Shazia walked up the stairs. Slowly. Her heart pounding. She legs heavy, like tons of lead. She felt the shackles, that society had put on her, as a woman, dragging her down as she walked up. She felt her desires piercing her mind, one needle at a time. She felt breathless, claustrophobic. The old, dirty, paan stained walls around her appeared to move slowly and come together to crush her. She walked up slowly towards her mousetrap, her one room cage, with all its animals waiting for their banquet - eager to feast on her desires. She was scared. But she had to tell them today.
A thousand thoughts with each step taken. Her life flew by her. She could see her childhood and her father. A policeman stuck for perpetuaty in the bottom rung of the police force and imprisoned in the bottle of cheap whiskey he consumed each night, drowning his frustrations at his pint-sized-life in the gold coloured poison-nectar. He would drink his sorrows and then come home to beat his wife and his children. Two boys and one girl. The girl, his eldest, and, in his opinion, the inauspicious wretch who destroyed his destiny along with his whore of a wife. The whore of a wife who he would fuck each night, after beating her up, while the children pretended to sleep. He beat them every night. With his fists, his belt buckle or with any weapon he could find in his drunken stupor. They hid the knives, each night, in the neighbour’s house. The one time he got his hands on a kitchen knife, he cut Shazia’s forearms and let her bleed until the terrified and pleading neighbours finally took her to a hospital. She still had the scars. He beat them everyday until she was fifteen and till his liver finally, fed up of him, delivered him to his end.
After her father died, they moved to her grandmothers house. The tyrant’s mother and mother of all tyrants. Shazia’s mother worked in the houses of the rich, cleaning their grime and helping them shine. Then she came home and cleaned the grime at home while the tyrant's mother, in her chair by the window, said the rosary.
Shazia went to school along with her brothers and excelled while they just about managed. As a ritual, they beat her up every year on the annual results day to wipe the smirk off her face each time she topped the class. They beat her every year until she finally hit back at the eldest brother. She hit him with his hockey stick and cracked open his chin. They never hit her again. But her grandmother almost stopped her school because of the incident and Shazia’s mother had to fight, grovel and plead to get her back into school. The grandmother finally agreed but not before her mother agreed to hand over every rupee of her income each month.
Shazia’s mother, to her, came before God. God never suffered at the hands of men. Men, the cruel bastards’ had use for women only as a body that satisfied their carnal desires or as a womb that protected them. She had experienced the wretched life of women in her society. A woman’s life is never her own. She can never have her own mind. She can never speak her mind. When she is a child and before she is married her life is run by the father. After marriage, her life is run by her husband and after the husbands death; she is dependent on her sons. No one understood women and no one wanted to. God did not understand women either. God, after all, is not a woman.
Shazia could never say no to her mother. Her mother loved her. Her mother had fought tooth and nail to give her an education. She had fought the tyrant’s mother and the tyrant’s sons to allow Shazia to take up a job. Not that it was much of a job. She made peanuts. But at least she was away from hell for ten hours a day.
Shazia had only one more floor to climb. She had been preparing for this day for months now. But she knew that this one time, even her mother would not understand. She was, after all, a product of the same society. Speaking to her mother, was what Shazia feared the most. Mother had battled men, poverty and the society all her life. But this would be the last straw. This would hurt. This would break her mother’s spirit. Mother would never agree. And Shazia could never say no to her mother.
Shazia worked in an old part of the city in an ancient establishment and had an unfulfilling job as an accounts assistant. She could do so much more. She was made for so much more. If only she wasn’t to be born a woman. If only she was born elsewhere, in another family, in another society, in another land, she would have archived so much more. Yet, she felt, it was better than cooking and cleaning in that chicken-coop of a kitchen.
Most importantly, she had ten hours each day of her life at her disposal.
And she had found love.
It was nearly a year now. In her twenty years on earth, she had never felt the emotions she experienced in the last one year. She felt buoyant and exhilarated. She felt wanted in her lovers arms. Love felt like a steady drizzle on a hot and humid summer morning. Lemon flavoured raindrops. Consistent, wet, fragrant, and refreshing - washing away the years of pain, agony, fear, and unhappiness. Love was like a floating feather and Shazia had found herself levitating, her feet always a few inches above the ground. Love scorched – making love in hot summer afternoons. Love was naughty and tickled. Love was risky and asked many questions. Love made her lie - to her mother for the first time in years. But love was never guilty. Love was faultless. Love was her only desire and her only hope. Love was also her only fear.
Shazia found herself smiling, thinking of love, at her doorstep. And then she realised. She was home. The smile disappeared. She walked in. Her head bent low, her eyes searching the floor - with dignity and humility, she walked in. She dropped her bags on the table and paid her respects to her grandmother, who refused to die, and was always seated on her chair, close to the only window in the room, a rosary in her hand. She hugged her mother and went to the little space in the corner of the room, designated as the bathing area to wash her feet. Each time one of the women had a bath, everyone else had to leave the house. The three toilets, shared, by the other ten families who lived on her floor were in the corner towards the right end of the floor. Chicken-coop for the soul.
Shazia, went into the toilet and locked the door. The smell of faeces hit her senses but that didn’t bother her. She had grown up in this place and the toilet was the only place she had any privacy. Not in the morning though, when everyone from the ten families lined up for their chance, a bucket full of water in their hands. She closed her eyes and gathered courage. She had to tell them today. Tomorrow would be too late.
Tomorrow would bring home the suitor her grandmother had found her. He would come with his extended family and she would be required to cover her face and serve them sweet tea and salty savouries. They would ask a few questions which her grandmother would answer and then it would be over. She knew that the events that would unfold tomorrow were only a formality. Her grandmother had already decided her fate - she would marry the balding son of her distant relative. She had seen a photograph and the man looked, according to her, like a bollywood villain, with paan stained teeth and a potbelly. But no one would ask her for an opinion. It was decided and she would be required to comply - with the dignity and humility required of a young woman in her society.
Her only hope was her mother. But she knew that this time, even her mother would not agree. She had tried for months to gather the courage, and yet, if her grandmother had not forced her hand by trying to get her to marry potbelly, she would never have managed to muster the courage to speak to her mother. Now she had to and she was scared.
She did not care for what they would think of her or the names that they would call her. She was prepared for the beating she would get at the hands of her brothers. She was prepared for the trial that she would have to face at the hands of relatives that her grandmother would gather, to deliver her to eternal damnation. She could fight them all. But she could not fight her mother. She could not think of breaking her mothers heart.
But she also knew that she had to try. It was her one last attempt at life.
Slowly, she walked out of the hell-hole she had locked herself in and walked into the hell that was waiting for her. She saw God at the stove, preparing chapattis for the evening meal. The devil, on her chair, praying her rosary with eyes wide open, watching, on TV, a young couple running around trees in an old hindi movie. A little devil, having just walked in and flung his shoes in the corner, sitting on the floor with his sweet tea and glucose biscuits.
Softly she said “Mummy, Can I speak to you for a minute”
“Bolo Beta” mother smiled a mother's smile
“Mummy. I wanted to tell you something. Please tell me you won’t get angry”
“Jaldi bolo beta” said mother, now impatient, her attention taken away from the chapattis.
“Maa… I can’t marry… please ma….please don’t hate me…. I…. I am in love ma... I love this person from my office…. I can’t marry that man grandmother brought…. I…. I love…. I love this girl called Deepti ma”