Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Adult · #1544028
History threatens to repeat itself. But will Amrita let it?
|Beyond the Threshold|
Amrita lowered the bundle of grass from her head to the ground and sat down. She loved coming here, especially at this time of the day. The scene was so awe-inspiring. The rising sun- round, small, bright- looked just like the bindi on the forehead of a woman. The huge mountains on either side could, as well, be two closed eyes. Everyone heard of Mother Nature but here, Amrita saw her: silent, still and draped in the dark veil of the night.
The eyes of Mother Nature were definitely closed to the plight of her unfortunate daughters. And Amrita often felt as if She was also turning a blind eye to the injustices of others too. Perhaps, like other women, Mother Nature too was helpless.
But right now, Amrita felt like giving herself to the lake in front of her. They said water had purifying and cleansing qualities; perhaps this water would be able to rid her of the dirt and stains on her soul. Last night was one of those nights. Harish came home late and drunk. She tried to explain to him that she wasn’t feeling well; she was suffering from a little pain in her intimate parts for the past few days. But all he could hear was the flow of hormones in his body. Her frail small body could do nothing to protect herself and she had to give in. As she lay there, she wondered if she was any different from a prostitute. The latter was tied by the pangs of hunger and she was chained by social beliefs and traditions.
These real nightmares were becoming more frequent these days. After the first time, she had tried to talk to Harish but his words still resounded in her ears.
“You’re the woman. Satisfying the needs of your man is your duty.”
Those words still sliced her soul, as much as the forced nocturnal activities. Why? Because she knew it was the truth. This is what she had been taught since her childhood and this is what she taught her two daughters. A wife’s husband is her God and serving him is her first duty. Every woman had to follow this golden rule and so did Amrita, without questioning anything. Until now.
The other day, Harish said that he had found a suitable boy for their elder daughter. Amrita knew him; he was the son of the man who ran the bar down the street. The boy, Manoj, was in his late twenties and all he did every day was help in the bar and roam around. Amrita had often seen him wooing girls on the street. He was a thug of the worst kind. Some said that he made some landlord’s daughter pregnant. But Harish said that he knew Manoj personally and that he was a nice boy. He added that, as a dowry, they were asking only twenty-five thousand rupees.
“But Deeepika is young…” Amrita said meekly.
“And if she’s not married soon, she’ll fall in love with someone and disgrace us. Girls these days can’t be trusted. We won’t get any better proposal,” Harish replied more forcefully than was needed, “She’s already sixteen. At that age, you were already married and pregnant. You remember? Anyway, I have already given my word.”
Amrita stayed quiet and just nodded. Harish always had the final word. Deepika wasn’t happy about this turn of events. She knew that she wasn’t ready for marriage. She had once told her mother that she would like to continue studying. Harish had already stopped her going to school once she reached the age of eleven. The idea of a girl studying further than that was utterly absurd. But Amrita understood the zeal in her daughter. She spoke with the teacher in secret and managed to smuggle some books for Deepika to read and study at home in the absence of her father.
“Ma, I don’t want to marry. I want to study and become someone important. I know I can do it,” Deepika earnestly pleaded with her mother.
“I did what I could,” Amrita tried to explain to her daughter; “It’s not like when you wanted to read and I could just bring you some books. This time is different. The quicker you accept it, the better it will be. This is what is called compromising.”
“Compromising, compromising, compromising!!! Why must we always have to compromise?”
Amrita remained quiet. Such questions were never answered. The answers come with life. But she recognized the determination to fulfill her dreams in the eyes of her daughter. In fact, Deepika reminded her a bit of herself when she was young. The same zealousness, same force, same determination, same ambition… But Amrita had had to bury everything and tie the mangulsutra around her neck. She didn’t have much choice at that time.
Was this the fate for her daughter too? Would Deepika have to live in the shadow of an unworthy man her whole life? Would she have to crush her dreams and aspiration in the mortar of traditions and norms? Would she have to be the only one who’d compromise at each step of life? Would she have to stoically live and bear the real nightmares her mother went through? Would she be another Amrita?
Yet as sudden as the forceful answer came, it dissipated just as suddenly. Amrita didn’t know what to do. Talking to Harish was out of question. Deepika was still a child; she couldn’t be left on her own. This meant that only Amrita had to do something? But what? She never did anything by herself. No, no Indian woman did anything by herself. As a child, she had to follow her father, as a wife her husband and as a mother her son.
But there is a first for everything.
Sitting in front of the fire on which the rice was being cooked, Amrita lost herself in her thoughts. After the small bit of brainstorming that morning at the lakeside, she decided to do something for her daughter. This was in itself a big step for her, but not enough to make a big difference.
What could she do? She hadn’t been able to do anything when she had to compromise with her own fate. And if something could be done, mothers would have long since delivered their daughters from these misfortunes. As she reflected, she found it immensely ironical that men themselves had to free women from other men. Men like Swami Dayanand or Mahatma Gandhi. It felt a bit amusing and insulting at the same time.
Yet as helpless as the situation seemed, there was a small voice that shouted with determination, a voice that grew louder and stronger these days. Was it the voice of motherhood and maternal love? Or that of the woman inside her? Or that of the awakened rebel in her? Or the synergy of all these?
As the smell of burnt rice filled her nostrils, a small idea formed in her mind, an idea that made her shudder. Out of excitement. Out of fear.
Amrita closed all the doors and windows. She had already sent the children to go fetch water from the river and Harish wouldn’t be home until afternoon. Yet the small fear inside her never disappeared. She took out the paper and pen she had hidden the day before. If anyone saw her right now, they would think that she was writing a letter to some lover. She would be skinned alive.
It had taken her days to get enough courage to carry out the plan. At first, she had thought of telling Deepika to write the letter but what if the answer was a no? Or if she got no answer. She could bear it but not Deepika. All the hopes she had built up, would be shattered. Amrita couldn’t stand to see her daughter any more miserable. She decided to write the letter herself in the few words she knew.
In the closed room, Amrita opened herself and poured her heart out onto the piece of paper. It was the first time, since she was young, that she was expressing her deep problems, even if it was only on a piece of paper. It felt like talking to a friend. In fact, the paper was meant for a friend, Priya. She lived in Mumbai right now, but before, she and Amrita used to live in the same village and go to the same school. They even sat on the same bench and were best friends. Amrita got married and came here; Priya went to Mumbai where she worked as a maid and eventually got married. Amrita had heard that her friend was really successful there- lived in a huge house, watched movies in the cinema, all her children were in school…
Ending the letter, she knew that her friend would understand her. She just prayed that Priya would be able to help her.
But the most difficult remained - getting the letter to the post office, which was more than three miles away. Usually, the few letters they had to send were taken by Harish to the post office. She didn’t even know where it was. But then, there was no one who she trusted enough to carry the letter. Eventually, she decided that only she could do this task.
Shortly, her two daughters returned from the river. Although she knew she was being paranoid, she kept expecting them to ask about that letter. But they never did. At eleven, she served them their lunch and then, making some excuse, she set out for the post office. To anyone, it would seem as if she was going to a friend’s place.
The trip was much more dreadful than she had thought. She constantly sensed someone following her. And she couldn’t even turn and look back many times. It would have looked suspicious. She had to also make sure no one saw her. What if they mentioned this to Harish? Despite the bulging terror in her heart, she maintained a calm composure outside. No one should doubt anything. The post office was far, almost to the next village. She took the wrong roads several times, which ended in cul-de-sacs. Yet, she didn’t want to ask for direction so as to be as inconspicuous as possible.
Finally, she arrived at the post office. There weren’t many people there, except for two officers and an old lady. After buying the stamp, she posted the letter. As she slipped the envelope in the box, every fiber in her body prayed for a positive reply. Never had she put so much hope in a single thing.
The very next weekend, Manoj’s family came to her home to see Deepika and to make the wedding official. Amrita and her two daughters were told about the arrival of the much unwelcome guests only a few hours before. Apparently, Harish didn’t find it very important to give advanced notice.
Amrita’s heart cried when she groomed her daughter for the occasion. The young girl seemed to have accepted her fate and drank her tears in silence. Just like her mother did years ago. Her eyes were brimming yet not one drop fell out. There was something in these eyes that betrayed her calm composure. Amrita knew such a thing didn’t exist but if she had to, she would say that these eyes held a silent storm. And this scared her beyond her wits.
As she added jewels to her daughter’s attire, she noticed Deepika didn’t seem much different from a statue, if not to say a corpse. She almost mentioned the letter- to save her daughter from this anguish, yet she kept her lips sealed. What would be the use of putting life in her only to snatch it afterward by disappointment?
Amrita brought her groomed daughter to the room where everyone was present. Deepika sat down with her eyes always cast downward. Looking at her daughter, Amrita couldn’t help but think of a meat, an animal on sale in the market. An animal that would belong to the one with the better bid. And like the mute animal, her daughter would have no say. The parents were silently sizing up the girl in front of them, probably wondering if she was good enough or stupid enough. The malice and lust in the boy’s eyes almost made Amrita run away with her two daughters.
“Our daughter is one in millions,” Harish said, “She can cook every dish. Your son will not tire of licking his fingers. Deepika also knows all household chores. She even knows how to sew clothes. And she’s just sixteen.”
“Our son is also one in millions. We have gotten so many proposals for him. Even the landlord, Amritsingh, wanted his daughter for him. But Manoj was interested only in your daughter. What could we do? We adults can’t say much against today’s youth,” his mother said.
“Your son has very good taste,” Harish grinned.
“Amritsingh was willing to give two lakhs as a dowry,” the father interjected, “But we have known you for so long. And our son is enamored by your daughter. My wife and I talked and we’re willing to settle the matter for only seventy thousand rupees.”
“Seventy thousand? But you said twenty-five…”
“That was before we talked to Amritsingh… If you cannot give us seventy thousand, we can proceed with our talk with Amritsingh. It’s better if we talk all this out before the marriage to avoid confusion.”
“I’ll get the money,” Harish said, “I’ll… I’ll try. Just give me a few days. Please, have some tea.”
“I should have killed you the moment you were born,” Harish yelled, infuriated and drunk. After the ‘guests’ had gone, he left immediately. He wasn’t seen until late night when the three females of the house were about to go to bed. “Many told me that girls are just a burden but I was foolish enough to think girls can be equal to boys. You will never be equal to us. You will always remain the burden! A burden whose price I’m going to pay my whole life.”
The two girls huddled behind their mother who watched all this with a very expressionless face. She kept herself from cringing when the sound of bottles crashing against the wall thundered in the house. If she shook, her daughters would be left defenseless. But she was beyond scared inside.
“It’s because of you,” Harish yelled as he grabbed his wife by her hair and shook her, “you could never give me a son. You are just worthless. If I had a son, I would have been the one demanding money. Now, where will I get seventy thousand rupees for your worthless girl? You brought only a few pennies when I married you. I don’t know what had got into me when I said that I liked you.”
Harish threw Amrita to the floor and kicked her with his feet. Meanwhile, the two girls watched, sobbing and holding each other, fearing lest they would be the next ones. But, the man simply went away, fuming and slamming the door.
“Ma, can I sleep in your lap today?” Deepika asked and in reply, received a nod.
Amrita moved a fast asleep Poonam from her lap to the ground next to her, wincing as she did. The pain from Harish’s blows never subsided since last night. She had thought that Deepika had already fallen asleep. But apparently no. The sixteen-year old girl curled herself on her side and rested her head on her mother’s lap with her eyes closed. Just like the old days. Amrita stoked her daughter’s black hair. Deepika had such fine and soft hair, so did Poonam. But not Amrita, hers was rather rough and harsh to touch.
Amrita thought about those nights when she and Deepika would stay awake looking at the sky. She remembered the night when her daughter told her about her most cherished dreams, the one where she would become a teacher. She was just thirteen but she had already cherished so many dreams. She told her mother about going to cities and towns where she would complete her highschool and then go to college. She was even prepared to work to save money for her studies. She was so determined; she said that once a teacher, she would help girls from the villages to have an identity of their own. She also told about having a home, a home where she would live with her own family. And she would have at least one daughter, one that she would raise without the discriminations a girl had to go through. She would be free!
Suddenly, the hunger on Manoj’s face came in front of her eyes. That’s it? Was this the end? Would Deepika have to marry that man? Amrita’s head ached as she thought of her daughter living with that family. The in-laws would never let Deepika live in peace. The taunts, the insults… She thought about the number of brides burnt alive by the in-laws. As for Manoj, he would never give her the respect a wife deserved. Amrita knew that. And perhaps, so did Harish but all that mattered to him was getting rid of the burden, even at the price of seventy thousand rupees.
“I’m… I’m ready for marriage, Ma,” Deepika’s voice shook, “I’ve come to a compromise with my dreams and my fate. I’m ready. I had thought that I could somehow change my fate and be what I want. But it was only my foolishness. We girls are born to serve and not to live. You know, the day when they came to see me, I was strongly thinking about suicide. I didn’t want the life where I would live as an inferior. At least with death, I would have been free.” Deepika’s body started shaking violently due to her sobs and Amrita could do nothing but hold her safe from the harm…for now. “But then, I thought of Poonam…of you. I would have been gone but you would have been the ones suffering. And I don’t want you all to suffer because of me. I will marry with that guy. But Ma, I sincerely pray that no daughters get born from my womb.”
The growing wet spot on Amrita’s lap told her about the dreams flowing out of her daughter’s eyes in the form of tears. It pinched her heart. She never noticed the two drops falling from her own eyes and landing on her hands. She thought about the letter. As each day passed, her spirit fell. She felt as if an answer would never come. Perhaps, it got lost. Or Priya changed her address. As she stroked her daughter’s hair, she wondered if womankind wasn’t jinxed.
The next day, Amrita was busy washing the dirty dishes when Poonam came springing in the house.
“Ma, we got a letter,” she said excitedly since it was such a rare event.
Amrita knew that it had to be from Priya. Strangely, she had been waiting for this letter so desperately and for so long but now that it had arrived, she didn’t want to open it. What if Priya refused? What would happen? Would Deepika have to marry after all? But what if it was something positive? Amrita reached out her shaking hand and took the letter. Her heart had completely disappeared and been replaced by drums.
I’m fine and so is everyone here. I feel so happy to have heard from you but sad that it has to be in this situation. I often think about you and those pleasant moments of us together. You remember the time we bunked school to steal mangoes. I still laugh when I tell that story to my son.
I cried when I read your letter. How can you live with such a monster? I think you should come here. It’s the best solution. I have talked with my husband and my boss. Here, you will be able to live for yourself. Your daughters will be at public school and will lead a rather normal life. The man for whom I work has a friend who just returned from Australia and settled here. And they are looking for a maid who can work and live with them. I have already recommended you to them..
I won’t lie. Mumbai has its own sort of problems. But unlike our old village where a woman’s identity is non-existent, here we can at least live. I know you want to do a lot for your daughters, for them to have a better life and I’m sure you would.
I’m enclosing three train tickets for Mumbai. Come as quick as you can. I’ll be waiting for you.
My love to Deepika and Poonam.
Amrita realized that the three tickets had fallen out while she was opening the letter. She never noticed them.
“What are these, Ma?” Deepika, who had just entered the house, asked.
“The wings to freedom,” Amrita smiled as she picked them up.
Amrita sat in the train with Poonam and Deepika by her side. Last night was rather tough. Harish had once again returned home drunk. He broke half the utensils in the kitchen while Amrita and her two daughters feigned being asleep. He kept cussing about burning them alive and burying them. Amrita was scared but the letter, kept under her pillow, gave her a strange sense of comfort and satisfaction. It was the last time she would have to undergo all this. Shortly, she would be able to live for herself and her two daughters. In a place where the ties and chains of traditions would be less suffocating.
Amrita did feel a bit sad for leaving Harish behind. After all, he was her husband, the one with whom she had lived for seventeen years. He was the only man in her life. He was nice before- during the first years of their marriage. He was caring and quite affectionate. But he changed gradually. Then, he was never the same. He had made their life hell. But it was time she thought about her daughters too. She couldn’t knowingly push them into the abyss. She couldn’t let them be another Amrita. She still shuddered when she thought about that Manoj. Sitting here in this train on the way to Mumbai, Amrita resolved to take life in her own hands.
(this story was first written for the Gay Authors Spring 2008 Anthology)
Around 3500 words