Bhavna looked at the open locker dizzily. It was as if her eyes didn’t want to accept the fact that the locker that was full with her gold jewellery was now empty, not a ring in sight. Could it be really true? Couldn’t it all be nothing but a dream? Why had this happened to her? She had been a good wife. Why did he do that?
Bhavna, worried that she’d fall flat on her face, held a chair and sat on it, breathing heavily. It was her marriage jewellery that her father had given her, which her husband had now stolen and had eloped. What should she do? Should she call anyone? It was 1987, the year when there were rarely any landline phones in middle-class houses. He had stolen her jewellery to repay his mountain of debts. It wasn’t a surprise for Bhavna that he was under a lot of debt. He gambled regularly, especially since they had shifted to Mumbai.
It was only 5 years ago that Bhavna’s life had taken turn for the worse. Her father was dying and her younger brother and her mother wanted to fulfil his dying wish – of seeing Bhavna married before he passed away. A marriage was quickly arranged with the elder son of their family friends, Mayank, in the village of Anandpar, a small town next to Rajkot in Gujarat. Born and brought up in the metropolis of Mumbai, the free spirited Bhavna didn’t know that Anandpar was tinier than the Borivali suburb she lived in. All she wanted was her father to survive. If her marriage took away some of his pain, she would marry anyone in the world.And there was always hope that her father would come back to good health. But the 2nd heart-attack was fatal to him, he didn’t survive. And neither did her marriage.
With her in-laws in Anandpar, life was hard for Bhavna. All the families of the village were joint families and the one Bhavna was married to had particularly strict rules for women. Since there were no toilets in the village, the women had to complete their morning ablutions in the darkness before the dawn, before the men woke up and that too in distant farms. Bhavna was to keep the head covered always with the pallu of her saree. She was always to keep her eyes, head and voice down when there were men in the room. If she wanted to convey something to the men, she would speak to her mother-in-law and the mother-in-law then would pass it on to whoever concerned.
Bhavna didn’t mind the rest of the rules except keeping the voice down. In fact, it wasn’t only about keeping it down, it was about not having a voice at all. She wasn’t allowed to have an opinion. Bhavna’s father-in-law was one of the richest men of the village, and it wasn’t considered good for the women of ‘good households’ to have their own opinions. It was 1987, not 1887, Bhavna had thought. She had tried breaking the rule knowingly. She had tried to have conversation with directly her father-in-law and brother-in-law voicing her opinions on the evening news like she used to do with her father but the first time she did it, her mother-in-law kept her hungry for 2 days. It was impossible for Bhavna to live like this. Bhavna tried speaking about this problem with her now-married brother and her mother but they wouldn’t entertain her, worried she might leave everything and come to stay with them. Bhavna’s husband, Mayank, remained quiet most of the time. It was harder to speak to him than anyone else. So, Bhavna kept it going – this was what her father wanted, her father cannot be wrong.
A year passed. Bhavna hadn’t adjusted too well, but the power of habit is a very different one.She was now used of all these surroundings and found a way to keep to herself. It was then her life took a turn – she gave birth to a daughter.
Bhavna didn’t know that a person could love another person so completely and selflessly before her daughter came into this world. Named her Shivi and Shivi was so quiet and so obedient that it made Bhavna’s heart dance and made her days tolerable.
One day, almost miraculously, a then 2 year old Shivi had solved a kid’s puzzle quicker than her cousin brother of same age, which became a topic of argument in the family. It is not good for a girl to be so intelligent and it was decided that she will be homeschooled and be taught the housework from a very young age!
This shifted paradigm in Bhavna’s mind!!! Her intelligent daughter wasn’t born just to do housework as men would prefer. She was born to reach for the skies,born to speak her own mind, born to take her own decisions, born to defeat as many cousin brothers and sisters as possible for her bright mind!! Bhavna spoke up that her daughter will be educated the normal way and the rules that she had to follow wouldn’t stop her daughter from being fully educated. This created a furore that Bhavna so didn’t want to create in the family. Bhavna’s husband remained tight lipped, it wasn’t only the women of the household who didn’t have any opinions. In the end, Bhavna took the decision necessary. She packed her bags and booked a train to Mumbai. She will raise her child in Mumbai and not in this place where the minds of the people are smaller than their houses, where a girl having even an opinion is scandalising. Mayank came with her, albeit reluctantly.
Although, that wasn’t the only change that was to come in her life. As she stood with her 2 year old Shivi in front of her brother’s house, her sister-in-law refused to take her in. Her mother sided with her sister-in-law. But secretly from his wife, her brother found a small chawl to house the family. This chawl was where they had now lived for 3 years, this chawl was where they gave birth to another baby girl, just 18 months ago, this chawl was where her husband, a drunk gambler had eloped with all her jewellery and cash, this chawl was where Bhavna was sitting, in front of the empty locker.
The little baby cackled in the next room as another kid cuddled her to make her laugh. Bhavna gradually came to her senses, realising that she now had two daughters to take care of , although Shivi, now 4, helped her take care of the little Anu. The locker had also contained the girls’ jewellery: a pair of tiny gold anklets, one for each other daughter when they were born, and silver bracelets. Her bank account had 200rs. Her husband had left them with nothing.
A sudden surge of guilt and pity rose in Bhavna’s heart like bile juice. She felt bad for the girls, whatever had happened wasn’t their fault and yet they would have to bear the consequences. Another laugh from the baby gave her energy to stand up again on her own feet and walk to the other room.
As soon as Bhavna walked inside the room, Shivi came running to her and asked her ‘Where is Papa?’ Bhavna looked at her face for a very long time and then she said, ‘He is gone,baby. He has left us.’ Hearing this, Shivi looked at her mother’s face for a minute, her kid brain probably working the complexity of it all, but then she looked like she, actually, understood what her mother means. Just like before, she was understanding and quiet and she asked her mother to take her in her arms.Bhavna picked her up, Shivi took Bhavna’s dull face in her tiny hands and hugged her, saying, ‘it’s okay, Mummy. I will take care of you.’ Hearing this, Bhavna broke down and hugged Shivi tighter as she bawled, rocking her back and forth! She went to the baby and took both the children in her arms and cried and cried and cried until there were no more tears.
And then Bhavna knew she can never cry and had to step up. If not for herself, then for her children. She knew what she had to do.
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