By Juanita Kakoty
We carry below an entry submitted for the TBRLT Short Story Competition 2019-20.
Ruksar moved to her mother’s house—used to live in a two-room rented apartment above a line of shops in the heart of the teeming Nakhasa Bazaar. The apartment was right on the bend where one found lace and button shops and the husband let go of it when Ruksar packed her bags and left. This happened when the husband married a friend of his eldest sister-in-law’s first cousin, at the behest of his ailing mother, he said, because Ruksar and his mother never got along, a realization which evidently took twelve years to dawn upon him.
The second wife, everyone knew, came from one of the old wealthy families in Saharanpur who lived in one of the charming havelis at Khambo ka Pul, the haveli most famous for its entrance, where stood a huge wooden door decorated with copper and silver coins. And as if that was not enough for all those who had not seen the second wife, her aura was amplified by the fact that she also owned a beautiful house in the outskirts of the town, a gift from her grandmother, where Ruksar’s husband gladly moved in after the wedding. Tongues wagged in the town about how this kasai, butcher, got lucky. Everyone seemed to forget Ruksar who was wallowing in grief and self-pity. Her predicament compounded when she saw the new bride. Ruksar looked hard at the woman, who she knew was much older than the husband, but what irked her most was that the new bride was not even a match to her below average appearance. This robbed the poignancy of her sadness and gave birth to an eternal hatred for her husband, come as he did from a family with no assets but consistent good looks and a long history of philandering forefathers. So Ruksar told the husband to get his arse licked—gand marwa le—a choice Saharanpuri slang, and moved in with her mother. He was only too happy to oblige because if the grapevine was to be believed, it was the new bride’s eldest brother, the local bodybuilder, who had stolen his sister’s thunder.
Ruksar’s mother lived in the yellow haveli at the Badtala Yadgar neighborhood, in its upper storey, with latticed windows overlooking the courtyard, which had been transformed into a thoroughfare with time. In the earlier years, the yellow haveli spread in four directions to enclose this courtyard, where in a corner lay the Sufi saint Shah Harun Chisti’s shrine and a huge banyan tree. The owners of the glorious haveli had shifted to Lahore at the time of the Partition in 1947 and a few refugee families from Pakistan were given ownership to parts of this haveli by the Indian government. Ruksar’s mother acquired a portion of this haveli, consisting of three rooms, when, many years later, in search of greener pastures, the refugee-owners left for Delhi and other places. The insides of the haveli were in a tattered shape and by then and three of its wings had already fallen. Only three rooms stood, floating in the ruins. This became home for the two women.
It is interesting how Ruksar’s mother, Inayat Begum, had moved into the yellow haveli. She was in her mid-twenties, widowed and abandoned by her in-laws as well as her maternal relatives. She had married a homeopath who fought with his family to stray from the family tradition of doing nothing but living off the huge acres of mango orchards, where bonded labourers toiled night and day. The tragedy in her life was that she could bear only one child, that too a girl, after many years of consuming the roots and leaves and juices of this and that. This did not go down well with her in-laws who harped on the merits of several children to carry the lineage forward. When Ruksar turned five years old and Inayat Begum produced no more progenies, especially a male child, her in-laws let not even a month pass before throwing her and the child out when the homeopath died of sudden cardiac arrest.
Inayat Begum first went to her mother’s home, the dark green Hari kothi, not quite a haveli but the miniature replica of a haveli that her grandfather had built. The kothi housed about thirty people in all and was right at the mouth of Nakhasa Bazar when one approached it from the Nehru market. Inayat Begum lived there for a few months but when the taunts of her five sisters-in-law became too much to bear, she moved with little Ruksar to the yellow haveli in the early fifties. She sold all of her gold jewellery to obtain this piece of shelter. It was here that Ruksar, later on, raised her three bright boys and one daughter who heaped great ignominy upon her by fleeing with a Hindu lad in her teens.
The crumbling yellow haveli witnessed how Inayat Begum struggled with her daughter to build their lives from scratch. The older woman bought a sewing machine on loan and took to stitching ladies’ salwar kameezes. By the time Ruksar had turned fourteen, she became an expert at it too. But people love to talk, whether be it in villages, towns or cities. And they talked about Inayat Begum and Ruksar as cursed women. People had their own reasons to believe this even when they had no clue about their own lives. So it wasn’t funny when Mariam Bibi, whose daughters-in-law just couldn’t stand her and escaped to their maternal homes every now and then, spoke of these two women as accursed. Nor was it funny when Bilal dhobi spoke of them as cursed even when all that he had done with his life was to waste it on opium!
The forty-year-old Maulana’s son, who was a father to nine children and yet to earn his first morsel, spoke of them as cursed too. He, in fact, tried to drill wisdom in other men by elaborately articulating why not to choose women with foreheads and gait like Inayat Begum and Ruksar as wives.
Ruksar was only sixteen when she fell in love with the kasai’s son from whom her mother bought meat. As Inayat Begum and the old kasai exchanged instructions, meat and money, Ruksar and the young kasai, who assisted his father in that little shop from where hung the white meat of skinned goats, locked eyes as the world passed by in cycle rickshaws and motorbikes. Since Inayat Begum would never agree to her daughter marrying a kasai, Ruksar eloped with the young man, produced four children back-to-back without ever meeting her mother. It was only when she realized that love didn’t last forever and, more crucially, because she had nowhere to go, that she stepped into the yellow haveli again. This time with her four little children. A much older Inayat Begum merely looked at all of them and went about her routine as if she had seen them every day of her life.
Now almost seventy, Ruksar lived in the yellow haveli with the nearly paralyzed Inayat Begum, who prayed to the Lord every day to take her away. When her daughter eloped, Ruksar came to assume a stoic presence around the house and acted as if she was the caretaker of an inn since the sons never gave as much as the daughter did to the home. She didn’t complain about it but she did miss her daughter. All her life she had woven dreams for her sons: salaried jobs and dutiful daughters-in-law who would produce charming kids and slog in the house while their husbands earned money in offices. She hardly thought of her daughter’s future, although it was the daughter who took care of the whole house along with her. But destiny had other plans. The three sons went on to scale brilliant careers, but none stayed back in Saharanpur.
The eldest went to Bombay where he started writing scripts for television serials. He made good money, sent a substantial amount home, which is why Ruksar did not protest when he married a Marathi girl, who also had a media job and earned well. That her granddaughters spoke in Marathi saddened her to the core, but she did not say a word beyond a meek ‘you should talk to them in Hindi’ to her daughter-in-law and kept quiet when the young woman smiled and said, ‘InshAllah, they will learn Hindi anyway, everybody in India does’. The second son got a job as an assistant professor at Delhi University and found himself a lawyer wife born and brought up in Delhi. Ruksar was quite pleased with this match because the girl was from a prestigious Mughal family in Old Delhi. But when they chose not to have a child, Ruksar did not quite understand the why of it. She all the more didn’t understand why they allowed a dog inside the house, didn’t refer to it as a ‘dog’ and took care of it like their son. The third son, her favourite, moved to the United Kingdom on a scholarship, where he married a Brit and stayed there for the rest of his life. For a long time, Ruksar engaged in tactics to somehow convert the British daughter-in-law into Islam. This did not happen, primarily because the daughter-in-law visited Saharanpur only about twice in her life, and because Ruksar never visited the United Kingdom, although the son came once in every two-three years and stayed back for at least a month. And when they had a son as fair and pink as the mother, Ruksar’s received a jolt because she was sure he would grow up as a Christian.
A few days to her seventieth birthday, Ruksar started complaining of severe knee pain. A visit to the doctor revealed that she was flat-footed as well. That day, she was on her way to the oldest shoemaker in town to order a pair of sandals for herself, fit for her flat feet, when she saw streams of coloured paper and tiny plastic bulbs hanging above the narrow street, strung from the buildings on either side, right where the Hari kothi was.
Her heart skipped a beat. What’s happening here, she thought, nobody told me anything.
Forgetting about the new sandals that had to be made, she quickly darted inside the Hari kothi, her mother’s maternal home, which was still as glorious inside, never mind the rush, dirt, vehicles, and garbage that the street outside had collected over the years.
Asalaamaleikum! She uttered just as she stepped into the courtyard and saw two of her surviving aunts, old and wrinkled and crinkled, sitting on a charpoy in the verandah where the ceiling was held up by three white round pillars. A maid was sweeping the courtyard with a short broom that was tied to a long wooden handle.
The aunts looked at her and thought a beggar had just walked in.
It’s me, Ruksar offered, moving toward the charpoy, Inayat Begum’s daughter.
The aunts squinted and looked hard at her. Oh, they said in their quivering voices, not quite sounding excited.
‘Where is everybody?’ Ruksar asked.
‘Oh them’, an aunt responded, as the other one leisurely extended her shaky hand toward the heavy silver paandaan, now blackened with time, and made herself a paan. ‘They are at the neighbour’s, attending a wedding.’
Ruksar felt relieved. Had something been happening at Hari kothi and no one informed her, she would have been insulted, like the several times before when she got to know that some function had happened at Hari kothi and she, her children and her mother were not invited. All that changed once her boys became achievers. She became a permanent feature at every function that took place in the Hari kothi. So that day, the sight of the streamers and tiny plastic bulbs hanging in the air outside the street stirred the familiar old humiliation in her.
‘But as far as I remember, your neighbours have no more children to be married off’, Ruksar pondered aloud.
The aunt whose mouth was filled with an enormous paan spoke this time, ‘it ish the shecond marriaghe of one of their shonsh, the one who shtaysh in Zhaipur and hash no shildren. Shomezhing wrong wizh hish wife, hish mozher shaysh. Sho she ish geshing him anozher wife who will shtay wizh her here in Shaharanpur while zhe will conzhinue to live wizh hish firsht wife in Zhaipur.’
Ruksar’s mind raced at this possibility. What about the kids he would have through his second marriage?
‘Zhe mozher shaysh she will keep the shecond wife and kidsh from her here in Shaharanpur.’
Ruksar was hit by a Eureka moment! The aunt was still saying something, but she didn’t hear a single word. Her mind was fast calculating which of her sons would be best for a second marriage. After all, she needed someone in the house to talk to, someone who made her feel alive, unlike her paralyzed mother who was as good as the furniture in the house. On her way back home, she decided that the sons in India would not be appropriate for her cause; the youngest one with the British wife who hardly came to Saharanpur would be the ideal candidate.
So that Eid, she called her two sons in India home. And they came with their families. It was a long time since all of them had gathered together, at least the ones in India. Ruksar informed them about her plans for the youngest son. Speak to him, they suggested. But Ruksar admitted she didn’t have the courage and requested one of them to do it. No one took up the responsibility. That Eid went by with yakhni pulao, sewaiyya and kebabs, without any further mention of the second marriage.
A few days later, the Marathi daughter-in-law called to say, it’s a very bad plan, Ammi. I don’t know about you, but I would feel very bad if my husband married a second time.
This daughter-in-law did know about Ruksar’s husband’s second marriage years ago. So the old lady kept quiet, but that didn’t deter her spirit. She waited for the time when her youngest son would come home. And when he finally did, without his wife or kid, Ruksar grabbed the opportunity. Just two-three kids for positive energy in the house, she told him, and nothing has to change between you and your family in the UK. In fact, you can continue to come once every two years. I’ll look after your family here. The son bought that. After all, as Ruksar always said, this son was more of a friend who understood the pathos of her life.
That very visit, the son got married to a pale, sickly girl from an impoverished family, who was a good twenty years younger than him. This was a match recommended by Ruksar’s cousin who lived in Roorkee. Apparently, the girl’s family was desperately looking to get the girl hitched so they had one mouth less to feed. Ruksar immediately liked the girl because the cousin specifically said, she has downcast eyes and the decency not to talk back to elders and has the experience of bringing up seven siblings. Like these were the assets that mattered most for a woman to be eligible as a daughter-in-law.
There was no function held to announce the wedding. The son had particularly advised so. No invitation was sent out either. And after he left, the girl swept and mopped the house, cooked food, washed the clothes and dishes and looked after both Ruksar and the paralyzed Inayat Begum, who anyway had no idea what was happening. Ruksar had told her that this pale girl was a daughter-in-law but Inayat Begum registered nothing. Two months later, the girl vomited in the morning. A home kit confirmed her pregnancy and a happy Ruksar called up her sons in India to convey the good news. Nobody was as thrilled about it as her, and her youngest son especially asked all not to ever mention this woman or her pregnancy to his British wife. But Ruksar was so happy that she distributed sweets to the poor and went all the way to the Kaliyar Sharif dargah to offer a chador. She got almonds and desi ghee ladoos for the girl and made her have a huge glass of milk with saffron in the mornings. But she did not stop the girl from doing the housework.
Thus the days went by with the girl growing heavier. But there came a day when Ruksar passed away in her sleep looking extremely peaceful. The girl stood at the doorway, holding her bulging belly tenderly by both hands, feeling desperate. She went and whispered to Inayat Begum that her daughter was no more. The old woman, senile with age, looked at her and said, ‘Shoo! Go away! Who let you in?’
She left the old woman in her dark room, where all day just a peep of ray was allowed in through a crack in the window and dragged herself to the Hari kothi, where residents called up the sons to convey news of the demise. Everyone came. The last rites were conducted. But nobody came from the United Kingdom. In fact, the youngest son never ever came to Saharanpur again. Soon there were talks among the brothers that the apartment be sold off, when Inayat Begum dies, which would be soon considering the state she was in, and the girl be given some money and sent back to her family. The season had not yet turned when Inayat Begum’s heart stopped beating. A few days later, the yellow haveli with latticed windows bid adieu to its last inhabitant and began to resemble an old lonely woman who had outlived all her family members.
Juanita Kakoty writes with a sociological imagination and works in the field of Child Sexual Abuse prevention.