My story 18
This story has been originally written in odia under the title RASTA RU UTHE I ANITHIBA KEI PRUSTA in 2006. It anthologized in odia short story collection “ SRUJANI SAROJINI “ in 2008. This story also translated in Hindi under the title” RASTA SE UTHAE HUE KAI KAGAJ” and anthologized in “SAROJINISAHOO KI ODIA DALIT KAHANIA”in 2013.This story has been translated in English by Ipsita Sarangi and anthologized in “The sorrows unending”in 2010.
The Few Pages From Vacant Lots
“Why didn't you come yesterday?” Ruby was irritated.
Deepa took off her cotton shawl and spread it out to dry. “My in-laws turned up last evening.”
Ruby's irritation died as quickly as it had flared up. That must be the reason, she thought to herself. She had been worried about Deepa's family situation even before she hired Deepa as a maidservant. Here was a married girl who had left her husband's family and returned to her parents' home. How could she manage on the meager earnings from a maid's job?
About a year ago, Deepa came and bowed to her with a smile like an old acquaintance. “Remember me, Didi? I used to work in Murty Babu's house when Ahalya used to work in your house?” Ruby couldn't place Deepa at first. Then she remembered the maid Ahalya. In those days, Deepa and Ahalya lived in the same slum. One day Ahalya spoke to Ruby in a gossipy way, “Deepa's father hasn't been dead a month and her mother has already remarried Karama’s father. Karma was another domestic and a friend of Ruby. Deepa had two siblings and Karama had three siblings. All seven children lived together. Such are these people!”
A few days after this conversation, Deepa stopped coming to work. She must have been only ten or eleven years old at the time. Now she was a young woman of twenty-one or twenty-two years of age. Ruby didn’t recognize her when she came looking for work a year ago. “I won't quit this time,” Deepa promised. “I'll stay here forever. I left Murty Babu's house because my grandmother took me away and married me off. What did I know? I was only ten at the time.”
Ruby was in desperate need of a housemaid. She didn't think too much about Deepa's promise to stay or why she had quit her job earlier. But it did cross her mind a married girl could not stay away from her husband very long.
Deepa came to work dressed in salwar-kameez, the way unmarried women dress. She was an excellent maid, completing all her chores to satisfaction before heading home at the end of each day. Neither she nor Ruby probed into each other's personal lives. Ruby was surprised, therefore, when Deepa spoke of her in-laws a year after she had resumed work in the house. Ruby feared she would have to look for another housemaid.
“Have your in-laws come to take you back?” she asked, speaking calmly.
“No, they came for a divorce. Left this morning.”
The word 'divorce' reverberated in Ruby's consciousness. For Ruby, parting even with a piece of rag or old shoe caused sorrow; far more for a human relationship founded on some intimacy, some privacy, some sand of faith. Ruby heard the word 'divorce' and instead of being happy for herself, she began to worry about Deepa. What if Deepa had formed a deep attachment? On the other hand,Deepa's face showed relief. Ruby bided her time.
A month later,Deepa arrived for work looking worn. “I haven't slept a wink,” she announced to her boss.
“My mother quarreled with me all night.”
“Oh nothing.Just that I was born unlucky.”
“Tell me anyway.”
“You know how responsibly I have been working for you, Didi. I do the work to the best of my ability and then I go straight home. A woman who is trying to stand on her own two feet doesn't have time to fall in love.”
“What does your mother say?”
“A man has been following me these last few days. He walks behind me to the main gate of the colony, then sits and waits in the open field. My mother is suspicious.”
“Tell her the truth.”
“I've told her, Didi, but she doesn't believe me. She says he wouldn't follow me if I hadn't led him on. And I don't know why this man has been following me. My mother told me to quit working.”
Ruby knew such problems trailed after young women; they become involved in affairs. She had noticed working girls seated on the culvert in the colony chatting with young men but she had never seen Deepa there. She told Deepa to ask the stalker about his intentions.
“I asked him, Didi. I scolded him. I threw pebbles at him. I may have hurt his head. I told him to go away. ‘Why do you trouble me?’ I asked him.‘What do you want?’ He said he wanted to marry me.”
“Did you let your mother know?”
“If I told my mother she would kill me. I did shout at him once. It kept him away for two days but then he was back following me at a distance. My mother and my stepfather now have a new daughter. Mother says the daughter will be corrupted by me.”
“You have a step-sister?”
“Ten years old. Goes to school. But I am illiterate, Didi.”
“Is this stalker the same caste as you?”
“He lives in our slum. His father is a barber; owns the small shop behind the police station. We are of different castes. He is from Chhatisgarh like us, but of a different caste.”
“You've created a problem for me, Deepa,” Ruby confessed.
“No, Didi. It's not because of that man. He won't cause me trouble. It's my mother. She doesn't want me living with her anymore.”
“What do you want to do? Quit the job?” Ruby asked apprehensively.
“I don't know what to do. My new father sides with my mother. Beats me up sometimes. Life has become foul.”
Now Ruby was piqued by curiosity. Why had her first husband divorced her? But she said only, “He is your stepfather, right?” She felt guilty for having uttered the word ‘stepfather.’ It is a less familiar word in our society than 'stepmother.' Deepa may have been shocked by her use of the word.
“Yes,” Deepa said. “If my own mother is indifferent, why should the man care for me? My mother lives only for her own interests. She is afraid my stepfather will be displeased if she speaks up for me. She acts as if I mean nothing to her. She pushes me away.”
“Where to? Who else do you have besides your mother? She knows the doors of your in-laws are closed against you. Where does she expect you to go?”
“She doesn't care so long as I stop living with them.”
“Is she a mother or what? Do you have anyone else? Does your grandmother still live in your village?”
“She is old and poor. Begs for alms. Her home is a broken-down doorless hut. I wouldn't be safe without a door or lock.”
Ruby had never thought about such things. She had been cared for all her life. Her parents had helped her find a school, helped her to plan her holidays, guided her to the right circle of friends, guided her towards a suitable marriage partner. All her life, others had been solving her problems. So the basic need for a secure house with a lockable door was a new concept for her.
“You haven't anyone else?” Ruby asked helplessly.
“No, nobody, Didi. Otherwise I wouldn't be in this dilemma. Mother wanted to marry this man when father died. I was against it, fearing we would suffer but mother wouldn't listen. My grandmother took us with her. My brother got lost somewhere. I had a little sister; she died. My grandmother married me at that tender age. People of our caste are idiots. They will marry boys and girls before they are ten.
Ruby thought she could possibly make room for Deepa in the servant’s cabin in the back of the house if it came to that. That way, at least the girl would have a roof over her head. But who would take responsibility for a young woman's conduct? There was sure to be gossip. So Ruby suggested Orphan Women Rehabilitation Centre. Deepa grew afraid. To Deepa, going to the Rehabilitation Centre was like being dragged off to jail.
Ruby broached the question she had been waiting to ask. “Why did your first husband divorce you?”
Deepa had been sweeping. She sat down on the floor when she heard the question and fired back. “You don't know the people from Chhatisgarh,” she said in fury. “They’re all savages!” Deepa's outburst was contagious.
“That's rubbish,” Ruby said. “I've known people from Chhatisgarh. They are no different from other people.”
“Maybe you know people from the towns.” Deepa spoke quietly. She had been subdued by Ruby's anger. “The people from the villages are different.”
A stubborn girl, Ruby thought but she softened at the sight of Deepa’s eyes brimming with tears.
Deepa continued. “My grandmother breathed a sigh of relief when she married me off. I lived with her for a few years. When I was older, my in-laws received me into their house. The man I had married was shiftless.He had joined a gang of thieves. He brought home nothing; what money he made he spent on wine and luxury in Raipur and Bilaspur. He was jailed a number of times. I pleaded with him to take up honest labour and live within our means but he wasn't interested.”
“That's why you came away, right?” asked Ruby.
“Not for that reason, though I had prayed to the goddess Durga to be freed of that family. I had fasted for sixty-four Thursdays.”
“Did he beat you?” Ruby asked sympathetically.
“It wasn't that. How can I speak about our ways of living? The rest of the world has advanced but they haven't changed a bit. I was born and brought up in the town, unaware of the orthodox ways of village life. One day I was combing my hair on the front verandah. My mother-in-law stormed out. “Get inside, Thogdi!”
“Is Thogdi another name for you?”
“It can't be a name. It's an insult. Thogdi means barren woman.”
“They were going out to look for a bride for my younger brother-in-law. It would be bad luck to catch sight of me. That is why my mother-in-law ordered me inside. I cried and cried that day. I wanted to be sent home to my grandmother. I didn't eat anything for supper. My mother-in-law came to me and consoled me. She explained that it was not good to see the face of a barren woman during a pious or holy performance. After all, women were born to perpetuate families. If a woman couldn't do that, her life was worthless. ‘But you don't have to worry,’ my mother-in-law said. ‘I will solve your problem.’”
“The next days she gave me roots to eat and herbal medicine. What is the use of these medicines? I wondered. My husband was in jail at the time. After my menstrual bath that month, my mother-in-law combed my hair and asked me to put on a fresh saree. I was puzzled. There was no fair travelling through our village and no occasion to go out dressed up. My mother-in-law brought me food. “Elder brother-in-law will come to your room tonight.”
Ruby was astonished. She had heard working class people from Chhatisgarh had few taboos about sex but didn't imagine arrangements for sexual relations to be so routine. Of course there were Amba and Ambalika from the Mahabharat. The sage Vyas had done his part in perpetuating family.
“Why didn't you protest?”
“She mesmerized me somehow; I couldn't resist.”
“And then?” Ruby paused.
“Is it easy to accept such things? He is the same age as my father. How can one accept a man of one's father's age? I froze. But I had to tolerate these visits for three months. I became a living ghost. I would shiver from fear when the man touched me. I wanted to vomit.”
“Your elder sister-in-law didn't object?”
“What could she say? This was the old custom.”
“That's why you came away, right?”
“My elder brother-in-law was the devil, Didi. He pounced on me like a hungry tiger whenever he got the opportunity. He would tear my body like a bear. He would devour me like a vulture. He had no pity for my poor body. To whom could I have implored? Who would have saved me from this agony? Who would have alleviated this misery? Maybe if I conceived…” Deepa broke into sobs. Ruby forgot about her dignity as the mistress and hugged Deepa, caressing her hair.
Deepa wiped her tears and stood up to resume work. Neither of them spoke. Deepa ate her tiffin alone before setting out for home. A strange silence permeated the house after Deepa left, like the vacuum in the sky after a downpour. Ruby felt heavy all day. She forgot she had a world of her own besides the world in which Deepa lived.
Gradually all joy fled Deepa's face. She was a stone statue. She was a terrible dark night. She was restless like a mountain stream. She was rebellious like a woman going to war. She came in one day with a swelling on her head. Ruby was worried; she asked about the bruise. Deepa had become uneasy after sharing her wretched life with Ruby. But she answered Ruby's question. “My stepfather beat me last night. He pushed me so hard I bruised my head.”
“Did your mother say anything?”
“She had gone to her in-laws. What could she have done even if she had been present? She is suspicious about my stepfather and me.”
“Tell me plainly. Why does your stepfather beat you?” Ruby was irritated.
“He wants money for liquor. Where can I get the money? I am not a wage laborer who gets paid each day. What I make in a month, I buy rice with. We eat more rice than you. Then, there's the advance you gave me to replace our roof tiles. Where can I get money for his liquor?”
“Your parents want to throw you out in spite of the contributions you make?”
“Didi, my mother suspects I'm involved with my stepfather because he is not my real father. She shouts about him to make me go away. My idle stepfather always wants money for liquor. When he can't get any, he goes at me for having a young man following me around. I will have to leave the house.”
“Where will you go?”
“I will go with the young man.”
“What do you mean?” Ruby was surprised. Deepa had complained about the young man many times. She had scolded him, pelted him with stones, implored him to go away. Why was she choosing him now? Ruby now thought Deepa may have been carrying on with the young man in secret after all. Or else, she may have woven a dream life for herself.
Ruby recalled her own dreams from her teen days. In her dream, she was living a life of plenty and was surrounded by people who loved her dearly. In her dream, she had a lover who valued her more than his own life and still she grew ill with cancer and at last in her dream, she was on her death bed. All those she loved stood by her bed shedding tears. She, too, wept. She would awake from the reverie to find herself in tears.
Perhaps Deepa had made up a life of misery to draw Ruby's sympathy.“You were sick of that man. Now you want to go off with him.”
“There is no other way. My mother won't let me live in the house a week longer.”
“What does the man do?”
“When I told him I would go away with him he rented a small cabin in the market area. He says he will open a haircutting saloon.
“Won't his parents want you home with them? Why will you live separately?”
“I'm of a different caste. They won't even let me enter their house. Didi, could you give me a saree? I'll have to wear a saree after I'm married, but I have none to wear. I have arranged for a pair of shoes though.” Deepa pointed to a pair of shoes inside a polythene bag.
“Are you leaving today?”
“No, tomorrow evening.”
Ruby gave Deepa a dark-coloured saree made of synthetic material. Deepa put the saree away in the polythene bag.“I have arranged for a girl to come and work for you,” she added.
Things turned upside down in Ruby's mind. She didn't know what to believe now. When Deepa left for the day, Ruby followed her to the main gate of the colony. She wanted to know the truth; she wanted to see the face of the mad lover boy.
A young man sat on the culvert; he got up as soon as Deepa approached. So this was the man Deepa had decided to go off with. So ugly! Ruby had never seen such an ugly man. His body seemed made of rough tar. He had a scar on his cheek. Deepa and the man were still talking when Ruby turned back to her house.
Deepa came the next afternoon and finished her chores as usual. Normally Ruby didn't make tea for Deepa but today Deepa asked for a cup of tea. She had packed all her clothes in polythene. Ruby gave her two packets of bindi, an old bed sheet, and a used pack of talcum powder. Deepa begged her leave when she had finished drinking tea. She said she might not see Ruby again. Ruby nodded. Deepa had just crossed the gate when Ruby called out to her, “Tell me, Deepa, are you happy to be going with that young man?”
“Happy? You know everything and yet you think I can be happy?” Deepa retraced her steps. “You know the condition that man has brought me to but I have been thrown out of my house. What else can I do? What choices do I have? To be human means to seek shelter no matter where one finds it. Better to be born as animals. I lost my old shelter because of him. Let him give me new shelter now.”
“Can one make a family with so much indifference?” Ruby inquired.
“I know. I know everything, Didi. But I am helpless. I am sure the young man will lose interest in me after a few days. And then what?”
But Ruby didn't have an answer to the question of what would happen then; Deepa didn’t expect an answer either. She only begged permission to leave.
But Ruby didn't have an answer to the question of what would happen then; Deepa didn’t expect an answer either. She only begged permission to leave.