27 May 2019
She put the kettle on the fire and reached for the tea leaves in the tin on the shelf above the stove. The tin had again been displaced by her mother-in-law it seemed. She did indeed find it in the lower shelf under the stove. She wondered why her mother-in-law even bothered to do that as she never made tea for herself but came to her instead, even if it were in the middle of the night. Shanti hated how her mother-in-law would storm into their room whining that her throat was hurting her and that nobody had given her any tea or any milk and honey before she had gone to bed. She knew very well that her mother-in-law was lying as she remembered having given her whatever she asked for before but her husband would still growl and ask her to tend to his mother properly.
It pained her that she had to take care of everything relentlessly and that nobody in the house thanked her for it, on the contrary. It pained her more to think that her own mother was alone back in India since her dad had passed away and that her husband would not allow her to bring her to live with them. He did not have a problem keeping his mother in their house but always found excuses for why they could not have her mother with them. She felt anger at the age-old traditions well inside her. It was always the woman who had to give up her home, her name, her family and serve the family of her husband. When she thought about all the books she read and how they spoke about emancipation, she felt a bitter laugh rise in her throat. All that education just for making tea and meals now for a grumpy old woman. She felt like a slave and it was ironically even worse than that considering that her father paid a high price for that slave condition.
She had had so many dreams and her mother had kept feeding her more dreams, telling her that all she had to do was succeed in her studies and she could do anything. Unfortunately when her dad had decided that she needed to be married to one of their distant cousins abroad, her mother never spoke a word. She and her father both pretended it was in her best interest as her future husband was living abroad and she would have better chances to find a job and use the university degree she had got. It was all make believe as they knew well that he came from a very traditional side of the family who only wanted women to be educated so they could have a better match. None of the women in his family had ever made it to a paid job despite their higher studies. She winced as she took the vegetables out of the fridge and hit her hand against the door. Her hand was still hurting her from when her husband had twisted it. He had apologised but it was not the first time and she had started to understand that it would not be the last.
She slowly started dicing the vegetables. Her mother-in-law peeped through the kitchen door. « Still cutting the vegetables. When will the curry be ready ? » she yelled. « Where is my tea ? » she continued, almost in the same breath. She seemed to be hiding something in her saree’s hip area. Shanti followed her out of the kitchen and watched as she put what seemed to be a letter inside the drawer. She waited as she knew her mother-in-law would soon be going to the toilet. As soon as she shuffled out of the room, Shanti swooped into it and took the letter from the drawer. It was addressed to her and was from an aunt. She ripped it open, a bit confused why her mother-in-law was hiding a letter sent to her. In it her aunt asked why she had not come to her mother’s funeral. She put the letter down in shock. She was supposed to speak to her mother that weekend.
Normally, her cousin would go to her mother’s house every three weeks to ensure that she was able to use the video chat of whatsapp as her mother could not figure out how to use the device and the elderly neighbours were not of much help. It was no point calling her when she was alone as she would never hear the phone ringing despite the number of times that her daughter would call her. She had become quite deaf with age so it was a very complicated process to get in touch with her and speak to her. The letter mentioned she had been buried almost two weeks before. It was shortly after she had spoken to her that her mother had passed away. She wondered why nobody had got in touch with her to let her know that over the phone. She read on and realised that her cousins had called and delayed the funeral but they had reached her husband who had not passed on the message. She remembered now why. He was due to go to a convention that week and did not want to have to find an alternate solution for his mother.
Her mother-in-law came back and found her with the letter. She sniffed and snorted and pretended that she was not aware of what was going on. Shanti started asking her why they had not told her. Her mother-in-law pretended again she was not aware of what Shanti was talking about. Shanti started screaming with tears of rage and hurt streaming along her face as she held her mother-in-law by the shoulders asking her again and again why they had not told her. Her mother-in-law’s attitude infuriated her. All of a sudden she felt somebody haul her from the shoulders, throw her on to the ground and kick her in the stomach. She realised it was her husband. « Don’t you ever dare touch my mother » he yelled. She thought that it was rich. She had not touched the old grouch and instead he was the one hitting her. She tried to sit up and felt a searing pain go through her belly. She seemed to be bleeding at the bottom of her dress. Her mind was swirling. He had kicked her in the belly which was still terribly painful. Why was she bleeding down there ? Her mind went blank and she blacked out.
When she woke up in the hospital the nurse told her softly that she had lost her baby. She was sore all over but barely felt any grief for the baby. All her grief was turned towards her mother and the ache of not having been able to be there for her funeral was just eating at her. She felt terrible but she was not sure that she wanted that baby at all when she thought of it. Now that her mother was gone she could finally go away and be free and if the baby had lived, she would never have been free. When her mother was still alive she would not have wanted to cause her any shame but she did not care what the rest of the family thought. She knew that she would not stay with her husband once her parents had passed away. This was not the life she had wanted for herself and she had never been the kind who would take abuse. She had only kept quiet so her parents would not feel bad and she had not asked for a divorce because she had known how crushed her parents would have felt with the shame. Theirs was a traditional family after all.
When she returned home she picked up her clothes and piled them up in her suitcase. Her husband had stayed back at home and followed her his fist raised as if to strike her. She lashed out at him when he attempted to. She was no longer going to take it silently. He lunged at her again and she struck back. It was a bloody battle, with her scratching and biting and him striking. At the end he won of course with his brutish force and she lay on the floor bruised and battered, her belly aching again. At the end of the argument he had taken her passport and burnt it on the stove. She had tried to retrieve it but it was all charred. It would take her several weeks now to be able to get a new one. She could not imagine staying another day in this house but she would still have to wait until the next morning before she ventured out as she had no money and no documents to identify her. She went to the stove and put the kettle to make herself some tea hoping it would help ease her belly pain. She could hear her mother-in-law creep into the kitchen. It felt like déjà-vu except that it seemed to have a more sinister feel to it.
She turned around just in time to see her mother-in-law splash some liquid on her dress, face and arms. As the liquid reached her, she could see it lighting up like a wave of fire all around her. She realised that her mother-in-law had thrown some inflammable liquid on her. She could smell her skin burning and she tried to run and find something to put the fire out but the old woman pushed her with her cane. Suddenly she was not so frail and plaintive anymore. She hissed in a horrible voice while she struck her with the cane at her forehead « That’s for lacking respect to my son. He is hundred times your worth ». Shanti fell to the ground, her body writhing with the combination of pain from her belly and the burning. She tried smothering the fire by rolling on the floor but the flames kept licking at her as the old woman kept spraying her with the liquid. She could see her husband’s face appear at the kitchen door. He looked aghast at what was happening as he watched his mother bathe his wife in alcohol while she was burning. « Mother, how could you ? What are we going to do now » was the last thing Shanti heard.
When the ambulance arrived, she had been severely burnt all over her body. She passed away the same night. Her husband told the police that his mother and her were cooking in the kitchen and all of a sudden the bottle of alcohol they were keeping to clean items had spilled over on his wife’s clothes making them catch fire. He explained that his mother had tried to help but owing to the fact that she was old and walked with a cane she had tripped and slipped instead making the whole bottle spill over his wife. He had just come in to see that happening and had quickly gone to look for a blanket to smother the flames on his wife but she had continued to burn. The police did not find his story very credible given the amount of scratch marks and bites all over him and the bruises all over the parts of his wife’s body that were not burnt. They charged him for murder in the first degree. His mother watched and whined plaintively as they took him away in the courthouse. She would have to go back to the village now and live with one of her other sons who had not done so well and gone abroad. All because of that stupid Shanti she thought.
Shanti’s husband sat in a corner of the prison courtyard. There were a lot of inmates who despite being hardened criminals did not take kindly to men who beat up their wives who could not defend themselves. Some of them were eyeing him and planning on teaching him a lesson. The bell rang for lunchtime. He plodded along with the rest of the prisoners knowing that things were not going to be so easy for him in here. This was his first day in prison and he was already regretting that he had not told the police it was his mother who had killed Shanti. Would they have even believed him, anyway ? They would have simply thought he was trying to pin it on her using her as a scapegoat. He reached the dining area. There was a sickening smell coming from the kitchen area. He knew that smell.
The prisoner at the counter smiled at him. « Meat for your first day, you lucky bum» he said smiling. The man had not heard unlike the others why he was in prison. Shanti’s husband looked down at the meat. That sickening smell. « I can’t eat it » he screamed. « I need to eat everything raw. Raw, you hear me ? Raw, raw, raw ! » he continued screaming as he tried to throttle the man at the counter. He seemed to have lost his mind. His eyes were glazed and he was frothing at the mouth. He screamed and kicked while they carried him out of the dining room and into the infirmary. He never recovered speech but he only got raw food since then or there would be another scene of him turning into a madman again. He ate his food quietly in the corner. The other inmates did not even bother teaching him a lesson. He was like a ghost, barely noticeable as he had thinned down a lot. Nobody bothered talking to him and none of his family members asked for him. From time to time the prison psychiatrist met him and when she asked for him, the guards would only answer referring to him with the nickname he had earned there :« Raw ».
According to Wikipedia “In 1995, Time Magazine reported that dowry deaths in India increased from around 400 a year in the early 1980s to around 5800 a year by the middle of the 1990s. A year later, CNN ran a story saying that every year police receive more than 2500 reports of bride burning. According to Indian National Crime Record Bureau, there were 1948 convictions and 3876 acquittals in dowry death cases in 2008. India reports the highest total number of dowry deaths with 8,391 such deaths reported in 2010, meaning there are 1.4 deaths per 100,000 women.”
According to an April 2017 article in India today, “Twenty-one dowry deaths are reported across the country every day. The conviction rate, however, is less than 35 per cent. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) states that in 2015, as many as 7,634 women died in the country due to dowry harassment.” https://www.indiatoday.in/mail-today/story/dowry-deaths-national-crime-records-bureau-conviction-rate-972874-2017-04-22
Piya Ho – A. R. Rahman