Bedecked in bridal finery, with the sari covering her beautiful face, Geeta waited anxiously. Her heart thumped faster as she heard him enter the room and bolt the door. The countless painful accounts of this ‘night’ rendered her terrified. But then she was fourteen, old enough to handle pain, she had been told. The ones to have spoken about the agony had been way younger.
She coiled in fear, but he took her by surprise.
“I’m tired, have to travel tomorrow. You can sleep on the bed, I will take the couch.”
Geeta sighed in relief, she hadn’t honestly expected this. Before he lay down, she gently raised her veil and caught a proper glimpse of her husband.
He wasn’t very old, nineteen or twenty perhaps? From what she had seen, girls her age had middle aged men as husbands, she had perhaps landed a better deal.
The morning dawned, his aunt braided her hair and draped her a new sari.
“You’ll be visiting the temple with your husband. The palanquin will take you there. Keep your eyes lowered and make sure you walk two steps behind him. Seek the blessings of the Goddess, pray your husband travels abroad safely, pray he lives long.” The aunt advised.
So he was going abroad, nobody ever informed her. He seemed to be nice, they could have been friends, she sighed.
Once at the temple, with the rituals done, he whispered to her, “Follow me.”
Deceiving the entourage, he whisked her away to the backyard of the temple. The sight left her aghast. Far away from the rich, bustling city, here lay a myriad of filthy congested lanes, lined with shanties, infested with stagnant water and flies. Women of all ages, young, old and children, moved around in white attire, with tonsured heads, sans any jewellery or adornments.
Her husband lead her through a stinky alley, and knocked at one of the huts.
A young woman perhaps in her thirties answered the door and he touched her feet.
“I’m off to London for a year Ma, I’ll be leaving tonight. Bless me.”
Ma embraced him and together they wept. Geeta’s husband then gestured towards her.
“She’s my wife Ma, she’ll keep you company. I’ll now take your leave before the servants find out.”
Geeta stayed astounded all the time, unable to fathom what just happened. She had heard stories of the forbidden land, the widows’ quarters, but little had she imagined it to be so miserable. She quietly followed her husband, why did visiting one’s own mother have to be a secret?
Late in the evening, her husband started to leave, but before he boarded his buggy, he requested, “Please pay Ma a visit at times. She’s been very lonely.”
The huge mansion was a noisy place, with a swarm of uncles, aunts, children and servants. But alas, none of them ever helped her pass her time happily. She was often pulled into some conversations by middle aged aunts, but their mindless gossip hardly interested her. She would walk around the garden or the corridors, looking forward to the evenings.
Few months since her husband had left and she had already visited the widows’ quarters a hundred times. Of course, the servants taking her to the temple had to be bribed, but they never told on her.
It had all started thanks to the promise she made to her husband, but now, the very hell she had always been warned against, the abode of those unfortunate women who were considered an ill omen by the society, had turned her haven. Not only was Ma a lovely human being, Geeta now shared a special bond with her. She could share just anything with Ma, the woman was intelligent and mature enough to listen and voice her opinions.
Geeta gradually learnt, Ma had been married almost the same age as her, a second wife to an old man who had abandoned his first one because she had no children. Ma had borne all pain at a tender age, even child birth. Amidst the mental and physical torture, she had birthed a son. Fortunately, her son had turned out to be good and respectful, mother and son were deeply attached. Until one day, when the old husband passed away and Ma was stripped off all her possessions, relations, self- respect, even her son and pushed into those murky streets.
The mansion was turning intolerably tiring by the day, so on Ma’s advice, Geeta opened her husband’s study and fished out some books. For a year or two, she had learnt to read and write a bit, but as Ma said, it needed some brushing up. She picked up a large book on mythology and began fumbling with the first page, when an aunt caught her off guard.
“What do you think you are doing? Don’t you not have work in the kitchen?” the lady prodded.
“I was just trying to remember, I would attend class when Masterji tutored my brothers…” Geeta muttered.
“Shameful. Exposing yourself to some strange man, sitting with other boys. Our household doesn’t allow that. We are an orthodox family, don’t bring shame on us.” The aunt snatched the book away from Geeta.
“I liked mathematics, you know addition and subtraction. I enjoyed history too, the little something I learnt. I like reading mythology, my father was fine with me attending classes, but they scolded me here.” Geeta innocently related the morning’s incident to Ma.
“You really wish to study? I might know a way.” Ma assured.
The next evening when Geeta knocked at the door, Ma almost pulled her inside and latched the door behind her. Confused, Geeta looked around, to find a charming young man in the shanty.
“He is my acquaintance, he used to tutor my son. He has promised to help you as well, but this has to be a secret. If they ever catch a whiff of this at the mansion, I will get into real trouble.” Ma smiled.
“You are a brave woman Maam, encouraging your daughter-in-law to study further. It’s a gesture I have rarely come across.” The teacher smiled, and looking at Geeta he commented, “She’s young and looks eager. I’ll see what I can do. Meet you tomorrow.”
The man pulled a blanket over himself and making sure nobody watched, he disappeared into the dark.
“Who’s he Ma?” Geeta inquired excitedly.
“He’s a social reformer, has been fighting really hard against the ultra- orthodox and the aristocrats, for womens’ rights, education and equality. He is well educated and has been trying to influence the British Raj, to pass some bills regarding women empowerment.” Ma gazed warmly in the direction he had gone.
And thus began a new chapter in Geeta’s life. She would sneak out every day on the pretext of visiting the temple. As luck would have it, other women in the household considered her cold, distant and boring, so they hardly offered to accompany her. Her classes were short, so she could return almost in time, before someone smelled something fishy. Geeta was determined to make the best of how much ever she could.
And she excelled. Her teacher made learning so much simple and fun. She now regularly practised her reading and writing skills, with some English as well. There was astronomy which taught her that stars weren’t dead people in heaven after all. History taught her the rich cultural heritage of her country. From her teacher, she learnt about the freedom struggle, the leaders involved, modern inventions in science like steam engine and electricity.
But most importantly, she realized, the condition of women in India had deteriorated, it hadn’t been like this always. Then why now, could her father-in-law throw a woman away to marry a child and why did Ma and hundreds like her suffer, for no fault of theirs? Didn’t the same God create both men and women?
Geeta was in awe of her teacher, he was a different man. A scholar, a feminist, who respected her and Ma. He had opened her eyes to the big world, she now had something interesting to learn, to discuss, to hope for. What made it even better was, Ma sat through her lessons too, they almost studied together.
Gone was Geeta’s boredom and loneliness, she seldom worried about her in-laws or their gossip. Meeting her teacher in the evening, the light in his eyes, the warmth in his voice, his knowledge, was all that mattered. She felt more confident; it was as if the dark clouds of ignorance in her life had lifted. She shone bright now, she was at par with the world, with the men, and she had so much more to learn. There was no fear of anything, anymore.
“I like him so much.” She whispered to Ma one day.
“He is indeed a good man Geeta, he has a lot at stake when he visits us. But he believes, a society wouldn’t prosper, we would never beat the British, unless the women are treated with respect. But…” Ma sighed.
But more than him or Geeta, it was Ma who had risked everything, while trying to educate her. If God forbid, they ever came to know, Geeta couldn’t bring herself to imagine what would happen to Ma.
‘Thwack.’ A slap landed on Geeta’s face the next day. The matriarch seemed furious.
“You think we wouldn’t know what’s going on behind our backs? I know your husband forced you into this, we have written to him as well. Visiting that ill-fated woman, in that hell of a place. You won’t leave the mansion anymore. Your husband is returning in two days, then we’ll decide what to do with you.” The lady barked.
“Your husband won’t live forever.” Geeta wished to scream, but she decided otherwise. Her voice wouldn’t make a difference, these people were destined to live in the dark ages, with their draconian views.
Late in the night, Geeta somehow managed to sneak out, she had to do it, or else it would be too late.
She knocked at a door, her teacher answered.
“Geeta, what are you doing so late? How did you find my house?” the teacher was genuinely surprised.
“Sir, I don’t have much time. You have helped me think rationally, you made me understand the true worth and importance of being a woman. You have taught me to be brave, so I ask you something. If you believe in our equality, would you?” she stared at him longingly.
No sooner had her husband entered the mansion, that his relatives spilled the breaking news.
“That Ma of yours got married again, it seems. To that social reformer who educates women and preaches evil stuff like widow remarriage. The newspapers say he has set an example it seems, by gifting a new lease of life to a widow. But your Ma has ruined our reputation. Our family honor is now down the drain.”
He didn’t respond, he sadly retired to his room, with Geeta in tow.
“I have to tell you something.” Geeta blurted out everything, she couldn’t hold it any longer.
He menacingly inched towards her and covered her in a warm embrace.
“Thank you.” He shed tears of joy. “I love you.”
She wept too, with happiness. In that moment, she had found her soul mate.
Note: This story was the fifth winner of our July 2020 Muse of the Month contest by Women’s Web.