It was almost a year later that I saw her again. She suddenly materialized at my doorstep. I was surprised and delighted to see her. I had often thought about her and wondered how she fared and what she was doing. She had gained weight and looked serene and vivacious. I enquired after her new job and her health. She said she was very happy and contented in the new place where she worked as a cook. She said they treated her like family and she felt blessed to have found them. That she was slowly but surely paying off her debts but still had quite a long way to go.
I am her next-door neighbor. Am I the archetypal eavesdropping, inquisitive neighbor? Perhaps I am. Perhaps I am not. Perhaps I have no alternative option, in view of the fact that my Lilliputian house is an appendage of her pint-sized house with just an emaciated wall in between.
Early morning every day, I wake up to the neighbors’ horrendous sounds of distressing, gurgling noises like a body in its last death throe. These are nothing but routine calisthenics of lengthy phlegm removal. Coughs, sneezes, farts and the sound of fights were customary. Did this racket annoy me? They did exasperate me many years ago, soon after my husband and I rented and moved into this house, but I quickly got accustomed to all the sounds from next-door mingled with the noises from the street. The vendors proclaiming their wares loudly, the sounds of traffic, the dogs barking and the kids shrieking. These sounds encompass my daily life now, and if there is no clamor, I feel perturbed. This is real life soap and is addictive.
She is an undersized, exceedingly gaunt woman with a soft voice that I barely hear. She wakes up very early at dawn and religiously sweeps the pavement in front of her house, sprinkles the earth with water and draws a simple rangoli design on the wet earth with rice powder. Then she retreats indoors and I later see her in the backyard, crouched on her haunches scrubbing and washing dirty dishes from the day before, or washing clothes.
The municipality supplies water only for an hour in the early mornings, and that’s when everyone rushes around washing clothes and dishes, taking baths and storing water in plastic buckets and vessels. Once the water stops, there is no water released until the next morning. After her ritual of trying to get multitudinous things done while the water flows, is when I hear cooking sounds from her kitchen.
Later, I catch sight of her when she leaves for work. She is always dressed neatly. Her hair is oiled and combed tightly back into a bun or a braid, a bunch of Jasmine flowers pinned to it, powdered face with a big, red bindi in the middle of her forehead, a yellow thread dangling from her neck indicative of a married woman, the thread in place of a gold chain implied gold was unaffordable. Clad in a sari , she walks slowly on her very short legs that make her walk look majestic with a funny waddle at the same time, somewhat like a penguin.
If I happen to be outside, she smiles at me and makes brief, polite conversation, asking me if I had had my coffee or breakfast.
I barely see her in the evenings; she disappears inside her house after coming back from work. A few days after we moved into the house, I understand why she goes into hiding, when I hear the sounds.
Her husband is a lanky, unkempt, ragged looking man. He is his wife’s complete contrast in neatness. He wears tattered, dirty clothes, his hair stands up like bristles from a brush, he seldom shaves and his eyes are bloodshot. He never looks at or speaks to anyone, never smiles and has the most churlish face. I barely see the man. He does not seem to go out to work in the mornings. I only spot him leave home late evenings and I never, ever, see him come back at an appropriate time at night. I only know he is back when I hear the sounds.
Almost every day I hear the sounds, hard thumps and vessels tossed around, sounds of slaps, his slurring voice loudly spewing vile curse words. I hear her trying in vain to shush him into silence. Later, after everything calms down, I hear her soft, restrained weeping. Controlled and muted, because despite her black and blue bruises, she is more distressed as to what her neighbors will speculate, she wants to hide her dreadful secret from the world. Next day, she leaves for work, as usual impeccably dressed, walking her imperial, waddling walk.
It is obvious. Her alcoholic husband beats her up every day. He has no job and sleeps all day in a drunken stupor of cheap country made liquor, waking up only late in the evening, in time for when she comes back home, to beat her and take whatever money she has. If she has no money to hand over, he grabs whatever possessions they have at home and sells them for a few measly rupees to get enough arrack for that night.
One evening, when she stepped outside, I grabbed the chance to talk to her. Balancing two steel cups of coffee, I sauntered out and offered her one. She looked at me and hesitatingly took it.
“Where do you work? What do you do?” I enquired politely.
“I work at a basket-making industry.”
“ Your husband does not work?”
“No.” She cast her eyes down as if embarrassed. She remained mute after that.
I decided to take the plunge.
“I know your husband drinks and beats you; I can hear the noises and see your bruises.” I said gently.
She broke down at that and the tears flowed. Just for a few short minutes. She composed herself quickly.
“Why do you remain with him? You have a job; you are financially independent, so why not wash your hands of him and leave?”
She looked up at me appalled and shuddered. “What will the society say about me if I do that, what will my family and other relatives think of me?”
I suppose I had expected such an answer. I sighed and decided to remain silent. ‘Whom is this society comprised of anyway?” I pondered. “The neighbors ? The people on the streets ? The relatives and family ? The same people who never come to rescue her from the abuse or those who are incapable of stopping it? Is this the society , whose opinions and judgment she anguishes about unceasingly?’
I know she will never walk out. I had seen many such women, including the educated ones. It did not matter if they were of the lower, middle or upper class of society. They were stranded in physically and verbally abusive marriages, working non-stop, mere slaves for their husbands and families and ill-treated by in-laws. Yet they put up with all the pain and sufferings. Most times, because of insufficient financial independence, other times the sheer terror of walking out of the known hell into the unknown. But primarily because of the fear of how society and their family would judge them.
Hundreds of years of deep-rooted, suppressed and repressed genes flowed in the woman, guiding her every step, action and decision. Ingrained and conditioned to sacrifice her own happiness for her family , and always told to fear society and the stigma she would encounter if she did not adhere to the norms, I know this woman would rather be beat up and never leave her abusive husband. From the day she is born a woman, life-lessons are drilled into her by other women that men are superior, and she, the woman, needs to compromise, reconcile and endure, no matter what the circumstances, no matter the abuse.
Marriage meant forevermore and not moving back to the parents’ house, ever. The parents’ duty is done and their responsibility ends when they marry her off. In her husband’s house is where she needs to stay, until the day she dies.
Life went on, days rolled by. Perceiving there was no conclusion in sight, I grew habituated to the sounds next door.
One day, she informed me her husband was diagnosed with liver cancer.
The doctor told her to admit him in the hospital so they could evaluate him and investigate if it can be cured.
The doctor of course knew with conclusive certainty that the cancer was in the last stages, but since thousands of rupees can be charged for the hospital ward and treatments, he found a way to fleece the poor woman.
She ran from pillar to post, begging and borrowing from family, friends and relatives, trying to raise money for her husband’s treatment.
After keeping the husband several weeks in the hospital and presenting her with a hefty bill, the doctor told her that nothing can be done and to take him home to die. She took him home, piled with debt up to her neck.
She continued working since she had no alternative option. She cooked for him; she fed him and then went to work. He did not even have the strength to sit up, hold a plate, or to feed himself. The dying man screamed in pain most times, yet took out his impotent rage on her. When she fed him, he bit her fingers so hard that he drew blood and she shrieked in pain. He kicked her. He kicked the plate of food.
Finally, after torturing her for twenty-three years of their married life together, one day he died. Her family arrived, the relatives showed up, and the friends descended. The neighbors and people passing by outside on the road, came to view the dead man. People have a morbid curiosity about death and the dead body. They craned their necks to see the body. They made suitable sympathetic sounds by clicking their tongues. The family and relatives together raised the money and cremated him.
She moved away to a different town after his death. She informed me she was taking up a job with a family as a cook to pay off all the debts she had incurred for her husband’s treatment, hospital and cremation charges. She said it would take her several years to pay it off. I commended her for her fortitude and bid her goodbye. She was finally, permanently liberated from years and years of abuse. My heart felt relieved at that thought.
Now she apprised me that she had come to town to perform the first year’s thithi ceremony for her dead husband. I stared at her dumbfounded. Then I hastily gathered my wits. “Isn’t it going to cost you a hefty sum of money?”
“Yes, but I saved some money from my monthly salary just to perform this ceremony.”
“Nevertheless, he abused you every day! Why would you want his soul to rest in peace and make yours restless by spending more money when you still have huge amounts of debt to repay?
“It’s my duty as a wife to get this thithi done; besides what will society think of me if I don’t do this much for my husband?”
“Liberation???” I muttered inaudibly to myself.
Rangoli: A traditional Indian folk floor-art/patterns drawn or painted outside Hindu temples and residential homes every day and especially during times of celebration and religious festivals.
Bindi: A red dot on the forehead traditionally worn by Hindu women.
Arrack: Liquor distilled from the sap of the coconut palm or rice.
Thithi: One year after a person’s death, an annual ‘death ceremony’ will be held, by the surviving descendants, that is known as “Thithi.” Thithi literally means Date. It is the most important ceremony to be done by a son for his dead father, mother, and ancestors. If there is no male heir, the thithi is done by a male priest.
Hindus believe that if the annual ceremony is not held properly, the soul will not reach heaven and also will not get nourishment. Further the soul will be neglected in heaven, or the souls of ancestors will be sent to hell.
Meera Kumar, a resident of New Brunswick, reports that “growing up in India was like being in the midst of a long, never-ending TV soap opera or a Bollywood movie. There was no dearth of melodrama or theatrics. There was plenty to observe and soak in.” She adds that “there are certain unique cultural and social life situations in the East” that are hard to comprehend for others and that would probably never happen in the West. “Most of my writings are based on real-life happenings and I weave stories around them,” she says.