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The Imponderables

Published by Hoomann Okaste at Smashwords

Copyright 2018 Norma Forma

The Statement

18 Years Ago

“I cannot believe these things are still happening in India,” said a man who looked like an Indian in the group of white tourists as they crossed the street in the morning, part of a Dharavi slum tour. He, with a disgusted face, moved along as they walked with a guide leading them.

“What is that noise outside?” Sita’s father asked, coming out of the bathroom.

“The same usual drama… our neighbor drunk again, his wife is quarreling with him,” his wife said.

Sita quickly arranged her books and placed them inside the school bag.

She thought, ‘the quarrel is just now starting; Soon exchange of bad words will begin… interesting…’ and smiled.

Sita learned a lot of curse words in Hindi but she doesn’t know meanings for most of them. She has never been interested in using them either, but just curious to know them all.

Her mother said, “Sita… hurry up… it's getting late,”

Her mother knows that too; she didn’t want Sita to hear those words.

She thought, ‘One can gather all the curse words in Hindi if they spend half an hour in this place’

Her father peeked through the window,”mch mch mch… now he had thrown her on the road and kicks her with his legs”

They usually don’t get into this physical rumbling; Depending on the mood, sometimes they degrade each other’s bloodline, sometimes questioning sexual performances, sometimes cursing genital parts.

He turned to her mother and asked, “Shall I interfere?”
“Why? Do you want him to shout at you asking if you are having an affair with her?”

He became defensive, saying, “Oh my god… She is like my sister”

She said, “Tell that to the drunkard; the day just now started and he already gobbled the bottle…”
“What about you? Can’t you interfere?”
“No, then he will ask if I am his second wife? Do you want that?”

“What can we do?”

She scorned with both her hands, doing concurrent a slight outside twist and said, “Nothing. It will all be over in minutes. Sita… put some cotton balls in your ears, increase the TV volume”

Her mother then turned and commanded her father, “And you… get ready to go to work”

He sighed and went inside. She did not care and shouted, “Sita, your lunch box is ready”

He opened the bathroom door and said, “Sita… wait… I will walk with you to Diana’s house”

That is where he should change directions to go towards the bus stop.

Sita said, “Alright, but please be fast”

13 years old Sita lived in a busy narrow street of Dharavi; a slum that is located in the heart of the Mumbai city. Her father worked as a peon in the government municipality office; her mother's a homemaker and Sita is the only child; a small nuclear family, happy and contented.

She studied ninth standard in the nearby government school. Sita hated living in this place. She visits her grandparents in her native village every summer. The busy mornings of this city were in total contrast with her native village. She always felt odd, being in Mumbai. Her grandpa asked her father to let her continue the schooling in the village, but her mother did not accept that proposal. Since then, Sita realized she too wanted to live in that village with her grandparents; every time she visits the village for summer holidays, her grandparents come and wait for her at the bus station early morning; and as soon as they see her, they will run to her and her grandpa will sweep her off the feet while her grandma tries to land a kiss. They do not worry about the surroundings or Sita's blushing.

Her grandpa used to tell her bedtime Purana stories like Ramayana and Mahabharata. Here, her dad sleeps tired after work and her mother will always be busy with household chores even right before going to bed.

That village was calm and green. Birds start to screech in the early morning to wake her up, unlike Dharavi where jealous lorry drivers blaring horn honk in the empty roads at 4 AM just to jolt heavy sleepers.

Everyday she walks to school; she picks her friend Diana's house is on the way.

Sita’s father quickly got ready and came out of the house. They saw the neighbors sipping tea, listening to the radio’s morning news. Just some 15 minutes ago, she labeled him some kind of zoophile and he termed her some kind of an orgy fanatic. There is really no word in English to translate those words, exactly. They get innovative day by day; for them, ‘bastard and filthy whore’ won’t cut it anymore.

Sita and her father started to walk.

“Is Diana a Christian?”
“Well… sort of”
He smiled, “What do you mean, sort of? Her name is Diana…?”
“Her mother changed her religion to Christianity, but Diana said her father stayed a Hindu all his life”

He looked at her inquiringly and she explained, “He is no more”

He gave a pitiful look.

Sita said, “After Diana was delivered at the Government hospital, the nurse showed the baby. It looked so beautiful and so white, like white tourists. You’ve seen her, right?”
He nodded his head.

She continued, “Both her parents are dark in color like coal, same goes for everybody in the ancestry he knows about. So he was very proud.”
“Then he went to drink a chai to relax and read the newspaper. The headlines said it's the same day Princess Diana visited India with photographs of a pretty white woman”

“Hence, the name”

Her father loved the way his little girl explained.

As they neared Diana’s house he said, “Alright, I have to go. Be careful on the roads”

She said, “Sure pa” and started to walk.

As she reached Diana's house, she knocked the door and waited.

‘Diana's family’s a poor one’, Sita assumed, as they lived in a hut.

Sita can see ‘the one-room hut' from outside and there was a small rack where all the gods are present; that includes Gods from all the religions. Diana's mother might probably be Christian, but Sita was unsure. She goes to both churches and Hindu temples regularly, even to Mosques when Diana catches a fever. Sita cannot predict religion in that hut.

Diana shouted, "Ma… where is my school bag?"

"I don't know, why don't you open your eyes and search"

"****," she cursed silently in a bad word and found her bag buried under a pile of dirty clothes.

"Do not touch my school bag"

Her mother shouted back, "Nobody cares about your school bag"

"Your schooling is a waste of time. You can help me by going to that tannery instead"

"Ugh," she scoffed and came out, bringing an instant fake smile to Sita.

"As if you're going to be 'state first'…" she shouted as Diana walked away. Sita doesn't care either, it happens every day.

Diana said, "I hate to work in tanneries, even on summer holidays"


"First, I have to lie about my age"

"And then there is this constant smell of cow blood..."

She paused to find words and abandoned that try. Then she said, "It smells so heavy that I even started to hate drinking milk. The milk also smells the same as that tannery, but very mildly…"

"Besides, old men working there are too touchy"

Sita said, "Ugghhh"

Thankfully, Sita’s mother is not interested to send her to work anywhere even on summer holidays. She says children should not get a taste for money; that will decrease their interest in education.

Diana said, "Equally, I hate school too… but there are fewer men"

"So the ratio of getting caught is low except that Physical Training master..."

"But I don't have to work in school"

They walked past the tea shop where the milk boiled bubbling hot and the master was busy juggling glasses. Diana took a deep inhale, "mmmm… the smell of fried samosa. I'm hungry"

"Didn't you eat breakfast?"

"Yeah, I did, but my mom's cooking is tasteless"

Sita smiled. In the tea shop bench, one can see all sorts of men gathered around, sipping the tea. Lazy college students in their shorts - who just now woke up, youngsters - ready to go to the office in formal pants and shiny shoes, fat uncles sweating in their shorts who just now finished jogging, retired grandpas ferociously discussing international politics.

Sita said, "I have never seen a woman there, even once…"

"What do you mean? In that teashop?


"My neighbor aunty always buys ‘parcel tea’ there whenever relatives visit…"

"Yeah, but doesn't she look very nervous as if it's a filthy place and as soon as the tea master hands over the tea, she will walk away, hurried," Sita said.

"That is true. Now to think about it, the tea master too will give first priority to women customers," Diana said.

"Everyone silently agrees women should not stand there. I never understood why?" Sita asked.

Then she continued, "I mean it's just a tea shop. Why do women not stand there casually, sipping tea? Like the men?"

Diana said, "I know where women would comfortably sip tea…"

"Just opposite our school on the main road, that shiny mall… and in the first floor, there is a coffee shop with a full life-sized glass wall, facing the road where coffee cup drawing is etched beautifully"

Sita said, "Yeah, in the evenings, there are a lot of women there in jeans and tee shirt, sitting relaxed and sipping tea".

Sita, in the lunch break, sometimes visits that mall with friends and they see the guards standing outside the doors of that tea shop. The air-conditioned breeze will escape them and kiss her face. It would be so chill on a hot afternoon. She did not believe it was a tea shop when their friends said, that first time they visited.

Diana said, "Do you know tea and coffee is not called as tea and coffee there"

Sita asked, "What?"

"Yeah, they have different types of tea and coffee"

"Really? Like masala chai…?"

"No, no… They have fancy names, Ankitha said her dad brings her there and that shop has many varieties of coffee, she said some names which I don't remember now"

"Ha…. I got it… Laaahhhhtey"

"A coffee is a coffee, how there will be many types of coffee?" Sita asked.

"Do you know the cost of the tea there? Its Rs.200/-"

"What? Really?"

"Yeah, and Ankita said they have ice tea… A chai not hot but chilled"

"Yuck… I can't drink chai gone cold… I don't think it will be tasty. Why would women pay such a hefty amount for a Rs.5/- chai?"

"In that uncle's shop, they can buy tea, coffee, samosas... heck his whole tea shop for that price"

They both laughed loud as they entered school gates and joined the prayer.

In the evening she returned to her house after leaving Diana at her home. Sita walks as if she is jumping with each step. Her father loved to see her walk; it looked like dancing as if she has no regrets.

As soon as she returns from school, he shouted this news to her mom, "my dear fawn is returning from school."

Sita becomes very shy hearing that. She is embarrassed ashamed that her father shouts like that while the whole neighborhood watching. She always tells his father not to call her like that. But he never listens.

She asked her father the same question that evening when he walked along on the way to the grocery shop.

"Pa… Why women do not come, stand in that tea shop and sip tea like men?"

He looked at her surprised and said, "I like your perspectives…"

"Women cannot just stand there in public and drink chai like men"

"They see that… well… as an indecent place"

Sita replied, "It looks decent enough for me"

"Ha-ha, which is because you are a cute little girl"

"But why do they think it is an indecent place? The master keeps the shop clean, puts garlands and incense sticks"

"No, no… not like that. I don't know how to explain this…”

He paused for a second, "Ok, what I am going to tell you is one of the reasons... You will understand all the other reasons when you grow up"


"You see, some men…” he paused and said, “Many men, do not just ignore and leave lonely women. They would disturb those by staring, passing comments, teasing and trying to talk"

He continued, "Women do not like that. That is why they do not come here and go to the costly coffee shop"

"But I do not see lone women there too; they always come with a guy"

"Those are their informal bodyguards. That is because even there, our Romeos won't leave them alone"

"But then, they can come with those bodyguards to roadside tea shops... right?"

"Well, they can. But what if they are forced to get married for a chit-chat?" he paused and said, "Remember your uncle Jagdeesh?"

They both laughed.

"You don't want that, right?"

"No, I don't," she replied, still smiling.

Jagdeesh is an active member of a religious group. They recently came in the news for patrolling the beach on Valentine's Day. They roam with a priest and inquiring any couple they see on the beach if they are married. When they catch an unmarried couple, they will force the guy to knot the holy thread to the girl, then and there. They would do this ‘instant marriage' every year. Jagdeesh was very proud of this social service.

The next day Sita and Diana walked past the old bridge that was built by British to cross the filthy ditch flowing beneath.

"You know, my grandpa used to say…? He says that when he was a child, it was a river running with clean water"

"You are lying"

"No, really… he said the water was so pure there that he used to take baths, go boating and fishing on that 'river'."

"I don't believe it"

Sita said, "Tell me about it, the stench itself, makes me run."

And continued, "That is not the only reason, though; it is those boys sitting on the bridge teasing every girl passing by"

As they crossed they heard a wolf whistle sound. Diana chuckled. Site hurried fast, holding Diana's hands strong.

"Aw… you're hurting my wrist"

Sita said, "Do not smile; that will encourage them"

"Hey, they never did this to us before"

"Yeah, I hate it; why do these boys do this?"

"Don't you get it?"


"We are not girls anymore, we came to ninth standard, we are ‘women'… that is why"

Sita said in a strong voice, "I am still a girl. They are teasing us; I don't know what gets you with that, I hate it"

Those boys do that both in the mornings and evenings, with every girl who passes by.

Sita's uncle Jagdeesh once in a while vigilantes there with a stick, chasing the boys away. One day Sita saw him shouting, "Do not sit here you fools, this is a cursed bridge if you sit here you will give birth to daughters only. You will have no sons," then he winks at her.

Her grandpa used to say both her father and uncle used to sit there in their school days.

The boys knew that she is a relative of Jagdeesh; still, she is no exemption. The teasing continued for some months. But then it stopped.

One day, as they crossed the bridge, Sita observed unusual silence. Sita didn't understand but was happy about it. On the next day too, they observed the same silence; no whistle, no comments.

The next day, as they walked to the school, as usual, Diana said, "Hey, did you see that boy?"


"The one that crossed us in the bicycle"

"What about him?"

"This is the third time he is doing that"

"Why would he do that unnecessarily, pedaling all the way?"

"He is trying to impress you"

"What?" She turned to see and said, "Why did you say ‘me’? Why not you?"

"Because… he did not try to look at my eyes... ‘From a distance' to ‘after crossing you', he did not change the direction of his face"

She mimicked turning her head with a constant gaze focused on Sita's face and then chuckled. It looked horrible like a toy mechanically turning its head.

On the return walk from school, they just started to walk some meters from her school and he showed up.

Diana said, "Here he comes"

"Great, I thought I was annoyed crossing the bridge… now all the way home"

"Why no boy is following me, am I not beautiful?"

"Oh, stop it, you can ask him to follow you; at least I’d be at peace. Why he is putting all this effort instead of studying?"

"Don't you see any movies? At all? As I said before, it's because you're a woman now"

"If that's so, I hate becoming a woman"

Every day he would drive passing her and then after some minutes, she would see him again, driving past her. He would come around and take some shortcuts and then she would see him again.

‘But why he circles me like a vulture?' she thought.

She started to hate Diana too. She seemed to enjoy it. She did not mind that boy until that Sunday.

Sita’s family lived in their own house in that area; others lived in rented houses. It’s a crowded street filled with portion type houses. Their house is the only ‘individual' house, a tiny one though. Her mother is very proud to live in their own house rather than a rented one, however small it is. When the patta officer came, their grandmother took some stones to mark border to get that land, her father says. As soon as the city started to get bigger and better, the real estate became a costly affair. Many sold their lands and moved to the suburbs as millionaires, but her father was adamant. Her grandpa asked him to sell the house, get a transfer and move to the village. But the transfer request needs a bribe and her father cannot afford that much money.

Her mother too resisted that plan. She hated to move away from the bustling area. Unlike Sita, her mother cannot stand the summer leave in their native village. She visits the village only for twice, to drop and pickup Sita. The village looked deserted; she cannot see another human being as far as she can look. The aloof scenery, however beautiful it is, terrified her. She somehow got used to the polluted, crowded, noisy environment. In the village, she missed the absence of the constant hum that is present in the city. Somehow, the silence bothered her.

They each carried a bucket full of washed clothes to the balcony, it is the Sunday routine. She placed a clip on the washed clothes as her mother hung them. That is when Sita noticed someone in her far peripheral vision… someone familiar-looking, across the street. It is the boy that follows her. As soon as she looked at him, he left a secret smile. She became infuriated.

She thought, ‘Why is this boy standing there? For how long? What if my mother notices?’

Her heart started to beat fast. Her mother did not notice anything. After a few minutes, Sita calmed down. She started to ignore him. What else can she do? She can tell her mother, but then there is no proof that he is sitting there to see her. She can go and yell at him; but then again, someone standing on a street is not really a reason. Besides, if she takes any steps, he might boast that as he made her notice.

They went downstairs and her mother started to cook the chicken her father brought. Sita was worried if he's still there? She can go out and see, but that will only encourage him.

In the evening, all her family sat and watched a Bollywood movie on TV. The hero fell in love at first sight with the heroine. He too followed the heroine around everywhere. Sita got annoyed and changed the channel.

Her father looked at her confused and then started to watch the changed channel. This channel showed her favorite Actress Monisha’s movie. She saw the movie already when it was released. She knows the story. The hero meets the heroine at a temple. He follows her around to her work and everywhere. Heck, their whole family follows her family... She had not thought about these things before. She cannot stop thinking, 'Is this how love starts?'

The next day morning, as she walked to the school, she noticed there is no sign of that boy. She left out a sigh of relief. As soon as she entered the bridge, she saw a bunch of boys sitting there. This boy was also sitting there.

‘He must have gotten tired of pedaling the cycle’, she thought. As she walked towards them, everyone in the group started to talk loudly.

"Hey Manish"

"Is this your figure?

"Right or left?"

He said, "Right"

Everyone cheered with a ‘hoo’.


"Super selection abe saale"

"Hoo Ooh"

They both walked past them, hurried.

Diana said, "They're talking about you"

"Yeah, I know," she replied angrily.

"Why are you angry? You should be happy,"


"He is telling his friends about you"

"Yeah, what is there to giggle? Celebrating as if he got a state first rank"

"Hey from now on, nobody will tease you. He'll protect you"

"What? They called me a ‘figure' in front of him. They’re judging me like I'm a roadside food item, he was laughing proudly"

"Hey, you are a woman… that is what the boys call a woman"

"I am a little girl. I am not a ‘figure'"

"Do you want to know his name?"


Diana ignored it and said, "His name is Manish, I heard when I crossed."

Then she continued, "What are you complaining about?"

"He is handsome, white, well dressed and looks like from a high-class family"

She said, "He wears a costly watch. Did you note his shirt? It's silk"

Even though the uniform is the white shirt and khaki pants, the government school did not mention anything about the dress material. So rich people took advantage of that loophole; Manish family is rich to the area standards but poor to afford a private school.

Every day, Manish would sit at a distance and watch her. He was scared to talk to girls, just like every other boy. Some were bold and had many "girl" friends. But they were labeled as womanizers, pussies, sissies, bad boys and in many other names because they talk to girls.

Arun is such a boy; he's quite friendly with girl students in his tuition center. Their batch had 14 girl students and Arun's nickname was attendance number 15. He talks so much with the girls and has more "girl" friends than "boy" friends, the jealousy boys called him 15. Manish decided not to get the other boys' wrath by talking to the girls and cut his friendship with Arun. With these wolf packs, one is allowed to love a girl at a time. They allow it and even encourage it, but one should not befriend.

After watching her for around three months, Manish knew she notices him, but he needed something more. He would follow her to the street. He would sit on the bridge, whistle, talk with his friends and laugh loudly. All the boys stay silent when she crossed the bridge. Manish prevented others from teasing her. It looked like Diana is friendly, but he is scared to talk to her.

After school, as she started to walk, she saw him again. He has been just five steps behind her. She did not like someone following her.

"Sita...," he called with trembling voice.

'How this boy knows my name? Did Diana tell him?' she thought.

She stopped and decided to finish it once and for all.

Diana said, "Ok, I'll meet you tomorrow" and left hurried with a smile.

She turned and looked at him as if he is a worm and asked, "What?"

He had a paper in his hand. He gave it to her and said, "I love you"

Sita thought, ‘Is it a love letter?’

She plucked the paper from his hand and tore it into pieces. She slapped him hard, "Stop following me, or I will tell my uncle Jagdeesh"

She walked away while Manish was standing there like a statue.

The next few days went smooth. Boys sitting on the bridge were in grave silence when she crossed. She felt really proud that she slapped him. Diana felt sorry for him. Once again Sita's mornings looked calm. But that lasted only for a week. Soon Manish started to play sad love songs in his mp3 player with high volume, whenever she crossed the bridge.

She realized Manish would not stop any of this, whatever she does. She tried to complain to her mother, but she never listened. She told her father that boys sitting on the bridge are teasing her. He created a big drama in the house, something that would not work in the long term. He went and threatened all the boys sitting there. He dropped her at school for some days, but then his work interfered. He cursed at her mom for bringing the girl child.

Sita remembered her father’s science topics talks. At that time he said, “It’s the father that decides if it is a boy or a girl”. He did not elaborate that. Yet he scolds her mother. Sita knew when he gets angry, logic gets tossed. He loved Sita, but a girl is too big a responsibility in this society, he said.

She took the matter into her own hands. At first, she tried different routes to avoid Manish. Then she walked past hurriedly. In the course of two years, she scolded, cursed, threatened and slapped, but Manish never stopped bothering her. He would look sad sometimes, shouting violently sometimes. Eventually, she understood the easiest way to stop him following, is to start talking to him. That did stop him from not just following but all the annoying things he did, ranging from teasing to acting like a maniac.

Her father is an educated man. He is the only one to hold a degree in that neighborhood. Her mother was very proud of him. When he just got married, he landed two government jobs at the same time, one as an airport officer and another as a peon in the municipality. They did not have Rs.10, 000/- to bribe for the airport officer job and so settled for the Rs.1000/- bribe for the peon job. Even that Rs 1000/- they struggled to get. Her mother's eyes will blossom in wonder; "only if we had some help from God to get that officer job...," she never finishes that sentence.

He had high hopes for her. He wanted her to become a doctor. But it got shattered with the tenth standard exam marks, thanks to wasting time with Manish. She got what her father calls, 'Denmark'. She got better marks than Diana but not what her father expected. That changed his priorities.

He would say with the community quota, she doesn't even have to try hard. Even with above-average marks, he would get her a Government engineering college seat. All her mother wanted was passing the exams, but with this boy's disturbance, even that seemed a struggle.

She went to her village for the summer. Before realizing it, two months passed. She hated to leave the village. She hated to encounter Manish. But she has no other way. She felt like she is in a prison.

"At least I am happy to meet Diana," she said to herself.

After school reopening, as usual, she went and knocked the doors of the hut. She was surprised to see that Diana's mother opened the door.


"Diana won't come to school anymore"

"Why? Is she ill?"

"No. She is getting married"

Sita cannot comprehend the news. She for the first time got angry at Diana's mother. Diana's mother always whined, but Diana never took her seriously.

‘What if she is compelling her?'

‘I should ask my dad to help'

"Can I see her?"

"Hmm… wait," she shouted, "Diana…"

Diana came out after some minutes.


Sita expected Diana as a worried girl, but she looked normal.

"You're not coming to school anymore?"


"Why? You are in plus one now…"

"Mom said it is a good alliance, we may not get a good deal like this later"

"But passing plus two will be helpful for your future. If you want, I can talk to your mother"

"No, it's ok."

She paused and then said, "I hate studying; she won't allow me to go to college anyways. So what difference these two years will make?"

And said, "After marriage, I don't have to study or work… can you believe that?"

Her eyes sparkled.

Then she said, "I'll miss you though"

Sita felt like crying.

"I'll miss you too"

Diana changed the subject, "hey do you want to see the photo of the groom?"

"Hmm, yeah"

She went inside and brought a photo of a man around 28 years old.

"He is a welder, working for a hotel chain in Goa"

"Hmm," Sita said uninterested.

Sita assumed Diana would hate getting married. Sita was ready to try convincing her mother. She even thought of asking her father to convince her. But Diana is happy. She was not bothered about her education. ‘What can I do?' she mumbled.

After three days, there was a small celebration in front of the hut. The loudspeakers blared some Bollywood songs all the day. Suddenly there was a huge crowd of relatives all over that small hut.

After school, Sita visited Diana with her father. She cannot travel to attend her marriage in Goa. On the return, Sita's father said, "it is illegal, but she is fatherless."

"She is still a child, though," he let out a big sigh.

The next day Sita saw her on the way to school. She waved her hands to Diana sitting inside ‘seit ji’ auto. They both had tears struggling to stay inside their eyes. As the auto-rickshaw started, she bid goodbye to her friend and started to walk alone.

Every day she talks with Manish in the morning and evening. She did not know what the feeling was, but whenever Manish approaches her, she felt like the heroines act in the Bollywood songs. These three years of observing cinema begged her that it is love. She did believe it’s love. Manish too acted like a Bollywood hero. He would smile; walk along with her; as if the latest romantic hit song playing in the background. She slowly gave up her grip.

She thought she managed to stop the boys teasing. But soon she realized she didn't as it took another form now. They would say, "Hey look, your wife's coming." Sita becomes very angry hearing this, but then she cannot stop thinking about it. She sometimes blushes in her room when she is alone.

He very recently started writing letters to her. He would say a lot of things that she could not understand. He insisted her to write back and sometimes compelled her. She became very shy about even trying.

She never wrote any letters. She still was not sure if she loves him. But she has to deal with him as she cannot escape this place. She decided to tackle him just for some more time. Once she passes plus two, she can choose some engineering college, may be near her native village where her grandpa lives. Manish too would go somewhere else; he would see other girls there. He will forget her.

‘Just this year,' she said that to herself.

That is when she realized she is not in love. She is doing all this only to tame him. But she still has to manage, some more time.

The next morning, Sita came out all dressed-up ready to go to school, she collected the books and notes scattered all over the place. Her father left for some work out of town. And her mother was not around, inside the house. She looked out through the window, on hearing a quarrel. She hates these fights that her mother always engages with the neighbor. She cannot win as the neighbor gets very nasty, yet she engages these quarrels. They fight every day from water sharing to someone spitting near their house. Sita hated quarrels, but she lived in a locality that did not. The voice is not of the neighbor, but she knows her mother was arguing with someone. She leaned out of the front door to see who the other woman is. Her face became pale to see that it is Manish's mother.

Manish used to say that she is a chandi, a quarrelsome person. He is very scared of her. When they chat in the street, secretly behind the abandoned mill wall, he looks out every two minutes to ensure nobody is watching.

On seeing Sita inside her house behind the window, she called her out, "Hey, you bitch, the devil trying to lure my son? Come out..."

She slowly walked out to the gates while her mother is shouting to stay inside.

Manish's mother started to curse her in very bad language.

"Ae nich jaat ki ladki… (You, low caste girl) How dare you bitch trying to set up your daughter to get a high-class boy?" she referred her caste as a very derogatory remark. That is the first time she was openly mentioned about her caste. Even her family did not say what her caste is.

‘How she knows my caste?’ She thought.

Sita's mother got infuriated hearing that and she shouted back something. Sita got this unusual feeling in her stomach for the first time someone mentioned her caste in that manner, directly to her face. She can sense the hot blood flowing from bottom to top.

"Now I understand why my son is failing exams…" She took a bag of items that looked like garbage thrown at her. The neatly decorated hall was filled with chocolate papers, ribbon, cups, and whatnot. It seems, Manish secretly took all these used by Sita as souvenirs and got caught. He must have mentioned about her and everything when inquired.

Manish's mother got tired of scolding at the frozen girl. She gets enthusiastic when someone fights back equally, but here, the two women are standing like statues. And she has to go back to household work.

So she summed up all the hate in her mind and said, "Stay away from my son… If you get itching, go find someone else… you slut."

She increased volume slowly and was at her maximum decibel when she ended the line. It echoed everywhere.

She started to walk back, while the whole neighborhood watching.

For a crowded neighborhood, suddenly she felt a grave silence. Sita's mother stood shaking like she is in the middle of an earthquake. It took some time for her mother to grasp what is happening, but soon she figured it out. She whined for a while and thanked God that her father was out of the station on this day. Sita moved mechanically like an electronic toy; dressing up to go to the school.

Sita started to walk to the school. She didn't walk like a fawn; she walked like a tired old lady. Sita cannot imagine what others will think of her?

‘How would I face my neighbors?’

‘They will judge me, call me names...’

‘I won't have friends anymore…’

Tears started rolling down on Sita's cheeks. She crossed Diana’s house and realized she did not have Diana to share this. She looked confused. Her lips are arched downwards and she looked angry.

"I did nothing wrong," she muttered.

"He is the one who followed me for three years"

She said it again, "three years…"

"I did not want to talk to your son"

She talked to herself mimicking as if Manish's mother is standing in front of her and acted like she is talking to her. She talked like she is trying to bring some sense to Manish's mother.

“I do not love your son; in fact, I hate your son”

“I just tried to stop your son from disturbing me”

“I got such low marks in the tenth exam only because of your son”

“If I did not talk, he would torture me and if I did talk, you would. What can I do?”

She wasn't able to grasp how this system works. Sita did not see Manish on that bridge that morning. All his friends stayed silent. It was peaceful, the way she wanted her school years to be. But now, her mind was full of rambling thoughts. How to prove Manish's mother, that she is not a slut? How to tell the whole world that she is innocent? She felt everyone is judging her as she walked along. She felt all the eyes looking at her as if she is the center of the whole street. Everyone in that tea shop talking in distance and all those mumblings, she imagined is about her. It's as if the world wants to know what would be her reply.

Her mother was washing some clothes when she returned from school that evening. She found that the lunch box was never opened.

She went to her poor daughter, "Forget it, Sita, time will heal all the pain"

She combed her daughter's hair with fingers.

Unlike fathers and sons, mothers have a closer bond with daughters. They can see through the pain for they too crossed the same path in their lives a hundred times before. She did not realize Sita would get a woman’s problem, they still believed she’s their little girl. She never wanted her daughter to face the cruel reality, but eventually, it will happen one day. She knew that she must at least now prepare her for the battle with these wolves waiting. She decided to talk to her daughter once she comes out of this, at the right time. She collected all the letters and burnt them; mainly to hide it from her father. Eventually, he will come to know about it, but by then she can manage him. She did not open a single one, even though she can read Hindi at a good level.

Sita did not utter a word. She went to her room. Sita's mother did not disturb her. She saw Sita lying in her bed pressing it so hard as if she wants the earth to open and gobble her up. Maybe Sita needs time alone, she thought. She came to the hall and sat switching on the TV to watch the mega serial. She was waiting to see if the evil in-laws really ousted the obedient pregnant wife from the house... It's been two weeks since the hullabaloo started. Her husband hated mega serials. He tried to watch with her at first, but then he found that it was too slow. He cannot tolerate the fact that it was intentionally slow. In every scene, they slow it down, for example, the phone will ring forever while the heroine contemplates to pick the call and when she picks up and gets to know the caller after good old ten minutes they will end the day’s show. He would say they are taking the audience for granted. She knows mega serials are shitty, but that is how they present; all of them. What a viewer can do other than adjusting and enjoy...?

On the second time advertisements running, she smelled something burning. She knew there was nothing ‘on’ in the kitchen. She followed the smell and ended up standing in front of the bathroom. She did not have any clue. Why the bathroom smells of kerosene? She heard heavy breathing inside and realized what that could be. Within seconds, she let out a huge cry knocking the door vigorously. All the neighbors immediately came out running, gathered around, hearing the outcries. Soon there was a huge crowd, but everyone just stood there.

Within seconds, the auto-rickshaw driver living next door took initiative and kicked the door heavily and broke it open. The heavy black fume spread out from the contained bathroom. As the smoke cleared out, the neighbors witnessed Sita as a small dark figure - moaning and shaking in a sitting position, still burning with thick fire.

Within minutes, the auto-rickshaw driver ran out and got his vehicle ready. He is driving that on a daily lease, the smell will not go away. But the Seitji will only inspect once a week, he can clean the vehicle and perfume heavily. They could wait for an ambulance, but in this heavy traffic time, it will take hours to reach.

They quickly covered her with banana leaves and around six people sat inside the auto. Sita can hear them discussing which hospital to go. They decided to go straight to the government hospital, they could go to the private hospital, but they would not accept these cases. The high court judge recently ruled that they should, but they would not. Somehow Sita did not feel any pain anymore, all she felt was a mild discomfort.

She thought, ‘Everything is going to be alright'.

Her father was informed and on the way to the hospital.

‘Following the law should be a concern to the last rank employee in the hierarchy like the patrol policeman than the high court judge’, her father used to say.

‘As it takes years to get a judge and minutes to get a policeman, but that is how the system works here...’ he would sigh. She remembered it.

The government hospital intensive care unit did not look like a separate big hall with air conditioners. It was just a hall with all other patients cramped everywhere.

After some hours waiting, her mother was given five minutes time to talk to her daughter. They have given some treatment and her whole body was covered in bandages. Her once glowing face now looked dark black with cracks showing reddish flesh inside.

She asked her daughter, "Why did you do this, dear?"

Something that looked like a mouth moving, she slowly let the words one by one out. She whispered, "I just cannot digest that… someone called me… a slut, ma. The word rang again and again in my ears"

Tears slowly appeared and struggled to drip down on the burnt cracked skin, she said, "I am not a slut, ma"

Her mother burst into tears, beating herself in the forehead and chest continuously, with all her force in both the hands. The nurses hurried to move her mother away, while Sita yelling, "Maa, it's a stupid mistake... I want to live... Please save me ma, please..."

Sita passed away that night, silently in her bed, just before the clock hit twelve.


Starting the Journey

3 Weeks Ago

The hot puri masala curry, Rohan accidentally touched, while pouring still burnt on the edge of his middle finger. It wasn’t painful, but annoying. That pain made him remember Sita. The story didn’t disturb him as much as the fact that she didn’t let out a single scream during the near one hour she was burning in flames. It was not the shout, but the smell that caught her mother's attention. They said she clenched her jaws so tight that she damaged her teeth.

Rohan once saw a science TV show where they said it's impossible to stay silent while burning. But now he knows for a fact that, it is not true. Sometimes, he gets lost in deep thoughts that raised so many questions...

‘Why she did not scream?’

‘Why was she silent?’

‘What is her statement?’

‘That the words caused her so much pain than the fire itself?’

‘What made that a 16-year-old schoolgirl to endure such a pain for so long?’

There were no police complaints filed that day; they would have preferred to save her daughter's dignity from further abuse; even though that means not punishing the culprit. The system somehow is mutated into not touching the culprits. Somehow we, Indians are conditioned to think that raising voice won't solve a problem; instead, it would only lead to further trouble.

Sita's father bribed the policemen to change the story. The newspaper dedicated a small paragraph in the ‘local news’ page, it read 'Girl commits suicide' and the reason stated was a long time ‘stomach ache’. He applied for a transfer; they sold the house and soon moved to their native village.

Rohan as a kid was ordered to not to go that way for a month when the incident happened. In the weeks of demolition, the house looked deserted. Out of curiosity, Rohan visited the place with his friends secretly; He can still remember the corner of the toilet where carbon burnt shades drew a perfect picture of her sitting pose. It gave chills many nights, that it really happened just across his house. The house was demolished and within six months, a big shiny apartment was built there. It looked odd in that locality.

The incident affected the neighborhood in many different ways. Some believed she became a deity and some believed she became a ghost. It affected him in a weird way. He is afraid of corners. The corner of any room he is confined.

In his far peripheral vision, He would see a little girl in skirts, sitting with her hands bracing tightly below her knees, thick black skin, burning in silence but with a mild tolerating hum. He never shared this with anyone because he thought it is contagious. What if after sharing this, the listener sees the same in their room corners, in their far peripheral vision? He did not want someone else to suffer.

He doesn’t get these thoughts often... but sometimes. Not only when he is alone in his room, but even in public places like an auditorium or a bus. He is not exactly afraid, but he felt... unresolved. Even when he is taking a bath naked, he does not close his eyes. He hates to close his eyes when he pours water on his head. He will command his mind to ignore the urge to look at the corner, but mostly he would give in and turn his head to ensure it is just imagination. Then he’d curse himself for losing his mind. He cannot believe that incident still haunts him even after 15 years.

The ‘cursed bridge’ is still there and brats are still sitting, eve-teasing the girls who walk by. Manish got married, had kids and lived a happy life.

‘His kids would be sitting on the bridge now,’ Rohan thought. He used to see that family once in a while, going to the nearby movie theater in the Seitji auto rickshaw. His mother was unaffected, not once shown any remorse; nobody ever said anything as such in the neighborhood.

In the coming days traveling all over the country, whenever Rohan read newspapers, he started to note there were too many ‘stomach ache’ suicide stories that he usually just brushes away.

The question suddenly popped into his mind out of nowhere.

"Is there a god of innocence?" he asked his colleagues gathered around the dining table in the working men's hostel common hall.

"Well, there is a Norse god, Baldur I think," Ajay said.

"No, I mean in India, like ours… Hindu God?" on saying that he looked around, making sure all the men sitting are Hindus, as he did not want to offend anyone accidentally.

Ajay shrank his eyes, "I don't know... no, I think"

"Are you sure?"

"Wait, I will Google..."

He tapped his phone and a few seconds later replied, "Nope, none, I will remember and get back if I find out. That's an interesting question."

He is the group’s ‘General Knowledge' guy; he'd never stop writing government exams even after getting a well-paid prestigious job.

"Hmm... so much for millions of Gods," Rohan continued munching the puri.

Ajay smiled and asked, “So basically you’re like any other relative visiting her on a Sunday?

He laughed mischievously.

Rohan said, “Hey, We are still on probation, I can’t take leave for even a single day till we complete one year training period”

“Yeah, but you can always request”

“Kiss their ass too… a lot… it’s not worth it” he scoffed.

“Besides, they said the hospital will take of everything. And I did not hear any problems too. You, Indians are over sentimental. What difference does it make to just sit in the hospital and stare at blankness?”

“And my sister was there for everything who takes pride that daughters are more responsible for helping the parents than boys; just like the age-old "anti-female-foeticide" Doordarshan advertisement envisioned”

“But it's just that her semester exams were over by the time and she happened to be on leave”

Ajay noticed that he is talking continuously and understood Rohan feels a lot of guilt about not being with his mother.

He said, “Alright calm down. So From now on, you’ll be going every week to the city…”

“No, I don’t think so. It’s too long to travel from here”

“But it's your mother in the hospital”
“Hmm... that’s true, is the operation over?”

He nodded ‘yes’

Ajay asked, “Within a week of admission? Wow GIMS is acting like a private hospital?” looking surprised.

“My father knows where to give money. You play it right; Government hospital will become even better than Singapore hospitals”

Ajay laughed and asked, “But you said it is just kidney stones?”
“Isn’t there a treatment to pass it via urine?”
“This is not that kind of usual case; it is all those small stones got clumped together to the size of ‘gummy bears,’ like a ball and got stuck in the tract

“Oh my god that sounds painful”
“Yeah, my sister said all the doctors and students visited to see it. It seems the removed ‘stone ball’ will be displayed in their hall”

Ajay suddenly remembered something and said, “Hey on the return journey, drive safe when you cross that divider”

The highway was separated at a certain point where the divider suddenly appears like a sharp end of the rod. Till the divider, it’s a single road for both directions. Ajay got worried when he first noticed and since then he is complaining to various departments. He is a social activist in the making; he even contacted local newspapers regarding the same.

“Yeah, I will be careful”

“Because there is no warning sign or road lamps; in the night, the divider appears suddenly and if you are driving fast, you cannot control hitting it”

“I know… I’ll be careful… mom…”

Rohan said and laughed. Ajay looked annoyed and started to check his mobile.

He said, "Look at this…"

He showed his phone, where an advertisement displayed a woman's face and head, covered with a cloth showing only her teary eyes. Under the image, a thick red link read: ‘Minor girl gang-raped in front of her family'

"This is the clickbait ad for India's top newspaper, what does that say?"

"Did you click it?"

"Yeah," He scoffed and looked at him like asking ‘so?’

Rohan tilted his head and raised his shoulders slightly, denoting ‘nothing'. He raised and went to wash his hands. He has to start early, for the long travel ahead.


Troubled Granny

15 Years Ago

The Sri Ram Mandir temple looked busy for an early morning, Kamala came out of sanctum sanctorum, which wasn’t that crowded. The entire crowd was on the outside stall nearby, where a small mob stood in all directions pointing towards a priest. She pushed her way through the crowd and stretched her hand with a Rs 50 note and the priest exchanged a yellow thread quickly. She felt it’s her lucky day.

The priest is busy selling the yellow threads like hot cakes. With a victorious smile, she slowly adjusted her body and thrust out through the forward moving mob; she was already drenched in sweat, in that cool morning climate.

A Bajan song was blaring through speakers installed all over the area.

“What is the festival today? Why do they put such a high volume songs since 4 AM?”
Rani smiled, “I know why… it is Christmas…”

Kamala looked at her awkwardly, as if she is asking ‘why?’

Rani said, “What? The church does the same on Diwali”
Kamala said, “So they are united in making sure that we should not sleep peacefully in any holiday”

The whole group laughed and started to walk towards the outer footsteps of the Sri Ram Mandir.

“Why did you buy this thread?”
“For my son”
“Is Rohan is getting scared of nights? Again?”

“No, no… he is going to tuition in the way that poor girl Sita’s house is located”

“Oh, yeah, and do not allow your boy to go that way; he is too imaginative and curious”

“Wow, thank you… you’re so caring”

“I’ve my reasons… my son is accompanying him to the tuition”

They both chuckled.

“After what happened to her, I just wanted to make sure he is protected”

Her neighbor laughed, “What? Do you fear Sita will haunt your son?”

Kamala became defensive and said, “Of course, I do. What is wrong with that? She is an angry spirit now and especially about boys”
Rani said, “I don’t think so. I think she became a goddess rather than a ghost. How much dignity she must have got… to do something like that”
Kamala put her hands on the right side of her stomach and pressed as they sat on the temple steps.

“What happened? Are you in pain?”
“I don’t know… it tingles here on the lower abdomen once in a while”
“Ask your mother for some remedies”
“Oh no, she always puts a spoon of salt in water and asks me to drink it”

Her neighbor laughed, “For her, salt is the remedy to all the problems…”

Kamala smiled.
“Talking about grandmas… what happened to your neighbor Daadee. She did not come to Satsang… I tried to reach her mobile but it is not reachable”
Kamala said, “Oh, delete that number it won’t work anymore…”
“What? Why?”
“She threw away that SIM card, that is why”
“What happened?”

“I went to her house yesterday. She was talking fine with me, and then the phone rang. Her face went gloomy all of a sudden. And she cut the call. Then again it rang. She cut the call again. It happened for five more times.”

“I asked her, who is it? She said it is some youth. She got the first call a week ago, it seems. Hearing a woman’s voice, he cut the call, that time. And from, then he calls her day and night and when she attends, he starts to talk in really bad words like explaining intercourse elaborately and all”

“She got so scared. Poor old lady! I asked her to attend the call and put it on speaker”

“As soon as she did that, he started to blurt out all the bad words about having sex with her and all that nonsense in Hindi curse words. We both got so disgusted and I was speechless for some minutes….”

“Then Daadee picked the phone and with a trembling voice, she said, ‘dear, your voice is so young and you sound like my grandson… it is inappropriate to talk like this to a stranger’ and all. She politely explained him about her age and he should get married, etc. you know… trying to make sense out of him”

Rani said, “Hmm… ok”

“Him… on the other hand did not stop uttering those sex scenarios and positions and believe me…”

She paused and said, “it was… nasty… definitely not for an old woman like her to hear and I’m guilty to even tell this in a temple… she got so fed up and finally asked in a high pitch trembling voice, ‘son, what do you want anyway?’”

She looked at all the faces and said, “And suddenly there was a grave silence on the other side”

All the neighbors looked at her curiously.

“And then he shouted… YOU”

The whole bunch started to laugh out loud. So much that, tears started to come out.


The Chance

10 Years Ago

As the car stopped at the railway station, Aaysha unloaded the luggage from the cab with the help of her father. Sushmita did not bring any luggage; She always makes sure, she never does. They both studied in the same school and now joined in the same college. Aaysha’s father accompanied to drop them at the railway station, traveling an hour in the cab from her home. He slammed the back door and tapped the car with his hand twice to signal the driver to start moving.

He struggled to lift the suitcase and noticing that Aaysha said, "Papa, you can use the stroller to drag… with that stick in the middle…"

He pulled it, pressing a button.

"Yeah, like that"

"So you know about the system and how it works", she said and Sushmita laughed.

"But the wheels will get damaged on the stones of this pavement, dear," he said.

"I have no idea why are you struggling like this… coming here all the way only to drop me and go back again"

"What trouble? This is like exercise to me"

"I can manage alone… dad"

"I know, dear! I just want to be with you some more time… that is all"

‘You're lying,' she thought.

She knows he is paranoid and precautionary. She doesn't know why, but he is like that as long as she can remember.

"Your back pain won't allow you to sleep peacefully tonight," she said as he went to buy the platform ticket.

She said to Sushmita, "This is a ritual happening since my school days"

"He will drop me at school and wait patiently till I walk past the gates and disappearing from his eyes"

She paused and said, "Then in the evening, he will be back exactly to the same spot "

"That is so sweet… You are lucky to have him as your dad…"

"I don't know how he gets the time to do these rituals, with his busy office hours"

"But why are you scolding him…?"

"I'm not scolding… I am just whining… that he never in that whole decade, complained about it, not even once"

She paused and said, "I mean caring for me is alright, but he is a bit overprotective. It kind of scares me. You have no idea. In school, he maintained close contacts with all the teachers and was an active member of the parent-teachers' association meetings"

"Yeah, I know… but come on, he has every right to do this. I like him"

He came back and they started to move inside the station.

"Thank god, I joined a college in Goa," she said in a voice only Sushmita can hear. They both studied B.Sc. Biotechnology.

All the three started to walk inside the railway station.

"Uncle…? What Aaysha will do after completing the degree?"

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