Karma Calling

She was running to save her life. She was gasping for air and felt a tug at her chest. She could not run any further, and finally took a few seconds to gather her wasted breath. She was about to hold her stomach to stop that cramp from engulfing her completely, but her hand got pulled. ‘Run! We have to run if we want to live. We cannot stop. The beast is closer than you think.’ The voice beckoned. ‘I can’t,’ she replied. Everything went blank.

At this point, Veena got up trying to control her muffled scream. The dream…this dream had been coming since she was seventeen. Initially the dreams came infrequently, but after her marriage to Prakash, it had increased multi-folds. And every single time, the dream stopped at this point. She could not see who the person was. But the voice… it never left her mind.

She suddenly felt hot and thirsty. She watched the man lying next to her. The man everyone called her husband. Husband. She gave a wry laugh. She stood up and felt an uncomfortable twinge between her legs. It made her fall back into the bed. Veena wondered when her body would get used to this. After all she was married for eight years and every time it was the same. It is not rape when the man who has tied a thin gold chain around your neck, makes you lie, bend, twist and turn to his whims. It does not matter that all you want to do is lose consciousness because of the pain or the stench of body odour and cheap liquor or sometimes both.

The morning after was usual. The reminiscence of the dream and discomfort between her legs seemed a distant memory. She walked up to the adjacent room and saw her seven year old snoring peacefully. The faint sound coming from his nose calmed her every time the demons came fighting with her. Arun was the thin ray of sunlight trying to illuminate her soul between the dark clouds that this sham called marriage was. She slowly touched his cheeks and stroked his head. Her son opened his eyes slowly and sat up. He hugged her neck tightly. Arun’s hands always made her secure. It gave an inexplicable sense of well being which Veena felt nowhere else.

Veena’s job was something the Gods had bestowed upon her a year back. Her neighbour, Mrs. Gupta had quietly walked up to her house and told her about the vacancy of a secretary to the principal of the convent school nearby. “Some people haunt us. We have to be strong enough to free ourselves.” Mrs. Gupta’s voice had been warm and eyes moist. Had she seen the black eye three days back? Or had she heard the scream that had come out unexpectedly when Prakash had precariously held the burning cigarette butt towards her face after a bad day at work.

Veena waited for Monday mornings. The week would begin and with that five days of work and school. It was a getaway. “Come, let’s get ready for school.” Veena said twirling her son around. The little boy giggled and tried to catch his breath.

“WHAT DOES A MAN HAVE TO DO TO GET SOME PEACE OF MIND IN THIS DAMN HOUSE!” The sound made Veena and Arun stop abruptly. She put her son down immediately and pointed towards the bathroom. It was a cue for Arun to enter the toilet and let his mother ‘handle it’.

Arun loved to see his mother smile. It brightened up his day. His mother, his beautiful mother. He had caught her crying silently many a times, when she thought no one saw her. He knew how Veena trembled lightly when his father entered the house. She would give Arun a quick glance, it was a moment when he was no more a seven year old. At that moment, he wanted to just hold her and tell her that he would be the one who will protect her and take her far, very far from terror. 

But night came and with that came terror. Some nights he would not be drunk. But she never left herself unwary. She would be very conscious during each moment of his presence in the house. She would not over-boil the tea or under-cook the tomatoes. She would ensure that all windows were closed when Prakash was at home. He disliked any kind of openness within the house. There were times when she would smugly walk towards a window, open it slightly just to let a little breeze come in. She would then close her eyes and inhale the freshness as much as she could before closing it.

She was sitting nearby a sprawling green paddy field. She looked beautiful. Long hair, fair skinned. A few gold bangles adorned her hands. And she was laughing. A man was talking to her. The man made her happy, very happy. She could feel that he was young. They both were young. Then suddenly, she fell quiet. Her chest tensed up and she could feel fear brewing up inside her. ‘Run! The beast will kill us.’ Veena started running. This time she was in front and the young man behind her. Her legs seemed weak and tiredness seemed to engulf her. ‘Don’t stop! Keep running!!’ Another voice came screaming through, which made her feel breathless. “I WILL KILL YOU BOTH!” Right in front of her stood a man with a black turban. His face was unclear.

Blankness….

A breezy Wednesday evening. Veena walked back home from work, Arun in tow. They sang a new song today. She turned the key to open the door. It was latched from inside. Her heart sank and every inch of her body froze. Prakash lay sprawled on the sofa, drunk.

“Did you break the fixed deposit? The one which we had started three years back?” He asked coldly. His voice was so calm that Veena could feel the storm arriving. It would hit her badly today. She knew it.

The fixed deposit was never started by ‘we’. The money had been gifted by her mother on Arun’s first birthday. She died a week later in her sleep. Her father had died when she was twenty. She felt cheated by destiny. Having to deal with what life had thrown at her all by herself was something she abhorred at times. Prakash’s parents were what she called ‘the living dead’. They had given up on their son. They knew how Veena was treated, but for them there was no problem because they never acknowledged it.

“Yes, some for Arun’s school fees and some for the payment of the gold loan. We had discussed about it, Prakash.” Veena spoke, trying to find her voice.

“Bitch! Liar!”

He removed his belt and hit her, and then finally the last resort. He forced himself on her. Hitting gave her physical pain, while the rape took her soul away. She felt vacant from within, when the ordeal was over.

Veena came out of the room and saw Arun crouched in a corner. His pants were wet and he was trembling with fear. She silently fed him and laid down next to him on his bed.

‘If you want to live, you have to run! Run from the beast. He will kill both of us.’ A voice said to her. They were in hiding. It was dark and the smell of stale air was nauseous. ‘I want some fresh air. I can’t breathe.’ She said. ‘Not now. He is there. Shhhh.’

Blank.

She looked back and saw him lying there. He was pleading for life. The black turbaned man had evilness written all over them. The knife, screams and shrieks. Red all over…. flowing redness.

She could not breathe anymore. She was gasping for air. A pair of hands were on her neck. She could taste bile. She wanted to cough but was unable to. Tears fell effortlessly, and she could taste blood now.

Over. It’s over.

Veena woke up startled, drenched in sweat. Arun’s puny hands were around his stuff toy. But his eyes were open.

“Didn’t you sleep, Arun?” Veena asked him.

Suddenly Arun sat up straight and looked into Veena’s eyes.

“Mamma, If you want to live, you have to run! Run from the beast. He will kill both of us.”

“What….what did you say?”

“The beast, Mamma, he will kill us both! We must run as far as we can.”

Flash.

The young man. Veena. The black turban. The evil eyes. The young man’s love. The beast’s hands. Red.

Another Flash.

Arun. She. Prakash’s hands. Breathlessness. Arun’s tiny hands around her. Prakash pulling her away.

Veena gasped for air. She freed herself from Arun’s hug and ran to the balcony. She gulped as much air as she could. Tears flowed incessantly.

Was Arun….?

Was Prakash….?

Some people haunt us. We have to be strong and free ourselves…

Questions haunted Veena. There was no time for answers.

The next morning Prakash left earlier than usual. Veena made a few phone calls. She didn’t pack much. She held on to Arun’s hands as they bought two tickets at the railway station. The train moved slowly at first and then with a rhythm.

“Where are we going Mamma?”

“Arun, a place where we can breathe and laugh.”

The beast will not be near us anymore. I am making us free.

 

Music, Smile and Chewing Gum

Sunday morning was the busiest time of the week. People came in from eight in the morning. Chicken had to be weighed, fish had to be sorted and mutton had to be cleaned. Dressed in his black pants which he folded till his knees and the white ‘AFIDAS’ t-shirt, Kishore knew he would hardly get time to breathe.  He was just twenty five, but already knew every nuance of running a meat and fish shop.  Khan Saab ensured that Kishore and the other two boys who worked for him did their job well. On bad days, there would be unending profanities coming out of his betel stained mouth, and on good days, he would give them carefully weighed three hundred grams of meat or fish in a black polythene cover.

Lunch would be as late as four in the evening. And that is why he kept his pocket loaded with chewing gum on all days. With every bite, the juices from the gum filled his stomach, killing his hunger and the monotony of chopping, cutting, cleaning and billing. The other thing that kept him going was music. He plugged his earphones and as soon as Kishore Da’s yodelling began, his namesake would get transported into a world far far away. His hands would work swiftly on the sharp knife and the big wooden chopping board, but his heart and soul would be amidst green mountains, the not-so-overbearing yellow sun and the cool breeze of his small village in Shillong. Kishore never noticed his customers laughing at him, listening to his loud singing. He would be blissfully unaware of his displaced chords, and the questionable lyrics. He never heard Khan Saab mouthing through his paan, ‘Pata nahin itna khush kyo rahta hain?’  Music, Smile and Chewing Gum: they never left Kishore’s mouth.

Business had been good today, which meant instead of six, he would be able to leave by five. Khan Saab deftly handed over the black polythene cover and rode away in his old, noisy scooter.

Kishore started to walk towards his home. Music in his ears and on his lips, a rhythmic movement in his legs and a faint smile as he chewed the last chewing gum of the day. The blaring horns, the rushing vehicles and barking dogs did not bother him.

As soon as he reached home, he walked up to his wife and sang, ‘‘Mere sapno ki rani kab aaogi tum……’  Kajal did not respond. She never did.

‘Aaj mutton fry aur soup. Theek hain?’ He whistled and kept the mutton on the kitchen slab.

Soon the house filled with a delicious aroma of mutton getting slowly cooked in an array of spices, ginger, garlic and onions. Just the way his mother made back home.

‘Yeh shaam mastani….’ He hummed and tasted the soup. Spicy! Just the way Kajal liked it.

He served the soup in a bowl and went near Kajal. She looked at him, and tried to lift her hand. It refused to budged. Kishore placed a towel around her chest and poured a spoonful of soup in her mouth. She clumsily drank it, spilling half of it on the towel. A tear drop escaped Kajal’s eye; a glistening validation of the remorse she felt, of the last one year, of the terrible haunting day when she lost her ability to walk or feel anything below her neck.  Kishore swiftly cleaned the tear and the soup.

‘Radha aunty aayi thi? Roti aur doodh diya?’ Kishore’s eyes went over at the table where the left over milk and roti was kept. He reminded himself to gift Radha aunty a red saree on her birthday. She took good care of Kajal when he was away at work.

Kishore ate his dinner sitting right next to Kajal. There was nothing much to do at home. He had sold off the TV, radio and his guitar for Kajal’s treatment.

There was no place for sadness or the unending questions that sprung time and again from his neighbours and family. Love had taken over all the vacant spaces. The hollowness of despair had been replaced with the warmth of selfless affection. She was his Rani and he, her Raja.

He laid down next to her, his arm across her body, patting her softly and humming to himself. ‘Dil kya karen, jab kisi ko kisi se pyaar ho jaye…..’

 

The many shades of RED

It was like any other night. Amma oiled my hair, tied it into two plaits and pulled it three times. ‘It will make it long.’ She said. I went off to sleep, like any other thirteen year old. But when I woke up, I felt unusual. I looked at the thin sheet on the mat on which I slept. That moment, I could just see the colour red, under me, above me and around me. I screamed in horror thinking I was going to die. Amma came and hushed me up. I knew my world was about to change. In a matter of few hours, the house looked like a bride. Out of the many memories of that day, I distinctly remember the elaborate oil bath, the scent of sandalwood and being decked up in bright green saree with the new palakka necklace. I remember a lot of people coming home with different kinds of sweets, jewellery and money. In between, Achan threw quick glances. ‘You have grown up, my little girl’, he spoke through those glances.

The months after that were confusing. Amma would send me off to a different room, a separate one. I would have to be there for four days. I would take bath in the adjacent bathroom. My mother would keep fresh set of clothes for me with sumptuous food. It was like a mini festival every month. Some months, my elder sister would join too. We would talk till the wee hours of the morning about the men we would marry and whether they will have a thin moustache or a huge one like our neighbour who was a policeman.

And then just like that, I was married off a day after I turned fourteen. From a small family of four, I entered into a large one. I was one of the six daughters in law. All between the age of fourteen and twenty-five. I was the youngest. My day started at four thirty in the morning. It was considered a luxury. I guess I was lucky because I was the youngest.  I sometimes wondered how the work in the house never ceased. Someone would get pregnant, or give birth to a child or there would be clothes to wash, the sprawling farms had to be taken care of, the cattle had to be fed or huge quantities of rice flour had to be pounded.

Each one of us waited for that special day. The day our period came. Our mother in law would immediately ask us to disposition ourselves in the small room in the backyard. There would be no instance of loneliness in the room, for there were enough women in the family. The list of things we did were endless. We talked… a lot… about everything and anything. About the way our husbands touched us to the way the jackfruit seller Vasu looked at us. We would laugh like little girls. We were no more the wives with family responsibilities. I learnt to wrap the saree around my slim waist and also learnt how not to be loud during love-making. We could wake up at five-thirty so that we take bath only after everyone else in the family took a bath. We did not have to cook, or clean or wash or even take care of children! Every month, we would wait for our period to come. It was almost cathartic.

But those days are gone. I watched my daughters being born and then my grand daughters and even my great grand daughters.  Today, I hear them crib about their period and talk about how backward the ancient customs were. I smile inwardly and think what do they know about the little pleasures of life? How will I ever be able to explain to them the bitter sweet pain our period brought us back in those days? Will they ever understand if I say I can still close my eyes and smell the small room, the lingering smell of small joys, smaller complaints and dirty little secrets. These new girls…they will never know.

 

PS: This little perspective writing stems from a thought that we do not know all the stories and the moments behind traditions, rituals and customs. We do not know the simple joys, the inspiration and the moments of sheer strength behind those days and ways.