The world she grew up in is a male dominated one. She spent her childhood, those short golden years, suffocating in the smoke in the kitchen, hearing the raucous laughter of the boys and hoping against hope that she could play the same way. But it was not to be. She languished in the kitchen, given little worth. Labelled as a burden.
This is her life.
The scarlet kumkum rests on her forehead, and the chandan tilak, gently applied by her fingers, rests on his. A plain, gold band adorned her finger, as it did on his. The only thing that set her apart from him was the mangalsutra that hung near the hollow of her throat.
Hands intertwined, they invoke Agni, the holy fire that symbolizes light, power, knowledge. A witness to their marriage. With the utterance of a few words, they bond as husband and wife. One soul, in two bodies. A union of two beating hearts.
Their lips form the Sanskrit words ‘Santati, Sampati and Dheerarogya’. Children. Wealth. Long life. They rise. Then circle Agni four times as he declares their relationship, where each complements the other.
I am the sky, you are the earth. I am the thought, you are the speech. I am the song, you are the verse; I am the ocean, you are the shore.
Where two becomes one.
Then the Saatphere. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Seven steps together to echo their aspirations of their married life.
No longer would the blood in their veins run separately, but as one. As one stream of blood that pumped from one heart. They were now fully husband and wife.
But this was no ordinary marriage. It is her third, and his first marriage.
No, her husbands did not die. They still live in the same house to which they would return to after the ceremony. Her new husband shared a blood relation with her existing husbands. They were three brothers. It was an act of polyandry, for there were few women in their village.
Why? You ask?
Kisko chahiye ladkiyon ko? Who wants daughters? They are nothing but burdens. Best throw them away as soon as possible. Or better still, usko maaro na? Kill them before they are born (or after. It doesn’t really matter)!
It is only a matter of an ultrasound scan, na? Haan, mujhe pata hai, you have to spend some 500-600 rupees, but isn’t that better than spending 50,000 rupees on a child that will give you nothing in return?
Now sons, on the other hand, will earn money, give you support when you are old, booda. Other than this, jab ladka shaadi karega, when the boy will marry, you will benefit, na? You will get dowry. You can ask the ladki’s family for dahej. They will obviously give it to you. Beside this, you have gained someone to cook and feed you and do all the housework, na? And then you can live a good life. I’m telling you, get a ladka.
There you have your answer. The world she grew up in is a male dominated one. She spent her childhood, those short golden years, suffocating in the smoke in the kitchen, hearing the raucous laughter of the boys and hoping against hope that she could play the same way. But it was not to be. She languished in the kitchen, given little worth. Labelled as a burden. You might as well turn the negative into something positive.
‘So put her in the kitchen’, they said, ‘she’ll be good use there.’
And then he came. Her first husband. She was only fifteen then. Her days hadn’t changed much for her. She was still in the kitchen. But her nights had. In a way she hadn’t even imagined.
And then, as custom demanded it, she married her husband’s brother. Again, her days never changed. Her nights did. Now a little more. She felt impure, unclean, sharing a bed with her two husbands on alternate nights. But what could she say? She suffered in silence as they used her body. She remained silent as they smothered the last embers of hope left in her.
The bruises on her skin faded with passing time. Fists kept flying at her. Red handprints once decorated her skin and still did. New bruises kept coming. And she was powerless to stop it. But a few bruises decorated their skin as well, formed by her hands. Then, her soul was filled with an unquenchable fire that threatened to destroy all in her wake. But they had the advantage of brawn.
Not very long ago, her belly had swelled with a life growing inside it. Her husbands took her somewhere. It looked like a hospital. They said they wanted to know how the baby was doing. And then they killed the baby.
She cried for days without end. Wo ladki tha. She was a girl. That was their reason. Wo ladki tha. She was a girl, and her daughter. The daughter she would never hold in her arms. The daughter she could never share her love with.
Maybe it was better. She convinced herself. Maybe it was better that her daughter was not born into this demonic, inhuman world. Her daughter would never suffer as she did. And for that, she was thankful to Bhagvan.
Her nights would change again, with the addition of one more husband. This time, more so than ever before, she expected.
But she was wrong.
This first night of her marriage with him, he makes no move to touch her. He knows what his brothers had done to her. And he is determined to help her. No, he doesn’t want to be her hero and gain her affections. Just a friend who will help her. He respects her for her warrior spirit, however insignificant it may seem. It takes a warrior to survive what she has been through, and he knows it. The warrior fought back at times.
He intrigues her. She had thought that all men were the same monsters. Why is he different? The answer escapes her. Perhaps she will find out in time.
As the days go by, her curiosity grows. He helps her in his own small ways. He’d get the firewood for her and occasionally clean the house, when his brothers were not around. He never insults her, or says a word against her. If anything, he defends her in his powerful, but soft voice. She is grateful. And she will always be.
The concept of trust is alien to her. But with him, she discovers what trust is. And then she realizes that she trusts him as one would trust a friend.
Over the months, her womb swells, with yet another life growing inside of her. But she is terrified. She cannot lose another child.
History repeats. Her first two husbands take her to the hospital. The third has gone away for a job interview. They return home, and then the blows start. And with the blows, she felt her baby girl die. And with the baby, another part of her.
When he returns, she is on the floor, blood pooling around her, bruises decorate her skin. He knows what transpired in his absence. And their hearts cry together for their loss.
He blames himself. She blames herself.
Life goes on for the two.
A day. She retreats into herself.
Two days. She doesn’t talk.
Three days. She doesn’t feel.
Four days. She is lost to the world.
Five days. She has had enough.
Six days. The warrior dies in her.
Seven days. She is an empty shell.
He has never been surer of any decision in his life. The day he left for the interview, he sought a living space for her. He knows it will be a drastic change for her.
As she cooks for the last time in that house, he packs a small bag for her, with her meagre possessions.
The stars come out one by one. His brothers are asleep. She is awake. So is he.
The stygian night blankets them as they leave the village. She walks close beside him, hugging her bag. She is not afraid. Her eyes burn with a fire he had seen when she defended herself during the many times his brothers hurt her.
The distant hoot of the train wakes them. He helps her get in, holding her hand. But his feet stay on the platform.
She holds his hand in a tight grip, never wanting to let go of her only friend. Her eyes plead with him.
Come with me, they said.
One foot leaves the platform, stepping onto the train. Then the other. And then the train moves, taking them away from their pasts to a beginning where they will paint their own picture, on a fresh canvas, away from the secrets she buried.
They leave before the night gives way to the day.
This story is set in India, and it highlights some of the gruesome practices that still go on today in some parts of the country. To enhance the setting, I have used a few Hindi phrases. For all the non-Hindi speakers, I will give the translation of the phrases. The story begins with a Hindu marriage ritual.
Kumkum - A red paste, usually applied on the bride's forehead to signify that she is married, also known as sindoor.
Chandan tilak - A turmeric paste applied on the groom's forehead after a ritual.
Mangalsutra - A necklace of black and gold beads to signify married life.
Agni - Literally, fire. Agni is also a Hindu god.
Saatphere - The bride and the groom take seven steps around the holy fire, usually with their hands tied together with a sash. It seals the marriage bond.
Kisko chahiye ladkiyon ko? - Who wants daughters?
Usko maaro, na? - Kill them.
Haan, mujhe pata hai - Yes, I know.
Jab ladka shaadi karega - When the boy gets married.
Ladki - Girl
Ladka - Boy
Dahej - Dowry
Wo ladki tha - She was a girl
I think that's all. Hope you all enjoy the story. Do tell me how I can improve it in any way possible...Thanks a ton!