"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.