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How could she ignore the silent anguish that she knew was building up in a child of such a tender age? Yet, she couldn’t understand it either.
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Shalini Mullick is one of the winners for the December 2021 Muse of the Month, and wins a Rs 750 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. The juror for this month, Ranjani Rao commented, “Sometimes things can challenge our understanding of life, but love always triumphs. It is never too late to break tradition and forge a new path.”
Vidhya fumbled for the rusty key to the drawer of the rickety wooden dresser and turned it into the lock.
“What are you looking for in that secret drawer of yours, amma?”
Vidhya turned around to see the excitement in those beautiful deep-set eyes- exactly like Murali’s.
“Did I get the pleats right?”
The silk saree -one that had been part of Vidhya’s trousseau-still looked as good as new.
“Yes, they are. See, these traditional clothes are so much more graceful that those cold shoulder tops that are in vogue.”
Vidhya’s distaste for the cold shoulder blouses was not new. They laughed together.
Vidhya pulled out the velvet drawstring pouch that lay nestled below the few folders that contained important documents and envelopes containing old photographs.
“Let us have breakfast. You know it’s my first day in this job!”
“According to the tradition for new beginnings, I have already prepared payasam for you”
“Love you amma. Come quickly so I can leave on time. I don’t want to be late.”
But Vidhya had already pulled out the single item that the pouch contained-one that had been with her all the years. The luster of the long gold necklace with its finely engraved central piece had not diminished with time. The memories hadn’t faded either.
“It is a tradition of our family that this ‘laxmi-haar’ is given to the eldest daughter in law. It has been in our family for generations.” The hostility in the icy tone of her mother-in-law on the sultry morning after their wedding had been unmistakable. The matriarch had kept the pouch on Murali’s table and left without giving her blessings.
“Ours is a very orthodox family.” Pressing her close, Murali had assured her, “I will always be there for you. Don’t worry, eventually our love will be stronger than her displeasure. She will come around.”
It was a promise that would soon be broken. Within a year, Murali had passed away, leaving her alone- with their unborn baby-and the family heirloom.
Keeping the necklace on the mirror, Vidhya climbed on the footstool and took the framed picture off the nail. Holding it close to her chest and then looking intently at Murali’s’ smiling youthful face would often bring her much needed comfort in times of conflict or trouble. And there had been many of those.
Teaching in the small primary school in their village brought some respite to her otherwise invisible existence and the drudgery of chores in a large family that had no love to spare for her-or for her quiet, shy, child who was the center of her existence. A calm, almost dreary childhood had gradually changed into an adolescence peppered with occasional upheavals. She noted the subtle changes- experimenting with binds and makeup; the youtube dance videos that would be muted when she probed; the request for fashion magazines.
“You must concentrate on studies. Like your appa, you can also go to university and teach students.”
“Amma, I love being on the stage.”
“My child, in this family, it is a tradition for everyone to go to University.”
Interest in books continued to drop. The struggle for independence increased.
Following fashion news and icons, experimenting with hair styles, spending more and more time online-Vidhya had been at a loss. The others had also started to notice.
“Again, out with friend? No one else in our family is so restless.”
“Why don’t you stop this rebellion?”
“A child without a father-this is expected.”
The barbs thrown at her as she served everyone their meals would hurt. The mix of judgement, pity, criticism, and reproach would make the left-over morsels unpalatable.
Things were getting out of hand; the family honor and reputation was at stake.
“Children need strong role models at this age. We will explain and counsel.”
“These are passing phases. We will arrange tuitions.”
As the Matriculation exams drew closer, the upheavals seemed to have plateaued.
“The child is intelligent, but doesn’t concentrate.”
“Yes, after all, Murali’s genes. Cannot be all bad.”
“Yes, children need direction; and parents to spend time with them.”
Vidhya would listen silently. When she would return to their single room in the outhouse of the large ancestral house, she would be exhausted. Yet, sleep would elude her. She would hear her own heart beating furiously in her chest. Thumping against her ribs with a ferocity that scared her. Telling her that something was wrong. Very wrong. She couldn’t shake off a strong hunch that this was something more than a typical adolescent struggle. What was the mother’s heart, intuitive and loving, able to feel, but not give words to?
There was no one she could talk to about the fashion posters that were taped to the inside of the wardrobe, pictures of Bollywood starlets pasted in a scrap book or the brightly painted toenails. And the multicolored diary that she had found under the pillow one day, with such deep, and dark poetry. About feelings of shame, anger, and confusion. Or the note that had slipped out- words of shame and guilt-and helplessness; thoughts of self-harm; written, crossed out, and written again. How could she ignore the silent anguish that she knew was building up in a child of such a tender age? Yet, she couldn’t understand it either. The tears had caught up in her throat. She had been terribly, overwhelmingly frightened.
She had sat for hours with the note, and Murali’s photograph, wishing he was there for her. That she could articulate the thoughts that were forming in her mind; ask him the question that lay deep within her.
Finally, she had slept.
But, Murali, he had heard. He always had-always did.
And she had dreamt.
The three of them- the family Murali would have cherished- walking along the sea in Mumbai and looking at the waves crash on the triangular boulders.
“See, Vidhya, isn’t the ocean beautiful”
“Yes, it’s strange. The sea seems so placid, and then suddenly those waves come crashing against the stones.
“Yes, exactly. On the surface, all may seem calm, but things move forward exactly as they should, in tandem with an unseen natural rhythm. Some waves will disappear before they hit the surface, others will crash loudly; and a few will become much smaller than they were just a few moments ago. It is the natural rhythm. We cannot change it. We cannot even understand it. But if we try to fight it, we will be swept away.”
Murali had always loved to talk in riddles. She did feel as if her little world was being swept away, but how was she to know what the natural rhythm was?
In her dreams, Murali never held her close however much she longed for it.
He had looked straight ahead at the vast expanse of the ocean ahead of him.
“Vidhya, let the rhythm flow. Love, acceptance and support is what all children need. We must give it to them that so that they can be whoever they are meant to be.
The next morning she had decided.
They would leave for Mumbai.
It had been more difficult than she had imagined. Murali would have been proud to see the hard work that both of them had put in to make this new life. Money was scarce, and between both of them, they worked many part-time jobs. The bills got paid, and little by little they also managed the extras. Salon bills, clinic visits, dance classes, costumes- as costs went up, both of them worked harder. Sewing work from local tailors, small modelling assignments, taking tuitions – both of them juggled more and more. They became familiar with the city- and, with the social media, people began to know them. The posts brought more work, gigs in other parts of the city; but it also brought some ridicule and trolls. Yes, it was a brave new world, but these were also such turbulent times filled with hatred and intolerance. Returning home late at night to the suburbs, performing in crowded clubs, new gigs in different places- safety would always be on Vidhya’s mind.
“Trust me ma.”
“It’s not about you. The world is not a safe place. Take care.”
Finally some friends had encouraged them to move to this chawl. It was safer, and bigger too. “Amma, I have taken a regular job in a dance school. We will be manage the rent.”
It seemed that like Murali’s black eyes, his determination had also passed down to the next generation.
“Amma, I am waiting for you.”
Today, on the first day of this new job at the dance school, this was a befitting gift.
Vidhya walked out to the breakfast table, and placed the pouch next to the bowl of payasam.
“Amma, what is this?”
“This is too heavy for me to wear to work”
“It is not to wear. I want you to sell this.”
“Amma, what is wrong with you? I told you we can afford the rent and expenses.”
“Yes, I know. This is not for expenses. It is for you. “
“Yes, dear,” Vidya replied, looking tenderly at the child who had been born as her ‘son’.
Her Raman- that had been Murali’s middle name- who had now become Ramola. Her Ramola.
She had been overwhelmed when she had learnt that her ‘son’ was actually a girl who was trapped in a boy’s body.
This was something that she simply hadn’t been able to comprehend- where would someone even begin, when faced with such a situation? Terrified, lonely and bewildered, she had clung on to Murali’s words. Had he meant that the rhythm that lived in the soul, in the being of her child–that was independent of everything in the world that tells us who to be; and how to be; and why to be? Or the rhythm that life would follow irrespective of however hard we tried to control it? That everything was preordained, and all they could do was watch it unfold.
She had realised as a mother, that all she could do was simply to love, cherish, and accept her child. Without any conditions, judgements, or preconceived notions. It had been difficult, but not as difficult as seeing the pain and suffering she saw Ramola go through when she was unable to be her true self. Today when she saw her daughter perform on stage, the pride she felt was not any different from that of any other parent. The concern for and need to protect her child were not any different either. Neither would be the dreams she had for her child, or the desire to see the child’s biggest dreams come true. Dreams that Ramola was not allowing herself to share with her mother, out of a fear that they could never be realised.
Vidhya knew that Ramola wanted to become a woman in the true sense of the word; to transition. Even with her new job, the money that was needed for hormones and surgery would not be within Ramola’s reach.
Vidhya pulled Ramola close to her.
“My lovely daughter, my beautiful girl, I couldn’t bear to see you miserable and lost, so I broke tradition and left Murali’s ancestral home. I wanted you to feel the joy of being who you are; the happiness of living your truth. And it makes me proud to see you doing it. But I also sense that there is more that you yearn for. I know you want to transition. Use this to get the money you need.”
Ramola’s eyes welled with tears. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
“No amma. I cannot let you do this. You have always held this necklace close to your heart. It is a matter of tradition.”
“Yes, it is a matter of tradition. But of a new tradition. A tradition where we embrace our authentic selves; celebrate and accept ourselves and each other.”
Image source: YouTube
Shalini is a practicing doctor. After decades of writing long biopsy reports and applications for research grants, she decided to explore creative writing.
She finds inspiration in the routine life and regular people around her.
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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