Short Story: She/Her By Ifreen Raveen
Somewhere deep inside inland India, a group of women wearing bright orange, yellow and red coloured sarees gossiped under an early morning summer sun. Dense groves of lush green banana trees stretched for miles around them. Rows and rows of bananas dangled from these trees, like an upside-down crown. Overhead the sky looked like a clean, light-blue canvas with not a single cloud or bird in sight.
These women had skin the colour of charcoal, sharp eyes and loud laughter. With their hair tucked behind their ears and the loose end of their sarees tied around their waist, they sit under the shade of these trees. In their daily lives full of drudgery and routine, this is perhaps the only hour they don’t resent. They share stories about their childhood, spent in their maiden homes, far this village of lush green banana trees, none of which belong to them. Now, they are just women who live in ruins, on the edges of the world, like those extra empty spaces, on the edges of manuscripts, unseen, unheard and unwanted.
Their husbands work in the rice fields surrounding their village; they leave for work early in the morning, with their old, rusted shovels hanging from their shoulders. And they return only after darkness creeps into their homes, like an unsolicited visitor.
Some of them also work in the city. They come home after a year or so, with their hard-earned money, always insufficient and stories of a prejudiced city life, in perpetual abundance. With broken backs and hearts, they hand over both to their mothers and wives before returning to the city for the next round. This would go on, until one day too weak to go to work, they would return to their village. From then onwards they would always be spotted on their charpoys, in front of their huts, waiting for death to arrive, like life never did. Their sons would replace them in the city, and thus, this would go on from one generation to the next.
However, there were some that never returned. Their wives, alone now, and not able to cope with their disappearance, would imagine them getting lost on the way home. No other explanation seemed bearable.
‘After all it is not easy to find your way back home among these dense, goddamned trees,’ they would tell everyone who would visit them with questions and sympathies.
Among these men who worked in the city was Jayanti’s father.
Seven-year-old Jayanti was at this exact moment sitting on the stairs of her mud hut and dressing her doll, Rita in fresh banana leaves. She combs her long and frizzy hair, divides it into two equal plaits, and ties it with a thread made of dried-up, yellow grass.
Jayanti was three years old when her father left to find work in the city.
‘At this point I am ready to do any kind of work, I don’t have many options left, I will take whatever comes my way,’ he told and retold everyone who came to meet him days before he was due to leave for the city.
He was a thin man, short with wobbly legs and large feet. He was young when his parents died of poverty. The poor don’t die of diseases. The lack of money to consult a doctor is what kills most of them. He watched quietly as the health of his parents diminished in front of him and they turned into fragile shadows looming in a dark corner of their hut. And when death finally caught up with them, one after the other, he performed their last rites and carried their ashes out into the river in the same way.
One day, after months of little work and no money, he abruptly decided to leave for the city. He kissed Jayanti, who was sleeping on the floor of their hut and his wife, who was watching him dress up in his only good shirt with tearful eyes, and left.
Jayanti and her mother, alone now, had their own roles to play. They did what they had to do to survive, and they did it with whatever patience and dignity they could salvage. And in Jayanti’s case, with an easy, child-like acceptance of things as they are.
Jayanti was oblivious to the fragmented world around her, a world that would barely allow her to survive, a world cautious of even the idea of her, of her thin, feeble shadow on crowded streets and hollow buildings, and a world that had no place left to accommodate her as an actual person, flesh and blood, with feelings and dreams.
If only she knew how the world saw her and what it had in store for her, she would have maybe retreated back into her hut and stayed there, not daring to step outside, but watching, every now and then, through a hole in the wall, for the sake of that naïve curiosity. But she was a child, and like every other child she looked at the world through rose tinted glasses, and for now she had eyes only for her doll.
‘I will ask father to buy me a new doll,’ she thought, looking at Rita lovingly. She loved Rita, but it was now missing an eye and a limb and that love was probably still there because there was nothing else to replace it with. Her mother, who was always too busy to pay any attention to her, and her almost non-existent father left a void in her life, which was being promptly filled up by one-eyed and one-legged Rita.
In the years since her father left, Jayanti has seen him exactly twice. For her, most of the time he is nothing more than a memory, a temporary presence in her home, strange, dominant, but very readily embraced by both Jayanti and her mother. She faintly remembers the last winter he was there, she had never seen her mother smile as much as she did during those ten days of his visit. It was the only time in Jayanti’s life when she was kissed and pampered by her mother and was fed her and her father’s favourite Pav Bhaji every other day for lunch. In her seven short years, it was perhaps the only time she felt wholesome and for a while she even didn’t need Rita by her side.
This went on until the day her father left, her mother’s sullen expression returned, and Rita, who had been mopping for days in her neglected corner, was back in Jayanti’s hands. And this way, the unnatural order of their world was restored.
Jayanti didn’t go to school. She didn’t exactly know what school meant and what you did there, but when she would sit on the stairs of her hut and watch children go by with their large backpacks and unkempt uniforms, she would feel like she was missing out on something. She would go running to her mother, she would implore, cry and stamp her feet, but nothing would convince her mother to let her go to school.
Jayanti’s mother, who was at this exact moment sitting on the wooden stool in front of a burning stove in her hut, thought that school was a waste of time. Her prime concern was marrying Jayanti off to someone who could provide for her. She would never understand why some people send their daughters to school.
‘What would come out of it? They are going to get married and leave anyway. What use will this knowledge be in their practical, everyday lives? Look at us, this is how it is going to be for them too,’ she would say to her friends, shrugging and shaking her head.
With sweat running down her brows and back, she was vehemently stirring a pot. Three deep lines across her forehead gave an impression of being under constant distress. She paid no attention as Jayanti entered. There was no motherly smile, no tilt of the head, absolutely no cognizance of her daughter’s existence.
Jayanti’s eyes trailed her mother and her gaze rested on her mother’s tummy. Her mother, whom she adored, was pregnant. Jayanti wanted a baby sister. She wanted to play with her, dress her up like her doll and show her off to her friends who lived at some distance from her and who sometimes, just sometimes, let her play with them.
Sitting cross-legged in front of her mother, she started giggling in anticipation of things she would do with her new baby sister.
Jayanti’s mother wiped the sweat tickling from her forehead with one end of her sari. It was torn and mended at places, and was in need of a good wash. She remembered that she has to ask her husband to send them some money. Almost all the plastic boxes that contained sugar, salt and spices were empty. It would last them a week at most, she gauged silently.
Too preoccupied to notice Jayanti, she stirred the pot with all the energy she could muster and thought about the work that remained for her to do. Her work has doubled since her husband left. Every now and then, she goes to the house of the landlord at the border of the village. His wife gives her odd jobs around the house sometimes and pays her well. She hasn’t called for her since some time now.
‘Maybe they know I am pregnant again,’ she says to herself. She looks at Jayanti, who is engrossed in a conversation with her doll.
‘Maybe Jayanti can go and ask them for some work,’ she thinks. She looks at her daughter’s large, beautiful eyes and her curly, black hair. She longs to hug her but instead, averts her gaze and sighs. They were running out of money, and something had to be done fast.
After losing two babies in the past, she was cautious about her pregnancy this time. She stood up and pulled her shawl closer to her body. It was an old, tattered, black shawl with threads sticking out from places.
It belonged to her mother.
Sometimes in the middle of her work, she gets a glimpse of her childhood. An old, random memory keeps peeking out at random times and refuses to withdraw back into obscurity.
It is a warm winter afternoon and she’s swinging on a rope attached to the banyan tree outside her home. She is thinking about the sugary, sticky jalebi she is going to have after lunch. Sunlight is glinting off her hair. It’s a day before her wedding, she is wearing a beautiful lehenga, the colour of the sky on a cloudless day, she’s laughing with her friends and telling them how excited she is to get married. Her friends, busy doing her makeup, giggle and tell her to shh.
Now everything feels far away, much beyond her reach, including her parents and brothers who married her off and never looked back to see how she was doing.
She puts a hand on her belly, this time she wants a son, a son she can rely on, who can provide for her when she is old and wrinkled.
‘Maybe then my husband will also come back,’ she keeps thinking.
She shudders in anticipation of things she will do if she gives birth to a girl.
Pink and green plastic boxes, covered with soot and dirt, are lined up neatly on a shelf above the stove. Behind these boxes, hardly visible from outside, is a tiny bottle labelled Rat-Kill.
Ifreen Raveen is a MA Convergent Journalism student from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. She has previously written for The Wire, The Quint, Live Wire, The Citizen, Free Press Kashmir and Rising Kashmir.