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Her mother had taken her aside as well, and talked to her about the importance of family and being careful who one was seen with. She was a big girl now, she should know better. She was so lucky that her parents were still allowing her to study...
Aanchal frowned, as she watched her daughter hurry down the road towards the kirana store from her living room window. Asha was a little overdressed for a visit to the store. Only last week, she had seen Asha with the boy. They had been sitting among the trees, where they imagined no one could see them. Aanchal had come out for a walk. It was the only time she could snatch a few minutes for herself. Sometimes she bumped into a few friends, from the campus. Arun’s friends’ wives. Some of them were even professors, like Arun. The walkers walked along the paths, children played on the swings and chased each other and the students and couples lurked just out of sight among the trees.
Aanchal usually ignored the couples, but that day she had caught sight of a familiar blue kurta and realized it was Asha.
Asha was in college, studying biotechnology. Aanchal and Arun had always encouraged Asha to study. The boy, Anchal thought, looked familiar. He was perhaps Asha’s senior in college. He had looked nervous, polite and completely entranced by Asha. Neither of them had seen Aanchal and she had averted her eyes and walked away. The boy was wearing a neatly ironed shirt and pants, not the casual T-shirt and jeans that Aanchal associated with boys from Asha’s age-group, coming from families like theirs. He was also quite dark skinned, she had noticed. It wasn’t looks, of course, that concerned Aanchal. She had seen, even in that small glimpse, how deeply the boy was devoted to Asha. That was promising… but something about him looked out of place, next to Asha. He didn’t have her confidence. Her self assurance. Next to Aanchal and Arun’s families, it seemed the boy would not quite fit in.
Aanchal had spoken to Asha that evening. It had been a vague talk about family coming first, choosing a match who would fit in and who the whole family could be proud of. For instance, food habits could really be a problem later in life, once the initial romance had worn off… Asha had given her mother a blank stare and walked out of the room.
And here she was, a week later, hurrying to ‘the store’, all dressed up in her new top and palazzos, wearing lipstick, of all things. Aanchal felt angry. Did her daughter take her for a fool? Was she not smart enough to take the hint and drop this foolish relationship? Would Aanchal have to intervene further? Would she have to tell Arun? Aanchal shuddered involuntarily at the thought of telling Arun.
Arun was a wonderful man. He had always been so kind and caring. She had never imagined a love like this, and through an arranged marriage, of all things! Growing up, Aanchal had watched her parents bicker and fight. She had never wanted to get married. Her mother hadn’t finished school. She had been in her final year of school when her marriage with Aanchal’s father was fixed and there had been no reason for her to sit for her final exams. Her father often brought that up when they fought. How could an uneducated woman, a school drop out, be so confident and argue with him, a bank employee? Aanchal’s mother had pushed Aanchal to study till her B.A. So that she would be able to hold her head high in her in-laws’ house.
Aanchal had in turn, gone further, and done a B.Ed. She had been teaching English in a school, when her parents fixed her marriage. They had given her time to explore her dreams, but now that time was up. She had to come back to reality.
And reality was Arun. Quiet and consistent, Arun. He had been kind to her from the start. He had a steady job in an Engineering college. He had never forced Aanchal to quit her job. He never demanded that Aanchal do anything. Aanchal herself had realized, once they were married, that keeping house for him at the standard a professor in a prestigious college required, was a full time job. For a while she had juggled both. Arun never scolded her for being shoddy with the housework, of course… but his gentle sighs and laughing excuses to his colleagues when they visited, explaining that really teaching in school was quite draining and Aanchal was still settling in to life in the University campus, so please excuse the mess; let Aanchal know that she was not performing quite up to the mark.
Arun was a responsible son, and had naturally offered that his elderly parents could move in with Aanchal and him in their spacious college quarters, when they began to find it difficult to live on their own. He would hear none of the objections of his brother and sister who wanted their parents to take turns living in all their houses. Staying in one place would be easier for them, they would settle into a routine and make friends. It would be no trouble for him and Aanchal. He never forced Aanchal to do anything she didn’t want to, of course. However, he never lifted a finger to help when his parents moved in, and Aanchal had almost double the housework to do. He never took his mother’s side when she was angry with Aanchal for not having been brought up well enough to know which vessel one soaked dal in or for making tea late. He never really defended her either. He was above these daily domestic hassles. The squabbles of women were too far beneath him to even notice.
When Aanchal was pregnant for the second time, with Asha, she quit her job. Three-year-old Amar was quite a handful already. Another bundle of joy would make it impossible for Aanchal to work and manage the home. Arun was extremely supportive when she told him of her decision. He hadn’t wanted to say anything before, but he had seen her wearing herself out balancing correcting answer scripts, setting papers, preparing for classes and the home… It would be good for her to give herself time and space to focus on the important things in life. In any case, there was no need for her to work.
Arun had never once raised his hand to Aanchal, the way she had seen her father sometimes clinch an argument with her mother. She was always grateful for how gentle he was. And he was such a good father. Always encouraging both Amar and Asha to study, equally. Of course there were differences. Asha couldn’t go to the college in Delhi, even though she had got in. It was too far. And they would miss her. It was nothing like the way Aanchal herself had been brought up. Her brother had always gone out to play, and she had had to stay home and help with the housework. Asha had never had to face any such discrimination. But of course, Amar had gone to study in Australia, and Asha… Asha had got in to a prestigious college in the same city as her parents, so she could continue to live with them.
Aanchal decided to go for a walk again. She needed to think. The campus was beautiful, this time of year. The rains had just passed and it was getting chilly. The sun would set in an hour. Aanchal walked casually past the campus store. There was no sign of Asha. Aanchal sighed. How would Amar react if she told him what she feared about Asha?
Aanchal wandered towards the lake on the campus. It was a lovely walk. The vegetation was lush and green along the path. Crows cawed overhead. A dragonfly buzzed past Aanchal’s face. Something still troubled her about the boy she had glimpsed with Asha. There was something familiar about him. All of a sudden, it came to her. He wasn’t Asha’s senior… He was a student of Arun’s. A very bright boy, despite being from a reserved category. She froze. The words reserved category echoed in her head. Arun had always been so good to him. They had even invited him home to dinner once. Arun was very sweet about encouraging these people. Her in-laws had been uncomfortable with it, though. So Arun had not invited the student home again. She remembered now, that Asha had talked and laughed with the boy, with a great deal of ease. The world was different for her daughter, and she was glad. Old hierarchies were crumbling.
Unbidden, a memory rose up. Aanchal had been in class eleven. She had done badly in her maths exam and was upset. A boy from her maths tuition had bought her an ice-cream. She did not remember his name now. She only remembered his eyes. They had been large and kind. It was hot and sweaty and he had bought her an ice-cream as they waited for their parents, after the exam. She had shared it with him, because he didn’t have enough money to buy himself one, as well. Aanchal’s father had come to pick her up that day. He saw her sharing the choco-bar and grabbed her hand roughly, pulling her away from the kind-eyed-boy. The last bite of the ice-cream had fallen on the street, melting almost immediately. She had seen the brown and white smear melt into the tar as her father pulled her away, into the crowd. That evening her father had yelled at her, in a way he had never done before. Had she no shame? Did she not understand who she was, who her family was? This was what came from raising girls with no restrictions. As though they were boys! Sending them to school, letting them mingle with people from everywhere… Aanchal had not understood, then. Her eyes had just filled with tears and she had silently lamented the melted ice-cream. Her mother had taken her aside as well, and talked to her about the importance of family and being careful who one was seen with. She was a big girl now, she should know better. She was so lucky that her parents were still allowing her to study…
Aanchal stared out at the lake surrounded by reeds, her eyes blurring. A water bird walked long-legged in the shallows, looking for unsuspecting fish. She couldn’t even remember the boy’s name, but she understood now, what her father and mother had been saying. The breeze bullied the reeds forcing them to swish and sway to its vagaries, forwards and backwards, this way and that. Everything was as it had been yesterday and the day before. The cuckoo bird continued its ‘coo-coo-once-is-not-enough-here’s-another’, coo-coo call, pleased with its own poetics, its rhythm unfaltering. So much had transpired, yet nothing had changed.
Should she tell Arun about Asha and the boy?
This story was shortlisted for our September 2021 Muse of the Month short fiction contest. Our juror for the month Manjul Bajaj says “The author addresses two important themes… gender and caste discrimination in Indian families. Since the themes are oft explored I would recommend adding something unique – a dramatic incident, a subtly wounding dialogue, an unusual metaphor or observation, anything that would startle the reader into thinking about the story and remembering it later.”
Image source: a still from the series Yeh Meri family
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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 assortment of crafts, long walks and swimming.
She loves dinosaurs, read more...
Women's Web is an open platform that publishes a diversity of views, individual posts do not necessarily represent the platform's views and opinions at all times.
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I watched a Tamil movie Kadaisi Vivasayi (The Last Farmer), recommended by my dad, on SonlyLiv, and many times over again since my first watch. If not for him, I’d have had no idea what I would have missed. What a piece of relevant and much needed art this movie is!
It is about an old farmer in a village (the only indigenous farmer left), who walks the path of trouble, quite unexpectedly, and tries to come out of it. I have tried my best to refrain from leaving spoilers, for I want the readers to certainly catch up on this masterpiece of director Manikandan (of Kakka Muttai fame).
The movie revolves around the farmer who goes about doing his everyday chores, sweeping his mud-house first thing in the morning, grazing the cows, etc and living a simple but contented life. He is happy doing his thing, until he invites trouble for himself out of the blue, primarily because he is illiterate and ignorant.