss being called to help set up Papa’s wifi for him for the hundredth time in a day, quite so badly.

Their flat had been quarantined after Papa was taken away. The neighbours behaved as though it was somehow their fault that Papa had COVID. Ma was always busy on the phone, talking worriedly about oxygen levels and asking the doctors polite questions. Seema heard the word ‘insurance’ a lot, and looked it up on Google. One day, Seema found Ma crying quietly in her room. Two days later the phone calls stopped. Ma called Seema and Urmila away from their online-classes to tell them that Papa had passed away.

A few months later, they had to give up the apartment and move in with Vinod-mama and Tara-mami. After Nana and Nani had passed away, their house belonged to Mama, Mami and their son Viren. Viren now lived a few houses away with his new wife, Mira.

Life was very different with Vinod-mama and Tara-mami. On their first day, Tara-mami took Ma aside and asked her not to let Seema and Urmila wear shorts in the house. It was not nice for Vinod-mama, she said. Urmila had tried arguing with Ma, saying that it wasn’t their fault if Vinod-mama was not comfortable with shorts! But Ma had refused to see reason. She insisted on the girls wearing pyjamas instead, and a few days later, had extra salwar kameez made for them to wear around the house.

Even though Seema and Urmila had their own room, a ‘luxury’ Tara-mami never tired of reminding them about, Mami kept barging in to take something-or-the-other down from the loft where she seemed to have stored everything she would need on a daily basis. When she came in, she would look over Urmila’s shoulder and at her laptop screen, curiously. She found it very hard to believe that Seema was actually attending classes on her mobile phone, and regularly lectured Ma on how her daughters spent too much time getting spoiled on the internet.

Ma ignored a lot of it, and tried to focus on her own work which had become a lot busier now that it was online, but something strange seemed to be seeping back into her. After all, she had grown up here. Ma got angry with Seema when she forgot her dupatta and went to the neighbourhood shop. The aunty in the shop had kindly walked Seema back home and pointed it out to Ma. Ma was furious. “You know we’re not in our own house anymore, Seema! Don’t act like you don’t understand. Things are different here! We’re lucky Mama and Mami let us live here!”

And so, Seema learnt that you had to wear a dupatta if you weren’t in your own house. Urmila seemed better at figuring these things out, but sometimes, she got angry and argued with Ma. Sometimes Ma sat alone crying after arguing with her. It was bad if Vinod-mama or Tara-mami found Ma crying, so Ma tried to hide it. If they saw her, they tried to comfort her by saying it wasn’t her fault. Girls who grew up in the city had too much attitude.

They all got up early to help around the house. Seema washed dishes, Urmila swept and mopped and Ma helped Tara-mami cook. It was never enough, though. Tara-mami always wanted help with something when Ma was in a Zoom-meeting, or when Seema and Urmila were attending their online-classes. Vinod-mama sat in front of the TV and asked for more chai, as they struggled with housework and their homework. From time to time he had long phone-calls about his business.

When Tara-mami ‘discovered’ Urmila’s letters from her classmate, Irfan, on one of her trips into the girls’ room to extract something-or-the-other, she was elated. Here was concrete proof that these ungrateful girls didn’t need so much time on the internet. Look what happened if you gave them too much privacy!

Vinod-mama had taken Ma away to talk to her, his eyes glinting. If she wanted to continue to live under their roof, this couldn’t go on. Ma emerged, looking stiff and angry. She took Urmila aside and ‘spoke’ to her. Urmila tried to argue, of course. It earned her her first slap from Ma. Ma stormed away and Seema heard her in the bathroom, crying.

Urmila was angry all the time, after that. Ma had taken away the letters and confiscated her phone at night. Seema kept watch and helped Urmila snatch a few moments on the phone with Irfan.

“Poor Irfan,” Urmila said, one day, “Both his parents have COVID. He’s not able to manage the shop by himself… He’s so worried. He’s missed so many classes…”

“Poor Irfan,” murmured Seema in agreement, unable to dredge up concern for her sister’s friend when she missed her own father so much.

Irfan’s parents ran the grocery shop next door to Seema and Urmila’s old apartment. Teachers at school had always been impressed at how well Irfan did in class, despite having to help out in the shop in the evenings. Urmila and Irfan had been good friends for years. During the lockdown, Irfan used to deliver groceries to their house and linger for a while, talking to Urmila. Ma had liked him then and always gave him a snack before sending him off. She and Papa would keep pointing out to Urmila and Seema how polite and hard-working Irfan was, despite how difficult things were for his family.

Seema didn’t understand why it was such a problem if Urmila was in touch with Irfan. She knew of course, that boyfriends were frowned upon, and that the pile of letters had meant that Urmila and Irfan were boyfriend and girlfriend… but that there was something dangerous about being boyfriend and girlfriend with Irfan in particular was a new idea for her.

Urmila was no longer allowed out alone, so Seema posted her letter to Irfan for her. The postman, a friend of their cousin, Viren, brought the letter back to the house and gave it to Vinod-mama. Vinod-mama thanked him profusely for his help. He left assuring Mama that it was no trouble at all, times were such that Hindus had to lookout for each other and he had known immediately that there must have been a ‘mistake’ when he saw a Muslim name on the envelope.

Vinod-mama tore open the letter. He yelled for Urmila, angrily brandishing a sheaf of currency from inside the envelope. Urmila was defiant and answered all his questions. Yes, she was sending Irfan money. It wasn’t much, but she hoped it would help with his sick parents. She had to send the money through post, because Ma would get a notification if she used Googlepay. It was not Mama’s money, and really he had no right to control Ma’s money. That was when he slapped her.

Seema had never seen Mama so angry. He slapped Urmila so hard that she fell and hit her head against the door. Ma came running out and stood between Urmila and Mama yelling at him to keep his hands off her daughter. He slapped Ma as well, shouting about letting such ungrateful people into his home for free, being taken advantage of and not being able to look his friends in the eye anymore because her prostitute daughter brought shame on them all.

He stormed away and Ma helped still-defiant Urmila up. There was some blood, but luckily it was a shallow cut on her forehead, where her head had hit the door-frame.

Tara-mami tried to help Ma clean the wound, but Ma wrenched the cloth away from her and ignored her. She walked off in a huff, mumbling about Ma being ungrateful. Seema helped Ma clean Urmila’s cut, and listened quietly to Ma’s angry mutter about how much she was paying her own brother for two rooms in her own parents’ house, and how dare he claim he was ‘letting her stay for free’.

“And you!” she snapped at Urmila, “How dare you take my money without telling me!”

Urmila, who had been grinding her teeth until then, burst into tears, “I don’t know what to do, Ma,” she sobbed. “Papa’s gone, we are stuck here, and Irfan… I don’t even want to be his girlfriend if it’s so bad for you!” she glared at Ma before continuing, “but his parents are sick, and he can’t manage the shop and he’s missed all our classes… He won’t get into college if things go on like this… five hundred rupees is nothing really, but I had to do something…”

Ma didn’t say anything. She just hugged Urmila to her, and cried.

The next day, Vinod-mama woke up early and locked Urmila in the room without her phone. Then, ignoring Ma’s questions, he strode off to register a ‘case’.

Editor’s note: This month’s cue has been selected by Madhulika Liddle, a novelist and award-winning short story writer. She is best-known as the author of the Muzaffar Jang series, about a 17th century Mughal detective, though she also writes other novels and short stories in different genres and across themes ranging from black humour to social awareness, crime to romance.

Madhulika’s next book, due for release in September 2021 is The Garden of Heaven, the first novel of the four-book The Delhi Quartet, which covers the story of a group of interconnected families against a backdrop of 800 years of Delhi’s history, beginning with the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate and ending with Partition. Madhulika lives in Noida, India, and blogs—mainly about classic cinema, food and travel—find her here.

The cue is from her upcoming book The Garden of Heaven.

“‘Perhaps there is an advantage in being alone,’ she remarked. ‘One is spared the worry. I need worry only about myself.’ She shook her head. ‘And I have learnt not to worry overly about myself. What is the worst that can happen, after all?’ She looked up.”

Image source: a still from the film Chandni Bar

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About the Author

Gitanjali Joshua

Gitanjali Joshua is a perennial student, currently exploring an intersection of law, religion and gender in her doctoral thesis. She enjoys reading, writing, painting, an read more...

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