Thud! I hear the loud noise and wonder if it’s the end for me. Supposedly safe in my dark haven, I live in dread all the time. The world has not been so kind to me in the past. And I am scared for my life as I crouch, pulling up my knees to my belly.
I hear the temple bells tintinnabulating in close proximity and a calm enswathes me. The shuffling of feet, the rhythm of the chants and the cries of the vendors around the evening aarti comfort me. When one cannot appreciate things visually, it’s the sounds that matter; there are noises that I associate with danger, melodies that inspire me to go on inspite of the odds and a few rare utterings that instil faith.
Thud!! I hear it again and as I gulp in fear ,a shriek “Mummy..why are you lifting those heavy boxes on your own? You are already so weak!”
“Arre Dhara ,who will do it then? You?” a tired voice replied.
“Yes, I am almost twelve now, can easily do it!” claimed an indignant Dhara.
“Dhara is right! What if something happens….” Came another voice, slightly overpowering in its tone.
“She should anyway be learning all these tasks around the house.” The same voice added. “Another six -seven years, and she will be going to her actual house. Why, by the time I was….”
“Oh Dadi, please,”Dhara interrupted. “I am keen to help my mother because she is frail and the doctor has advised her rest. And of course, I want to be self -sufficient so that when I leave home to pursue my dreams ,I can manage on my own.”
Dreams? Do girls have dreams?.My experiences have taught me quite the opposite. Bound , and unsure of my future,I beg to differ. As this routine banter continues between the three, amidst the clanging of pots interspersed with high- pitched whistles from the kitchen, I doze off.
I wake up to the familiar jarring sound of a scooter without a silencer. My heart skips a beat. Over time, I have come to associate this sound with something ominous. And sure enough, the unmistakable baritone of ‘the man whom Dhara calls Papaji’ rings in my ears. His slurry singing always ends at the entrance where he mouths the filthiest of expletives at his own family. I chuckle when he occasionally gets a few cuss words in return from the neighbours, specially if the hours of his grand arrival are late.
Respecting another human being or for that matter, any being, doesn’t come easily to ‘this man whom Dhara calls Papaji’. And I am a witness (well, not an eyewitness) to his atrocities. When he doesn’t insult verbally, then he uses his hands and legs.
It had been particularly bad a few months back, when he was around all the time.
“Arre,when will this lockdown get over?” he would complain. “I feel claustrophobic!”
I found that a bit ironic. Lying around doing nothing, ordering the other three around, throwing temper tantrums at their mistakes didn’t really sound suffocating to me…at least not for him.
The only thing that gave him competition in making unnecessary ruckus those days were some loud voices arguing on that amazing thing they call TV (which I am yet to figure out).
“Breaking news..abhi abhi taaza khabar ke…”
“The nation wants to….”
This TV thing seems to emanate many sounds, usually pleasant ones when Dhara watches it, melodramatic ones when Dadi switches it on and unpleasant ones when the ‘man whom Dhara calls Papaji’ watches. I assume it must be a device that mirrors one’s nature.
Coming back to ‘claustrophobia’, I think it ended for this man the day I heard him prancing in joy to another ‘breaking news’.It pushed him away from the house for a few hours ,only to return with incoherent speech and violent streaks on most evenings.
“These worthless women!” he would shout “Keep living on my money, sit around all day and can’t even give a well-cooked meal.”
I shuddered everytime he hit Dhara or Dhara’s mummy. I could imagine myself next as the victim of his wrath. Just like that fatal kick nine years back.
The foul language or the beatings have not changed but thankfully he is back to the factory and there is peace for the greater part of the day.
I don’t like “the man Dhara calls Papaji”, period.
I cringe at the bawling from the TV. Must be that funny thing Dhara’s Dadi watches daily. Funny because its named Beti ka Ghar (daughter’s home), but from the dialogues I realise the daughter doesn’t really have a home.
“Beti, tum to parayee ho….your husband’s house is your real home”says a mature voice.
“Apne ghar se kuch nahi seekha…didn’t you learn anything from your home?” says a demanding voice.
And I wonder whether the beti will ever have a place to call her own. Or will she be mercilessly thrown on the roads, just like I was discarded unscrupulously seven years back.
Unlike me, Dadi thrives on these notions. She prays loudly for a brother for Dhara. And a long-life for ‘the man whom Dhara calls Papaji’. I have never heard her praying for Dhara or her mummy. Oh ya, that one time when Dhara’s mummy was bedridden, she seemed to be talking God into a settlement… “ Bhagwan ..just get her ok to beget a son, and I will make pure ghee laddoos with my own hands and bring to the temple!”
Once I heard her crib “ Rukhsana told me she got her son married a second time and the new wife gave them an heir(read son)! Wish we were of that religion….. .”
I was a bit taken aback because the previous day I had heard her secretly rejoicing the thrashing of the other religion people by her religion people because they had cow meat.
She sometimes stops ‘ the man whom Dhara calls Papaji’ from beating his wife and daughter by reasoning, “ Arre,beta..they will suffer their karma, why do you mess your hands?”
I do not know what Karma is, but these words seem good to me as long as they stop the incessant violence, so I memorise this line for the future. That is,..er… if I have a future!
I don’t trust Dhara’s Dadi. Enough said.
The Unwilling Traitor
I can hardly make out what she mumbles even though she is in close proximity throughout. She’s called Mummy by Dhara ; maybe she’s christened that because she keeps mum most of the time. Except ,
“Abhi laati hoon..”
These are the three phrases which ensure her safety for most part of the day. An extra word or a small error is a harbinger of terror. Whoever said that ‘to err is human’ forgot a major section of married women in India who are tolerated only till they toe the line with their ‘bitter half ‘and his family but remain unforgiven for the smallest of follies.
Or maybe, these women are not really human? Programming..eh, as Dhara learns in class. Could they be like robots fitted with chips programmed to please? That could explain the monosyllabic repetitive responses in Mummy here, her endless, tiring work hours and her endurance for physical pain.
I pinch myself out of my wild imagination. I remind myself of her quiet sobs, and the savage throbbing of her aching heart which I can fathom.
Her silence speaks of the torture, the injustice and the life of guilt she leads.
I remember how she stood at the door for such a long time a lustrum back, resisting and pleading to save my life. I smiled as my end drew near, content with the knowledge that she canvassed for me.
Alas! The next year and the year after that, as I struggled to breathe, she was as unmoved as a ..err..robot!
I like Dhara’s mummy. But I wish she would stand up for herself and her daughter.
The Dame in Shining Armour
Her merry laughter always gives me hope. Dhara flows through the monotony of these depressing days with goodwill and cheer . She strives for what she believes in. I am a keen learner and listen to all she says intently.
“You know mummy, there are places in India where there is a matriarchal society, the females are the heads of the families and even property is passed on to daughters; wish we were part of such societies.Maybe, there, I would be celebrated.” She exclaims.
“Hmmm” says mummy.
“The soul can never get Moksha without a son to light one’s pyre” pitches in Dadi, as my ears pick up the faint rustling of the tulsi rosary between her fingers.
“Dadi, soul will not get Moksha when the pyre is lit by a murderer, either!” Dhara retorts.
“ Dhara!!” Reprimands mummy, in a whisper.
I am surprised when there is no response from Dadi. It doesn’t take time to figure out why.A loud slap echoes across the room followed by another. Why is he back so early..yes, the villain whom Dhara calls Papaji is hitting his only child mercilessly and ranting about tameez.
A slam and a clang indicate the bathroom door being locked .Ah..so, Dhara is caged like me…well, maybe not as bad as me, because she has more chances of getting out of it alive.
I pout knowing that I won’t be entertained by the TV today or by Dhara’s anecdotes.
When the bully leaves for his late evening tryst at the the local thekas, I hear Dhara again.What I love about this girl is her resilience. And as the fine smell of her favourite pakodas makes me drool, she comes out with another interesting fact.
“ Mummy, pata hai , we all have genes with chromosomes .Do you know it is the father whose chromosomes determine whether the child will be a boy or a girl. Then why does everybody keep chiding you about not being able to give a male heir?”
“ Dhara..sshh,!” says Mummy.
I prick up my ears to gather this information. Genes? Chromosomes? In my case I feel it is much beyond that. A greater purpose?
Squeals of delight distract me .
“Its lovely Mummy!! Says Dhara . But you spoilt your favourite saree to make this ghaghra choli for me?”
“Navratri is almost here. This is all I could do for kanyapujan .”
And that sent a shiver down my spine. Last year,the nine nights had been dark . The kanyapujan had demanded a sacrifice. That of a kanya…her hands and feet rinsed with blood as she choked on the poisoned offering made to her.
I shudder as I recall the dreaded threats as Dhara stood adamant next to me ,her heavy breathing very audible.A tussle, a scream…a ‘ bang’ ..and soon I stopped hearing, my head spinning as all the red burst out of me …not the first time though.
I love Dhara.I know my elder sister can do anything for me.
Yes, Dhara is my sister. And I am the unborn baby in Mummy’s womb.
No one in the family knows as yet that I am a girl…a kanya. Like Dhara. Like the previous six times, when I inadvertently found my way in mummy’s tummy, only to be killed.
Of course,I was annihilated only after ensuring that I didn’t have the ‘qualifications’ for becoming a worthy heir.
This year ,the Corona lockdown delayed my death sentence. The dreary drive, the beeping sound of the weapon of impending doom pressing against me, the hushed talks, couldn’t happen .
As ‘the man whom Dhara calls Papaji’ fumed and fretted, destiny played its tricks and the visa for my period of stay on this earth kept extending. What also helped was the prediction of the birth of a mahatma (great soul) by an astrologer which convinced Dadi of the arrival of a grandson to take the vansh ahead.
As I complete thirty- three weeks of my existence, I count each day to the one life I want to live , to forget the six ‘near life’ experiences that I have had in the past. I huddle in my cozy abode, as the soothing mantras from the nearby temple, in celebration of Navratras, engulf me.
I am alive and kicking. And I wish to live!!
It’s Saptami today.
“Arre Dhara, tell your mother to hurry up. I want to get a good seat at the temple courtyard. The saint who is taking the pravachan today is very sought after. I want his blessings for my grandson!” Shouts Dadi.
Her vocalization seems different ..oh..must be the mask that everyone has to wear these days .
I can now feel Mummy’s heartbeat getting faster as she hurries around with her protruding belly. We both stay low on energy these days. I crave for nourishment, much more than what I get from the left- over cold food that Mummy eats.
As we enter the temple premises, I identify the various sounds that have comforted me earlier this month. I prepare to sleep as Mummy takes a seat.
Instead, I perceive many around me waking up from a deep slumber of years as a soulful voice chants:-
Ya Devi sarva bhuteshu, shanti rupena sangsthita,
Ya Devi sarva bhuteshu, shakti rupena sangsthita,
Ya Devi sarva bhuteshu,matri rupena sangsthita,
Ya Devi sarva bhuteshu, buddhi rupena sangsthita
(The Goddess is omnipresent.She is the personification of the Universal Mother and is the embodie- ment of power,peace and intelligence in all beings.I worship her with all devotion so she blesses me with happiness and prosperity)
The saint, who has piqued my curiosity, asks “Do you all know the nine Devis ?”
There are murmurs amongst the handful of people gathered as Dadi recites the nine names like a parrot.
“Good, but do you know them?” he inquires.
I catch Dadi shuffling her feet.
And the seer prompts , “ Look around you!”
“Maa Shailputri is here somewhere between us with strength unparalleled as she faces blow after blow like a stoic mountain but does not flinch.” Mummy’s quiet resolve comes to my mind.
“Maa Brahmacharini sits cross legged on the floor, her eyes closed in devotion. A storehouse of knowledge and wisdom, she knows that her kin are not thankful for her love but come to the temple daily asking for a son.” I think of Dhara.
“Maa Chandraghanta stands there peacefully as her husband and in-laws sit because she adapted herself to cater to their likes and dislikes. She knows the power of letting go. But they think of it as her weakness.”
“Maa Kushmunda sits with us patiently, here in the front seat even as the cosmic egg resides in her womb. She is the creator and knows her power but doesn’t use it to harm.” I know he is referring to Mummy.
“Maa SkandMata, carries her offspring even as her back and arm hurt. She would go to any lengths to protect her child.” I recall how Mummy begged for my life!
“Maa Katyayani is the epitome of courage and resides in all the women present here, She fights like a warrior to ward off evil!”Aah.. the form that Dhara took to protect me last year.
Maa Kalratri Do not evoke her wrath as she is the fiercest of them all .
Maa MahaGauri….she is the forgiving goddess, who forgives your sins and purifies you…..All the little girls here.
Maa Siddhidatri….the one who bestows happiness and perfection.
We make our way home in silence. As Mummy quickly serves the food, Dadi asks her to sit while she would make the rotis. Its music to my ears,as I am famished.
My happiness is cut short by the sound of the scooter, and the villain barges in excitedly.
He orders Mummy to get ready and then whispers something to Dadi. Doesn’t sound good .
Mummy’s heart beats erratically.
I discern a defiant tone “She will not go anywhere !”
It doesn’t sound like Mummy…or Dhara.
“She will not go anywhere” repeats Dadi. “ We do not need to know!”
“ But Ma, I can’t take your astrologer’s word for this.I found this place where they will disclose and if required, get rid of it quietly.”
“No, we will accept whatever destiny will give us” Dadi answers ,to my bewilderment.
What happens next, is a blur.
I think , the tyrant pulls Mummy, and like last year, Dhara tries to stop him.
A ‘thud’ follows after a scuffle and Dhara groans in agony.
I feel manhandled and hear Mummy struggling and wailing, when a strange, deafening , shrill cry pierces through the Kalratri (dark night).Another “thud” followed by pin-drop silence.
And then Dadi sobs inconsolably as she drops the grinding stone from her hand “ After my husband abandoned me, my son was my only hope and I don’t know when my love for him turned so blind as to not see the evil in him.”
The wee hours of the morning see Dhara helping mummy (and of course me) into a cab which will take us to my Mama’s house.
‘The man whom Dhara calls Papaji’ survives but it will take him a long time to recover.
Dadi wants to stay with him and nurse him back to health. But she doesn’t advise us to stay.
She asks us to forgive them both, quoting the Goddess MahaGauri.
I don’t know if it was the excitement of the last few days or my eagerness to see the outside world,that before I know it, I am crying my lungs out as a firm hand raps my soles.
“You are lucky to be blessed with a daughter on Navmi. Goddess Siddhiratri will bring happiness and perfection into your life.”she tells Mummy.
Dhara picks me up gently and whispers in my ears
“Siddhi…jee le apni zindagi ( live your life) !
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