The One Who Stole Beauty

“What are you doing?” asked the menacing voice of the little Aditya, cornering the poor girl under the slide. Mihika pulled her knees closer to herself, trying to instinctively protect the most precious thing she had from this bully, which was a story book that now quivered against the stretched material of her frock. She whimpered a little as he stalked closer, certain that he was going to brutally pull at her hair in an amusement and bracing herself for the pain to come. Aditya, an intimidatingly large 6 year old, repeated the question, certain of an unsatisfactory answer and certain of the outcome that was to follow.

“Nothing! Go away!” she claimed, rather helplessly, hoping that he would leave her alone. His muddy paws crept closer and Mihika sincerely hoped that she was protecting the book well enough. As a first strike, he pulled her braid so hard that her eyes watered and in the painful squeal that followed, swiftly captured the book with colorful pictures and beautiful words.

“Oooh. Look. The ninny brought her stupid book with her!” he declared to his allies, now forming a circle around the silently sobbing victim. “Please give it back to me,” she cried softly, knowing that she would rather submit to further physical injuries than watch her beloved companion be mangled under his grubby rough paws. Her skin or her hair would grow back, but the beauty of her stories would be lost forever if he claimed possession of it.

“Did you see how she squealed?!” continued the bully, garnering the necessary admiration from the group of other little boys who were confused with their loyalties but none so brave to step up for her cause. “Little Miss Ninny and her stupid paper friends and stories. Look how she’s crying now!”

Mihika knew then that her tears were an open sign of her weakness and she hastily gulped them down, following his every movement with her panic-stricken eyes and sincerely hoping that some intervention would get the book out of his hands.

“Oh, and what have we here?” Aditya jeered, thumbing through the richly adorned pages of the book with his brutal fingers, straining the fragile binding and leaving dog-eared pages in his wake.

“Give it back to me!” Mihika shouted, finding the sudden strength in her voice and launching herself onto him. His eyes narrowed as he found her real vulnerability. He was too strong for her and she was thrown back into the mud, her face landing among the flowers and her limbs aching from the impact. The book soon followed on her head, and again she had to close her eyes to hide the tears. Three pages which had been disembodied from the book floated beside her, leaving her story forever violated.

Mercifully, he had decided that he had done enough to her for the day and he was bored with her already so he rushed off to find fresh victims on the play ground while she wondered if she should report the matter to the adults. Altogether too often, they dismissed her horrific tales of the afternoons, claiming that it was normal for children to bully each other, that it was normal for boys to be somewhat abusive to girls, that perhaps his vested in her meant that he liked her. Aditya’s mother especially could brook no complaint that her angelic son would be capable of something so heinous and the little 6 year old hypocrite knew exactly how to clear his own name.

Mihika tried to reach out to a few of the girls on the playground, but they shied away from her, knowing that that her mere presence was an invitation for trouble. She went home lonely and miserable, blaming her bruises on herself and devastated that her lovely book of words and stories and eternal companionship had suffered a wrath that she didn’t know how she had deserved.

Ten Minute Obsessions

The following story may or may not be autobiographical. More about the male character who inspired the persona.

Pakhi was exhausted. She had a long, tiring, athletic day at school and she had never been more welcome to its closure. People were milling out of class when she returned, dusty and fatigued, to pick up her belongings and leave. Her hair was messy. Her clothes were caked with evidence of an afternoon spent playing matches in the fields. Her collar was unbuttoned, the school tie flailed around in disarray and her sleeves were rolled up to expose tanned arms. The ostentatious sports watch on her wrist beeped, cutting through the ambient echoes of the last few students leaving the classroom. Pakhi was waiting, in an empty classroom, anticipating the inevitable.

Despite her exhaustion, Pakhi grabbed her backpack, swept all the miscellaneous contents of her desk into it and ran to the school gate. Perhaps the heavy bag impeded her progress, but Pakhi did not want to return to claim it later. In any case, her haste ensured that she as at the crossing a few minutes earlier than expected. This was the moment she had been waiting for. The dust and pollution of the road swirled past her as the signal turned red and the dense traffic cumulatively screeched to a halt. Fellow pedestrians began to lead an exodus at the crossing, but Pakhi was not one of them.

Pakhi had not yet mastered the bravado it took to jay walk the busy road, especially with a backpack of that order of magnitude. The traffic would pause only for ten minutes, so she should have crossed. But she didn’t. Ten minutes of her life were worth it. Pakhi willed herself to wait. She could cross at the next red light if she wanted to, but she was not going to sacrifice the ten most important minutes of her life.

Bus no. 8472 was a very special bus. Unlike the other rusty, out-dated buses which squelched up fuel remnants and an obnoxiously nauseating quantity of smoke, it was one of the newer models that the city’s administration planned to implement. It traveled a fairly long and well-chalked out route designed to maximize commuter connectivity. However, all of these attributes did not impress Pakhi. She was vested in this particular vehicle for an entirely different reason altogether.

When the 8472 halted at the red-light, within minutes of its scheduled time, Pakhi’s eyes searched amongst it’s numerous passengers along the windows of the right side of the bus. The person she was searching for had thus far, always been a fan of scenery, sitting along one or the other window seats, depending on the availability. Sure enough, two rows from the back, he was there. He was leaning against the glass window pane, neck studiously inclined over a book, earphones comfortably nestled in his ear.

Ten minutes seemed too short as the bus soon whisked him away to his destination. But not before Pakhi’s hungry and observant eyes had absorbed his fleeting image. Those ten minutes would  be enough.

“I wonder what kind of music you listen to,” wondered Pakhi, remembering the undulating wire that connected to his ear.

“Nothing extraordinary. Just the usual heavy metal, punk rock or whatever,” he replied. He was right next to her, hands in mud-smeared pockets, shuffling around in the dust in his muddy school shoes. There was something disarmingly attractive about the way he seemed awkward. “What about you?”

“Actually, I prefer anything that doesn’t sound like noise. But occasionally, I listen to metal too.”

“Not all the time, no.”

“You’re one of the first girls’ I’ve met who would say that. I didn’t think you were one of those types.”

“There’s a lot you don’t know about me,” smiled Pakhi, trying not to stare too obviously into his eyes.

A loud honk from the incoming traffic made Pakhi realize that she was stranded in the middle of the main road. She scurried across, trying to evade as many vehicles as she could, without causing a major traffic disruption. Somehow, crossing over the huge, busy road, which seemed wider than usual, Pakhi told herself that she was crossing some large gulf of humanity.

Across the road and into the lane, all was quiet. Tucked away from common sight, and mostly obscured from view from the heavy traffic that passed by it’s entrance. Now, she contemplated the lonely stretch towards home. The alley was lined with houses and on a weekday afternoon, a very profound silence settled over it. Almost foreboding. Pakhi’s exhaustion returned gradually.

But at least she had seen him, and he had spoken to her. That’s what mattered, didn’t it?

“Rough afternoon?” he asked. He was back again, right beside her, a bit taller than her. Pakhi noted his dust-caked hair wave slightly under effect of the slight breeze that rushed past the lane. He was athletic, she knew. There could be no other explanation for how much dirt he accumulated on his uniform. Pakhi wanted to reach out and dust off his spiky hair, and she wondered how she might approach that without frightening him off.

Instead she found the smooth, polished door of home before her outstretched fingers.

She felt that she had forgotten to answer something. “Uhm, sort of,” she said, a little flustered at how rapidly she had traversed the distance. “You look like you’ve been through no less.”

“Hmm. I guess you know how it is,” he shrugged casually, meandering around. Pakhi couldn’t resist flashing him a smile.

Only the ebony staircase rails and the smooth marble floor reflected them back at her. Pakhi pushed up her glasses on her nose, not yet accustomed to the rude interruptions of reality. She needed to focus on what she was actually doing. She smiled again, but it wasn’t the same bright flash. It was more of a soft, melancholy half-smile. She wondered what the world outside her perceived her as: the tall, awkward girl who perpetually talked to herself.

“How was your day?” asked Pakhi, putting up the keys and sinking into the couch with a bottle of cold water. Currently the only occupant of the house, the silence reminded her of the busy mornings she left behind, and of the work she had pending.

“Pretty ordinary, “he said. “I mean, we had and classes as usual, a couple of games here and there. Some of our teachers are stressed out because we have tests next week and they haven’t yet finished the course material.” He got up from the couch, beside Pakhi and followed her around as she popped a plate of her lunch into the microwave. Pakhi’s attention was momentarily occupied by the fact that the difference between the quantity of lunch that had been prepared and the quantity that had been left behind clearly indicated that she was home alone for the entire afternoon. He was sitting next to her and continuing the conversation.

“Hey,” remembered Pakhi, from some depth of hospitality, “You want something to eat?”

“Nope. I grabbed a bite before I left school.”

Pakhi settled with her plate, listened to his stories, narrated her own, and laughed with the spirit of animated conversation. He could be so witty and charming at times.

Suddenly, the telephone rang. It pierced the echoes of Pakhi’s solitary laughter. All of a sudden, the world showed to Pakhi that she was being amused by an empty chair against a blank white wall. Reluctant, lost and feeling suddenly alone, she picked up the phone.

“Yes mom? I’m fine. Just finishing lunch.”

“You don’t sound fine. Is everything okay?”

“Just tired mom. I’ve got a lot of work as well. I’ll catch up with you later?”

“I’ll be coming home late, sweetheart.”

“That’s alright. I have my work to keep me occupied. I’ll manage. Love you too. Bye.” He was lounging on the couch, content and lazy, when she terminated the call.

“My mom checks up on me frequently,” she said, supplying an explanation for why she left her meal mid-way. Or had she interrupted one of his stories? “She gets worried when I’m isolated and what not. I mean, I’ve learned to deal with living alone…”

“But you aren’t really alone, are you?”

He had inched closer to Pakhi leaning against the wall. She could feel his breath and see his neck under his open collar and loose tie. She wondered what it would be like to kiss him.

“Not when you’re around,” said Pakhi, being the perpetual tease and twisting free.

He smiled a mischievously. It was a smile that stayed with her and followed her. He knew she was playing and he was welcome to join in.

Whether minutes or hours passed, Pakhi was unsure. But she resolved to settle down to her messy desk. She cleared up some space by haphazardly stacking up a few giant volumes on her table. They towered over her intimidatingly, a paper monster of problem sets and pending reading. Armed with a pencil, and a hope of some resolve, she opened her textbook, ready to annotate, when a soft chuckle interrupted her. He was still leaning against the wall, holding her gaze with those eyes that deluded her.

“Yeah, okay. So you’re a genius and you’ve aced all your tests. But I’m not. So go away and let me study,” said Pakhi testily.

He leaned forward, “Ever wondered that I could help you with that?”

Pakhi suppressed a chuckle. How was it going to be possible for her to focus when he was around her all the time? Once again, Pakhi was caught unaware by his eyes. She shrugged herself and shook her head. Why couldn’t she accept he was not real? But whenever her eyes drifted off the printed lines, he would appear to her. More so, his comforting presence did not let her feel so alone.

Pakhi decided to put some music on to help her focus better. She accidentally locked the volume controls to max and spent a few minutes scrambling around uneasily, trying to get them back to audible range before the neighbors put in a strong word about it.

“So you listen to this?!” he yelled indignantly over the deafening sounds. Pakhi hurriedly wrestled around with it until it was below lethal levels.

“How can you call this rubbish music and metal noise? Metal has meaning, it has depth!”

It struck Pakhi rather suddenly that he was being judgmental and more so, juvenile. She felt a bit sensitive to his criticism.

“Oh shut up and go away!”

And Pakhi was left behind in an empty room, in an empty house with the muted lyrics of home and hope and all the belongings of her room as the silent spectators of Pakhi’s delusions.

When the doorbell rang, Pakhi’s father had arrived. As he bustled around the house, made himself something to eat and drink and asked about Pakhi’s day, she realized how truly alone she felt.  Stop daydreaming, Pakhi! Focus on reality she complained for the umpteenth time. After the formalities of filial conversation, Pakhi’s father curled back on the couch with a novel and left Pakhi to her studies. For a while, Pakhi wondered what she should talk to her Dad about, if at all she could. But then, he seemed tired after a long day, so he probably needed the quiet. At about 9 pm, father and daughter had a quiet dinner, interspersed with a few minutes of the TV. Her mother rushed in an hour late, too tired for anything else besides the soft, undemanding comforts of home and family.

Pakhi stayed up late in the night, sensing his presence, feeling his glance, but she refrained from conversation. Her music player had already begun to churn out melancholy, sentimental songs. Pakhi could see disgust all over his face as the vocalist’s soft, gentle crooning caressed her headphones. Pakhi took her headphones off and shut it. The familiar silence crept back.

“You know, I should stop talking to you. I mean, I know I’m weird enough as, but if people start catching me talking to myself, my future’s in an asylum.”

“You worry too much. You talk too much. Maybe you should just let it happen.”

“What?”

“This,” he said, hands gesturing vaguely as he sat at the edge of her bed.

“But its not real!”

His expression hardened, “Who said so?”

“I mean, you’re just a figment of my imagination. You’re my best friend, my confidante, my constant companion. But in the real world, the world where I go to school, try to live a normal life, worry about tests, I don’t know you! I barely get to see you for ten minutes at some crossing when the 8472 comes by! The worst is that all this happens inside my head and I can’t do anything about it!”

“It’s real enough to you, isn’t it?” He asked. He sounded hurt.

“I’m not saying I don’t enjoy having you by my side..”

“You like me, don’t you?” he said, cutting her mid-sentence. Pakhi’s confused response wasn’t helped by his eyes at all.

“I do, but…”

“I’m here with you now, right?” He had moved closer.

“Yes, but…”

“Isn’t that what really matters?” His eyes. Uh-oh.

Pakhi finally resisted the onslaught. “But you’re not real!” She threw a pillow at him in frustration. It landed with a soft thud through the air. The silence, the misery, the complete futility of reality had returned. Now he’s upset. Now I’m alone.

He’s never going to know of my existence in the real world. We’ve spoken for twenty minutes in a span of nearly two years. He doesn’t know who I am, and even if he does, I could never find the courage to actually approach him. He probably knows me as that awkward girl who has a crush on him. The rumors were already circulating in school.

Pakhi cried herself to sleep and sank into the oblivion of twisted dreams. Even in that realm, he wove in and out of her sight, of her hope, of her existence.

Pakhi woke up and took a long, critical look at herself in the mirror. She looked tired. She felt barely rested. The first word that ran through her head was his name. She felt depressed.

“Sweetheart! You’re getting late for school!” cried her mother across the hallway. She came really late and she’s up before me. I can’t imagine how tired she must be feeling, wondered Pakhi.

“She’s right, you know,” said the dreaded, familiar voice.

“So, you’re back after last night?” asked Pakhi, feeling disturbed.

“You called my name…” He shrugged casually, as if that was explanation enough.

“Go away. I still don’t want to talk to you.”

“Whatever. Suit yourself.”

Pakhi finished wearing a clean school uniform and then tried to follow up with breakfast. Dad was awake and at home, so Pakhi hoped that they could have a lively entertaining breakfast? Maybe it would help her take her mind off someone? Besides the regular “Good Morning!” and her mother’s constant nagging to eat some more, nothing happened. Pakhi’s mother was tied up in managing breakfast and a frequently beeping laptop. Pakhi’s father hid himself behind the newspapers, emerging only occasionally to ask for a fresh mug of coffee.

“So much for conversation,” he said, whispering right in her ear. Pakhi shrugged involuntarily. She glared at him to make him disappear.

“Why are you staring at the window, Pakhi?” asked her mother. Oh if only she knew.

“Nothing, Mom,” said Pakhi, momentarily pacifying her.

“Well then, hurry up or you’ll be late!”

After several hasty farewells, Pakhi rushed for school.

Parents, commuters, cars and the ordinary pedestrians swarmed the streets. Pakhi was swamped with the sights and sounds of life. Even then, she felt a lack of companionship. As she jostled through people, dodged cars and succeeded in crossing the road, Pakhi felt the real world catch up with her, but she could not, she would not be able to let go of these helpless feelings.

Unfortunately, as she approached her classroom, meeting more tangible, real people,  her myriad desolate philosophical thoughts submerged into the background, threatening to return once she was alone again. She obviously couldn’t be seen as a pathetic, love-sick, more so lonely freak. So she plastered on a cheery smile and told herself that she was strong enough. She had to be strong enough. At least till the end of the work day.

It annoyed Pakhi to no end, that even when she was busy, even when she was with her friends, she could still sense his presence. During recess, during her free classes, she knew he was watching her. Or more so, she hoped that he would have been watching her.

Pakhi walked past a gossiping group of classmates to retrieve a book. She couldn’t help but eavesdrop. They were talking about him!  Unable to resist hearing whatever little information about him she could pick up from the real world, she tried to find an innocent reason for lurking around. Soon enough, she didn’t need to find an excuse to justify her unwarranted presence. Their conversation casually touched upon her, and her apparent crush on him.

She was stunned. They know! They all know! Despite her attempts to downplay it, they all knew! They laughed at the paltry amusement and moved on to other topics of interest. But it seemed more than merely trivial to Pakhi. She cringed at the mention of his name and at the memory of his watching, expressionless, silent face.

At the end of another day, it was time for Pakhi to redeem her cherished ten minutes. Pakhi soon found herself back at the crossing, waiting for the 8472. He was talking to her to make her feel less alone. He was trying to be audible over the din of the traffic.

“So all your friends know. Does that make it real enough?”

On its regular schedule, the 8472 rolled in and halted to a stop right before her. Her eyes customarily located him at the second-last row. He doesn’t even bother to look at me, she wondered and was ready to give up.

The impossible happened. It was almost as if the universe wanted to gift her only to be able to prove her convictions wrong. He looked up from his book, looked out of the window at the world outside and in one momentous millisecond, his real, physical eyes scanned through Pakhi’s expectant face. Before he knew it, that face had gone.

“No,” she said, wondering if she was talking to herself or to him. “It’s never going to be real enough.” Pakhi waited for the next signal, musing whether her dreams were akin to the dust that was rapidly coating her socks and shoes. In any case, she had a long, lonely walk back to an empty home. Was she ready to embrace that complete silence of solitude? Such was life. Or was it?

“Come on. You know you want to tell me how your day went,” he said.

Pakhi couldn’t resist. “So today….” she began, on the same cycle. Again.

Growing Up

The mansion was so old that only the strength of the creepers along the wall was keeping the structure from crumbling to bits. The mango sapling that Pakhi’s great-grandfather had planted had grown into a shoulder for the withering house to lean on. Humidity and harsh sunlight had long since worn off the physical exterior of the structure, and the shade provided by the canopy of the mango tree was the only respite for the residents of the historical relic. The pond nearby, which had once been clear and filled with fishes, was now a sickly green with large populations of undisturbed algae on the surface. Its tranquil surface was disturbed by the occasional leaf that settled on its surface, courtesy of the mango tree.

The quiet of this stiflingly warm tropical afternoon was interrupted when a lady in a sari tried to descend to the ground floor. The humidity made the fabric chafe against her skin. The flowing drape had been been tucked into her waist in order to avoid being an inconvenience to the daily chores of the household. Tired, she suddenly found herself incapable of chasing Pakhi.  In a manner that defied grace, she summoned Pakhi as loudly as she could from the top of the stairs, hoping that her voice could follow the girl where her physical body couldn’t. Several of the sparrows roosting atop the mango tree flew away in alarm as their afternoon siesta was interrupted.

“What’s the matter, Didi?” cried Jhumki in alarm, rushing out of the spice-filled kitchen to the bottom of the stairs. Mita’s call had interrupted her aroma-laden reveries and she gladly accepted any excuse to leave the poorly ventilated kitchen. Clearly, when the house had been designed, the proximity of the pond seemed calming enough. Now, the windows were closed during cooking to avoid attracting insects from the pond. The stagnant air served to make a neat oven out of the entire kitchen itself.  Jhumki’s husband was the younger brother of Mita’s husband. As the two wives of the family, they felt the burdens of the household together, commiserated about everything together. As her older co-sister, Jhumki called her Didi, a common term of endearment that younger sisters called their older sisters.

“Have you seen Pakhi?” asked Mita.

“No, I haven’t.”

“Jhumki, I tell you, this girl is undoubtedly up to no good. She refuses to grow up. She refuses to accept responsibility. How am I supposed to chase her at this age? Why doesn’t she understand what is expected of her? I am no longer a young woman, and she is no longer a child!”

With this declaration, Mita sat down on the stairs, panting and exhausted. Jhumki hurriedly grabbed one of the hand-made bamboo fiber fans that lay on the table and began to fan Mita and herself. She assumed that this outburst was spawned more by the oppressive heat than any actual rage for Pakhi. Though given Pakhi’s history of being a mischievous child, it wouldn’t have surprised Jhumki at all.

“What happened?”

“There’s a family from Rishra coming to visit us. They have a son, who is soon to take over the father’s textile trade. His parents are looking for eligible brides. They have come to know of our Pakhi from our uncle in Rishra, and they wish to meet her soon.”

“When are they coming?” asked Jhumki, in some trepidation, fidgeting with the drapes of her sari. Guests always involved an extensive cleansing of the house. There were obviously some aspects about the house which were beyond the able capacities of two mere Bengali wives, but it was especially important that they show that they were from an upper socio-economic bracket of society as well. She sincerely hoped that they would have enough time to make the best of it.

However, Mita had other concerns. In order for this union of families to be successful, the bride would have to come across as a desirable, suitable, comely match for the enterprising young man. Feminine grace, or household ability had never been one of Pakhi’s virtues. But now that she was of a marriageable age, it was important for her to cultivate some skills that were basic requirements of a Bengali housewife. It was a truly gargantuan task to teach docility and grace to a rebel like Pakhi.

“Didi, I asked when they were coming.”

“Oh, they said they would be leaving Rishra within the week.”

Jhumki calculated that they would arrive in approximately two weeks. Hardly enough time, but they had to try.

“Didi, that would mean…”

“Yes, I know what it would mean. Now you know why it is imperative that I find Pakhi!”

Tinku, peeked her head out from the door of the nearest bedroom from the stairs. “What’s going on?” she asked her mother.

“Do you know where your cousin is?” asked Mita, sounding harassed.

“No,” said Tinku nonchalantly. Almost five years younger than Pakhi and recently roused from a nap, she fidgeted sleepily with the folds of her skirt, wondering why it was so hot and why the women of the household seemed intent on being noisy.

“My dear, I thought you were out with her in the morning?” asked Jhumki of her daughter.

“I was. We planned to go by the river in the evening. But I fell asleep. I don’t know where she is.”

“That girl…” said Mita, shaking her head, about to start on another one of her maternal rants once again.

“Is it true that someone’s going to marry Pakhi Didi?” asked Tinku, apparently not as asleep as she appeared to be.

“How many times have I told you it’s a bad habit to overhear the conversation of adults?” asked Jhumki sternly, feeling a bit  shamefaced before Mita.

“Ma, how am I not supposed to hear what you’re talking about if you’re being so loud?” countered Tinku defiantly.

“Jhumki, you better watch out for that back talk. She’ll grow into her Pakhi Didi if that’s not nipped in the bud.” Mita’s stern tone made Tinku hurriedly shut up.

“Go make yourself useful! Find out where Pakhi is and tell her she is wanted at home,” said Jhumki. It suddenly dawned on her that she might have to entertain suitors for Tinku someday, and that seemed to be a frightening prospect.

It was too hot to venture outside, but Tinku realized that if she didn’t obey her mother, she would be in bigger trouble than Pakhi was. Reluctantly, she set out for the river. Pakhi Didi had promised to show her how to make those fancy paper boats that could sail down the river. Everyday, she and her cousin would look for interesting artifacts trapped in the wound up nets of fishermen who had finished the morning’s catch. Sometimes, when the religious festivals commenced upstream, the river would bring down the banana leaves bearing flowers and incense sticks, tokens of their devotion to their deities. Inadvertently, some of these would be caught in the fishermen’s nets. Pakhi used to untangle some of the flowers and throw it back into the river. She didn’t want to be responsible for someone’s prayers not being answered, because some fisherman interrupted the passage of a divine message. It was inauspicious, she would say to the impressionable Tinku.

The heavy humid air seemed to restrict her movements which made a short pleasant walk a punishment. When Tinku approached the riverbank, she sat down for a few minutes under the welcoming shade of the mangrove trees.  Maybe if she had just kept her head down, she could have continued her delightful nap. Even now, she could catch up on some sleep here. But then her worried mother would be in the same state as Pakhi’s.. Some of the fishermen’s wives from the nearby huts came by to collect some water in their pots. Since each of them had several pots, they took their time to fill them in, updating each other on the family or village gossip. Tinku watched them from under the canopy. She could tell that they were judging her for being a lazy girl.

Wet, smelly flowers began to pelt a few of the wives. The unmistakable giggle followed, right above Tinku. The wives began to scold Pakhi, perched high up on the tree, collecting fruits and flowers in the lap of her skirt. She laughed at their scorn, and dangled her legs with glee. She suddenly noticed her younger cousin below the tree. A wet flower landed on Tinku.

“Hey Tinku! I didn’t see you there! You are finally awake. Come, we’ll go explore a bit downstream, if we can hitch one of the boats. It’s going to be a fun ride!”

One of the wives snorted at her and said, “Wait till you get married, girl. You’ll know what it means to be so wild and impudent then.”

Pakhi ignored them and descended near her cousin, who was busy disentangling the flower from her hair. Much as Tinku loved her elder cousin, she still thought that some of her methods were immature. “Pakhi Didi, we can’t do that. Not today.”

“Why? Stop being so lazy, Tinku!” She called out in a sing-song voice.

“Jethima wants you at home,” said Tinku, referring to Pakhi’s mother in the appropriate Bengali term of respect.

“So?” asked Pakhi. Her mother needing her immediate presence was not a new story, and would undoubtedly involve scolding and criticism about her behavior.

“Pakhi Didi, there’s some talk of a young man from Rishra who wants to see you. Jethima was running around the house telling everyone about it. If you don’t come back home with me, we’re both going to be in very deep trouble.”

“Why does he want to see me?” asked Pakhi.

One of the wives overhearing the conversation laughed at her. “Your parents want to marry you off so they don’t have to hear your neighbors complaining of your misbehavior anymore.”

Pakhi made a rude face at them as they all collectively jeered at her.

Tinku tried to steer her away and get back home before the sun set and the mosquitoes and insects began their nocturnal activities. Pakhi was surprised, and quietly frightened with that discovery. She wondered why her parents would want to dispose of her. She always thought that she was the sweet heart of the household. Now, it was apparent that she wasn’t going to retain that status any longer. She didn’t mean anyone any harm. Yet, they persisted in sending her off to some alien home, far from the comforts of family.

“Tinku?” she asked her escort, as they walked through the dusty village road washed red in the angry sunset. The silent contemplation was punctuated by the occasional sound of bicycles ringing as they came around the corner, the ripples formed in the water by the occasional cow taking a sip and the gurgling pots of the  fishermen and their wives.

“Yes, Pakhi Didi?” asked Tinku, slightly worried at Pakhi’s sudden withdrawal into silence.

“When are these people coming? Am I supposed to be doing something about them?”

Tinku had never imagined her bold and flamboyant cousin sounding so helpless. “I don’t know when they’re coming, Didi,” came the measured response. “I think Jethima just wants to teach you some household skills that you can show to them when they come. My mother says that aspiring wives are required to know these things.”

“Is it so important to get married, Tinku?”

Tinku tried to provide her with some solace. “I think it’s just an obligation we have to our families, as daughters. We have to uphold our family’s dignity, by being good daughters and good wives. After all, we can’t go about running around mango trees and picking on fishermen for the rest of our lives, right? We have to grow up some day.”

“How do you know these things, Tinku?”

Tinku couldn’t help but feel a sudden rush of affection for her elder cousin. But she couldn’t vocalize what she wanted to convey. Wasn’t docility and keeping a good home apparent in every one of the town’s respected women? They all seemed to carry themselves with grace and poise. They all managed to get all the work done of the house, and were still social enough to host and entertain their husband’s guests. How could she explain to Pakhi her methodology? While Pakhi had been running around, being wild, Tinku had been quietly observant.

“I have a feeling you won’t be as worried when your time comes, Tinku,” said Pakhi perceptively.

“Didi, I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about. People get married all the time.”

Tinku spoke with the quiet confidence of someone who was sure that her time was to come eons later.

The sisters tacitly knew that there were several gossip stories spun around failed marriages as well. For a wife to leave her home was disrespectful to her family of birth, even if her new family was the reason of her departure. The wives would always be the first to be blamed. They would also be the first to take the mantle of responsibility in dire circumstances.

When Pakhi bounded up the stairs, two at a time, she walked in on her mother having a serious conversation with her father. “There, explain to your daughter how important this rendezvous is!” gestured Mita, angrily.

“Mita, I don’t think there’s any need to be so angry with her. Let her enjoy the last few days of her childhood,” said Pakhi’s father gently.

“It’s because you spoil her so that we can’t tame her!” said Mita.

Pakhi stood meekly at the door, trying to hide her tears. Why did it always feel like her mother didn’t love her enough? Anything she did was a mistake in the eyes of her mother. There were many days when Pakhi wondered what it would like to run away from the stagnant atmosphere of the village, to be free, to fly. Her name meant bird in Bengali. She was born to aspire for greater heights. Yet, she had a mother who constantly chased her with disciplinary matters.

Even though she wanted to fly away, she knew how much it would hurt her parents to see their only daughter leave. More so, Tinku would have nobody to play with and talk to. While Tinku may not admit it, Pakhi knew that was the truth.

“My dear, come here, we must talk to you,” said Pakhi’s father, placidly. “There is a very handsome young man who is visiting us from Rishra, and he may want to consider you as his bride.”

Pakhi kept her head bowed as a token of respect to her parents. This was old news, courtesy of Tinku.

“We would like you to be as nice to the young man as possible. Show that family that you are a good girl, like your mother and I know you are.”

“Why?”

Mita scoffed in the background. How had she raised such a socially inept daughter? This girl was going to be the disgrace of their family if the young man did not have a favorable impression of her.

Pakhi’s father, for the first time in all of Pakhi’s life, said something stern to her mother. “Mita, I will not have you disrespect the girl. If you think she brings us disgrace, don’t forget that she is your daughter and that reflects on your capability of being a parent.”

Shocked at his comment, Mita looked at her daughter for a while. She looked as though she might argue, but then her good wifely upbringing overcame her and she then hid her face with the hood of her sari. Pakhi looked up in surprise, and exchanged a look with her mother, before hastily bowing down again to suppress the giggle that followed. For once, Pakhi’s mother was going to be blamed for something, instead of her. Pakhi felt delightfully vindicated.

“My dear, it is important that you get married. You are still young. There will come a time when you will be too late for suitors.”

Pakhi was disappointed with the answer, as it didn’t make any sense to her. She didn’t wish to incur Mita’s wrath any further and submitted meekly to the intensive schooling of housekeeping skills as mandated by her mother. Jhumki taught her some of the know-hows she would be required to know in the kitchen, the basics of preparing some dishes. The indulgent aunt as always, Jhumki promised to dress her up in the most alluring way possible before she was presented to the entourage from Rishra. Glad to have some company in the claustrophobic kitchen, she told Pakhi about her own stories of being married, of being a mother and so on.

Pakhi didn’t know whether she should find them amusing or horrifying or both. She found her aunt’s advice confusing and conflicting, so she began to ignore most of it and tried desperately not to burn herself in the kitchen.

The protocol required Pakhi to speak only when spoken to and if so, in a tone of deference only.

Occasionally, when Tinku had dispatched her younger brother to school, she would come back and attempt to rescue Pakhi from the wear and tear of daily household chores. But Mita was having none of it. She was very adamant that Pakhi stay at home and learn to curb her restless nature. However, Jhumki was perhaps more keenly aware of the end of Pakhi’s childhood. She would often take over the cooking from Pakhi, in order to let the poor child spend some rare moments with Tinku and in order to ensure that the family wasn’t accidentally poisoned.

On the cool, crispy night before the arrival of the family from Rishra, Tinku and Pakhi sat under the canopy of the overarching mango tree. The stars  peeked out through the branches. The crickets along the embankment and the pond kept the night from being eerily silent and the moon shone brightly down on the two playmates.

“Tinku, if I get married I’m going to have to leave everything behind. This village, the trees, the river, the pond, the fishermen, everything. Even you.”

Tinku felt a sense of foreboding. It wasn’t like Pakhi to talk this way. Besides, this departure was normal. Why was Pakhi making it sound so alarming?

“What happened, Didi?”

“I want to run away, Tinku. I’d rather leave home of my own accord than be forced to go to a group of stranger I know nothing about my new family.”

Tinku was a little frightened. All these days of preparation would go to naught if Pakhi decided to make an unwarranted exit tomorrow. Imagine the shame to the family if they called a respectable family over all the way from Rishra only to discover that their bride had fled. The rumors would spread like wildfire through the village. It was altogether too awful to comprehend.

“Didi, there’s nothing to worry about. Really.”

“Isn’t it strange how I’m the older one and I’m seeking comfort from you, Tinku? It could be sign that I’m not destined to grow up. Ever.”

“That’s not true, Didi. You’re worried. Its natural.I’m sure everyone feels this way before they get married.”

“I doubt your mother thinks of you as much a failure as much as mine does, Tinku.”

Tinku faltered for a moment in searching for a reply to that. She was obviously in no position to comment on adults, let alone on how they raised their children. Granted, Mita’s methods may have been harsh, but she was perhaps just bowing to the pressure exerted on her by the entire society.

“I’m sure Jethima means well,” said Tinku, wondering if she sounded convincing enough.

They went back to staring at the stars overhead, the crickets getting louder as the night progressed. Pakhi couldn’t help but suppress a pang of anticipated homesickness. If she got married, she would miss these days with Tinku very much.

Exactly two floors beneath the hesitant architecture were the two wives of the family, seeking some company in sharing the last meal of the night together. It was traditional Bengali custom that the wives of the family do not eat until everyone else in the household has been fed.

“Jhumki, I don’t know what I’m going to do with that girl,” repeated Mita, mulling over the rice on her plate.

“Personally, she’s been a very good girl these last few days. I don’t think you have any cause to worry ”

“I don’t understand why it took her so long to understand everything. The other day, she actually asked her father why it was important that she should get married. Can you imagine the impertinence of it? When our fathers and elders asked us to do something, we obliged them to the best of our capabilities. We were told that the fruits of our labor as parents would be repaid by our children. Instead, we have to constantly hear them talk back to us when we try to show them society’s ways.”

“I think it has something to do with the generation gap, Didi,” said Jhumki, wondering if she would be going through the same anxiety when the time would come to marry Tinku off.

“The girl has been very angry with me these last few days, Jhumki. I haven’t let her go back to her childish games. I don’t know if this is merely a tantrum or if this is cause for a serious rift between us. Maybe its because of this separation that she hasn’t grown up the right way.”

“Didi! Please stop taking the blame of everything onto yourself like this. I think Pakhi has grown up to be a delightful child. She may be a bit impulsive at times, but she’s got her heart in the right place.”

“You know what really saddens me, Jhumki? Tomorrow, my daughter is going to be on her best behavior. Undoubtedly, she is attractive enough to engage a suitable husband. The wedding plan will not take too long. Before we know it, that girl would have left the comfort of our home to make her own way in her husband’s household.”

“We too were inducted into this household in the same fashion. Its a tradition that our religion, our culture expects us to uphold.”

“What saddens me is that my dear sweetheart will leave my arms feeling that she has proven me wrong, when I don’t think I want to let her go. Yet, if I don’t marry her now, we will have to endure society’s punishment. More so, she will always hate me for forcing her to grow up.”

“Hate is a strong word, Didi. I don’t think she hates you. In any case, she’ll grow over it. She’ll realize it as she gets older and has children of her own.”

Mita wondered is she was really leaving any more comfort space for her child to grow any more. Perhaps Jhumki could sympathize with her better only when Tinku’s time came along. The night progressed, as the girls were called back inside, and then the final preparations made before the guests arrived in the morning. Anxious, the inhabitants of the tired mansion retired to sleep.

Pakhi couldn’t sleep. She crept out of bed and began to slowly pack some of her favorite necessities into a cloth bundle. The dolls that she and Tinku used to play with, the grass bracelet one of the fishermen had woven for her, a flower she had retrieved from someone’s religious offerings, an unripe mango from the tree that covered their house and so on. Little trivia that captured the best moments of Pakhi’s past. The windows of the house were large enough to jump through, but Pakhi didn’t want to leave via the garden. There were wild cats on the prowl, and Pakhi did not want to encounter them if she was going to leave.

Stealthily, she made her way across the sleeping residents. Tinku would be very upset with her. So would Tinku’s mother, who had been so nice to her during this entire ordeal. She could imagine their disappointed faces, fighting off the village rumors. She could imagine her mother and father asking each other in tears, Where did we go wrong? How did we raise such a wild child? Did she not consider our feelings even once before disgracing us like this? Was she truly that heartless and cruel, to not hesitate in damaging the dignity of the family name? Pakhi quietly suppressed her sobs. She was going to leave all these people and their expectations behind. She was going to be selfish. She was going to fly free.

“Where do you think you’re going?” asked the most dreaded voice Pakhi wanted to hear.

Mita’s silhouette descended slowly from the stairs, heaving herself down the unreliable structure. Terrified beyond measure, Pakhi froze. All those imagined scenarios were coming to life. In that moment, when speed and defiance were necessary, they failed her. She stood there, rooted like a thief caught in an inexplicable situation, confronted by the very thing she feared the most. Her resolve failed her. Feeling stupid, hurt, scared and dismayed beyond anything she had ever felt before, Pakhi began to cry. It was a heart-rending weep, and Pakhi felt increasingly stupid and helpless as the deluge of tears continued. Even then, Mita’s silhouette did not stop it’s descent. Pakhi braced herself as Mita approached closer.

Pakhi continued to sob, unable to supply an explanation for her deed, bracing herself for the torrent of rebuke that would follow.

Instead, Mita merely outstretched her arms and called her daughter to them. When Pakhi went running back to them, her mixed anger and pain resolving themselves into self-doubt, her mother closed her arms around her and quietly said, “Don’t worry, sweetheart. It’s going to be all right.”

Daughter II

Akshay and Sudha stepped off the transit stop closest to their house and Sudha had a premonition that her mother was upset. They missed the school bus because Sudha had been late leaving her classroom. Akshay silently glowered at his 16 year old sister for delaying his meal.

“What’s your excuse this time?”

Akshay was not given to conversation which made every attempt seem abrupt and almost always accidental. When they were at home, their parents insisted that they speak to each other in their first language. But the heavy influence of English at school and in the world made their conversation a bilingual fluctuation.

Sudha felt that her silence would be a greater crime than her delay, so she started with, “I was helping Avani…”

Akshay scoffed as he heard the name and Sudha shut up hastily. She would not tolerate her brother’s judgement on whom she called her friends.

“You don’t see me scoffing at your lame friends!” she protested, hoping that it was more hunger than an actual distaste of her preferences which annoyed him.

“That Avani is a bad sort,” remarked Akshay, unfazed at the comment leveled a his own friends. He was more immune to her opinions than she was to his. Avani was one of the popular figures in school who could only be idolized or despised. She was not given to moderation and neither were the people who formed an opinion of her.

Sudha had nothing to say to that. Her brother’s peer group might comprise of awkward Call of Duty playing nerds who were socially inept, but they didn’t make as striking an influence on their family as her friend Avani.

“Even our parents don’t like her,” he added cementing his argument.

Rohini was a conservative religious Indian woman who had nearly passed out when Avani turned up at their door step at her daughter’s request. She was in heavy make-up and a very short, tight leather skirt which revealed a tattoo on her thigh. Rohini couldn’t understand her English queries but she assumed this girl had something to do with Sudha. Sudha was duly summoned and she had never felt more embarrassed under her mother’s piercing glare, though Avani was oblivious to it. She had quickly ushered Avani into her own room before her shell-shocked mother could recover enough for a response.

“My goodness, who is that girl? Look at her terrible appearance.” were Rohini’s first words as the door was shut on Avani. Sudha was grateful that her mother didn’t know English and that Avani couldn’t make sense of what she might have overheard.

“Ma, she’s a friend..”

“A friend?! Child, she has no modesty at all! Is this how the women of her household teach her to present herself to the world?! How can you call such people your friends?!”

“We just….She needed help in the math assignment, so…I didn’t want to turn her away.”

There was a very pronounced silence, and Sudha was sure that the divine names were silently invoked upon her to find the right guidance in her life, and upon Avani to see the error of her ways and adopt a more scrupulous lifestyle. Continued visits did not alter the first impression. As the anxious, stay-at-home mother, Rohini suspected every evil of peer pressure to befall her innocent daughter, and Avani seemed to her the very embodiment of all the corruption that she imagined.

Sudha was tired of defending herself. Often there had been nasty outbursts. Sudha had claimed that if they trusted her rigidly enforced morals, then perhaps they were strong enough to withstand the alleged moral degradation brought on by influences like Avani. She wondered why her family didn’t trust her with her own safety. After all, she could make decisions herself and she was mature enough to accept the consequences of her choice.

Nevertheless, Sudha tried not to bring her up in conversation with her family. It wasn’t her fault that Avani liked her. She wondered if Avani would think her less cool if she knew that her mother wasn’t educated, or that she had never owned anything remotely risque or that she didn’t have boyfriend, or that she wasn’t from as liberal a family as her own.

“What did she want anyway?” asked Akshay interrupting her reverie as they walked home.

“She needed some help with the biology homework due next week.”

“And that took so long?”

“We ended up talking about…..stuff.”

Akshay didn’t want to know further. He didn’t understand what all the girls had to constantly keep each other updated about all the time. As adolescents, they were still evolving into the world of discovering adulthood. As much as Akshay didn’t want his little sister to grow up, he knew he couldn’t challenge the forces that did. Spare monologues between his group of bespectacled introverts were always a concerted effort to avoid mentioning the “stuff” because a lasting awkwardness would prevail. It was the sort of discussion that their parents would cringe if they heard, but it was part of getting along with a cosmopolitan peer group.

“Stop letting her use you for her homework,” growled Akshay, changing tactics and feeling suddenly protective of his chaste sister.

“Why do you, of all people, have a problem with her? She can’t be ‘too modern’ for you.”

Akshay snorted at the euphemism. “Too modern” was how his parents classified anything that was unpalatable to their customs.

“Come on, tell me. What’s your problem with her?”

There was the obvious fact that there were far too many stories about her navigating the word of mouth as they traveled from the corridors of her classroom to his own. He knew that she strung about the boys in his class to get what she wanted and had left behind many rumor-mills, broken hearts, unfinished stories and a very sour aftertaste. Whatever little he knew of her, he didn’t want her to be his sister’s friend.

“You know what they say…”

“Since when did you start believing what the gossip says? She didn’t even know who you were before we spoke to each other. How can she annoy you when you don’t even know her?”

“She’s too….too annoying,” he justified, pouncing on the pathetic word as though it perfectly captured all that he was trying to convey about her. He could have called her that perfect expletive, but his conscience would not permit him to swear in front of his sister in either language. She probably knew what he was about to say but he didn’t want to test the boundaries of her vocabulary. After all, the same mouth might be called to chant the holy Sanskrit names in the evening prayers.

“Why does she want to talk to you?” came the deflection. Sudha was too sheltered to be considered remotely glamorous and it surprised him that someone like Avani would seek out his goody-two-shoes sister as a friend.

“I’m just a good listener, I guess,” shrugged Sudha. “She likes to talk you know, about her boyfriend and…”

“Spare me the details,” cut in Akshay, wincing at the thought of her discovering some of Avani’s fabled amorous atrocities.

“Ma will definitely yell at me,” mused Sudha as she took her shoes off as she stepped inside the door. She saw Akshay turn his back to her and wondered if he felt that she deserved the chastisement that was to follow. After all, she had never worn shorts or smoked or even remotely attempted anything suggestible to a boy. But she liked to hear of Avani’s conquests like incredible fables from a different world.

“Children, why are you so late?” came the inevitable despair mingled with relief as Rohini rushed to serve the food warm.

“Ma, I..” began Sudha on cue, bracing to face the storm at the mention of the notorious name.

“My last class stretched on and the transit was late,” said Akshay, overriding his sister.

His mother and sister calmed instantly for completely different reasons.

“Oh, you poor children,” continued Rohini in a flurry. “You could have called us at home and told us you were late. Wash quickly, the meal is almost cold now.”

Sudha silently acceded, confused at her brother’s magnanimity. Akshay silently congratulated himself on preventing another one of his mother’s long-winded interrogations about Sudha’s life decisions.

“Here, do you want another helping of rice? Sudha, why don’t you try the Spinach curry? How was school today? What did you learn?”

The questions continued but a response wasn’t expected. Sudha munched her rice slowly, wondering why he had stepped in for her. Maybe she would tell her the truth later. Akshay, on the other hand, rationalized that if the women must have their shouting matches they could do so once he was safely locked up with his xBox.

“I owe you, big brother,” beeped the text message on his phone. Akshay shoveled food ravenously and wondered if his protectiveness was spoiling Sudha’s ability to stand up for herself.

Daughter I

When Sudha had been born, Nikesh loved her just as much as he loved her older brother, Akshay. He had even chosen the name for her: Sudha from the Sanskrit word for nectar. Nikesh had always wanted a daughter and he spoiled Sudha with his constant tender affection. The elders of the community often laughed at his doting parentage. After all, daughters are destined to be married off in the future. They declared that Nikesh was inevitably setting himself up for a heartbreak when the time would come for her to leave the nest. Nikesh would reserve his sharper comments and politely mention that such a departure was quite a while away.

Rohini however wished that Sudha was anything but a daughter. She had chosen to marry Nikesh because he was such a refreshing break with his liberal ways, but she knew that her choice was limited to the fact that their families had arranged their alliance first. She often feared that the liberalism would peel away to the years of tradition and conditioning, and that someday her beloved Sudha would find herself bearing the weight of conservatism just as she and all the generations behind her did. She could not predict when Nikesh would succumb to the pressure of their community to let Sudha be treated just as any other girl child in their community.

Rohini still remembered the night before Sudha’s third birthday. Nikesh had come to her room after ensuring that Akshay and his little sister were safely in bed. He held both of Rohini’s hands and led her to the edge of the bed.

“Listen, I want to talk to you about Sudha,” he began and Rohini suddenly began to feel alarmed from the serious tone in his voice. Nikesh instinctively sensed her fingers curl up and began to softly rub his thumbs across the back of her hand to calm her down.

“What is it?” Rohini was unable to mask the anxiety in her voice. The fear of bearing a daughter was catching up with her and she began to suspect the worst.

“Sudha is almost going to be three, and I was wondering how you would feel if I sent her to a school. An English school.”

“Send her to a school?!”

As the only daughter from her family, Rohini had bowed to the Draconian rules which had denied her an education. From the archives of her faded memory, she remembered a time of classrooms and slate-boards and homework. One day, when she was ten, she was forcibly withdrawn from the school by her family. Rohini had to then learn the exhaustive skills of being a good housekeeper so that she would have some claim to marriageability as she grew older. School ended with her childhood.

Nikesh felt the need to hurriedly explain himself to his wife and he was unsure of how she was processing the information. He did not want Sudha to grow up with the same deep gender bias which was so strongly rooted in their customs. He wanted Sudha to be as competent and capable as Akshay. He was willing to invest time, money and emotion into equating the gap. But he wasn’t going to proceed without his wife’s consent. She was after all more knowledgeable in how a woman would grow and he had come to respect her common sense, despite her lack of formal education.

“For how long?” asked Rohini tentatively after Nikesh finished his speech. Nikesh was caught unawares by the question. “For how long do you want to keep her in school?”

“Rohini, I think school is just going to be a start. I want her to be properly educated and accomplished. I want her to be a member of society who does more than just be a mother. I hope that’s what you want too. I am only one of her two parents.”

Years of suppressed feminism came to the fore and Rohini agreed. Of course I want my child to be educated. Of course I want her to succeed, to be just as good or as capable as any man. It sank into Rohini just what a marvel of a man her husband was. Even though he was the better educated of the two, he had asked her opinion. He had not mandated an order. At the back of her head, she could hear the sneers of her community. Educating a daughter? Completely? What a waste of time and money.

“What will the others say?” asked Rohini, drowning out the chastising whispers at the back of her head with her own voice.

“I don’t care,” said Nikesh almost nonchalantly. He did care somewhat, but only to the extent that it made him feel like a rebel, uprising against the treatment that his mother, his sisters and his wife received. He was not going to restrict her mind and opinions and thoughts and feelings. He could not bear the thought of raising his beloved adorable child like a ceremonial cow, to be disposed off with pomp when the occasion arrived. But he wasn’t going to show his fear to Rohini.

“…But they will ask…”

If they did, she would have to share the blame. The women would ask her why she dared to let her husband educate her daughter when she could be far more useful at home. The women would ask her why she didn’t influence his decision strongly enough. After all, he was a man. What did he know of growing up to be a woman in their society? The gossip would fly. The women would say, “Oh, they probably didn’t think their daughter was pretty enough or skilled enough to be married and keep a home, so they probably educated her in a desperate attempt to make her more desirable.”

“Their talking doesn’t change anything.”

Rohini felt his hands grow cold and she realized that she had to be strong for him and for the three year old toddler cuddled up with her brother in the next room. Some part of her mind despaired why she was going against the tide. Perhaps it would be easier for them as a family to go with the flow and manage their lives as the generations before them had. Then, she realized that being a part of Nikesh’s individual rebellion was a part of the struggle that she had endured all her life and she was no stranger to difficult circumstances. Sometimes, Rohini sought the comfort of religion to soothe her anxiety. She used to bristle at the fact that nowhere in the scriptures was it mentioned that the women should be denied an education. If anything, their numerous pantheon hosted some of the most powerful goddesses. Perhaps time, convenience and biased interpretations had eaten away at the legends like dust. She comforted herself knowing that she wasn’t doing anything sinful. If anything, educating her daughter could enlighten her about religion and perhaps bring her closer to spiritual service than Rohini herself could be.

But then another calamity befell. She remembered that he had insisted on an English school. What if Sudha grew up absorbing the Western culture? What if Sudha should completely forsake and abandon the social customs that had rigidly maintained their world for so many years? What if this education turned out to be their imminent downfall, and Sudha somehow brought disgrace to them and her ancestors by adopting the alien ways of the West?

“Why English?” asked Rohini, hoping that she could find a loophole in his argument this time that her feminine charm could distort back to reality.

“I don’t intend to stay in this city forever, Rohini. If we are to go places and accomplish things, we have to speak the language that the others speak and English is the most common of them all. It’s not too hard to learn, don’t worry. My brother and I had to learn it, and it’s a part of Akshay’s curriculum from next year.”

“But…..do English schools teach our scriptures? Why can’t we send her to a local school? Surely they teach the same numbers and things?” she asked again.

“I don’t know, Rohini. I feel that an English education would be wholesome,” said Nikesh, sensing a real cause for concern. Rohini remained silent but Nikesh felt her fingers retract in the unmistakable way when she found her strength shaking, and his determination faltered.

“If you’re worried that she will grow up wrong in any way, she will still be housed under our roof.”

He felt empty saying it because he felt as though he did not have a strong argument to support him. Now it appeared that he was resorting to the value-system of the very same mechanism that he was rebelling against. Any culture that stagnates is eventually doomed to die. But Nikesh was unsure that Rohini would accept his abstract philosophy. Some part of him claimed that Rohini didn’t need to understand and she probably didn’t. Why should he bother with asking her opinion anyway? She was no more than a product of strict upbringing behind narrow walls and narrow minds.

Hypocrite. Nikesh banished the thought immediately, recognizing that he was giving in to the pressure. He would have to provide the safety net for Rohini and himself, and he wanted to treat her as an equal in this process, no matter how difficult it would be. It was easy to point out the flaws of the culture they lived in, but as parents he had now taken on the additional responsibility of filtering the better aspects of a cultural upbringing to their child.

“Rohini, I know this is difficult. But please trust me when I say that we are doing the right thing.”

“I’m not questioning that but…”

“I may not know all the pitfalls that come our way, but I need your support,” said Nikesh and he had never sounded so vulnerable.

“…We are bound together in this,” admitted Rohini rather lamely as she tried to rally all her strength.

“I’ll fill in the paperwork for Sudha’s school,” said Nikesh rather suddenly and he left the room. He wanted to distract his mind with action so that the deeper ramifications wouldn’t eat away at his conscience. He was also very suddenly alarmed that his guard dropped before his wife, and he needed some time alone to figure that out.

When Nikesh left, Sudha invoked the divine in the practiced Sanskrit whispers and prayed that the deities would protect and guide her family. As she chanted the names and legends, she felt that she would take Sudha’s religious education personally into her own hands if required. Let the schools teach her what they will. Sudha would not grow up to dishonor the universal force which kept Rohini’s world together, even though Nikesh was radically restructuring the methods behind it.