City of virtue
By Anubha Yadav
21 October 2013
Fiction: I wanted her to sit. Her standing made me nervous. Would I be able to stand after the session? Just like that, just like her. So easy. You will fall. Fall! I thought of Mumtaz again: she was so quiet when we met the first time. She was hiding everything that happened.
“How much more?”
“Go to Mumtaz,” I told the young editor, “let’s cut her short.”
“But she is good. She works.”
“Yes, but it is too long. Let’s cut the beginning, we can’t cut the end. She is crying towards the end.”
“The Panchayat said I should marry him. Then even my mother, brother, father and sisters started to ask me to marry him – so what could I do? Nikaah was done. I thought it will become ok. But every time he came close to me I would start to scream. I told myself not to scream, but I screamed. I would scream! He would get angry and thrashed me every time. And then he started telling the villagers that I was mad, they had married him to a mad woman. He took me and my family to the Village Panchayat again. No one talked about the rape in the Panchayat this time. They kept saying ‘I can’t scream. I should not scream before my husband.’ I should not have screamed.”
I always mark the edit points in my head as the clip plays. “Take it from Nikaah,” I told the editor. “We save 30 seconds.” The editor pressed a few keys on the digital editing machine. Mumtaz’s voice stopped resounding in the small editing room. And then he pressed the space bar. Mumtaz came to life again in the small edit suite.
“Nikaah was done. I thought it will become ok…but every time he came close to me I would start to scream. I told myself not to scream, but I screamed. I would scream! He would get angry and thrashed me every time. And then he started telling the villagers that I was mad, they had married him to a mad woman. He took me and my family to the Panchayat again. No one talked about the rape in the Panchayat this time…They kept saying, ‘I can’t scream. I should not scream before my husband.’ I should not have screamed.”
“Can we also cut two of the screams? Only keep the first one, till the point –‘I can’t scream.’” The editor pressed a few buttons on the keyboard again and then he hit the space bar. The clip began to play from the beginning.
“Nikaah was done. I thought it will become ok…but every time he came close to me I would start to scream. He would get angry and thrashed me every time. And then he started telling the villagers that I was mad, they had married him to a mad woman. So he took me and my family to the Panchayat again. No one talked about the rape in the Panchayat this time… They kept saying, ‘I can’t scream.’ I should not have screamed.”
“It’s working.” I said. The young editor shook his head in agreement.
“How much have we saved?” He moved the cursor on the screen and bent forward, carefully marking the points with the cursor.
“Hardly 40 seconds Jaya ma’am.” They discussed the edits as a freeze frame of Mumtaz danced on the small viewing screen. Then the visual split – half of it decided to move from right to left of the frame, stretching, contorting Mumtaz’s face into small digital bits.
Shree’s room was nothing like the shrink rooms they show in television. It was a small square room with a small rectangular window behind her. The view from the window was divided into two equal parts, that of the white sky and the hospital parking lot. The parking lot was marked with white vans, ambulance written in red, standing in a dramatically straight line – spelling intending doom all the time. An oversized table was separating us, labelling the patient and the doctor. There was an attached toilet to the right; like always it was locked. The room seemed like a white hole. Glistening white tiles slid up the four walls to a point and then met another shade of white on the plastered wall. The toilet door was also painted with white emulsion. It seemed all of it finally melted to make the sky so white. Perhaps just beyond the edge of the window it was deep blue. It was the kind of room that always smelled of antiseptic, it was always there in the whiteness.
“Three times last week?” Asked Shree.
“Yes.” I said.
“So what happened?”
“I was sitting in the editing room and editing my documentary. You know the one on rape. I was just…”
“But I asked you to take it easy,” Shree interrupted, a bit annoyed. “In our last session I asked you to do something else. Give yourself a break, Jaya.”
Shree scribbled something on this small notebook kept on the side. Like always her note taking made me nervous. I stopped talking and instead started studying the movement of her pen: how the letters were joined one at a time to form a word, a sentence. Then the pen lifted, hung in mid air to start a new word. The notebook said ‘patient notes’.
“Continue Jaya,” Shree looked up from her notes. Her eyes were reassuring me this time. “Continue, so what did you feel?” Her voice was softer now, much like mine when I had asked Mumtaz the same question. “What did you feel?” I was sitting opposite Mumtaz in a room with a thatched roof, streaks of white sunlight were filtering inside, criss-crossing and falling all over us as we talked.
“I was crying suddenly. The way children cry. Loud, uncontrollable tears and hiccups poured. And then I just couldn’t get up from the chair. I tried really hard but my body wouldn’t obey. The editor had to help. He also had to put me in a cab. I wonder what he thought.”
Shree stopped writing. Instead now she was looking at me. The way we look when we are not looking but thinking. Then she spoke, “Jaya you are in post traumatic stress. Your mother’s death has left you quite…” Shree paused; then added “affected”. “Don’t deny yourself mourning. Your mother was your only family. You have to take time off to heal.” She said all this very gently with pauses. Like the words were decorations she was hanging between us. Like always her pose was of casual formality, her hands folded just under her chest. Her left foot was dangling in the air, her toe peeping out from the corner of the table as she sat sideways. I stared at her slender black Bally as I visualized my worn out sports shoes dangling. I stared into mid-air. Just thinking about it reminded me of the heaviness in my limbs. Something so natural, almost an instinct, had become so demanding.
“But I should complete the film.” I said – loudly, louder than I had meant. Making an effort to sound in control I added softly, “I promised Mumtaz, I will tell her story to the world.” Shree continued to look at me with her doc-face: pursed lips, intent eyes. A gentle irritation was visible in the creases of her forehead. Then Shree stood up. She was blocking the window now, her form almost a silhouette due to the harsh summer sun behind her. She pulled her chair backwards, towards her, and threw her weight on it, swinging gently on its back legs.
I wanted her to sit. Her standing made me nervous. Would I be able to stand after the session? Just like that, just like her. So easy. You will fall. Fall! I thought of Mumtaz again: she was so quiet when we met the first time. She was hiding everything that happened. I had to sit with her for hours; goad her to talk, ask her to cry freely, to answer questions without fear.
“Don’t you have an old house in Pune?” Shree had walked towards me and was standing over me now, “Your grandmother’s property?” I shook my head. Shree sat before me on the carpet and picked my limp palms from my knees. She noticed their sheer coldness but pretended she hadn’t and peered into my eyes. Pulling at my arms gently every time my eyes travelled away from her eyes, she warned me, like a headmistress in a nursery school – “Go to Pune for four months, take a break or I will get you admitted. You get it Jaya?”
“But what if I can’t get out of the flight? Or get stranded somewhere in a strange city? Who will help me there? Strangers? I can’t, just can’t allow that.”
“You have helped women for 20 years,” she told me, shaking my arms forcefully like they were a doll’s limbs, “it is time you learnt how to ask for help.” Then she left my arms and stood up. My arms plopped back on my knees noiselessly.
“Help me?” I laughed, as I raised them again like a baby who wants to be carried. Shree walked to her chair and pressed the buzzer.
Shree prescribed a long list of medicines and advised me to leave after a week’s rest. “I will call to check next Monday, Jaya.” Shree winked. “Be sure I will.” By now the nurse was supporting me and taking me out of the room. Shree stood near her chair like an inspector of proceedings. Both of them had that smile on their face. I knew that smile. It reminded me of my smile for Mumtaz.
My grandmother’s house was a huge grey bungalow with a small unkempt garden. It seemed we were similar – cobwebs, years of dust and a general feeling of infinite collected tiredness. I decided to leave the house alone, just the way it was and settled in one room. This room had a window from which the small garden could be seen. Two steps and a back door led me to the garden and then there was the main road. I used the back door alone for stepping out. This way I could leave the whole house to its curious rhythms. A brown cat would visit and curl on the damp torn maroon carpet in the drawing room every night, a few rats were hiding and running intermittently between other rooms, pigeons had chosen different windows for making homes, and spiders were spinning leisurely in silhouette, hanging from forgotten vents. A small teak wood almirah, a single bed and a side stool were the only other things I could claim without disturbing the house.
I had packed the transcribed notes of Mumtaz’s interview in my luggage. Editing made me feel I was still in control of things.
Just a short walk away was a city park. I walked to the park daily to edit the interview till the light faded and it was impossible to read. The park had nice stone benches facing west. Someone had decided that sunset put on a grand show, more worthy of an audience than sunrise. All the benches were arranged in a semi-circle facing west, a little away were some colourful swings and a small shallow pond. The pond had that unexplained hour-glass shape all ponds have in India. It had no water: some old Pepsi bottles and torn potato chip packets were lying inside. A faded red brick hopscotch crossed its even centre.
I was getting used to the new slow rhythm of my life. Time was expanding before me as the same days became endlessly long and idle. Having myself and my thoughts with me all the time wasn’t making it easy. I felt light and heavy at the same time. I kept worrying about Mumtaz, wondering how she would react to my vanishing. We had been working together on the documentary film for a while now. I had always been in touch with my subjects after the project was completed. It kept their faith in me – showed them somehow that I cared beyond the project. I often sent photographs of the film, or just some small gifts at times. It always ended well.
As I read the notes sitting in the park two girls and their mother walked towards the benches. The girls were about seven years old, and they looked just like their mother. I noticed that they were identical – they were also carrying identical pink plastic badminton rackets. Their hair was neatly divided – two plaits tied on each head with red ribbons. The ribbons were carefully tied into equal bows. Small black bindis rested in the centre of their foreheads. Everything made them look even more identical. When their mother came close to the bench I saw the swollen belly. She was at least four months pregnant.
It was the next day or the day after that we spoke for the first time. It was because of Mumtaz. A chance wind had tossed the documentary interview sheets all over the park. The stones kept on the sheets turned out to be too light. That is when she shouted: “Akhila, Ajita, come help aunty pick up her papers, fast, fast.” The same day I came to know that we lived just two lanes apart from each other.
We walked back together. It was a short ten minute walk – the girls walked ahead of us, skipping and hopping and teasing each other. We walked behind them slowly, through the tiled path of the park, along the bed of lavender, blue and white daisies. The bed of daisies turned along with us as if on a leash, it walked circuitously by our side every evening. We crossed a row of stationery shops, a paan shop and a corner primary school. The school was protected by arrow shaped grills pointing upwards; they looked less intimidating now with pink blooming bougainvilleas running all over their pointed faces. Then at the crossing I had to turn right, she pointed with her finger towards a few flats in the next lane: “the second building, third floor is my house, there, the Maya apartments. You can come anytime if you need help.”
“How many months?” I asked then.
She laughed. Her palm touched her stomach gently when she said “Four.”
Soon we met in the park every evening. I stopped working on Mumtaz’s notes, instead, now I talked to Lata. On some days I packed cucumber sandwiches and tea for the park. We sat there, chatted and sipped tea with sandwiches as the sun painted the evening sky with a different palette of colours. The sounds of the evening gathered around us slowly, layering themselves as if they were whirling dervishes in an old tomb. As time passed it was difficult to remember how it all started – the chirping birds mixed with the cacophony of boys playing cricket which together mixed with the hawkers selling peanuts. We heard the girls over all these sounds, their games and fights entertained us when we were not talking. As evening settled they ran towards the bench and announced that they were tired and wanted to go home.
Lata and I had nothing in common. We had led very different lives. On some days sustaining a conversation was an effort. But spending time with her helped me stay away from my mind. So the dullness or the utter shallowness of our daily conversations didn’t bother me. On quiet days there was always food and the future of the girls to talk about. “Why can’t you sleep didi?” she asked me more than once. “Take some sleep from me; I can sleep anytime, anywhere.” I often felt envious of her contentedness – her submission to the struggles of everyday life, the ease with which she slipped into living it. Sometimes when all conversation dried I asked her what she did the whole day. She said the same things in the same order, as if there was a novelty to it this time: sent the girls to school, packed my husband’s tiffin box, washed clothes, made lunch, picked the girls from the bus stop at two, slept after lunch and then I got them ready for the park. Her arms would open like a swan’s wings in the end, and with a smile she would finally say – “then here I am in the park with you, didi!” Her indifference to the moods invoked by the sunset, her vibrant sarees, her stale gajra, her excitement when I opened the box of sandwiches. All of it exaggerated my sadness to a degree that on days I felt I had just put on a tacky mask for display.
In no time we were picnicking there every evening. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays I brought sandwiches. On Mondays and Wednesdays she brought poha with tea. I noticed that she packed it just like me: in silver foil with nice pink paper napkins and an empty brown packet for rubbish and leftovers. We still walked back together past the bed of daises, the shops and the school.
One evening I told Lata about my mother and the reason for my visit to Pune. I remember the curious stares we got from so many familiar strangers when they saw us sobbing. The crows seemed louder in their cawing that evening as we walked back with moist eyes. The girls kept asking their mother if something bad had happened.
We didn’t meet for a couple of days after that as it rained continuously. The drizzle would start and stop and start again. The days were so grey that they seemed heavy, laden with something like sadness. The small garden outside my room was full of water every morning. Through the day the water gently receded into the muddy depths of earth. A huge rubber tree stood on the right side of my room window, its thick bark shooting upwards, beyond the length of the window. Some green grass was still there in random patches, although most of the garden was just earth and shrubs. In a corner behind the rubber tree a small patch of lantanas were blooming. Small puddles of water were carrying the white sky.
The next week when we met she hugged me. It was a different hug, like she knew me now. I smiled wearily in return. That day she told me about Kartik, perhaps because I had told her so much about myself last week. “Didi, that day I lied,” she said. “I am not pregnant.” I laughed and patted her hand gently, “It is ok, I like practical jokes.” Although despite making an effort to look away my eyes reached her swollen stomach. She didn’t notice. She was looking at the girls. “He is inside me, since the girls. He is inside. They were triplets. The ones who were alive pushed when I went into labour. But he could not push to come out as he was already dead…” She left the sentence there. “The boy is in me.” She said it in this fleeting way as she continued to stare at the girls.
Then she turned to look at me. She was smiling her old smile, “He is in me since seven years now, didi. My boy, I call him Kartik. Even the girls call him Kartik.”
“You mean the foetus died at 4 months?” I asked, wanting to be sure. My words sounded cruel after her loving descriptions.
“Yes, Kartik is still in me.” I followed her gaze and found the girls. They were doing what they did every day: hopping, skipping, running after each other. Lata kept staring at them. We didn’t talk again that evening.
That night I dreamt of Mumtaz, Lata and the girls. We were sitting in the park, on the stone benches together. It was a starry night but somehow the sun was still setting in front of the benches. All three of us stared at the sunset as the girls played under the moon on the other side. The skipping rope caressed the moon and came back in regular circles as the girls jumped the rope’s circuitous loop again and again.
After a month of not mentioning it I decided to talk to Lata directly. I knew the foetus could kill her. The dead mass could become cancerous. She wore a bright pink saree that day: the little gajra, the bangles – all of it was there. Her slow, careful walk as she came towards me now meant something else. She was carrying tea and poha; perhaps it was a Monday or a Wednesday. The girls were walking alongside: their red ribbons neatly attached in bows like every day. Like always her eyes smiled even before she opened her jaw to smile.
As soon as she sat beside me I kept my hand on her shoulder. She looked at me. Her eyes asking, “What? Did something happen?” I took the poha and tea from her and kept it on the green grass, just under the bench. I held her hand in mine and said. “You have to let Kartik go.” Lata’s palms slid from my knee. She turned away. We both stared at some unmarked spot on the horizon.
The next evening she asked me about Mumtaz. I gave her a sheet to read. She smiled and gave it back – “Didi I can’t read that well. Please read it aloud for me.” I kept the papers aside and told her about Mumtaz’s rape and her forced marriage to her rapist; and how she was declared mad by the villagers when she refused to sleep with her rapist, who was her husband now. I also told her about my film. “So what will your film do for her?” She asked.
“My job is only to tell her story to people.” She sighed. The sweet smell of her gajra and the sound of her bangles lingered between us after that.
Shree called to check on me the same evening. I told her about Kartik. She warned me to stay away from her. Shree used the word project. “You have not gone there to find a new project Jaya. Leave her alone.”
Lata came to the park forgetting everything the next day. Unlike me she couldn’t bear sadness for more than a few hours. We spoke about everything but Kartik, but we both knew that Kartik was there between us. As I walked back to my grandmother’s house I wrapped my shawl properly, tucking it gently under my folded arms. Evenings became surprisingly cool in Pune after a few thunder showers. I thought I could send Lata a letter asking her to release herself of Kartik. But then I remembered she couldn’t read that well. I would have to befriend Kartik first. Only then would she listen and say goodbye to him.
Lata sipped her tea noisily and said, “Army.” I had asked her what she would have wanted Kartik to be when he grew up. “He should not take his father’s curls, or his big eyes. He should take his fair colour, my hair and my eyes. Ya, but his smile.” She laughed, showing her crooked teeth. “My teeth are too bad.” She added hastily as if apologising for showing them so often. “My husband has nice teeth, arranged like pomegranate seeds.” We laughed. Kartik brought joy to our conversations now. He had got a life; he was living it amidst us. He had to be a tall boy with broad shoulders, said Lata. One evening as we were walking back she pointed at a young man playing cricket, “See just like that boy.” I saw a young lad with hair covering his forehead – tall and broad shouldered. He had high cheek-bones, brownish hair and a very prominent chin. That is when he laughed and I saw his crooked long teeth.
I had not cried thinking about my mother for two weeks now. I told Shree this. She told me that I was bouncing back. “You can come back to Delhi in a week if you want,” Shree advised. I was sleeping better also. Some nights I would sleep for as long as ten hours without a break. The spell would be broken only when the morning sun danced on my closed eyelids.
I held her hand as we sat in another white cubicle. We brought Kartik to life. He got old before us one evening. The sunset saw him walking away. And then one day we together decided to put him to rest. We left the girls at home with their father that day.
They had to do a caesarian, they said. “Eight stitches at least,” we were told. I got her back with me to my grandmother’s place, and that is where she recovered for the next ten days. I also carried the foetus back with me, as requested by Lata. I buried Kartik in my grandmother’s garden. He rested near the wild lantanas, behind the rubber tree. The purple, yellow and red powdery florets covered the mound of slightly damp mud. My fingers marked the mud, strange mythical imprints sat on the mound as I tapped the mud together. Lata watched from a distance as I laid him amidst the flowers. Finally I sat with Lata at the window, she cried for hours as she stared at the small mound and the lantanas. The sun dissolved its round shape slowly that evening, as if holding light for Lata, so she could say her goodbye in this extended time, forever.
I had regained my strength and focus, and now felt much like before: eight hours of work on the documentary; picking up the girls from school, feeding them and then depositing them back home became my routine for the next ten days. Lata recovered at home. In a way Kartik, the surgery, and the general business it brought in my life helped me heal.
Lata was still weak but her stitches had healed and she had stopped taking medicines. “We will meet in the park after a week didi,” she said as she stood on my steps. She walked to the mound where Kartik lay before leaving. The lantanas were still blooming. A faint smell of greenery and wet earth, the rubber seeds and the wild lantana flowers was suspended in the air. Lata pressed the wet mud gently with her palm, an imprint of her fingers found a place. She caressed the surface of the flowers and then left.
I waited for Lata at the park for a week. I had already booked my tickets for Delhi and had to leave in another ten days. I wanted to give some story books to Ajita and Akhila before I left Pune. I also bought some bangles and a saree for Lata. I watched the park with the night lights almost every evening as I sat waiting for Lata and the girls to come. I walked back alone late at night, every night with the gifts. Finally one evening I decided to visit her house. A big iron lock greeted me from a distance itself. That is when I realised I never took her phone number. I visited Lata twice after that. But every time I found the same lock on the grilled iron door. I sat in the park on the day of my departure too, hoping to see her and the girls one last time. The sun set in the same disciplined way like every day, and like always I walked back past the daisies, the paan shop, the stationery shops and the primary school. I left the gifts near the rubber tree before I sat in the taxi to leave for the airport.
I was already excited about my editing schedule for the documentary. After a long time I was feeling so relaxed and energetic. I regretted that I couldn’t thank Lata; our friendship had played a role in my quick recovery. That she allowed me to help her had given me a necessary purpose in the last two months. I was relieved that I paid my debt by helping her.
The driver stopped at a paan shop. That is when I saw her coming with the girls. My hand found the latch of my taxi door. I pushed the door open hurriedly but then I stopped. I noticed that the girls’ hair was uncombed, and no longer tied neatly. I noticed how Lata’s form seemed so different now. The sunken cheeks, the blank eyes, the severe loss of weight, as if a termite had chewed on her without her knowing. She walked past my taxi without stopping. Just as she crossed my taxi window I heard a soft mumbling: Kartik, my Kartik, I love my Kartik. The girls were clutching the edge of her saree tight as they walked with her quietly. The taxi drove away before I could decide if I should stop. Slowly the three of them merged with the colours of the night as I moved away and turned out of the lane.
~ Anubha Yadav is a writer, academic and film-maker based in New Delhi. Her short fiction has appeared in The Indian Literature, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Out of Print, Reading Hour and others. When not in a classroom she travels with a backpack full of tea leaves. Her work can also be read on her blog.