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Being a dujjar (divorcee) is similar to being an untouchable. Women wear their mangalsutras like medals. This is what matters. What happens to a married woman behind closed doors does not matter. It is actually irrelevant in the larger scheme of things.
Nutan is sitting at the dining table. Yes, we have one now. She is making designs with her soft fingertips on the table top. I am sitting next to her, writing the monthly grocery list. I glance sideways at her fingers, trying to figure out what she is writing or drawing. She is humming a song too, an old folk number usually sung at weddings. She has a lilting voice but on her lips the melody sounds forlorn.
My eyes keep following her fingers till I realise she is writing something, a word perhaps. She has written, ‘Du….’ Then it strikes me. She is writing dujjar: divorcee. I turn my face away to hide the stab of pain I feel in my heart.
In our community, this is probably the most dreaded word. Being a dujjar is similar to being an untouchable. Women wear their mangalsutras like medals. This is it. This is what matters. What happens to a married woman behind closed doors does not matter. It is actually irrelevant in the larger scheme of things, as long as she keeps wearing that medal without complaint and keeps bearing male heirs.
‘Dujjar, your daughter will become a dujjar,’
Ram Prasad had shouted on the trunk call to Vishnu Das when he talked of ending the marriage. Then he had laughed.
‘Talakshuda beti ne ghar pe bitha ker rakhoge? (You will keep your divorced daughter sitting at home?) You must be mad. Send her back to her sasural. There is going to be no conversation over this.’
My husband had hung up in silence. Then their threats started. Through calls, through letters and through Sunehri Devi, who did everything to provoke Maji to send Nutan back. Maji also tried her best to convince us. Then she used histrionics and came down to pressure tactics.
‘I always told you this haveli only has manhoos women. One woman devoured her mother the moment she was born, another got abducted and became a mistress and now we have the other one all ready to become a dujjar. Hey Ram!’
‘Maji, you know your sons think differently. If anyone has reaped the benefits of Vishnu Das’ progressive attitude, it is you. You happily came down to attend Geeta’s wedding despite being a widow. When he said the restrictions that a widow has to follow will not be applied in your case, you embraced his diktats with open arms because it worked in your favour. Now when it’s about the daughter of this same house, you want to push her back to hell.’
For the first time in my life, Bhagwani Devi’s expression told me that she was not framing a comeback in her head. She fell silent. In other circumstances, I would have considered this a victory, but the battle ahead was so big that these tiny wins were insignificant now. I had thought the battle would be with Nutan’s sasural but hadn’t really thought that we would actually be waging a war against society. The matter with Nutan’s father-in-law could only be settled when Kishan went to Calcutta, took the police with him to Nutan’s sasural and demanded Narayan’s medical test report. Narayan was back in Calcutta at that time and that helped. He convinced his father to get the divorce done. A medical test was definitely not something he wanted to get into. Seeing Narayan’s signature on the divorce papers, Nutan was initially very happy. At that point, she had no clue what lay ahead for her. Sunehri Devi, Narayan’s grandmother, had poisoned people’s mind in our community well enough and it soon started showing its effects. One of Maji’s charpoy ladies took Nutan aside one day and asked her,
‘You used to look at boys from the balcony all day and you now say people in your sasural were bad? Key zamana aa gayahai! (What has the world become!). You are a spoilt woman yourself and you played with other people’s izzat!’
‘Boys from the balcony…?’ Nutan first fumbled, then went red in the face and rushed up the stairs to her room.
From that day on, Vishnu Das stopped Bhagwani Devi’s charpoy sessions. But then, you can stop people entering your home but you cannot stop them from talking behind your back. The whispers continued, the rumours spread like wildfire and people started avoiding us. When I started approaching families to send their daughters to our school, the situation became worse. One lady was blatant enough to tell me,
‘You couldn’t bring up your daughter properly…she couldn’t be happy in such a reputed family in a big city and you will now give shiksha in your school to our daughters?’
I kept mum. I had nothing to say. Meanwhile, Kishan got permission from government agencies to move thirty rescued women from an Ashram in Jalandhar to our hostel. Just before the women were supposed to arrive, a mob attacked the school. They went on a rampage.
‘We won’t let you bring these impure women to Luharu,’ they shouted.
Thankfully, none of us were in school that day. Beds and almirahs were broken in the hostel, tables and benches destroyed in the classrooms, but no life was jeopardised. I feared that we had ended up recreating the violence we witnessed during Partition by trying to help women who had been affected so adversely by it. Such is the irony of life. Kishan stalled the arrival of the women from Jalandhar. We stopped going to the school and waited for the frenzy to die down. That’s when the worst happened.
Nutan and I left home one day to go to the mandir. Nutan seemed to find solace praying to God and I encouraged her. The mandir was where I had also gone as a child when I was looking for direction in life. On our way back, we were tailed by a group of boys. They were in their late teens or even older. They were after Nutan and my being with her did not make any difference to them. They kept hooting at her. As we increased our pace, they increased theirs too. Who were these boys? Many people had moved into Luharu since Partition; it no longer remained a town where everyone knew everyone. I didn’t know it had slid into such anarchy that a daughter was no longer safe with her mother.
‘Aey dujjar! (You divorcee)’ they taunted. ‘Come, we are there to fulfil your needs.’
I felt a chill go down my spine. Nutan had turned ashen and tears were rolling down her eyes. They were getting dangerously close. A few steps more and we would reach home. The boys were getting really lewd and rowdy. I pushed Nutan through the main door and closed it after her. I felt if I couldn’t stand up for Nutan that day, I wouldn’t ever be able to shield her from this cruel society. All my life, I had learnt to take it on the chin and never retaliate. I had followed this principle diligently. But there has to be a time when you have to listen to your inner voice. I very calmly said to the boys,
‘I will come with you. Chal (Come), where do you want to go?’
They were taken aback. They didn’t expect me to turn back. Women never retaliated. They were not used to being challenged by women. They were petty stalkers enjoying a power trip harassing a young girl. The moment I confronted them, they became like dogs with their tails tucked between their legs, looking for an opportunity to slip away. Then I heard the door open behind me and was filled with a sense of dread that Nutan had stepped out too. Something I didn’t want.
‘I will come with you too,’ Maji said as she stepped out of the door. Maji was standing next to me, her eyes turned to mine reassuringly.
‘You called my granddaughter names? Called her dujjar? Come, let’s go to your house and see what they have to say about this? You must be having sisters, mothers and grandmothers at home. We would love to meet them. Take us with you,’ she said.
The boys kept looking at each other. They had been caught off guard. They stepped back slowly. Maji started walking towards them. They started running. Back at home, Nutan was trembling. Maji brought us two glasses of water. Bhagwani Devi serving me water was probably a first in my life.
‘When you have chosen this path, you have to learn to face life,’ she said.
I wasn’t sure if she would start off another tirade now. I was never sure of what went on in my mother-in-law’s mind.
‘Nutan, you go upstairs,’ I commanded. I could not let her go through more humiliation.
‘No, I really mean it. Nutan, you have to be strong; look these men straight in the eye and make them fearful of you,’ she said.
I hadn’t expected her to support me in shooing away the boys, neither had I expected her to say this.
‘From now on, take me along with you always, I will teach these bastards a lesson. They will never dare to do something like this again,’ she said.
I guess this is what life is about. When you are down in the dumps, support comes from the most unexpected quarters. Maji had tormented me all my life but at that moment, by showing her support to Nutan, she had absolved herself. Despite Maji’s surprisingly supportive stance and all our efforts to keep Nutan cheerful and positive, from that day she started sinking into a depressive state. She spoke very little, ate even less and rarely played with her brothers. She stopped talking about the school around which she was building her dream project. If she spoke at all, she sometimes mentioned her wish to join a religious organisation and become a sadhvi (female ascetic). Sitting at the dining table, when she had started humming a song, I had felt my heart swelling with hope for my daughter only to be brutally crushed the next moment by the realisation of what she was writing with her fingers on the table. Dujjar! Was this going to be her only identity now, an identity that society had inked on her forehead with an invisible ink so that she wouldn’t forget it for a moment? Baanj, dujjar, rakhel …it’s always the women!
Publishers’ note (Vitasta Publishing Pvt.Ltd): It is our pleasure to publish Daughter of Luharu. When we first read the script, we knew that we should be the ones publishing it. The smooth narrative style along with the addition of a rich historical backdrop makes Roheeni’s story so realistic to the era it represents. It is saddening that the reality of women hasn’t changed much even after so many years.
Daughter of Luharu is our endeavor to bring to the limelight the suffering women faced before, during as well as after partition. Monica’s Roheeni is no less strong than Hosseini’s Mariam. The surroundings, the names of people, the time etc. may be different, the sad reality is that the lives of women stay the same. We write in hope that it changes in the future.
If you would like to pick up a copy of Daughter of Luharu by Monica Sudhir Gupta, use our affiliate links at Amazon India, and at Amazon US.
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Image source: a still from Bangla film Mukherjee Dar Bou and book cover from Amazon
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