When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.
- Lao Tzu
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The year was 1975. I was a young woman of 20 and already two years into my married life. Yes, I was married soon after my schooling. My mother, a single parent, neither had the means nor the will to educate me beyond school.
Soon after marriage, I had left home with no clue as to what life would be like with my husband who was nearly ten years older than me. The age difference had not seemed to matter much to my mother. She was happy on two counts. One; he was in government service with a decent job and Two; his parents did not make any demands beyond her means. To her, the alliance was God sent.
The first night of my married life was a disaster to say the least. The following days or nights were no great either. Then his vacation came to an end and he had to return to work. So, one fine morning we set sail for the islands bidding good bye to his aged parents.
During the entire voyage that lasted a week, he kept cursing the creaking vessel m.v Andamans for being a lousy ship and me for being a poor sailor. I had seen people vomiting while traveling by bus and wondered why as I had never felt any nausea during travel. I was totally unprepared for this experience. My head spun all the while and I was unable even to sit up. I did not touch any food. Yet I kept throwing up. I had vomited so much in the seven days that I was totally dehydrated by the time we finally reached Port Blair late in the evening. Everything around me looked strange and gloomy.
Luckily it was a short drive from the harbour to Prem Nagar, where he had his official quarters. It was a two storied wooden building. Until then I had never even imagined that people could live in wooden houses. Our home was on the first floor. Whatever energy was left got drained by the time we got all our luggage up the wooden stairs that seemed to rock below my feet.
There were four buildings on either side of the short lane with a dead end. Ours was the last building on the right. The quarters had a drawing room, a bed room, a kitchen with some dining space and a toilet.
Though the wooden house made me feel strange, I liked it and felt like lying down. I was too exhausted to do anything but my dear husband ensured that I did everything from cleaning the house to cooking and serving him. He then told me that he had to be at the school by 6.30 the next morning and could not afford to be late as he was the headmaster of the school. So he advised me to wind up fast and be up early.
When I finally went to bed, he was fast asleep. I fell asleep even before I hit the pillow and slept like a log but not for long. The next thing I realized was that he was shaking me to wake up as it was already 4.30. To the best of my abilities, I first prepared coffee for him and then his breakfast. It was past 6.00 when he left for work in his rickety Lambretta. He told me he will be back by 11.00 for a quick lunch and leave by 11.15. So he ordered that I ensure that his food was on the table by 10.30.
In the short time I had, I was visited by the lady from downstairs. She had come to gauge me, I could see. She was all praise for my husband. It appeared he was a very respected person. Somehow, I got rid of her and finished preparing lunch by the deadline. Lucky me. He was there on the dot as promised. He had a quick lunch and left. There was not a word of appreciation or concern for me. I then washed the utensils, had my food and cleaned the kitchen. Then I went and dropped on the bed half dead. Hardly had I done so, the bell rang. He was back. It was 3.30.
So, I had to prepare some snacks and coffee.
He then told me to hurry up so that we could have supper by 7.00 pm and retire to bed. He did have some concern I thought. I soon realized how wrong I was. Soon after supper he went to bed and kept calling me to hurry up. No sooner I lay down, he was on top of me fumbling and fussing. It turned out to be a disaster again. He tried hard every day. The harder he tried, the worse it turned out to be. The nights became the most dreaded time of my life. He would neither satisfy me nor leave me alone. It lasted three weeks. He then fell ill and took a break. That turned out to be even worse as I had to nurse him all day long.
The lady from downstairs was another nuisance I had to put up with. One day she remarked that I must be having a gala time. At first I didn’t understand but her ’knowing’ looks made me realize what she meant. I felt very ashamed as if I were standing naked before her. The shock in my eyes must have been very evident. She said consolingly that everywoman has to endure this. So there is nothing to be ashamed of. She then started narrating her own experiences. When she finally took leave I felt sicklier than I had been on the ship.
When I missed my periods a second consecutive month, he took me to the gynecologist who examined me and said it was too early to say anything and asked me to be careful. Nevertheless my husband became a proud man. He was already a proud man. His pride went up a few notches. He had proved he was a man and went about like a cock. It didn’t last long. One day I had severe pain in the abdomen and started bleeding heavily. The doctor told me I had a miscarriage and there was nothing any one could do. After about six days of heavy bleeding and excruciating pain, the doctor said I should have a D&C done. Since there were no vacant beds in the ward, I was treated as an outpatient. What followed was even worse. The D&C was done without even administering anesthesia. More than the pain, it was the shame that shattered me. The doctor was so insensitive and inhuman that I lost all respect I had for that profession. He gave some medicine and said it was meant to prevent secondary infection.
It was hardly a week since I had the D&C, my husband was again out to prove his manhood
That is how my married life started and I realized that I was stuck with this man for life as I had no one to turn to. So I learnt to endure it as the lady from downstairs had said.
I had three miscarriages in 15 months. So my husband consulted not only the attending doctor but some other doctor friends also. The gynecologist examined me and told my husband that there was nothing wrong with me and suggested that he should have his semen analyzed. That made my husband realize the truth but he was too proud to admit even in his wildest dreams that he could be impotent.
He thus turned the table on me and spread the word that I could not conceive because I was infertile and barren. Everyone sympathized with him and his ego remained unhurt. When some suggested that he could legally marry a second time with my consent or after divorce, he said he could not commit such a crime against women and rose higher in the eyes of the people. The real truth was that he could not risk exposing himself. One good thing came out of all this. His misadventures became far and few. That was a real blessing.
I resigned myself to the life of a house maid instead of a house wife. My life thus became an endless procession of one lifeless day after another. All my hopes of motherhood were dashed but the longing and pain remained deeply rooted inside. Sometimes I wondered why fate played such a cruel game on me.
I agree I was always an average person. At school, I was an average student with an average intelligence and performance, i.e., neither poor nor good. In looks too I was average neither ugly nor beautiful. My build was also average, neither lean nor fat, neither short nor tall. I was neither meek nor strong.
I would have been happy if I had been married to an average man and produced average children. That is where fate played its hand.
Though I did not have a great childhood, I did not have any great regrets either.
My only sister who was nearly eight years elder to me left home one day and never came back. My father searched for her everywhere desperately and finally found her in the church. She had decided to become a nun and devote her life to the service of God. So she had converted to Christianity. My father could never recover from the shock as he had dreamt great dreams for her. He regretted having put her in the convent. He became ill and passed away soon. She never came to see him. On being told, she said she will pray for his soul.
My mother and I became orphans. My mother could not afford to educate me in a private school and so shifted me to a Govt school. She raised me all alone until I turned 18 and in the hope of finding me a home hastened me into this marriage. I couldn’t blame her for it. Probably I was paying the price for my sister’s action but then I can’t blame her either. So, I can only blame my fate.
I was once told that we get what we deserve and we deserve what we get. If that’s true, I can’t even blame fate.
I hardly ventured out. There were not many places to go for that matter. In the beginning once in a while he took me to Carbyn’s Cove, the cleanest beach I had seen in my life, Wandoor where I saw some Elephants loading huge logs on to lorries, Sippighat, the wonderful farm and nursery with exotic plants and the theatre ‘Mountbatten’ and of course the occasional social get together.
It soon became far and few as his interest in me waned. I was not much disappointed by it especially the get together. I could do without those stolen glances and the gossip about my barrenness and sympathetic remarks about my poor husband’s fate.
I preferred being indoors for another reason too. In all my life I had never seen so much of rain. It rained almost throughout the year. Any other place would have drowned under so much rain. I enjoyed watching the rain sitting by the window. One moment it would rain very heavily with nothing being visible and the next moment it would become bright with everything looking fresh and beautiful.
Despite these visible delights, I felt lonely and desolate with a longing for a child gnawing my heart. I felt hollow and worthless and was totally detached from the world. I read books and magazines to pass time but nothing held my interest to enthuse me. Just for some company, I would turn on the radio.
Then it happened.
The back yard of our building adjoined the backyard of a single storey building which had an entrance from a road that was next to our lane and led to a convent school, a Christian missionary school by name Carmel School. There were only three buildings in a row and the one behind our house was the third from the main road end.
Nobody lived in that house. It was vacant. One day I saw some men inspecting the house. Then for a week there was lot of activity. The house was cleaned, repaired and painted; the garden was cleared of all the shrubs and cleaned. The fence was repaired. Most interestingly, the space between the rear of the house and the fence was leveled and concreted. Finally the electrical workers checked the wiring, fixed the lights and fans including a bright light that illuminated the backyard.
The house which lay in darkness all these two years had suddenly come alive. It felt as though a phoenix had risen from the dark depths.
Then it was quiet for almost two weeks before activities resumed. During the quiet days, I used to stare at the house eagerly for something to happen. I was busy in the kitchen with the usual chores when I heard voices from the house. On discreetly looking I found a young couple standing in the backyard with some people in attendance who seemed eager to please the couple. The man was in his early thirties and the wife in her late twenties. They were very ordinary looking but had the sophistication of a good upbringing. Both were quite burly for their age with significantly protruding tummies. At a discreet distance I found a young maid servant holding a boy of about five years by his hand and carrying a girl of about two years. On seeing them, I felt an inexplicable pain that wrenched my heart. They had awakened my longing for a child that had been dormant for sometime. I quickly turned my gaze away from them and looked at their parents who were nodding their heads in agreement with what was being said by their attendants.
I watched them more closely this time and when I saw their tummies I could not help chuckling. I reprimanded myself for the naughty thought that had crossed my mind and made me chuckle. I had wondered how they had managed to have children and answered it myself that nothing comes in the way of sex, not even such big tummies.
Involuntarily my gaze went back to the kids. They were pretty good looking especially the girl. The boy seemed to be content to stand there holding the maid’s hand and watching his parents but the girl was restless and trying to free herself from the maid. When all her attempts to wriggle out of the maid’s hold failed, the girl wailed. That caught the attention of the parents. The woman immediately ordered the maid to take them inside. Apparently, the maid was not supposed to have been there. After sometime the voices receded as they all went back into the house. I too went back to my work.
The next day they moved in and the place was abuzz the whole day. Intermittent heavy downpours also did not dampen the buzz but added to the melee. By late afternoon it became very quiet. Soon my husband returned home and I went back to my silent and lonely world.
The family frequented the backyard several times a day and the activities ranged from brushing the teeth in the morning to listening to ‘Bhule Bisre Geet’ on ‘Vividh Bharati’ late in the evening to relax.
The sounds and sights of their backyard became part of my pastime.
The boy was quiet, sober and innocent in many ways but not the girl. She was sharp, mischievous and very playful. She was hyper active most of the times. Above all she was beautiful and very lovable. In more ways than one she was like my dream child. I enjoyed hearing her sweet voice and watching her play.
By about 8.00 the boy would be off to school and the man to the office. My husband too would leave around the same time. I would then be all by myself and would eagerly wait for the maid to come out with the girl. By about 10.00, the maid would bathe the girl in warm water in the backyard. The girl loved to play in the water. She would giggle, scream and dance making it impossible for the maid to hold the girl down. Sometimes it would bring the mother out. She would shout at the maid and scold the girl that would make things quiet. But the mischief would continue. She would pinch or bite the maid or throw water on her or kick the mug or the soap box. I would sympathize with the maid but would still enjoy the girl’s innovative ways of making mischief.
Soon after noon, the boy would return from school and immediately there would be sounds of cheer as she would shriek, scream and cry in excitement on seeing her brother. It would soon die down as the mother would force them into taking an afternoon nap. Similar drama would repeat when the man returned around 4.30 or 5.00 p.m.
They would later play in the backyard. She would hug, kiss, pull his hair, pinch, scratch and even bite him at times in her exhibition of love. The poor boy would take it all and when it got a bit too violent he would cry out. She would immediately change to petting and pampering. It amazed me how a child of just 2 years could be so clever. What a sweet little girl!
Later sitting on the lap of her father, she would go on chatter nonstop to his delight. Sometimes it would be the mother telling her children stories. On some nights, the couple would discuss some serious matter and the children would be whisked away by the maid. I would miss the children, particularly the girl on such nights.
On days of very heavy rain, the children were not allowed to venture out. Such days would turn out to be miserable and heart wrenching. I would sit there watching their backyard longing to catch a glimpse of the girl but in vain. I would then silently cry and let the tears flow freely.
During the summer of 1976, the mother and children were away for two months spending the vacation on the mainland. Though my husband too had the vacation, we did not go to the mainland because there was no one to go to as I had lost my mother soon after coming to the islands and there was no love lost between my husband and his family.
Most of the times, he would be away spending time with his friends and colleagues. Occasionally, he would take me along to a movie or to Carbyn’s Cove. But I could never enjoy any of it. I felt lonely and lost.
The day the family returned, I felt a lightness of heart akin to how one feels on a bright sunny morning after a fortnight of dark clouds and heavy rains.
I wanted to take the girl in my arms and bathe her in my love.I had felt this strong urge many times but kept the feelings to myself every time.
It really didn’t matter because I had already adopted her as my child as I understood her better than anyone else including her mother. I did not dare to share it with my husband as he may see an opportunity to brand me insane.
As the years passed and the girl grew, I followed every step of her progress and the bond grew stronger by the day.
1982 was a landmark year for the islands. Television had arrived. India was hosting the Asian Games and every one worth his salt owned a television. My husband with his super ego would not be found wanting in such a status affair. So, he brought home a television and with it a huge crowd of audience but there was no picture.
The crane which was used to erect the tower on the slopes of the AIR hill was stuck and was obstructing the signal. The second crane which went to pull out the first too got stuck adding to the woes of the authorities and the anxiety of the people. Thank God they managed to get the cranes off the hill without losing too much time.
My house became a mini theatre and was house full most of the time. I watched the events from my kitchen cum dining space. What interested me the most were the athletics, particularly the 100 and 200 meter sprints. I was reminded of my school days when I would run those 100 meters as if my whole life depended on it. So when Usha ran she was not alone, I too was there with her every inch of the way. I ghost ran with her. Though the thought of what my life could have been left a heart burn every time, I had learnt to swallow it and move on. Now that I have a daughter to worry and care about, I was not much affected by those heart burns.
The girl’s father being in a higher position than my husband naturally had a television of his own. The girl’s mother didn’t encourage visitors and so the family watched the games in privacy. The girl true to her nature was the most excited viewer. From my vantage point my eyes enjoyed the Games on my home TV while my ears enjoyed her excitement.
Time and tide wait for none even though they go nowhere. But they create an illusion of movement like the electric posts and trees that fly past our windows as we travel by a bus or train. Man in his wisdom created a means to measure an abstract thing like time and created a calendar to measure our age as well. A year is a year as much as a day is a day. But some days are longer than the others. At times we feel that a year passed by before we even realized and sometimes it may seem ages before even a month is past. So whether time runs fast or slow is only relative. It depends on us and our state of mind entirely.
These thoughts crossed my mind when one day I saw that the little girl, my little girl, had become a young woman. My little rose bud had bloomed. With the glow of youth she looked so beautiful and lovely that I felt pangs of pain worrying for her safety every time she stepped out of the house.
She was not just beautiful but was also smart, sharp and intelligent excelling in her academics and fine arts too. She would sing and dance with gay abandon in the backyard when she got into an ecstatic mood. It was a sight to behold, every time. I took extra care not to be seen lest she should stop. As always, I watched without being watched.
Soon, the boy finished his school and left for his higher studies in engineering at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. The girl was now alone and missed her brother whose legs she used to pull all the time. She became serious in a mature way. But the sad part of it was her mother failed to see it and invariably picked on her for everything. Not surprisingly, the girl showed immense maturity in handling her mother.
In the interim, the islands had moved from the TV to the Deck (VCR - Video Cassette Recorder) as the prime means of entertainment. Almost every household had one. To those who couldn’t afford, there was always one on hire. The video cassette shops lending cassettes became the centers of attraction. Naturally we too had one and so did the girl’s family. The girl would hire Hollywood classics like Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Dr. Zhivago, Gone with the Wind, My fair Lady, Sound of Music, Singing in the Rain, Roman Holiday, Psycho and a host of others.
Her mother who neither understood the girl nor the movies she watched made a big fuss about getting spoilt watching English movies. The girl would patiently and very lovingly tell her mother that the movies she watched contained nothing vulgar or obscene except for an occasional kissing scene which was a natural way of expression in the west. On the contrary, she would tell her mother, the Indian movies were the ones that were disgusting loaded with their loud and vulgar dialogues presented aplenty in the guise of comedy and the meaningless song sequences where the hero and the heroines did everything with their clothes on. I used to be thrilled by her mature assessment while her mother would be shocked in disbelief. Invariably, the mother would pick a quarrel with her husband and blame him for giving too much freedom to the girl.
It was not long before the girl started preparing for her Senior Secondary Board Exams (Class XII) in right earnest.Her friends would drop in for group studies. I was amazed at the way she led from the front and almost played the teacher to the other girls. Such sessions would of course have intermittent gossip and giggling. She would dominate that too. She had a great talent for imitating people not only in terms of their vocal variations but also their mannerisms. She also exhibited a maturity that was lacking in the other girls. In short, she was way above the rest. She was star material. She made me feel so proud.
It was the summer of 1992. The girl passed out with high scores and there was great rejoicing as her brother too had come down for vacation. It also brought with it fresh tensions and unrest in the family. Her mother wanted her to study in the local college JNRM (Jawaharlal Nehru Rajkeeya Maha Vidhyalay) but the girl refused to budge from her stand that she wanted to pursue the 4 year integrated B.A Ed course in the Regional Institute of Education (RIE), Mysore. Her father tried to persuade her to go to RIE Bhubaneshwar instead or go for a graduate course in Kolkata. He said she could then follow it up with a B.Ed course. She wouldn’t hear any of it. Her three choices were Mysore, Mysore and Mysore. When she reasoned it out, they couldn’t help agree that she was not adamant but just firm and sure. Her brother stood by her and the matter was put to rest. She had had her way.
It also meant that I would miss her and miss her very badly. I consoled myself that when it was for her good my sentiments didn’t matter. By August 1992, she left for her higher studies.
My life became hollow but I kept myself busy imagining what she would be doing. Her father had obtained an STD (Subscriber Trunk Dialing) connection to his residence phone and the parents would talk to her every day. I would only hear this side of the conversation as they would raise their voice to be heard at the other end given the poor quality of connection especially during days of heavy rains. To my surprise from the one sided conversation I could easily make out what the girl must have said at the other end. I knew her so well.
As the days passed, the anxiety level of her parents came down and the calls became less frequent. At the end of the 1st year, she came home for the vacation. What a charming young woman she had transformed into in just a year! She had added grace and poise to her repertoire. How I wished to run across to their place and hug my child? Before I realized, a month went by taking her with it and life returned to a dreary routine.
The following two summers her parents went to the mainland and visited her and my longing to see her was mounting. When she finally came after 3 years I was so happy that the pain of waiting all the three years just vanished. What a strikingly beautiful and mature woman she had become? The moment I saw her, I knew she had fallen in love and that meant fresh tension to her mother, who failed to see it until one day the girl herself told them when they broached the subject of marriage. After the inevitable screaming and crying, the mother reconciled. The brother, who adored her, was on her side of course. Having got her parents on board, she invited the boy and his parents to visit them.
The choice was par excellence. The boy was a perfect match. He was an engineer working at the IISc., Bangalore. After the usual nervous silence, the air cleared and the families took to each other. A date for engagement in Bangalore was fixed. She had already secured a job in Bangalore. So by August 1996, she left the islands for good as her father too managed to get a posting in Madras. The house became vacant again. Soon it was to be demolished for widening the road. Meanwhile my husband was promoted and was offered a bigger quarter. The day we left, I stood at the rear window for a long time. Then I bid my girl good bye and wished her a very happy married life.