(The original story was written in 90’s and is included in author’s Odia anthology Deshantari (ISBN: 81-7412-147-0) under the title ‘Agneya Giri’ and English version of this story was first published in August 2010 issue of ‘New Fiction Journal’ (ISSN: 0976-6863). Arita Bhowmik has translated it into Bengali and it has been included in author’s short stories collection Dukha Aparimit (ISBN 978 984 404 243-8), published from Bangladesh by Anupam Prakashani, Dhaka. For Western readers, this story may torch light on the Eastern milieu of socialization for girls in society.)
There was not much of a difference between us. She was only five years older than me. We were brought up in the same environment. As children, we used to fight at times. I used to pull her long-braided hair and as soon as she tried to hit me back, I used to run and stand in the middle of the road. The road was always crowded with people and all kinds of vehicles. I knew she would never come outside the gate.
I was seven then and she was twelve. She had already reached puberty and I had not. Then, I did not know the mystery behind a mature and an immature girl. My mother was very sad and hugged her and cried when she reached her puberty so early. But she knew that she could not come out of the gate. When I was giggling away showing my teeth outside the gate, she was standing helplessly waiting for me to go inside so that she can hit me. If she tried to step outside the gate, I would threaten her, “Wait, I will tell mother, you went outside the gate.” She had no choice then but to go back. That was my victory and her failure.
Mother had a tribal belief that the horse turns mad when it becomes aware of a menstruating woman and eats her up. That’s why she was so scared for her for two to three days a month and why she couldn’t go outside the gate. She used to wait for her to come back from school in those days.
Proposals for marriage began to arrive when she was just in the eighth grade. Once when my mother had been to the temple, people came in a jeep to see her as a proposed bride with the intention of marriage. Half of the people in the jeep were women. Before we could decide what we could do or not to do, they had opened her hair and started exploring whether her hair was natural or artificial. They had lifted her salwar and were inspecting her legs. I was standing quietly because I did not know how to treat the guests. They were harassing her with all sorts of questions. Then they went back before mother was back from the temple. Afterwards, they sent the message that the girl was very thin.
We were both brought up in the same environment. I had wings and she didn’t. I roamed around in all nooks and crannies of the town but she used to know only the way from home to the girls’ school and back again. I imagined when I grew up, I would buy a white car and roam everywhere; she had no interest in that.
She knew a lot of things. She knew how to make rice and chapattis, wash the house, arrange the shelves, and wash clothes. She used to get up at three in the morning, along with mother, and participate in the Thursday rituals. She used to feed us and look after us; she used to do everything. I never heeded to any request to do any errands. Maybe she was always there to take the responsibility so I did not have to do anything. Instead, I used to read crime stories lying on the easy chair.
You must be thinking I am really inhumane or maybe my mother indulged in preferential treatment. But I have told you earlier I was different from her. She silently obeyed everyone; I never listened to anyone. When I was a young girl, if mother sent me to get salt from the shop, I used to spend the money on getting a haircut at the hair salon. I got beaten for that but I was never really scared of beatings.
After I reached puberty, I was supposed to undergo the same kind of rules and regulations but I never did. Of course, there were a few attempts, as well, for good measure. Like once I was woken up early in the morning and was locked up in a dormant. I don’t remember clearly mother and other ladies of our joint family touched me with a branch from the drumstick tree and some mustard seeds. They told me to stay inside and to call when I needed to go to the toilet. I was also advised to shut the door from the inside and to stay in, and that I would be sent food. I used to feel terrible. I could hear the noise from the games of carom from outside of the room. I felt like taking a piece of iron and making a hole in the wall and go to the other side. During one’s menstruation, a woman is not supposed to look at any man’s face. The man is not to be blamed but it is believed the girl would be an unchaste one in her future life if she was looked at by a man during her period. Instead of thinking all about the stresses of menstruation, I was thinking instead America is just on the opposite side of India and that maybe I could reach America by digging a hole through the earth.
One afternoon when there was no more noise on the other side of the wall, I slowly opened the door and crept out and sat on the verandah outside. I had felt suffocated inside the dark room. Just at that time, my maternal uncle arrived. “Where is your mother?” he asked. “Maybe she is sleeping,” I replied and went back inside the room and shut the door. I was not afraid of being blamed; I was not even afraid of being rebuked. I rushed inside fearing he would know everything about my condition.
My sister wanted to take revenge on me. When I stepped out of the gate, she used to threaten me “Wait, I will tell mother everything.”But I was not at all scared of her and did not enjoy running and playing around anymore. I started giving more and more thought and importance to fashion. I started visiting the homes of my friends from school in the afternoons and during holidays. More and more, I would spend time in front of the mirror and would take notice of my full lips and my fleeting and deep eyebrows. I would also take notice of my womanly shape. I used to wear skirts above the knee. I was healthy and full of life. Unlike me, my sister never bothered to dress up. She had to put on salwar kameez all the time. She was also alarmingly thin.
A very sad incident happened to her when I was doing my matriculation. Mother used to get angry with my sister if she put on kajal in her eyes and kumkum on her forehead even though mother herself put Afghan Snow, a branded face cream on her face. I used to get that face cream for mother from the market. Once mother also scolded me saying I was always putting on kajal and kumkum like a prostitute. I wept that day but never give up using them.
Once, my sister’s friends tied her hair into a nice bun with a ring inside and decorated it with coloured hairpins. She was looking very pretty, draped in a saree with kajal on her eyes, kumkum on her forehead and bangles on her wrists. But as soon as she reached home, she had to face mother’s ferocious wrath. Mother just burst out all of a sudden. She dragged my sister and pulled out the ball and the hairpins from my sister’s hair and threw them away. She hit her so hard that all the bangles broke into pieces. My sister’s kumkum got smudged. I felt very bad. I could not say anything when I saw mother shouting with such rage. You must be thinking my mother is a real sadist. But my mother thought these things would lead to more disastrous consequences for her unmarried daughters. She was just being our mother.
But I would dress myself up just as usual. I used to put on jeans with tops and shirts; everything. My sister used to get scared when she saw my dresses. She used to ask me why I got all those types of things. Mother would be very angry if she saw them. I used to wear those dresses with great courage. If there were any dirty comments from passerby on the road, I used to brush them aside like dirt. Once mother was so angry she burnt one of my dresses in the kitchen fire. A short time later, I got another dress in exactly the same design during next Dasserah festival.
When I was making pen friends from magazines, sister was drilling her theories of economics and waiting to get married. As it was, she was tall and thin and she never wore any fashions which suited her. She would look dull, just like gold which has not yet been burnt in fire. My parents were worried because they had problems arranging a marriage for her. On the other hand, during that period, I was getting letters everyday from people without any secrecy. The letters bore the senders’ names written clearly on top. I would put the pictures my friends gave or sent to me in my album. Some of my friends even came to my home as well. I did not care if my mother showed her anger with the banging of the utensils, her irritated face; I did not care about my father’s seriousness. They would never face my friends.
I moved away from these things when I was admitted into the science stream in college and slowly, I went in a different direction. Then, I had an intense desire to become an architect, even though by this time, my mind had already seen the birth and death of many career choices which involved becoming a private detective, lawyer, and astronaut. No, I never wanted to become a physician or a teacher even though I had gotten an excellent result in my final exam. And because of this, everyone at home wanted me to study medicine but I insisted on studying engineering instead.
When I was studying science, some man who had come to see her wanted to marry me instead. I had made it very clear that I wasn’t interested in marrying him but still, he kept in touch with me through letters for two years. Maybe he thought one day, I would agree to his proposal for marriage. He was stupid enough and didn’t seem to know I was only flirting with him.
I used to show my sister all the letters he wrote to me. She used to get very sad when she would read them. I should have realized she must be getting hurt every time she read them but why couldn’t her sorrow and helplessness reach me? Why was I not picking it up? Actually, I never thought from her point of view which may be why I never realized I was hurting her. Instead, I was thinking – let’s see how long I can play around with this man.
He married when I was in the first year of my engineering studies. And my sister also married a better person. I thought to myself thank goodness; at least that chapter was over. Why only a chapter? After all, sister’s life would be wonderful now; she would finally lead her life as she wanted.
But in reality, my sister could not lead her life as she had wanted even though her husband was in a better job. He would stay away from onions, garlic, fish, and meat because he had accepted the teachings of some guruji. He used to get up at three in the morning and chant hymns while clapping. He also wanted her to accompany him and shine under the glory of womanhood just like Sita, Savitri and Lakhmi. He did not approve of borderless sarees or sleeveless blouses which showed her naked arms.
Initially her life seemed bright. But eventually, all the dreams she had once nurtured now seemed lifeless and meaningless; she came to accept that as reality. She lost her voice to complain. When her husband started insulting her as dark and ugly, she stopped thinking about complaining.
Slowly and steadily, her voice changed. Perhaps she had no voice left. For everything, she would say, “He does not like all these things.” She could never say that she didn’t like these things; it was always he.
The reason behind her becoming so spineless was even though she had done her Bachelors of Education, she never had taken up any job and this was another reason for her husband’s dissatisfaction. Her husband thought teaching profession was the only suitable job for women where they could remain chaste and could earn something for their family. But why my sister did not want to take up a job. She believed the real beauty of married life would be spoilt if she took up a job. Her children would be neglected. Maybe she was so disciplined that she wanted to live a peaceful life or maybe she was scared of the outside world. But there was a nice saying which always accompanied her “Lakhmivanti” This was her only pride and treasure.
Maybe that’s why her husband thrust all the household responsibility on her in order to take revenge. Her husband neither came out when the gangsters demanded donations nor when civilized people paid a visit to their drawing room. She was forced to deal with everyone no matter what their lot in life was or what their purpose of visiting was.
Her husband used to insult her by saying she was ugly and dark, and he used to establish, always in front of others, that he had saved her by their marriage. In spite of everything, she never neglected her duties as the devoted and dedicated wife. Every morning, she used to cook five dishes and iron his shirts and trousers properly. She also would provide him with his medicines starting from digestive pills to the medicines for his heart disease. She accepted him as a lord. You could say she wore him like a crown.
I have not told you much about myself. Even though I have not told you too much, by now, you must be aware that I was studying engineering; therefore, I must have been an engineer. Every year, about ten thousand engineering students graduate in India. One year, I was among them but I was well aware this was not the achievement of a lifetime. But I am not talking about myself as I am a verso to my sister so you can better understand her.
Whatever she had imagined never happened. She thought since she married an Administrative Officer, he would definitely buy a car one day. Her children would definitely go to Doon school, a best school of India. She dreamed, just like every girl dreams of such beautiful things for their lives after marriage.
Her husband was honest and perhaps simple and quite outdated for the time in which they lived so her family was always lagging behind. It was ridiculous to dream of Doon school if you were a government servant and did not take any bribes. On the other hand, she could not even send them to any English-medium private school because they were constantly being transferred to different places. I am not saying if they had been admitted to an English-medium school, their lives would have been worthwhile. But I don’t know what went wrong. None of her children were good in studies. She would constantly change their tutors and get upset when doing so.
They had a house but they hadn’t built it. Instead, they had bought the house in installments from the house building society. Within a few years, all the houses around theirs were turned into palatial dwellings whereas their house stood in the midst of the others like a depressed woman condemned to the vagaries of destiny. The house had become filthier with time; it could not even be decorated with mosaic, granite or ornamented balcony.
Her children got upset when they compared their own house with the others and when they compared themselves to the children of other officer colleagues of their father. She tried to make her children understand there is nothing more valuable than honesty. Sometime her children could understand but most times, they thought their father was insufficient.
Her husband’s contemporaries all had gotten promotions and were in senior positions compared to him. It was not that he was not unhappy about it; but he had his answer ready for that. Nowadays, no one gets a promotion through fair means. The usual ways were a briefcase and sex. What was the point in indulging in these things anyway? Would anyone take these things to the grave?
A working wife got more importance everywhere, be it getting a seat on the bus; getting blood tested in the hospital; or buying things from shops in installments. Even if you had countless degrees, if you spend your time cooking in the corner of your house, no one was ready to acknowledge that you were educated. She had come to realize that “mid-twentieth century” belonged to a bygone era. She understood the girl who went to work had to put on a smile on her lips. She was already in a fake world; a world of amazing glamour. Almost everywhere, she used to identify herself as a working woman. Depending on the situation, she used to say that once she was working but now she had given it up. She used to resort to these lies without any hesitation, even in front of all us. And we had accepted her false world as well. What else was there to do?
Once I had proposed my sister to open a shop with ladies accessories. I suggested, “It would be nice if you can set up a KG school. You can look after your home and work outside at the same time if you open a milk selling counter or a telephone booth.”
But she had turned a deaf ear to my advice and responded, “I am not keeping well due to asthma. I can’t do those things.” Yes, we had been born with some maladies such as asthma. But I always ignored that pain of asthma in my busy life. When I got an asthma attack, I tried to strive through it. I could never understand why my sister made that excuse.
To avoid the topic, she would say, “Nowadays, people don’t get jobs. I know my son won’t get a job. He can do some business if we build a house here.”
Maybe she could not understand the purpose of my suggestions. I did not want her to earn money; I wanted her to get recognition.
Slowly, her hair was turning grey and her skin becoming loose. She had accepted that she was getting old. Once I had told her, “These days, people start their lives when they are forty.” She got very upset with me when I said that. I don’t know why but she had the belief she would die very soon, that her days were numbered. Of course there was no reason behind her belief of which I knew.
By now, you must be thinking why I have told all this to you. Yes, that day, I had encountered a volcano. Before this, I used to notice only the carpets of green meadows, bushes laden with flowers, wet ground and three charred stones from the picnic, and half-burnt wood. Suddenly, I was scared to see so much lava, hot tears, and the fire of anger burning in her heart.
Now we will return to her again. That day, her son asked me in some context, “Why didn’t you ever become an architect?”
I replied, “I couldn’t.”
“You can become one if you want to,” he continued.
“I am not young enough anymore to take up studies,” trying my best to make an excuse.
“Why? How old are you? You are only……,” he pressed.
Suddenly she reacted to her son’s words. “Yeah, yeah, tell her that she is very young. She is only five years younger than me.”
“Is it true? It never appears so,” he said.
She got angry when she heard her son say this and burst into tears. I was dumbfounded. She suddenly erupted in anger. “All these people have unanimously spoilt my life. They never let me do anything. My life has been wasted. I am the dirt of everyone’s feet. They never allowed me to do fashion. They never let me go anywhere. My first enemy was my mother and second...” She was suddenly quiet.
Who does she think is her second enemy? Myself or her husband? Who is it? I felt like saying, “Speak out. Speak out all your agony in this moment. Open yourself up. Let it all out.” But no. Once again, she wiped her tears with the corner of her saree and like a sleeping volcano, became dormant -- completely silent.
(Translated by Gopa Naik
Edited by Paul McKenna)