Archive for October, 2012

Steps – Astha

Posted: October 29, 2012 by anitahadasangwan in Short Stories

This is the third story from my book ‘steps’:

Astha pulled the thread out, carefully and slowly winding it on her index finger, it should not break. She gave a gentle tug as it snagged and was startled as somebody held her by the head and pulled her forcibly into an embrace. The thread broke, as loud wails filled the room and she allowed a stranger’s hands to smooth her back and covered head.

The person, (who was she?) moved away and Astha’s fingers started to search for the thread in the durree, trying to find the point where she had unwittingly broken it. She found it and heaved a sigh of relief. She again started to wind it on her finger.

She heard murmurs with half an ear, the words ‘miscarriage, tragedy, poor thing’ coming to her like waves. Everything seemed slow, she felt as if she was underwater. But she had never been underwater to know what it would feel like, so how did she know? Still, she had always been a reader and good at absorbing ‘relevant discerning details’ in the  words of her English Professor. She stifled a giggle, remembering his flair for drama and the fun they used to have in imitating him, in the college canteen. He had said those words not after watching her performance at the canteen, but for her portrayal of Calpurnia, Caesars’s wife, in the Drama Week.

A few women glanced at her, maybe her giggle had been heard; did it matter? Did anything matter anymore? It had been more than twenty-four hours since the accident; she had not spoken or cried. Even laughter would be welcomed, and accepted as grief by them.

One of the women got up and came to her with a glass of water. Astha recognized her, it was the daughter-in-law of the family who lived at the end of the lane. She had been married last year and was already well-known in the colony for sitting behind her college friend on his motorbike to go to the hospital when her father had a heart attack. Astha envied this woman, she seemed so strong, but who knew the truth? Who really knew the truth behind shut doors and who cared, no one! The woman came to her with water in a disposable glass, she turned her face away not wanting to feel the cheap plastic against her lips but the woman persisted, forcing the glass against her lips. The water dribbled down her chin, staining her blouse and sari.

Astha looked down at the wet patch on her body, shame draining her as memories flooded her. She felt light-headed and leaned against the cold wall, trying to control the trembling in her hands. She clasped them together as she pillowed her head on her knees. She closed her eyes, willing her racing heart to settle.

She tried to think about something mundane, for instance why did people use so much plastic? She missed the earthenware glasses, remembered sitting on wooden planks under a tree, the earthen glasses, ‘kulhars’, enhancing the taste of the smoky tea as they discussed politics and movies. She loved tea, she had never experimented with alcohol as so many of her friends did, and with good reason she thought bitterly. Her stomach cramped painfully as memories rose up like bile in her throat, acid and burning and she felt like retching. She got up and made her way among the women, her sister-in-law half rose to accompany her but she shook her head, concentrating on controlling her nausea as she made her way to her bedroom. The familiar dread filled her as she opened the door to her bedroom. She rushed to the bathroom at the other end and locked the door behind her.

The pallu fell away as she bend over the sink , retching, nothing came up, she coughed, nothing. She silently washed her hands, splashed water on her face and reluctantly faced the woman in the mirror. It had been six years since she had lost feeling of connection to this woman. Six years this woman had stared at her from the mirror, wondering at the tears, bruises, blood and the constant bewilderment and reproach in the hurtful brown eyes. She looked at the woman, searching for herself, as she so often had initially, disbelieving it of herself; of the cheerful, intelligent, outgoing girl till the disbelief had been buried beneath tears and self-reproach.

Astha dried her face mechanically, lost in unformed scattered thoughts, staring at herself. A knocking at the door startled her and her sister-in-law called out in a worried voice. She smiled bitterly, now … they were worried? She opened the door wanting to ask the same question but unable to make the effort, she made her way back and settled herself in the same corner.

Her sister-in-law started to come towards her with water but she shook her head so vehemently that she sat down.

She stared unseeing, her tongue going to the corner of her mouth and touching the small cut. The cut had healed long ago but the disbelief, pain, humiliation and anger still burned in her. The awful night still came to her in flashes like some stupid TV serial. Shailesh, how he hated, to be called that, preferring to be called Sherry, forcing the glass on her, the liquor spilling on to her sari. She had incongruously thought at the moment, “will the stains come out”? It was one of her favourite saris, the beads stitched on to the sheer chiffon by her mother. What a fool she had been!

Her lip had cut and bled with the force, feeding his anger but not stopping him, when had the sight of her pain ever stopped him? She closed her eyes, crossing her arms across her stomach as she held herself tight and saw herself lurching over to the sofa, misjudging the distance and sprawling on the carpet. Shailesh had laughed and pulled her onto the sofa and walked away leaving the door open. She had stared owlishly, bemused at the open door of the hotel room. Without her distance vision spectacles it was a usual problem, but he never allowed her to wear them. She had stared uncomprehending when his boss had walked in, not wanting to understand and believe that her husband could stoop so low.

Loud voices brought her back to the present, thankfully out of her painful reverie, as she saw the women clearing a place and her sister-in-law bustling forward to set up a small table, spreading it with a white embroidered table-cloth (he had hated that table-cloth, embroidery seemed to him horribly middle-class) and her mother-in-law putting up incense sticks in  a holder in one corner.

She watched them detached, remembering her mother doing the same when her brother had died.  She had been ‘allowed’ to go only for a day to grieve with her poor parents on the death of her brother and their son. At this moment she was relieved that her father was paralysed and unable to come for this. Crying copiously, her mother-in-law brought out the photograph of Shailesh from the bedroom while her sister lit the incense sticks, put the garland and moved aside to take a look, as if she had just set up the dinner table for a party.

Astha saw the smiling face of her husband in the photograph, the garland of roses adding to his ‘beauty’ as the smoke from the sticks curled and drifted away. She sighed deeply with relief and regret for the past that had been her life. It was over.

Steps – Medha

Posted: October 26, 2012 by anitahadasangwan in Short Stories
Tags: , ,

This is the second story from my book, ‘steps’. I have always looked at clothes drying on various roofs and balconies and wondered about the people ‘behind’ those clothes. I still do ….
I sat quietly, lost in my own world as the bus slowed down and then stopped. It seemed that the driver had taken some  route inside the town rather than the usual bypass,  probably to pick up more passengers and was now stuck in one of the lanes. There was a discussion going on between two passengers. One who was sitting on the bonnet next to the driver and another on the seat behind the driver, with me. They seemed to be of the opinion that the driver had taken an incorrect decision and now we all would suffer for it. The conductor, a scrawny chap with rotting teeth, defended the driver, speaking from past experience. The driver sat unconcerned, he shut down the engine and  unwound the multi coloured scarf from his head. Ignoring the ‘No Smoking’ sign above, he shook out a beedi (local cigarette) from the pack in his pocket and lit up.
I looked out of the window. It was a local bus, with torn uncomfortable straight rexine seats and I had no illusions about being listened to or rules like ‘No Smoking’ adhered to, for that matter. I no longer had the energy to fight for principles either.
There was a house opposite me, across the window. I could see the terrace from the window where the clothes had been washed and were now fluttering in the mild wind and sunshine. It was a cold winter morning and no doubt some housewife had taken the chance of a Sunday morning to wash the week’s clothes and dry them in the sun.
Clothes tell us so much about the person or the home for that matter, I remember the pride my mother had in our clean school uniforms. We were four sisters, all named for Goddess Saraswati, the elder two were Vani and Pavaki, I was named Medha and the youngest was Bharati. We usually wore hand-me-downs, the shirts would be white and clean with a neat invisible stitch here and there. My mother would soak the whites overnight and scrub them with a blue plastic brush, sitting in the courtyard. Washing clothes was not the simple thing it is nowadays, no automatic washing machines and dryers. Mother would sit with the soaked clothes in one bucket, coloured clothes, not soaked, lying in a pile in the corner. She would sit on a small wooden stool with her sari tucked in beneath her knees and bend down to scrub clothes using the blue brush and a brown coloured soap cake. Water would flow from the tap in the courtyard into the iron tub.
            She would scrub the collars and cuffs especially hard, the suds flying through the air to nestle in the corners, sulking. In those days a frayed collar was not enough reason to give away a shirt, collars were actually turned over and stitched again. After thorough washing, clothes were rinsed in heavy iron buckets. The whites would have a last rinse of the ‘blue’ cloth whitener. Mother would twist the clothes to squeeze the water from them, then hand them over to whichever of her daughters’ was assisting that day. We would flap them loudly with a snap and stretch them tightly across the wire before fastening them in place with the iron clips. Coloured clothes would be turned inside out before drying; I would often stand and stare at the clothes, flapping in the wind seemingly with a life of their own. It was a whole process to be followed, which ended in the clothes being taken down, folded carefully, and sorted accordingly. Those days we used to iron our clothes, only my father’s office clothes used to be sent out for ironing.
            I looked at the clothes fluttering in the wind now, there was a small child in the house. A row of multicoloured small pyajamas were drying in one corner of the wire strung across the length of the terrace.  Small cute vests, white, swung from the wire teamed up with two sweaters of the same size . The clothes had been dried lovingly it seemed, all in a line with equal length, pinned up at the edges very precisely. I smiled, I had bought a special sweet-smelling detergent to wash my baby’s nappies, and would fold and iron them lovingly trying to trap the sunshine in the small folds for my poor son.  These sweaters were hand knit, and multicoloured, some kind of brick type design, the woman whose sari was drying on the wire was industrious it seemed, she had collected and knitted sweaters from a collection of left over wool.
I have memories of my grandmother clicking away as she made scarves, hair-bands and socks from all kinds of leftover wool in the house. Her arthritic fingers could no longer manage a sweater but she loved knitting. Actually she loved the idea of knitting, sitting in the sun, sorting the assorted wool balls, clicking away  and poring over old faded magazines. A Hindi monthly magazine ‘ Sarita’ was a particular favourite for designs and patterns. Every alternate winter the four of us, sisters, would get a pair of socks and one multi coloured scarf/ hair-band from our grandmother. Our brother, Mahadev,  would get socks too but never made of assorted wool. Grandma would make  brown or black socks and cap from new wool for him and our father. We never questioned why, just accepted it as part of our existence along with eating food after feeding our father and brother and so many things that were the norm.  However fond Grandma was of knitting she never made anything for my mother, probably went against her ‘mother-in-law principles’, though she cared for my mother and always supported her.
            The sari drying in the sun is of the usual synthetic material so popular nowadays, easy to wash and wear. It’s a plain yellow sari with a border of bright red flowers and next to it are drying the matching blouse and petticoat. The mother (?) of the child seems to be a small, thin woman. There is something apologetic about her clothes, as if the place on the wire does not belong to them. They overlap and I can see undergarments hidden decorously under the sari. I picture her, standing on tip toe to unpin the clothes and take them down, even then she will roll up the offending scrap of her undergarment in her petticoat to take them inside the house. Our undergarments, four daughters meant quite a lot of them too, were set out to dry in the small balcony , never in the main courtyard.
Two small hand towels, a blue bath towel with a cartoon character in a corner and towel handkerchiefs can be seen. The handkerchiefs are small and seven in number, the child has a cold? Two small sheets, clearly cut and made from a larger sheet dry side by side,  their patterns still matching, wishing to join and be one again?
The house in front of me seems to be occupied only by women, there are no shirts, no trousers, no vests, underwear drying jauntily in the sun. Where is the father of this child, the husband of the thin woman? Is he away earning a living, leaving her here, alone? Does he come home on weekends? No, today is Sunday, if he did, then the wire would be full of his weekly clothes, brought home to be washed and ironed before being taken away again.
Or am I projecting my own life? Trying to balance a career and marriage, our marriage has been reduced to a weekend marriage, one weekend he visits and the other, I visit him.  What will my balcony and the clothes drying on it, speak of?  Male clothes one weekend and none the other?? The gentle weight of a baby’s clothes was felt by the wire in my garden for barely a month. In fact, he did not get a chance to wear all the clothes stitched for him and I did not get to wash and dry them all on my terrace. Packed and kept away by Vani, to be taken out again… again??  Can I go through the pain ??  Can I go through being a mother and then not being one??  My arms felt empty for months afterwards, there was nothing worth holding. If only I knew why? But there were no answers. Answer? I still did not know what to answer if new acquaintances asked me about children.  To deny the one month presence of my poor son ? To acknowledge  and open my wounds to strangers to scratch and bleed again?  I need to concentrate on my new job now, don’t I?
A government job can’t be thrown away, even if it means commuting and staying apart. He does not understand but I do. My father held a government job and when he died unexpectedly of a heart attack, keeling over during his lunch hour in the office, my mother got the job and was able to support us. All my sisters hold government jobs, two are teachers and one is a lecturer, like me. My mother’s pension supports her and my brother’s family. He has not held a steady job till date and if it were not for pension and the little help we sisters give, my poor mother would not be able to manage. Even before marriage we took tuitions and would help with the expenses.
One of the first things we bought collectively for her was a washing machine. I remember the day we got it .Compared to the machines of today it was technically just a drum with a wheel at the bottom which would make the clothes go around in circles. Then they would be taken out, rinsed and dried by hand. The first time, mother carefully put our clothes into the machine, gently, as if she was giving her children away and worriedly watched them going around.
Maybe this one too is living with her mother till her husband gets a steady job. But there is no father or brother here. There is this small child, boy or girl, difficult to say and then the thin woman of the yellow saree and apologetic undergarments. There is an older woman too, a tall healthy woman, somehow the picture in front of me is of an uncompromising matron. Why old?  Well, two things point towards her being of a certain age. The clothes drying are a salwar, kameez  and a bra. Grey in colour, it is made of spun, winter material with full sleeves and a collared neck, definitely on the large side. The salwar is the kind that my grandmother used to wear, none of this modern belt and pleats salwar, it is the old kind, no belt with the vast waistline. And the bra, uncompromising rough cotton, white, with that typical broad elastic and cotton cups with lines of stitches. Yes, the bra speaks of a strong woman.
I wonder what will my bra speak of? A woman who is scared? Will the designer peach and cream lacy cups speak of a woman is not a mother? Will it speak about the milk that flowed from these breasts in vain, as tears flowed from my eyes? Will the thin elastic tell of the pain that binds me inside?  Will my bra speak of my loneliness as I wonder how to break this wall between him and me?
There was some sudden activity and the driver crushed the beedi against the door and started the bus. The bus started with a shudder which shook every door and window before the grating sound of the gear and with a lurch we moved. I craned my neck to see a glimpse of somebody on the terrace as we moved away, but nobody came out and my last glimpse was of the white bra, not fluttering, still, even in the wind.
I made a vow to go home and talk and sort things out. My garden and sunny days would … must… will speak of a family …. together.

Simone de Beauvoir defines marriage as the destiny traditionally offered to women by society and her statement-“It is still true that most women are married, or have been, or plan to be, or suffer from not being”- is relevant today. So the study of woman has to include the analysis of marriage.

According to Beauvoir the economic evolution in woman’s situation is in the process of upsetting the institution of marriage, increasingly it is becoming a union freely entered upon, and the various issues like adultery, divorce etc are now getting equal in the eyes of the law. Marriage has always been a very different thing for the man and for woman, the two sexes are necessary to each other but it has never brought about a condition of reciprocity between them. Woman has always been ‘given’ in marriage by certain males to other males and till a long time contract of marriage was between the father-in-law and the son-in-law, not between husband and wife.

For the woman marriage is her sole means support and the sole justification of her existence. This statement made by Beauvoir may not hold true today in the economic and social context but is still relevant. Ji Sung Kim writes in her blog about cooking and women that

To elaborate, Simone De Beauvoir wrote, “Marriage is the destiny traditionally offered to women by society.” In systems of traditional domesticity, married women worked in the home. Part of their work was cooking food in the manner of their foremothers. Cooking, along with housekeeping, was seen as antagonistic to the modern woman’s freedom to pursue her agency. It wasn’t just consumer culture peddling their fast food; women’s very departure from the home, her physical ‘distanciation’ from the kitchen, required she needed food that could be presented during the hours she was home. Having worked all day out there, the second shift of ‘in here’ work would begin upon her return if cooking meant the vegetables had to be washed and chopped by her hands and the meats had to be drained of blood, braised and then boiled for eight hours. So yes, convenient foods helped. Traditional foods are not antagonistic to women’s pursuit of life, but its foundational support.

Marriage is enjoined upon women for two reasons – first is that she must provide society with children and second is it’s her function to satisfy a male’s sexual needs and to take care of his household. For girls marriage is the only means of integration in the community and that’s why mothers have so eagerly sought to arrange ‘suitable’ marriages for them. Once again Beauvoir points out that the girls is ‘given’ in marriage and the men ‘get’ married , they ‘take’ a wife. She takes his name; she belongs to his religion, his class, his circle; she joins his family, she becomes his half. A woman is doomed to the continuation of the species and the care of home- that is to say immanence. For man marriage is a perfect synthesis of maintenance and progression but not for the woman.

Beauvoir states that even when the woman is emancipated she is led to prefer marriage to a career because of the economic advantages held by men and the promise of an ‘easy’ life. She compares the single woman of France and America that they are both socially incomplete though in America more so. Even if she makes her own living, to attain the whole dignity of a person she has to wear a wedding ring. Maternity in particular is respectable only for a married woman and her child is a severe handicap for her in life.

Today, of course things are better for the unmarried mother but still not much and they face a life full of difficulty and problems. But with social and familial support, and with the government also coming forward things are easier, at the same time this differs widely from one society to another.Beauvoir uses a common example to bring home a very relevant point. Girls when asked about their plans for the future reply that they want to get married but no young man considers marriage his fundamental project.

Well, today the answer of the girls has also changed with at least the majority of the girls aiming for a career and financial independence.Beauvoir says that arranged marriages have been more numerous in France than elsewhere, but maybe we in India can refute this statement. She says that clubs devoted to such matters still flourish and matrimonial notices occupy much space in newspapers. Well, all this holds true of India even today.A girl does not have much choice and if a man is reasonably eligible in such matters such as health and position, she accepts him, love or no love. Though the girl desires marriage, she also fears it. It benefits her more than man but also asks more sacrifices of her. Analyzing further Beauvoir says that marriages are generally not founded on love. The very nature of the institution, the aim of which is to make the economic and sexual union of man and woman serve the interest of society, not assure their personal happiness. The woman especially is not concerned to establish individual relations with a chosen mate but to carry on the feminine functions in their generality. 

This is the first story from my book ‘Steps’.There are eight  stories in all, all fiction and I will share my women and a part of myself through them here … with all of you. I hope you will find yourselves too somewhere. 

Uma- I wrote it as I waited to be called for an interview. I had nothing with me except copies of my resume and wrote in on the back of the three pages that make my resume. The director probably saw me scribbling away and asked me to show him what I was writing Outside. Hesitantly I showed him my scribbled story. He told me that though I was the most highly qualified candidate and would be offered  the job,  I should go home and write. I did.


Uma lay quietly, looking up at the soot darkened walls and the sunlight filtering through the dusty mesh. It made odd patterns. They reminded her of her daughter’s attempt at putting henna on her hands, as she had last week, on the auspicious festival of Gangaur. She raised her hands to see the discoloured henna, and rubbed them feebly together- blood on her hands.  What was wrong with her, why was she thinking of blood and death? She lay awaiting life- the birth of her child- her fifth child, child..??  After four daughters she awaited only the birth of a son, no longer of a ‘child’.

            Pain came stronger now, in waves, but Uma did not make a sound. She had screamed enough the past four times but the Gods had not listened, better to bear it. Oh! Why did she not have the optimism these other women squatting around her had? They seemed sure she would beget a son- the promised heir to the name and property. Property? The meager 2 acres left over from drink and gambling? He needed a heir for THAT? She laughed mirthlessly and her sister-in-law mistaking the sound for a sob, moved close, dabbing her forehead with her sari pallu.

            Uma looked into the face of her husband’s younger sister. She seemingly bore no resemblance to the young pretty girl she had been when Uma had entered the house as a young bride. Girls were not supposed to be happy but at least there had been hope and a vestige of a dream on her face. Five years of marriage had wiped out the wishes and dreams. Like the women around her, her face had only weariness etched in its lines now. Not grief, not desperation not even the death of her dreams – just weariness of life , of the constant compromise, the acceptance of the unaccceptable. They looked into each other’s eyes and shifted their gaze away, it seemed they both know the truth that they would have to face soon. Let’s leave it for now, their eyes said.

            Uma’s gaze went to the inner door where her eldest daughter peeped through, holding her sisters back, just nine years old and already a mother to her siblings. She remembered her soft words of yesterday as she rubbed her mother’s aching back and calmed her that it would be a son this time and how she would look after her brother and care for him.

            Suddenly Uma wanted it all to stop. She wanted to hold the little scrap of humanity safe in her womb forever and protect her daughter. To give birth would be to sentence her to the hellish life of her sisters, mother and generations of women. If… if she was allowed to live.

            She knew why the official midwife had not been called this time, knew the meaning of the cauldron of milk kept in a corner of the room. She averted her eyes, her heart silently screaming at her unborn child to remain unborn. She sobbed aloud as pain tore through her and the women in the room suddenly came to life.

Uma  lost herself in a world of pain and prayer, Later, there was an easing of pain and the cry of a baby, Uma did  not know how long or short it had been. She did not open her eyes, not wanting to look at the child who would soon be cruelly snatched away from her, and was not it better this way. She hardened her heart against the inevitable pain and horror.

Loud clanging and joyous shouts, she opened her eyes startled. She looked into the ecstatic faces of her mother and sister-in-law. ‘It’s a son’- she ran to break the news to her anxiously waiting brother.

Uma turned her face away to the inner door and beckoned her daughters to her, opening her tired arms to them. As they came in timidly, Uma’s face broke into a smile.

I am tired and angry of the daily escalating rape cases and furious of the politicization of rape. I see sensible men and women and leaders of this nation  justifying and explaining rape.
Numbers are pulled out of a hat, percentages are spouted without any thought, analysis or data.
The point remains that women are not safe. Full Stop.
Women in other developed countries wear what they want , they go where they wish, they study, they live without being harassed or held responsible for the irresponsible and raging hormones of fellow-men.
They aren’t ordered to not talk on mobiles phones or enquired about what they were wearing or where they were going. That is the meaning of being a developed nation. Where women and girls are safe.
And it’s not just hormones in my opinion, it’s the objectification of women.
Such men see women not as human beings but simply as objects for appeasement. They do not feel the need to control because there is no fear of punishment. After a long and torturous trial, torturous for the rape victim I mean,  the rapist will walk free. He will be a part of society, his parents and wife and family will welcome him back. So, why should he bother, there is nothing lost for him in giving in to his animal instincts.

Till society does not understand the horror of rape, till the lawmakers do not make stringent laws to protect women, till the authorities do not sympathize with the victim and understand the brutality suffered by her, till all of us do not realize that the victim is a sufferer not an object of curiosity, till the media does not report it as a crime not a titillation …till then rapes will increase, new-born girls will be thrown into garbage dumps, female infanticide will occur, gender ratio will remain unbalanced, men will ‘buy’ wives from better off states and women themselves will pray for sons.

We are heading towards the dark ages, we are heading towards doom. Beware of these times. They threaten not just women but humanity.

When I am critical and lambast men I am often asked why am I painting all by the same brush. I am not. But the point remains that for men , for good , kind, understanding, wonderful men also, rape is a women issue.
“I will never rape or tease a woman”.
But will you raise your voice against rape?
Will you stop other youths eve-teasing a girl or look away?
Will you fire or un-friend a male who harasses women colleagues ?
Will you marry a rape victim?