The girl was a burden. And she knew that ever since she learnt her mother tongue. But she didn’t know what her father meant by the term ‘burden,’ when he attributed it to her. She couldn’t relate that term with her lively self, and the gunnysacks of potatoes lying on the floor.
One day, she asked her mother, “Mommy, why does my father call me a burden? No one has to carry me on his back!”
The mother took her daughter’s head in her arms. “Bring your dolls. We’ll play bride and groom,” she smiled. The girl didn’t know what lay veiled behind that smile. Within a moment, she’d forgotten the term, and was running to fetch her dolls from her room. Soon, she was laughing and playing with her mother.
Another question always used to strike her. Why her father never behaved normally after nightfall. What used to get into him? She had always seen her mother being normal, responsive and coherent at all times, but her father would change into a different man after sunset. He would reek of a sickly sweet and repulsive odour, he would sway and tumble while walking, sometimes he would lock her mother up in the bathroom. Often, the girl would see her mother crying, as her father beat her up, and savoured his superiority of being a man, as his wife fell on the ground.
“Why does father beat you up everyday?” The girl asked her mother innocently, while her father had left. “What wrong have you done to him?” She squatted beside her mother, while she lay on the mud floor of the hut.
The mother’s voice was quavering with the lilt of a throbbing pain all over her arms, her back and her behind. She lifted her head a bit, but said nothing.
“Tell me, mommy, what have you done?”
“It was all my fault…” her voice drifted off, and she lifted herself up from the ground. Immediately she realized she’d said too much. “Come here, my princess.” She squatted beside her little daughter, embraced her in her arms, and sobbed for sometime. Even the little girl noticed that her cry this time had a different tone, than what she was accustomed to hearing every evening. It was a cry of emotion and satisfaction for her daughter, even if everyone else thought her birth was a curse.
“Why does father change when evening falls?”
“Because he is a man.”
The girl got stuck to the belief that all men were like this. It was their intrinsic character over women, just like the presence of beard and moustache. That made them men.
The girl was five, when she became sure that the temporary madness in the evenings was not a character of all men. There was a small monochrome television in the house of the village headman. The villagers used to call him by the name, Kumar. On some evenings, the girl would find all the men and boys of the village crowded in the large courtyard of his house; the only brick and mortar house of the village. Their eyes would remain glued to the television, where many people played a game on a large field with a bat and a ball. She would hear them yell with the exuberant voice of a victorious conqueror,
“Gavaskar has come to bat! … Gavaskar went for a six! … India has won the game!”
No matter what they did, they behaved like normal people, responding and talking to everyone like it was in the daytime. Soon she found herself interested and drawn to the game where a man ran and threw a ball to another man who would strike it with a wooden bat as hard as he could. She felt quite out of place among the men who wouldn’t give her a damn. One day, she got near the twenty-year-old son of the headman, who was yelling his head off, “Yay! Gavaskar has scored a century!”
The little girl reached up her hand, grabbed the sleeve of his shirt, and pulled it lightly. “Who’s Gaas-kaar?”
Unlike everyone else, who wouldn’t give her any attention to, the boy, Praveen, turned his head down to look at her. “Gavaskar is our God!” He smiled with pride.
“God?” The girl was quite surprised. Her mother had taught her that the people in the colourful pictures of the calendars, surrounded with jewels and fruits, were called Gods. She had learnt they live in a place called heaven, although she didn’t know what that was. Probably that grey field is the heaven, she thought, and the thousands of people surrounding them are praying in unison. But why is heaven devoid of colours, she wondered. She learnt about more and more Gods every year through each new calendar that used to be hung from a tack in the bedroom of their hut. Today she was watching one in action.
Praveen became her good friend. In the afternoons, she would run to the concrete threshing floor near the paddy fields, with a plastic bat and a plastic ball. Her mother had bought them for three rupees, with a part of the measly savings from the little money she used to earn by washing people’s clothes by the riverside. Most of her earnings were sacrificed to satisfy her husband’s alcoholism.
Praveen and the girl played on the grey, asphalted threshing floor; prototyping the way Gavaskar played in the grey fields. Everytime, she would bat and Praveen would throw her underarm balls. One day, she said to Praveen, her bright little eyes twinkling with ambition, “Brother, I want to grow up and play like Gaas-kaar.”
“You can’t!” Praveen laughed. “Cricket is only for men.”
“Why is that?” The girl frowned. “What special is there in a man that he can play Cricket?”
Praveen made a serious face as if he were a saint spreading his enlightenment and inexhaustible wisdom among his disciples. “Because, women are always the weakest ones of the world,” he said, “they simply don’t have the power to swing the heavy wooden bat and hit the ball heavy and hard as stone.”
Her face fell. She returned home with a heavy heart.
“Today, we’ll play a new game!” Praveen smiled at the girl, seeing her sitting on a rock beside the threshing floor, with her plastic bat and ball. She gazed at the treadle of the thresher, as Praveen drove it with his legs. The girl waited impatiently for Praveen to complete the threshing of the first harvest of the year.
“What game?” She stood up.
“It’s a lovely game…very popular and interesting! Everyone plays it when they grow up. And now you’re a grown up girl, ain’t you?”
“Really?” The girl’s eyes became wide in anticipation. “Can I play it in the TV when I grow up?”
“Uh… err…” Praveen hesitated for a bit. “Yeah, sure, you can! You can even be as famous as the cricketers!”
“Yayyyyy!” The girl flailed her arms and hopped around in delight. “So where do we play it? Over here?”
“No, we’ll play it in the cowshed over there.” He pointed at one end of the lonely threshing floor, where two mud cowsheds with thatched roofs had been reconstructed after the recent flood. Praveen stopped with what he was doing, and got down from the wooden seat of the thresher. As they approached one of the cowsheds, a buffalo kept on chewing its straw and looked at the little girl with a vague, but rueful look. The look in its eyes translated that the buffalo could prophesy, but too powerless to prevent what the little girl was about to experience that day.
Praveen and the girl went to the interior of the cowshed. It was stinking with the hideous smell of cows and dung. “Now lie down on this haystack.” He pointed at a pile of hay stored nearby. The girl obeyed her. She sat on the hay. “Lie down, lie down,” Praveen insisted in a fake tone of care, just as a doctor advises his patient before examining her with an unkindly cold stethoscope.
Praveen ran out to the threshing floor and made sure no one was around. He returned to the cowshed, breathing deeply and heavily. His throat was becoming dry. He drank a few sips of water directly from the bucket that was kept for the cows. Wiping his mouth with the back of his palm, he knelt beside the girl lying on the haystack. Then he lifted up her little skirt and his trembling hands touched below her waist, creeping downwards.
“Hey, we were supposed to play!” The girl protested. “When are we gonna play?”
His voice shook, as he said in a dry throat, “We’re playing…it’s such a lovely game…aren’t you enjoying?”
“No!” The girl yelled. “What’s this stupid game? Me lying, and you rubbing your hand on me?”
Praveen’s hands shuddered more and more, as a strangely comforting warmth enfolded the whole of his finger, starting from its tip. “Now you’ll enjoy.” Praveen dropped his shorts on the ground. The girl’s eyes became wide in an unforeseen bafflement. She started feeling insecure and uneasy, when Praveen said something that kick-started her intuition. I believe that intuition is a girl’s best friend. The little girl was too young to understand what was going on. She didn’t know what she was supposed to do. She just realized that it was wrong. And dirty. Very, very dirty. Without a word, she immediately got up from the haystack. Praveen called her by her name, as he saw the girl running out of the cowshed, and towards the threshing floor. He pulled his pants up and ran behind her. Although he had an athletic build, and worked in the fields all day, that afternoon he was soon out of breath for some reason. He yelled, as she was getting away from her, “It’s our little secret! Remember…”
The girl didn’t look back. She ran home and hid her head under her mother’s Sari that had been kept on the bed.
After that day, the girl stopped going out of her house alone. Her mother became her world. And vice versa. They were very close to each other. The girl was growing up close by her side, amid hostility and domestic violence. Slate and chalk turned into notebook and pencil, and the toy kitchen turned into the real one with mud floors and walls. But the lingering memories of an afternoon in the cowshed dating back three years, haunted her ever afresh like a cursed spectre, every moment she lived. She would laugh and play, her smile was all the pretty morning flowers along the brae, but once the flashbacks came to her mind, she would suddenly freeze from what she was doing, and her face would turn bleak. There was nothing more painful than bearing an untold story inside her. She still didn’t know about sex, or about men, except for one physical difference of Praveen, which she couldn’t match with herself after that day.
One morning, the little girl was in the kitchen helping her mother with the household chores by washing the vegetables. The mother stirred up a fire in the earthenware oven. An amber glory of a new day peeked through the trees of the woods in the east, while the beams of a cold sun peeking through the quivering leaves, fell on the mother’s face and her left arm. She poured some more kerosene in the oven to kick-start the fire. The silence of the daybreak was broken by the sporadic crackle of the twigs soggy with the winter dew, as the mother broke them and pushed them into the oven through one of the openings. The moos of the cows in the cowshed suddenly made the little girl stop with what she was doing. She got up from the corner of the kitchen and came to sit very close to her mother. After a short silence that followed, she finally narrated for the first time, the incident that had come as a shadow in her life—dark, depressing and ever following. While she told the story, she didn’t look at her mother in the eyes.
After the girl had finished, her mother got up hastily and left the kitchen at once. She went to the bedroom where her husband had just woken up, now sobered up from last night’s drink. A few quiet moments passed. The girl was about to get up from the floor of the kitchen, when she heard her father bark like a mad dog and slap the bed hard. He went out of the house that moment. His wife pleaded him to at least have his breakfast, but he didn’t turn back.
The girl’s father returned home late. It was almost 9 o’clock at night. Unexpectedly, he wasn’t inebriated. He kept his bicycle at the front yard and went to his wife. “It’s all fixed. Your daughter gets married next week!”
The mother dropped the heavy heap of utensils she was carrying, on the floor. They hit the mud floor with a dampened metallic noise. “What!” she exclaimed. “My daughter is only eight!”
“So what? She’s still a virgin,” he said, “and still a candidate for the market of marriage.”
The mother sighed. She looked away from him and asked reluctantly, “What’s the dowry? Can you afford it?” As if dowry was a part and parcel of every betrothal; something more important than the bride and bridegroom, themselves.
“All of my agricultural lands. But…” the father heaved out a sigh. “But, at least I’ll be divested of the greatest burden of my life. I’ll retire after her marriage.”
“Again you said my daughter is a burden?” The mother suddenly lost her calm. She threw up her hands and yelled, “say that again… Come on! Say that again!”
The father grabbed hold of his wife’s upper arms. He squeezed them so tightly that she cringed in pain. “You lowly street woman!” His eyes were red even though he didn’t drink that day. “Raise your voice to me, and I’ll slash your throat with that sickle.” He pointed near the corner of the room where a sickle, a spade, and a gunnysack of fertilizers were kept.
The mother suddenly felt silent. Very silent. The father slowly loosened his unyielding grasp. Hearing a commotion, the little girl came up to her mother from the bedroom where she had been scribbling some English words with a pencil on a piece of paper, by looking at the calendar. She stood beside her mother and pulled the stole of her ‘Salwar.’ “Mommy, mommy, what have you done? Why is father scolding you?”
This time, the mother didn’t hold out anything on her daughter. She knew her daughter would be no longer hers a week later. As her husband always said that once a daughter gets married, it’s a crime to consider she’s still their daughter, rather than her in-laws’. So what was the point of concealing the inevitable anymore? “You’re going to be married, my princess.”
“Ma…married?” She stammered. “Like my dolls?”
“Exactly, my little princess.” The mother sought a little refuge in claiming her daughter as hers and only hers, even though for the last few days.
“But, my wife-doll goes away to the husband-doll’s home after marriage!” Only the mother could sense a delicate spark of fear that stormed her daughter’s eyes.
The mother remained silent for a while. After winning the battle with her own, inconspicuous tears, she said, “So what? It will be your new home. You’ll have a new mother, a new father, and a new hus…”
“No!” The girl interrupted her. “I want to read. I want to go to school. I never wanna leave you. I don’t want another mother. I don’t want another father. I only want you two. I wanna read thick English books. And I want to go to school and speak English like Gavaskar.”
Her father came forward to her and landed a tight slap upon her face. None of the females there could hold back their tears now.
The chosen bridegroom Shittuppam’s father was a teacher of the only primary school of the village. He was in his mid-fifties and his twenty-five year old son’s greatest ambition was to be a farmer. Shittuppam had the willpower and itchy hands, but owned no land to dig his spade in. And now his dreams of taking a truckload of cabbages and potatoes and paddy to the city were going to come true by marrying this girl who was seventeen years younger than him, and still an innocent, little child who was years away from her first menstrual period.
Five people sat on the front yard of Kshitij Master’s house— one: the girl with her head bowed in phoney shyness as her father had instructed, two: her father bare-chested and wearing a ‘Lungi’ to accentuate poverty so that at least one perch of his land could be exonerated from the dowry, three: Kshitij Master’s wife with her eyes of an eagle that carefully studied the terrain of the girl’s skin, four: Master’s son, Shittuppam, with his eyes and teeth sparkling with the thoughts of being a farmer after years of waiting, and five: Kshitij Master himself, going through the prophecy of a Shadhu who smoked weed all day.
“So, Gobardhan…” Kshitij Master looked up at the girl’s father. “It’s all fixed. Your daughter gets married with my eldest son on 4th of next month.
The girl’s father folded his hands in gratitude. Before he could say anything, overwhelmed by crocodile tears, his daughter cried out real ones, “I don’t want to marry. I don’t want to marry! I want to read English books.” She started sobbing. “Master, please let me go.” She folded her hands for the first time before a human being. “Master, please leave go of me. I want to read. I want to go to school.” She covered her face and went on sobbing. Kshitij Master came up to her and wiped her wet eyes with the end of his ‘Dhoti’. Then he lifted her up in his arms and went inside the house. “Don’t come in!” He instructed the group gathered at the front yard. Everyone sitting there eyed each other without a word. When Kshitij Master had gone inside, Shittuppam announced to the gathering, “Don’t worry, my father is adept at silencing stubborn girls, better than me.” Someone over there let out a sigh of relief at this word of assurance.
Outside the house in the front yard, Shittuppam was still brimming with tears of joy by the very thoughts of him being a farmer and father (I’m unsure of the latter, though). Inside, the girl was still weeping at the thought of her dreams of reading thick English books falling apart. Kshitij Master made the girl stand in his room and squatted before her.
“You want to go to school?”
“Yes,” She said. “I want to read English books. I want speak English like Gavaskar does at the end of every Cricket match.”
“You don’t want to marry my son?”
“No!” She wiped her eyes of the final drops of tears. “I just want to read. I want to go to school and I want to go to college. I want to read thick English books.”
“But you must know that learning is very difficult. It’s not for everybody. Especially, not for girls.”
“If I go to school everyday, if I study very hard all day and all night, can’t speak English? Can’t I compete with men?”
Encumbered by thoughts, Kshitij Master looked vaguely at the wall over her shoulders. His look was very deep, very distant. He lifted his hand and stroked her hair. He said to himself, rather than the girl, “You are like my daughter, even if you aren’t married to my son yet. If I can make Gobardhan bankrupt to make the dreams of my son come true, why can’t I make your dreams come true, my girl? Pursuing your dreams will not render anyone penniless. I’ve never seen a girl so determined to learn. You’ll be the future of our country. I know, one day you’ll enlighten the name of our village.” There was no need of hiding his tears before a little girl who had just transformed him. He lifted her up again in his lap.
“Where are you taking me now, Master?”
“You’re going to school.”
Kshitij Master went to the front yard with the girl in his lap. Everybody shifted in his and her seats. Ignoring everyone else’s presence, he looked at the girl’s father.
“Gobardhan!” He thundered with the voice that used to make his students in school concede into pin-drop silence, “Sell your land to fund for your daughter’s education, not dowry!”
And lo! There was absolute silence.
That encounter was a chemical reaction upon Kshitij Master, with the girl being the reactant, as well as the catalyst. He was transformed. The girl had unknowingly taught him that dreams were there to be fought for, from point zero. If his son dreamt of becoming a farmer, he had to fight for his land. If this little girl of eight could vow to vie with the whole world just to learn to read and write, why couldn’t his son of twenty-five, fight with a small village to claim his land?
Under Kshitij Master’s pressure, the girl’s father sold a third of his farmlands for the time being. Her marriage got postponed till she completed her High School. But the best thing was that Kshitij Master wouldn’t take any dowry! It was a very lucrative offer for the girl’s father, to get the cake and the topping altogether, without breaking the bank. Kshitij Master knew that there wasn’t any school in the village where girls were allowed to study. Through his sources, he spoke with the governing committee of a boarding school in Uttar Pradesh, administered by India’s Central Board of Secondary Education. He confirmed that it was commensurate for the big dreams the girl had. Kshitij Master taught her everyday for two months and prepared her for the admission test.
One day the girl heard Kshitij Master telling her father, “I’m surer than ever.”
What exactly was he sure of? Was he sure that the girl would triumph over all hurdles to realize her dreams? Or was he sure that she’d simply opt to discontinue in the middle, as education was too tough for a girl? That was the million-dollar question.
For the girl, it was just moments of turning back at her mother standing at the door of their village home, and bidding her goodbye. For, she didn’t know what a ‘boarding school’ meant. The girl went with her father, away and away from her mother, repeatedly turning back to see her, until they took a bend in the road. For some minutes, the mother stood motionless at the door, supporting herself at the mud wall. Then she went back into the house. It was empty as her heart. She buried her face deep into the pillow in the bedroom, and wept.