A Goddess in the Backyard
I wiped the soot and sweat masquerading my face with an unused corner of the grimy cotton cloth. I couldn’t remember its original colour as a part of my old sari, but I could see that with one or two less dirty areas it still had use in the kitchen.
I peered through the rising billows of steam into the aluminium vessel cooking our day’s ration of rice; it had done the job. Lifting it off the kerosene stove and covering it, I stood up to leave the kitchen and go to the shady backyard where the ‘city woman’ was waiting to interview me. On my way, after double-checking that my mother-in-law was still in the backyard, I paused in front of the mirror in the hall. My forehead was blank – no sticker or vermillion dot; I realised I was getting used to seeing myself this way. After wiping my face clean with my palms and hurriedly pulling back the loose strands of hair, I proceeded.
The one plastic chair we owned was positioned for my seating, while the ‘city woman’ sat opposite on one of the stone blocks we used to wash our clothes on. She was making ready a big black camera that sat atop a three-legged stand beside her. On her lap were a notebook and pen. Pinned to her breast pocket was a circular insignia with the words ‘Centre for Action and People’s Development’ cribbed together at the centre.
‘Thank you for agreeing to this conversation,’ the lady said smilingly, her gratefulness very evident. I thought I also saw a trace of pity in it. My mother-in-law, after spreading on the clothesline the last wet sari from the iron bucket, turned round to get into the house. On her way, she gave us each a hateful look; the more intense one was surprisingly targeted at the other lady. Surprising as it had gone to another person even as I was there to uncomplainingly receive it.
The lady across me, unreceptive to the frigid look of my mother-in-law, picked the pen and crossed her leg. While she did so, her skirt slid up, revealing her creamy legs that looked more like a pair of banana stalks. I remembered the blisters on my ankle and toes from the kitchen-burns of last week. Covertly, I withdrew my feet and hid them behind the hem of my sari. The woman, without taking her eyes off me and with the smile on her face intact, tucked the loose strands of her hair behind her ear and adjusted her thick-rimmed glasses. These trivialities brought to the forefront of my mind a very recent memory – of the personal discovery of my own modest beauty… only a month ago. Though before this period my eyes had many a time chanced upon the hazy mirror in the hall, I had rarely taken in and acknowledged the look of the woman in it. But this one month had been very different – I was unable to discern the new feminine changes stirring deep within me. Yes, I had looked into the mirror scrutinisingly in my early adolescence, but they had only been curious examinations to measure the rate at which my hips curved and breasts developed, and to find out why I felt strangely insecure even in the same environment I had been living in for twelve years. They were not, to shed light on the matter, objective assessments of myself through the simulated gazes of the opposite sex. This one month had been very different.
‘Can I have your name?’ The sound brought me to the backyard.
‘Kaveri,’ I caught myself uttering the word I had long lost touch with. No one in the house now called me by my name. A wave of a hand or, at times when I had probably seemed of some importance, a ‘You!’ would be my summon.
‘Your date of birth, please?’
‘September 20, 1990.’ Possibly the worst crime I had committed during my existence was taking this birth. Not because I had unapologetically killed my mother while coming out of her, but because I was born a girl in this society (the place being Manachanallur, Trichy), which had as its punishment for girl children not the relatively acceptable female infanticide, but this crueller inveterate notion of child marriage. My father brought me up with the little motherhood he was allowed to assume, to bestow on me the little packets of happiness I was lucky to receive, only to be robbed of everything on my sixteenth birthday.
A gush of wind blew past me. It rustled my hair, and I thought it also brought to me the scent of his sweat. I relaxed a bit.
‘Could you tell me about your education?’
‘Tenth standard at our local school here.’
I still vividly remember the day I was told I had ranked first in school in the HSC examination. I went home, walking on the one-foot-broad pathway and showing all my teeth at the appreciatively nodding rice crops, to share my great news with father. But he had news of his own for me. I was to get married soon, to a man twice my age. I had realised very early in my life that I was meant to become a teacher. I had always been happy to help the other girls at school, motivated further by my English teacher who continuously encouraged me to take up higher purposes. But the ambition had casted its shadow on my reality. Until that day, I didn’t know I was harbouring unrealistic thoughts, unsuitable for women like me to even dream of. The lady, looking up at me from her notebook, resumed her questioning. ‘How long have you been married?’
‘I was married for three years, until my husband died in 2009.’
Maybe I had made the lady uncomfortable, because the smile was now receding, and the tucking of the strand of hair was unsteadily done. ‘I am sorry. I didn’t know –’ she blurted out. ‘Uh, if you don’t mind, could you tell me about your early married life?’ The question was obviously hesitant.
I smiled in return. I didn’t know if it was because of my uncertainty in replying or if I was masking a trace of snigger at the inexperienced, unworldly woman sitting across.
‘The extreme effort on my part when in my own house with my father was to sit by the working cooker and keep count of the whistles while he was away. But once I entered this house, with a millstone round my neck,’ I whispered the last phrase, ‘I was expected to do all the household chores with the utmost perfection. When something went wrong – which was often the case – living in the house became difficult for me. And by the time I could adapt myself to what I had been pushed into, the man I was married to died, thrusting on me undeserved blame, and around me an ominous air for the society to wince at. The millstone got heavier.’
Silence prevailed, only to be later broken by a strident sound of a metallic object hitting the stone floor inside the house. It sounded more intentional than strident.
I tried to recover the distracted woman with a question. ‘Have you stopped child marriages?’ She gave me a few exemplary cases and highlighted in them all her organisation’s timely intervention. She then eagerly returned the question and added, ‘You must be very cautious after what happened in your life. Always meaning to stop the cruelty served to you.’
‘Not really. I am always occupied within the house, and my presence outside is not acceptable here. Moreover, I am expected to withdraw to the backyard when the parents of the child getting married come over to invite my family; so that my evil eyes are not cast upon the child, they say. Here, I am not seen as a life anymore; they killed me soon after my husband’s death.’ I smiled.
I had stopped a couple of child-marriages in my village. Initially it began as a feverish attempt to ‘stop the cruelty served to me’. I used to telephone the authorities on my way to the town to buy grains and vegetables for the week. When they ask my name, I would replace the receiver and wait in the booth till the frenzied beating of my heart would calm down. The villagers were all agitated, and were bent upon finding the person responsible. I would hear them from this backyard, my stomach silently churning fearful consequences.
Once similarly, I came to know that Manimekalai – a girl who had only crossed her fourteenth milestone – was to be married to a merchant from the next village. With courage born of practice and determination, I dialled the government helpline and informed them of the proposed ritual. It was duly stopped by authoritarian intervention, and when enquired as to the informant, the officers maintained the case of anonymity for my benefit. However, the family on the girl’s side was determined to find out the Samaritan responsible. They considered their honour wounded after their failure to get their daughter married into a monetarily undemanding house. They eventually succeeded.
I was brought to the village Panchayat. Men and women stared at me as if I had actually murdered the child. The type of retribution to be awarded was seriously discussed, when Karikalan – a man I had barely known until then – came to my rescue. He single-handedly argued for me, voiced governmental acts and regulations, tried to instil in the villagers a sense of public wrongdoing, but, at last, only succeeded in bringing upon himself their wrath. I was warned and kicked back to my backyard.
From that moment, I liked to think of Karikalan as the only person in this terrible world to have looked at me as a life.
Karikalan had come to my village only a year ago. He moved in, with his blind parents, to the dilapidated house at the end of our street. The word was that he had completed his Diploma in Engineering from the town college, and that he was going to work for the sugar mill that had recently come up in our village. His skin – I noticed when he first came to our backyard carrying a sack of raw mangoes for my mother-in-law – was stretched over his muscles, possessing an attractive dark tone. His exposed torso was, very uncomfortably, to my morality, admirable. I felt my sexual wants for the first time. With my husband, it had just been one of the many unsavoury duties of my marriage. But now it felt different – the new secretion in my body, and the wildly running imaginations. He smiled warmly when his eyes met mine, but I simply rushed into the house, feeling ashamed to smile back.
We met in the town market once or twice. He would offer to carry my purchases for me. I would refuse and increase my pace, but deep inside, willing to slow down and walk beside him. In the night, after everyone slept, I would enter the kitchen to be alone. There, within the smoky, smothering dark walls, I would click my knuckles, repeatedly asking myself what possible charm that man could hold to my irrevocably damaged, routine life. I would train my senses, my mind importantly, to ignore the substance of his presence in my life.
‘Have you ever thought of starting a new life?’ The question caught me unawares. ‘You don’t really have to spend the rest of your life this way. We can offer you any help towards your moral and social upliftment… you need only ask.’ Her lips were stretched into a half-smile, showing her anxiety of how I would receive her offer. Maybe she had faced some harsh replies in her other interviews, especially from people like my mother-in-law, who was a breathing reflection of this society.
I smiled. A full smile, just to ease her. I guessed she saw a refusal in that smile, because she nodded and turned to switch off the camera. At the close of the interview, she took away with her a story, and I, with me, a line: ‘You don’t really have to spend the rest of your life this way.’
* * *
We all carry the burden of our spent years with us. We all allow it to model us into a shape we come to accept as our destiny. I think I am beginning to stand straight, in an attempt to shove that burden off my shoulders.
The street I am taking is moonlit (the streetlamps work only occasionally on their own temperament). Up above, a bright little star is coming into view from behind a dark monsoonal cloud. Everything around me seems hopeful and no longer intimidating. The societal limitations and my own fears belong to the past now. At least, for my own benefit, I would like to think of the latter as no longer existing. Maybe the ‘city woman’ has a hand in this, in my decision. Because after her departure at lunchtime, I was immersed in a cascade of thoughts, mental conjectures, and their possible consequences, only to come out of the house anew a few minutes back. Yes, I am heading to Karikalan’s house.
A stray dog snarls at me from somewhere in the blanketing darkness. I walk with my head straight and chest high. A couple of men cross me from their trip to the local liquor shop, their unsteady eyes are disbelieving about my external presence. I walk with my head straight and chest high. I pass the house of the head of the village Panchayat; he is sitting on the pyol chewing betel leaves, with his grown-up daughter reading a chick lit. The completely bald man narrows his eyes and stuffs me with his silent questions. I walk with my head straight and chest high.
I enter Karikalan’s house.
Arjun Shivaram: "I am a Business Development Analyst and moonlighting writer. I've twice won the Best Creative Writer Award of the SSN Literary Club. Eminent author and playwright Mr Shreekumar Varma has appreciated and awarded my short story.
"Also, I won a chance to co-author with noted writer and former UN diplomat Mr Shashi Tharoor for the reputed newspaper The Hindu’s international literary festival 2016.
"My short stories have been published in online magazines like Caleidoscope and literary journals like Five on the Fifth.
"The Hindu has published an article about my debut novel and its freshness to Indian literature.
"My other works are present in my blog: arjunshivaram.wordpress.com.
"Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org."