August 11, 2022

KITAAB

Connecting Asian writers with global readers

Short Story: Digging by Rituparna Mitra

12 min read

Rituparna Mitra’s story is moving and enthralling in equal parts as she captures the conundrum of a woman so accurately.

EDITOR’S PICK OF THE WEEK

(As the editor’s pick for this week, this article will be available for free reading for a week)

Unbeknownst to her, he had been digging. And had now reached where no man was allowed. All that she had stitched with diligence, deftness, and secrecy to the innermost chambers of her heart lay out in the open- naked and vulnerable. She had failed all her secrets. All the letters and notes lay crumpled at her feet. Everything she had been preserving for years and protecting from the “gaze” scholars discussed in papers and women avoided on the streets.

Except that she had been violated at home. Violated yet another time. At a different kind of home. Unlike the one, she was born into. A home she had vowed only to leave after her death. Unlike the one where preparations started for her departure probably from the day of her birth.  That was temporary. This permanent.

But could she really blame anyone!? It was his home after all. He had built it and furnished it with his hard-earned money. And by that virtue, everything in it rightfully belonged to him. He was the master of the home.  He could move things, throw away the unneeded ones and even demolish the whole of it. No questioning the master, after all. Only pleasing him in any way he deemed fit. 

Of course, she could scream profanities and hurl abuses at him for destroying memories she had been holding onto for as long as she had been a woman. Memories she had created much before he entered her life. Memories of another life she once lived. Memories of another Akansha she once was. 

Whose Akansha was she really? Her mother’s, who always wanted a daughter? Or her father’s, who never knew what to do with a daughter?  Or her husband’s, who looked terribly disappointed on finding love notes his wife once received and was still holding onto? Or Atish’s who left her even before she could call his name out loud?

She wished she could say her marriage was a marriage of convenience and blame it all on her fate that kept her starving while everyone else was feasting on the sweet nectar of love. But life had never been cruel and she had always been a terrible liar. Utkarsh was as much her choice as Atish once had been. One was the Sun and the other Moon of the sky of her infinite desires and cravings. One unguarded and wild. And the other is a calculated risk.  

But when was a woman ever allowed all!? That too an Indian Brahmin woman.

All her life her caste had been a great source of wonder to all her friends. Never had they failed in making her realize she was “different.” Her caste was one of those jokes that had suddenly begun one day because she happened to have scored more than the topper of the class and kept following her like a shadow; adding layers of darkness to her character she never had tools enough to peel off. 

She had once heard some depressed teacher saying:

                            He seldom speaks but when he does you wish he hadn’t.

She later got fired for striking a student repetitively for calling a girl in his class “a crazy, nasty bi***.” Which she very much was. 

It was the talk of every class before becoming the incident of the decade. No one could ever get enough of it. 

There was something very pulling about anything that is polished with a sensational layer of scandal. Sex. Violence. To name a few agents of scandal. 

Even if you didn’t want to be involved, you still wanted to be informed. You suddenly get drawn to newspapers-like a quintessential moth to a flame and devour. Unlike before when you wouldn’t even bother nibbling. Scandal stimulates your appetite, and the many banalities of life amplify it. Scandal makes you ravenous: taking you by surprise and a sudden realization of your deprivation makes an unexpected glutton out of you. You eat and eat and without even realizing chew your own fingers: swallowing your blood and pieces of your skin too. 

Banned books and movies suddenly start making a lot more sense than they ever did before. Guarding you had always been a priority, you fool

Being unguarded was what had pushed Akansha towards her own destruction. Who’s the moth now, Miss Intellectual? That and the cruel Tanmay who couldn’t bear being second that one time back in school. Some fifteen years ago. 

What spell was it, Akansha? Please share with us too.

Can we book a date with your father? Not the romantic one, you naughty girl. A religious one. So that he can chant mantras and do those pujas at our homes too. 

Or, was it some kind of mandatory sacrifice? A sheep? A goat? Or a cow? No, no. How could it ever be a cow! Anything but a cow. Cows are divine. Everything else was left vulnerable to the scythe of the supreme Brahmins. 

All of that because of one paper in which she had scored 80 while others struggled to pass. One teacher gave preference to intellect over rote memory. And that one student who couldn’t stand being second once and inspired others just the same to attack her brutally with vicious words and malicious suggestions. All focusing on something she had never chosen for herself- her religion, her caste to be more precise.

And how she had heard everyone else saying Hindus are the oppressive tyrants: joining hands and causing mass destruction of the unbelievably unmatched minorities!  Why, then, did she find herself unbearably mismatched against a class full of pathetically bitter, angsty teenagers- both majority and minority combined?

Only, if it’d stopped there being a strictly one-time thing.  Life would have still moved on as if nothing happened. But things we wished for rarely happened. Unless we had the resources to make those happen.

Like an English sahib who had once adopted a tiger cub out of pity after shooting down its mother. He later shot down the cub, too, for it had gotten the taste of blood and no longer looked helpless and innocent. 

But unlike him, Akansha had neither a gun nor any strength. She stood defenseless against the onslaught of verbal attacks aimed at stripping her of all her joys and pride. Scoring 80 was not an everyday affair for her and those bas***** and bit**** didn’t even allow her to relish and savor.  

Only if she could retaliate with those nasty abuses towards them. Pronounce degrading blasphemies out loud. Even that would’ve brought her some peace of mind; redeeming the self-image in her eyes. 

By a cruel stroke of fate, her wish would get fulfilled. She would meet Atish in an almost bizarre way. A class outcast struggling to find someone to talk to during the school farewell preparations with no classes and lectures to keep her busy, she would attract the notice of the newly admitted-Atish Faizal. 

Not that she wasn’t already aware of his presence. He had joined their school only six months before the Board exams. And Board exams were huge during her time. And huge not because of the competition that ensued but because of how rarely people passed with a first division. 

Money combined with stellar grades helped his cause. She would often hear teachers gossip about him in the staff room on the rarest occasion she would go to borrow a book from Smrita Mam. Students followed suit not much later.  

She had already formed an image of him inside her head under the influence of a teenage-induced state of fancy and Mills & Boons driven imagination. What she could never have conjured up in her wildest fantasies transpired in reality.

Out of all the options he had buzzing and milling around him, his focus zeroed in on her. More on her book than her actually. How To Read People Through the Colors They Wear.

She had bought that book on a whimsical fancy out of the meager amount she was allowed as pocket money. Her mind was torn between buying her first-ever party dress and that book. She had gone for the latter thinking whoever would invite a loner like her to any party. 

Later, she would congratulate herself on a decision made right. Through the colors, they would be communicating passing the book between each other in an era devoid of cell phones offering Skype, WhatsApp, and any other popular social platform Akansha was not well acquainted with. 

He would express his dislike for everything red except for a nice and bold lipstick. She would buy her first shade and fearfully apply the same using the mirror in the girl’s toilet of her school after classes and go on the first-ever date of her life. In the ugly school uniform consisting of a dull brown skirt, pale yellow shirt with dark blue uneven horizontal stripes running all over it, her otherwise arrow-straight hair looking somewhat curly from being braided all day long, and her freshly coated red lips.

They had eaten kebabs dipped in chili sauce and pudina chutney out of colorful paper plates having lotuses and hibiscuses all over them.  The Gold Spot she sipped in between bites of the scrumptious kebabs made her throat burn making her wonder if it had Whiskey in it.  Or Scotch. Not that she would be able to spot the difference. 

Besides, it was his drink that she stole sips out of guiltlessly. How he had managed to gain access to any of those possible hard drinks that she could race in the Gold Spot was well beyond her imagination. She had not asked; unwilling to undo the mystery adding to his overall charms. 

It had all felt so romantic. So thrilling. She didn’t want the faculty of reason and logic to spoil her great fun. 

How lucky she had felt at that moment! How envious those blabbering loud-mouthed bit**** would be! But it was not worth sharing. She wanted to keep him as long as she could. Some ugly voice inside her head was telling her it won’t be for long. 

Focusing on sipping like a lady while chasing the slight burning she felt somewhere in her throat- muted that voice in that softly lit, cutesy roadside stall / restro. The ones that were carried inside big vans with the backdoor held open all the way. Both of them were seated on what looked to her like foldable stools. Hers was orange and his yellow. Both fresh, energetic, and yet meeting only when the glowing Sun is just about to retire for the day.

He was mostly quiet and happy to hear all she had to say. And she had a lot to say. On everything and everyone. It was like he had cut something open inside her and everything was spilling out without following any sensible order. It was chaotic but he found beauty in the chaos which was confirmed by his frequent laughter. A sound she had immediately associated with bikes. The somewhat rumbling and somewhat flapping noises one was to hear on kick-starting the engine.

Tucked between pages 7 and 8 discussing mutually contradictory shades of black and white-that oft get mistaken as colors would be his hasty urgings to bunk classes and go for a movie date with him at his place. Unbeknownst to her, he had chosen a movie they were not even old enough to watch.  It had Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke in the leading roles. 

At times, she would feel his eyes on her. He would be watching closely, reading her and taking note of every little possible detail without uttering a single word. At the end of their date, he would tell her about how Kim had struggled with agoraphobia all her life. Saying this, he would be leaning in for a ghost of a kiss on her trembling lips. 

That would be their last date together. She would never see him again. Outside her class. Or on the playgrounds where he could be found during recess practicing softball. He would be gone forever. His departure, as abrupt as his arrival was unexpected. 

Never finding it in herself to be angry with him, she would be holding onto the handful of notes they had exchanged and vow to never give her heart fully to another man. 

Led by an overwhelming need for comfort, she had turned to her mother only to hear all those words Atish had used for all her wicked classmates-especially the female ones for they always did the more damage to make her happy. For, she could never find it in herself to pronounce all those words out loud.  All those ugly words that had once made her so happy. 

She had forcefully taken off her skirt that day; tearing it directly at the center and splitting it into two. She had pushed her hands inside her and prodded till a devious satisfaction settled upon her face.

The next few months passed by in a blur. All she remembers are endless pujas, fasting, and visits to different shrines. And the torn skirt that she refused to part with her till her wedding day. She had thrown flakes of rice wrapped in pieces of the skirt backward and each had successfully landed on the spread-out pallu of her mother’s sari with a satisfactory thud that only she could hear.  She had held her mother a bit too tight that day and whispered all those unspoken words that she had been screaming inside her head since the day she violated her.

       I wish I wasn’t your daughter. How could you ruin your own daughter, ma! 

      Just how? What right did you have to make me feel so dirty? And that, too, just for 

     loving a man. You’re sick, ma. And I hope you rot in hell.

She had freed herself free from every debt that day.  All her mother had so graciously bestowed upon her- from her torn dignity to a flawed and biased understanding of a pure woman- had been left behind in that single act of freedom.  

She had refused to take any of her mother’s jewelry or clothes. She had only taken with herself the book and the notes from her only lover that she had protected from her mother and every other possible danger for nearly a decade of her life. 

And now they’re all staring at her like children expressing unspoken anger towards their mother for not informing them about the demons that roamed the streets in broad daylight. They looked brutally assaulted. They had been mercilessly punished by an obnoxiously possessive man. They had fallen prey to a man who knew not to love without ownership.

Picking them up one by one, Akansha tried to smoothen the uncountable creases to the best of her ability. Just like how she ironed Utkarsh’s shirts every morning. 

“Clean the room before I come back and please throw away all the unnecessary stuff. You know my dislike for clutter.”

And just like that, every possibility of a discussion or even an explanation was dismissed. He wanted all the traces of her past wiped clean from his home. 

Let us be friends with love and sacrifice. Let us walk together so we have a friendship.

Does sacrifice not involve making room for what had been before? Or friendship discussions? And how is walking ahead expecting the other to follow close not a violation of the sacred vow all marriages (at least the Hindu ones) come with?

But Akansha couldn’t fire all these questions at Utkarsh right away. She had to swallow the poison as she had done before. And wait till her departure from his home before she could spit the venom out. 

The last word would be hers like always. 


Author’s Bio

Rituparna Mitra,25, belongs to the luscious and exquisite lands of Assam, India.  Her short story “ That Magical Encounter” has been previously published on the online platform of The Criterion. Alongside that, her works have also been accepted by Induswomanwriting and Indian Periodical. She holds a Postgrad degree in English Literature and also did an online course in Fiction Writing from The Open University (based in the U.K).

                                                                              

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