“Reincarnation”


"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.