The long wooden pestle hit her stomach for the seventh time. After the fourth, she had known that the baby had died. Once that thought had faintly registered in her mind, she had stopped crying. All her broken heart and damaged body could now do was grunt, with her arms loosely wrapped around her stomach as if to protect the soul of her dead girl from the fate she would have faced. She knew it had been a girl, for it was the reason the blows landed on her, now for the eighth and the ninth time.
She didn’t deserve a name, her husband had said. She had had one, though the name her mother used to call her by was long forgotten. In the language of their elders, there was no feminine gender. ‘She’ was a soulless, genderless ‘it’, standing in for all the ‘her’s. Womanhood reduced to diktats from the elders, to two-thousand-year old traditions maintained in pristine condition.
Not that her husband adhered to the rules. As a man, his slight excesses were dusted off to a corner behind the door. Excesses like the not-so-unusual social drinks with friends (from all communities!); like the affair with a pretty, long-legged twenty-something girl; like the videos stored on his phone. The affair did elicit frowns, but then his uncles laughed and forgave him. In the days of their own youth, girls had swooned over them too.
Someone handed her a glass of water. But where would she even begin to wash herself? What was she expected to wash away? The sins she had not committed, but that her unborn daughter must have? She looked up at the person who gave her the water. Maybe those eyes would say something soft. But they looked away. She watched those feet hasten out. They had been told not to linger.
The task of cleansing herself was hers alone. She sat leaning against the wall, cold like her husband’s stare that evening when he looked at the doctor’s report. The water was red, like bloody rivulets around her. If she could, she would love to disappear into the wall’s plainness, let its coldness draw away the heat from between her legs. It would get warmer, she knew, and there would be more pain. She had been here, in this room, in this numbness, against the wall before.
The pair of hands that had given her some water reappeared with a piece of cloth. She was not sure what she ought to do with it. Was it to change into? Or was it to wipe away the sweat from her brow? Or tears? But then, the tears had never stopped. She took the cloth, and held it to her breast, trying to decide what it could be for. That was where it hurt the most. She tried to stand up, but her body felt lifeless, a dead weight. Dead like the daughter she would have bought pink frocks and teddy bears for.
Would she die this time? She had long stopped praying that she did. Both the male and female gods had deserted her. But she would live, she knew, like the last time. Because her husband had promised, on her behalf, a new heir for the family. A man, who would grow up just like his father. With his own excesses. She couldn’t die just yet because her husband wouldn’t allow it. He wouldn’t even allow her to cry in this corner. Her weeping, however silent it was, irritated him. And that was just not allowed in their house.
She would have to pull herself up. There would never be any help. This was her fault, her sin. If she had not shown the report to him, wouldn’t he have found out later anyway? Wouldn’t he then have killed both her and her daughter? That would have been preferable. To die together, rather than leave the girl to do so alone. The water in the glass choked her. Just like the way every plate of food had stuck in her throat for days and weeks after the last time.
She had had the luxury of sitting against the wall for a whole ten minutes now. Her husband would walk in again, drunk no doubt. It was time she cleaned up. At the third attempt, she managed to hoist herself up, leaning against the cold wall. But at the first step forward, she stumbled and had to hold on to the long wooden pestle propped against the corner, the pestle that had killed her daughter. The irony almost made her laugh. The pestle was the first thing she removed from the room.
It took her half an hour to scrub the room clean. The last time she had asked for help, her husband had forbidden it, so that she would remember not to repeat her sins. This time, she needed none. Everything physical about her had stopped hurting long ago. Her husband, ‘her man’, as he wished to call himself, would walk in and expect her to be ready for him. Just like he had expected it the last time. Her body no longer hurt, so it didn’t matter what he expected.
In another half hour, she was in clean clothes. Her husband walked in. His presence didn’t reek of rage, or of alcohol. He was looking at her. His eyes were never the sort that told her what he was thinking. But then she was not allowed to stare too long. The rules said that an ‘it’ couldn’t look straight into a man’s eyes while taking his orders. Under his gaze, she began to feel nervous. Would he pick up the pestle again?
Or was he going to say sorry? Was he regretting it? Would he come towards her and brush the uncombed strands of hair away from her forehead? Would he then whisper that he had made a mistake? That it was his fault she was hurt? Would saying that make it all right? She had heard that some men were like that. Gentle towards their wives, whom they called by their given names. No, her husband was not about to do any of that. A man never made mistakes.
“Smile,” he growled at her.
She, trained to dance to his every whim, smiled slightly.
He told her that it was evening already, and that she should not forget to keep smiling. She nodded. ‘It’ wouldn’t have thought there was any other option available.
She had survived again, yet another day. Her daughter hadn’t. The doorbell rang. It sounded like a cicada and reminded her of monsoons at her mother’s house.
He had been made the managing director of the company he worked at. The happily married Mr and Mrs Varma were throwing a party that evening for their closest friends. They would click champagne glasses and celebrate his successes. And she would remember to smile.
~ Deepa Bhasthi is a writer based in Bangalore, but is plotting moving back to the hills. She blogs at http://dbhasthi.blogspot.com
Deepa Bhasthi is a writer based in Madikeri, Kodagu. Her essays, journalism and other writings have been published widely in ArtReview, Literary Hub, The Guardian, Hyperallergic, MOLD, Atlas Obscura and elsewhere. The archive of her works are available at https://deepabhasthi.wordpress.com/