"That lady is on a mission to corrupt our women!"
Mrs. Mittal's caustic words reverberated through me as I hurried past her through the bustling veggie market.
I’d grown accustomed to the sneering remarks of Mrs. Mittal, the matriarch of our landlord family. The Mittals were deeply rooted in custom and tradition. In their own little world, it was inappropriate for women to venture out of the kitchen or have dreams that extended beyond familial bliss. Education or expression of any kind was unnecessary, and the ability to produce a male heir was considered the benchmark for success.
I was the perfect villain in the happy Mittal family picture. Foreign-educated, married at thirty, remotely interested in culinary arts, and without a male progeny, I was everything wrong a woman could be. Our first day as tenants in the small two-bedroom apartment above the Mittal bungalow set the tone for what our relationship with the family would be like. As my husband and I moved our boxes into the dwelling, I made the grave mistake of addressing him as "Gautam", his first name, in front of others. My behavior was blasphemous as per Mrs. Mittal, who immediately pointed out my distasteful social etiquette.
"Your husband is your lord. You must never take his name in front of outsiders like that!" she admonished me.
My first interaction with the 65-year old woman made it clear that moving to India would be no piece of cake. Gautam and I had a smooth sailing life in Orlando. He was a master's student, honing his electrical engineering research abilities. I ran a dance studio, teaching local children Kathak, an Indian dance form I had grown up on. A difficult craft to master, I loved Kathak for what it stood for; the intricate art of recounting epic tales from South Asian folklore through dance. Gautam would be welcomed every evening to the melodious sounds of the musical anklets tied to my feet; the little bells would chime harmoniously as my feet tapped away.
"Meera, I can hear your anklets tinkling through my ears even in my sleep!", he would joke.
As Gautam finished his degree, he decided that moving back to India, the land he grew up in, would be fruitful. His parents, brothers, and community were settled in the country, and he was eager to contribute however he could. I wasn’t so convinced of the idea myself. South Asian by descent, I had never lived in the country, having been raised on the Pensacola beaches by doctor immigrants. Ours was a love marriage; a chance encounter at the local library sold me on the idea of spending my life with the intelligent expat.
In my pursuit of being a supportive wife, I agreed to Gautam's wish of returning to his homeland. My parents were far from pleased with our decision, well-aware that daily life was much easier in America. Gautam’s mind was made up, however; I loyally followed his lead. Our five-year-old daughter Anju was young enough to where she could adjust to the new environment quickly. If he was determined to relocate, it was better now for Anju than later.
We moved to Bikaner, a town famous for its spicy snacks. While Gautam's family lived in the interiors of North India, Bikaner was the closest town he could find a job in. His salary was minimal; paying a two-bedroom rent itself would be a struggle. With Anju to care for, I couldn’t job hunt myself; we’d manage somehow on his paltry income.
The Mittals lived in a large joint family, a concept my parents had familiarized me with; they’d left their own joint families in India decades ago when they emigrated. I’d heard of joint family inner workings; generations of relatives living under one roof, deeply nestled in patriarchal roots. I’d listened to tales of daughters-in-law, who left their parents' homes to adjust with the extended family members of their husbands. The roots of joint families were intertwined in love and companionship. In many clans, love became a pretext to exert power and companionship became an excuse to exercise control, particularly on women.
The Mittals were no different. Mrs. Mittal ran her family with a wooden cane, her views on gender layered in years of regressive upbringing. A woman herself, she considered daughters bad luck. Perhaps this explained why her only granddaughter, Bhakti, was mistreated repeatedly. Bhakti's crime: being the first-born child of her parents in a family desperate for a first-born son. The 16-year-old Bhakti was shy and demure, a lonely child starved of love from her grandparents, uncles, aunts, and father. Bhakti's only solace was her mother, a woman shoved deep into patriarchal darkness with little opportunity to stand up for her child. Bhakti's share of love and attention from the family was instead showered upon the heir to the Mittal legacy, her eight-year-old brother.
Mrs. Mittal’s strict regimen made for engaging dinner table conversation in my own home.
"I wish you’d stop asking me to mind my own business Gautam. How can you be so ignorant to what that poor girl is going through?"
"Your views on female emancipation aren’t going to affect their age-old mentality Meera. But your interference could definitely get us evicted!"
I agreed so little with my husband on how the Mittals ran their house. It humored me that in a society where people interfered in each other's households on everything ranging from which curry spices to use to which deities to worship, questions regarding children n were ‘interference’. Nevertheless, I heeded his advice and kept my opinions to myself.
During our first few weeks, interactions with the landlords were limited. Mrs. Mittal deemed me a bad influence on the women of her family, so mingling was out of the question. I would occasionally catch a glimpse of Bhakti. Once, I bumped into her at the tailor; I was getting a dress stitched for Anju, she was getting pants sewn for her brother. Another time, I noticed her in the park; I’d taken Anju for a ride on the slides, she’d taken an evening snack for her brother. At another instance, we crossed paths at the cobbler's shop. I was getting sports shoes fitted for Anju; she was getting her brother's shoes polished. I occasionally interacted with her mother at the temple, the only social gathering Mrs. Mittal allowed her to attend. I’d ask her how she was, how Bhakti was; I’d get a respectful smile in return. Her silence remained intact.
Until that one day, when it broke.
It was nearly dusk, and I was giving Anju her daily Kathak lesson. I was determined to start her learning at an early age, though the Mittals weren’t pleased with my incessant dancing. While drying our laundry in the balcony, I’d often hear Mrs. Mittal badmouthing me to her friends.
"Does dancing like this grace a lady of good family? Look at her, chiming away those anklets all day! Is she a wife or a bar dancer? I’d never let the women of my family pursue such a shameful activity!"
As Anju and my bells jingled away that evening, I heard a delicate knock on the front door. As I opened it, I saw Bhakti's mother, standing with slight discomfort. She asked if she could come in; this was the first time I’d heard her speak. I excitedly led her in and she examined our living room with curiosity.
"Sorry about the mess. I wanted to make sure Anju got her dance lesson before her dad comes home. She’s got to sit with him on her homework immediately after."
She looked at me with admiration, though I was unsure what for. I served her a cup of tea despite her resistance while handing Anju a large glass of turmeric milk.
"She hates the taste of it, but it's a must for her growing body; I’ve gotten used to ignoring her protests and shoving two glasses down her throat every day."
"Bhakti used to like turmeric milk a lot.", the woman said with a pang of regret.
I looked at her in confusion. "Used to?"
Quickly realizing she’d spoken too soon, she rectified her error.
"No. I mean, she doesn’t drink it much these days. We order a limited amount of milk in our family."
"And Bhakti's share isn’t included in this limited amount?" I questioned without sugar-coating my words.
"It’s not that. It’s my mother-in-law; she believes girls shouldn’t drink too much milk. They don’t require the extra strength boys require."
I gawked at the woman as she carefully tried to mask her pain.
"The milkman gave me an extra pint today. Please take it with you, for Bhakti.” I suggested.
"No please do no such thing!" She was exasperated. "I appreciate your kindness, but my mother-in-law will be furious if she finds out I’m secretly giving Bhakti extra luxuries."
I felt pity for this woman, so buried into familial obligation. I wondered how her husband felt about his daughter’s treatment; whether he didn’t speak out of fear of his mother, or out of agreement with her archaic beliefs.
As we conversed, Gautam returned from work. The woman stood up and covered her head with the loose end of her saree in respect. They exchanged pleasantries, and Gautam took Anju inside for her scholastic lessons.
The woman kept looking at the father-daughter in the distance, my husband guiding Anju through her kindergarten books.
"Does he spend time with her like this every day?" she asked inquisitively.
"Of course. He’s very strict about her grades. Just like every father."
The woman smiled to herself. Though she sat in silence, I realized what was going through her mind; she couldn’t recall an instance when her husband had encouraged their daughter to hold a book.
Realizing she was running out of time, she quickly handed me a box of sweets and a gold-embossed invitation card. I looked at her with confusion.
"We’d be honored if you could attend Bhakti's engagement next week!"
I gaped at the card in horror as I pulled it out of the stiff envelope.
"She's only sixteen!" I exclaimed.
"Girls are married early in our family. My mother-in-law believes this helps them adjust to married life easily."
“Does Bhakti love the man she’s marrying?”
“No, but she’ll learn to once they’re married. None of us have met him in fact. But my mother-in-law has met his father. She has Bhakti’s best interest in mind; our daughter will happily accept the husband her grandmother has chosen for her.”
This was the polite yet curt response I received, indicating I needed to mind my own business going forward.
A few days later, on the night of the engagement, I saw Bhakti looking well-dressed and presentable for the first time. Mrs. Mittal had outdone herself in adorning her granddaughter with an expensive saree and fancy jewelry, lest her future husband and in-laws not break the alliance for any reason. She must have been relieved to be finally getting rid of Bhakti; one less mouth to feed in a family that ironically had no shortage of savings, property, and gold heirlooms.
I was surprised we’d been invited in the first place, especially with my western habits that could spread like a plague to the Mittal women.
“It’s Indian hospitality!” Gautam told me. “They’ll invite you even if they hate you; you’re their neighbor at the end of the day.”
Mrs. Mittal's grip on Bhakti loosened once the girl had a ring on her finger; the only formality left was the marriage. A few days after the engagement, amid my daily Kathak lesson with Anju, I heard feet tapping against our wooden balcony. I quietly crept out of my home, intrigued to see who the intruder was.
"I’m so sorry!" Bhakti squealed guiltily.
"What a pleasant surprise. Why didn’t you just come inside if you wanted to learn?"
"I shouldn’t be learning Kathak.”, the girl spoke with fear.
“Please don’t tell my grandmother. If she finds out I’ll be in trouble.”
“This is a safe space. Come inside and I’ll show you a few moves.”, I offered her.
She was hesitant, but her curiosity to learn triumphed her reluctance. She followed me in, her gaze looking everywhere to ensure a member of her family wasn’t around.
Bhakti was a zealous student. She was a learner from the start, eager to pick up every nuance I taught her. She was like my own five-year-old Anju, exposed to so little in life and unaware of how much the world had to offer. Our secret lessons soon became a regular affair; Bhakti would come every evening to learn a few steps. I gave her my old anklets to use.
As I helped her knot the strings of the anklets together one evening, she looked at me with curiosity.
“Do you think my husband will let me learn Kathak once I’m married? My mother says a woman gets a new life when she’s wedded.”
I was pensive. Knowing the answer to her question very well, I refused to be the crusher of her teenage dreams; blatant lying was an easier way out.
“You’ll get everything your heart desires in your new life!”
I bit my tongue. I knew the onus was on me now; if she didn’t get what she desired, I’d be responsible for it.
Bhakti’s visits to our home became more frequent. Mrs. Mittal and her family were too busy distributing wedding cards, sampling caterers, stitching clothes, conducting rituals, and purchasing dowry items to pay attention to what the bride was up to.
Bhakti was enamored as she began to vicariously live Anju’s life. She’d relish upon the handfuls of almonds I’d offer them both every morning for stronger brain power. She’d revel in the oil scalp massages I’d give them in the evenings for healthy hair growth. She’d enjoy the daily discussions on world affairs that Gautam would have with them. She was slowly becoming one of us.
“Anju must have done some wonderful things in her past life!” Bhakti spoke with wonderment one afternoon.
I looked at the young lass as she glided a paintbrush across a canvas I’d given her in my living room.
“Why do you say that?”, I asked as I cleaned the mess Anju was making on her own canvas.
“She has the freedom to be who she wants. By the time she’s 16, she’ll have danced through the world!”
I remained speechless for a few seconds as I stared at the girl, so focused on finishing her painting. I’d never heard her speak with such maturity before. Like most devout Hindus, her life revolved around reincarnation. She believed that people took birth repeatedly; unfulfilled desires of one life would be fulfilled in the next if you were a good soul. I never quite accepted the theory myself; I’d have to see it to believe it.
She smiled at me and I snapped out of my gaze.
“I had asked you both to paint what your heart desires the most. Have you finished?”
The girls nodded their heads. Bhakti slowly turned her canvas towards me and I was dazzled by what she’d put together. I saw a beautiful girl, delicate and gentle. The girl was prancing away, the shiny bells on her anklets chiming with her. Daffodils, marigolds, and tulips were dancing with her. Clad in a virginal white dress, the girl was splashed with hues of pink and orange as she spun with the nature around her. She was joyful, free of all her chains.
I placed my hand on Bhakti’s head and blessed her. That was really all I could do; I didn’t have any authority to change the course of her life.
* * *
As Bhakti’s wedding date got closer, my concern for her began to grow. I saw her slipping into the rituals of a married woman. She barely left the bungalow, in fear that her even accidental interaction with a male shopkeeper may anger her future husband. She started wearing sarees and covering her head with the loose chiffon, a custom her future father-in-law strictly implemented. She started grinding wheat flour and churning butter, to please her future mother-in-law who detested store-bought grocery.
It was a week before the wedding and the rising sounds of the otherwise calming drums and conch shells began to jar my ears. I had to get my mind off of what I helplessly saw around me; what I had no control over to stop. Gautam sensed I needed a change of scenery, and booked a trip for us to Mumbai. Though I was reluctant to leave Bhakti alone during the biggest week of her life, he promised we’d be back in two days. We boarded an overnight train, a first-time experience for Anju and I both.
“You’ll enjoy the cool cross ventilation from the windows as you doze off on your berth!” Gautam comforted me, as he tucked us into our sheets.
As Anju fell asleep in my arms, my eyes began to close as the bumpy train glided across the railroad. As the breeze from the windows brushed across us, familiar yet unfamiliar visions started passing through me. I began to see Bhakti, all alone on a railway platform, tying my anklets on her feet. I saw her running towards our train, trying to catch up with our family. She was yelling my name repeatedly, the anklets chiming with her pleads to join us on our journey. The train was moving faster, and Bhakti’s feet were turning red from the scorching heat of the platform. Our train disappeared into the distance, leaving her sprinting in a whirlpool of dust from the engines. Her screams and fears of being left behind echoed through me ferociously.
“This happens all the time. When you think of someone a lot, you’re bound to dream about them. I wouldn’t make much of it.” Gautam reassured me as he dipped a buttered bread slice into a teacup during the wee hours of the morning. I was too shaken by my dream to think otherwise. Our train would reach Mumbai any minute now; he asked me to wake up Anju and assemble our luggage.
As the train reached a screeching halt, we disembarked with two suitcases. Anju, half asleep, leaned against me as I dragged her through the crowded platform towards a taxi stand. Gautam meticulously bargained with the cab driver. As the man popped the trunk open to place our luggage, Gautam’s phone went off.