“Martyrs breed martyrs and nothing good ever comes of it.”
She felt the lurid stares of a dozen eyes stripping her naked in front of the world. They ran up her legs and hips, and laid siege to her bare midriff that lay exposed by the fold of her sari. Her petite breasts, which she was hardly ever seemed aware of, suddenly became the very aspect of her body she was most conscious of. She tried to belittle her frame by wrapping her arms around her body but all it seemed to do was make the lecherous smiles of the men at the chai-shop grow wider. Did they even know she was the mother of three children?
Did they even care?
They watched her waiting there alone at the bus-stop and murmured amongst themselves. Nothing good she knew. Nothing dignified. Someone said loudly he should ask her if she wanted a lift home. Whose home they would decide on the way he had added with a piggish laugh. She said nothing. You should never say anything to them, echoed the instruction she had heard a thousand times. You never know what kind of animals they are. Just learn to ignore them.
She was thankful when the bus arrived. Climbing aboard she had to be wary of not looking back outside. It would be all the signal the men would need to return tomorrow. She bought her ticket and quietly found a space in the ladies section. It had been made to provide her kind with some sense of security but all it made her feel was the stinging reminder that she needed it.
By the time she had reached her home the incident had been pushed to the back of her mind. After all, it wasn’t something new. They would always be there. Not the same men maybe, but They. At the bus-stop or somewhere else, They would always be there. Besides, she had other more important duties that required her attention.
And They weren’t one she was truly afraid of.
Her youngest child, her only son, opened the door for her on the fifth bell ring. He gave her quick, timid hug and then quickly retreated to his spot in front of the tv. She smiled at his gentle welcome and accepted it for what it was—a simple reminder that she was still required.
Her daughters were out. The oldest, fourteen now, at her never ending round of tuitions, and the other, ten, off learning to play the keyboard, her latest passion. She wouldn’t see them both till dinner time at least. Even then, sparingly. They had outgrown her.
She quickly changed into her house clothes and got down to work. It took all her strength to make her son sit down to do his homework. That docile little boy was as stubborn as a mule and equally dumb when he wanted to be. He refused to put in the least effort required to solve his math sums and made her complete most of a collage. Pamper him more! she thought spitefully before instantly regretting the thought and kissing him on his forehead as retribution for a slight he did not even know had occurred. He brushed her away and ran off once his work was done. A pang of guilt and pain shot through her heart.
He’s growing up to be like his father, she realized.
Her younger daughter returned home an hour later while she was busy in the kitchen. There was a perfunctory greeting when the girl came in for a glass of water. ‘Din kaisa tha?’ asked the woman in hope of starting a conversation.
‘Theek tha’ replied her daughter off-handedly before running off to join her brother in front of the television. The woman to continued with her chores. She was getting used to being a ghost.
Another hour passed before their doorbell rung again. This time it was impatient. There was a forceful, almost cruel ring to it. She knew it was her husband. Her children would have rushed back to their rooms at the sound of it, so it was up to her to greet him.
‘Itni der kyu lagaate ho?’ he asked angrily. She could smell the alcohol on his breath. He would have had a few drinks sitting in the car with his buddies as usual. ‘Is garmi mein bahar khada karke maar daalne ka iraada hai kya? Kitni der se khada hu yahaan!’
He’d rung the bell twice.
She did not say anything.
While he disappeared off to the bedroom to freshen up she looked at the clock. Her oldest daughter wasn’t home yet. That would be enough to get his temper flaring today. She returned to the kitchen and hoped he wouldn’t notice.
She was wrong.
‘Badi waali kahan hai?’ she heard him shout from the living room in a while.
‘Tution gayi hai. Abhi aati hi hogi.’ she replied hopefully knowing full well her daughter was probably hanging out with her friends. She didn’t approve of it herself but her daughter hardly ever listened to her anymore, and she didn’t trust telling her husband either.
‘Nau baj rahe hai! Iss samay kaunsa tution hota hai?’
‘Arre! Aa hi rahi hogi abhi. Itni chinta matt karo.’
She heard him grumble and curse. It wasn’t a good sign. He had always been an angry man. She had found that on the first night of her marriage itself. Drunk and pissed off he had staggered into their wedding chamber and slapped her for an insult he perceived from her family. He hadn’t changed much since then.
When her daughter finally returned he turned his anger towards her. ‘Kaha thi itni der?’ he shouted at her. ‘Kiske saath gulcharre udda rahi thi? Sharam nahi aati tujhe?’
‘Papa. . .’ she barely replied when he burst out into a stream of curses and abuses. At least he didn’t hit them. Yet. She looked at her mother for support but her father caught her helpless glance. ‘Usko kya dekh rahi hai tu? Teri maa ne hi sikhaya hoga tujhe yeh sab! Besharam toh woh bhi hai.’
The woman cringed. Her husband had a propensity to make up vile stories. Jealousy and alcohol warping his senses, you never knew what would spring from his mouth. He had never approved of her working as he felt it belittled his own worth, but it was something she had to do all the same — her little victory.
‘ Kya patta har din office ke naam mein kya karke aati hai. Mitti mein naam milla ke naa aa jaiyo tu uski tarah keh raha hu abhi se hi. Khoon kar dunga tera!’
The woman saw her daughter break under the onslaught of verbal abuse. She saw her face drain of colour and hope. It was an expression she was all too familiar with herself and she’d be damned if she would let her husband break her children like he did her. She made her way to her daughter silently and led her away from him. She put her hand around her and pulled her close as if in some way it would shield her from his words, but she could feel her daughter struggling against her too.
‘Leave me alone!’ the girl screamed at her once they were alone. ‘Aapko kya farak padta hai? Unko kabhi toh kuch bolte nahi ho. Just leave me alone!’
There was so much she wanted to tell her daughter. Scream at her too. But she never did. She always reminded herself that her children had never asked to be here. It was not their fault that their life had turned out this way. All she could do was try to smooth the edges for them as much as she could without toppling the table.
Dinner was a sordid affair. Her husband stuffed his voracious appetite and her children played with their food until it was cold and had to be eaten in disgust. She served. They all ate at the table, as a family. If there was one saving grace she believed her husband had, even though it was deep down inside him, it was that he believed in family. He always insisted on having at least one meal together, but she doubted if he really grasped the irony of this tradition which had grown to be morbid, if anything.
The silence of the gathering was intermittently punctured by the meek giggles of her son who was being toyed by his father. He always used to sit the boy on his lap and tell him how much he loved him. She knew he did. She had had three children in the process. The boy would sit there with his harmlessly superior smile enjoying the special treatment and make faces at his sisters who tried their best not pay attention. He already thinks he’s better than them she could see. And by the subjected looks on her daughters faces, she realized it was something they had accepted too.
After she had cleaned up after them and prepared everything for the early morning breakfasts she would have to make, she sat for a while by herself at the dinner table. The house was deathly silent. Her husband had gone to bed and so had her children. And in that silence she so cherished you could almost hear her heart break.
It was ritual.
She didn’t understand what she was doing anymore. Every night she would sit by herself for a while and try to figure out where she had gone wrong. Where she had failed to deserve such a miserable fate. She could see that this was far from the perfect life she had hoped for her children when she had brought them into the world, but yet each night she would convince herself that it was still much better than any other option she had to offer right now.
She caught a reflection of herself in the glass covering the dish cabinet. She had been very beautiful once. Beautiful and confident. But that was a long time ago. Her face was thin now and there was a defeated look in her eyes she had come to terms with. Maybe if I had a better job or if the children were a bit older she always told herself. Maybe then I could think of other options. Right now they were too young and she was too poor to able to afford all their classes, trips and other expenses that seemed to crop up out of nowhere for children these days. She needed him.
No. All she could do was endure. For their sake.
But deep down she could feel them slipping away from her too. The older they grew, the more they resented her for her weakness. Their father’s abuses and lies were slowly eating under their skin. Her daughters already looked down on her, and her son—it was only a matter of time. She wished she could be stronger for them, to stand up for them and protect them, but she wasn’t. She did what little she could do in her weakness and hoped it was enough for now.
She just wanted a better life for them than hers.
It was close to midnight when she finally went to bed. Sure her husband would be asleep by then, she snuck into her own room and lay down. Her husband grunted in his sleep and threw his arm around her. She felt her body grow rigid at his touch. There was disgust there, and also submission. She closed her eyes and prayed for sleep which eventually came when the clock ticked past midnight into another day.
— Sidharth Sreekumar