Thursday, 8 March 2018

Some women have it tough

A salute to some really tough women I know on international women's day! Some others are forced to be tough. This is a story based on some real life incidents...

There was nothing about his behavior as a child that could have pointed to what was to come. He was a sweet and obedient child, good in his studies, interested in many things, very caring of his mother, no trouble at all. The mother had brought him up almost alone living in a rented flat in the city – the husband was away in various parts of the NE on a transferable job, but they had decided that she should stay with her son in Guwahati for their son’s education. That meant that she had to commute long distances by bus every week day to work – Bijni, Sonapur, even as far as Nalbari, Rangiya,… and over the weekend to Mirza to make sure everything was okay with her in-laws. After all she was the eldest buwari – she had responsibilities.

His excellent performance in his Matric exam made it easy for him to get into Cotton College. The first signs of trouble did not take long to come. At first everyone thought it was just a reaction to the freedom of being in a college. But his behavior slowly began to change – he would spend less and less time at home, would hardly talk to his mom, and when he was home, would silently go to his room, or watch TV with her, without saying much. He would often not eat what she had cooked, saying he had eaten outside. It did bother her that her husband and son rarely spoke to each other, but she was scared to suggest it to either. The first yearly exams came and went – he hardly studied, given that he did quite well. She tried to gently remind him that his Class XII exams were all important if he wanted to join a good engineering college. He did not react.

But then, sometime into his second year, he asked her for a motor-bike – she said no, because she was worried for his safety. The city traffic was so crazy… at first he did not say anything, then one day he came home and said he would go on hunger strike if he did not get his bike. His mother did not know what to do, gave him the keys to the car and told him he could use it instead. He took the keys and left. Perhaps a daughter would have been easier to manage, after all, none of her friends who have daughters have ever complained about them. Boys are more difficult, especially when the fathers are not there to show them the way.

Hers was a rather lonely world – she could not share her thoughts with her husband who was never there, nor did she like talking about her personal problems with her friends or colleagues. Her parents were gone. There was no one left of her siblings who could help her – soon after their marriage her husband had thrown out her elder brother from their house, in a drunken fit. The others had also stopped coming to be spared the humiliation. Her sister had her own share of problems, she could not burden her with more. She soldiered on alone.

There was peace only as long as her husband did not come home on his next visit. He got very angry with her for allowing their son to drive the car. What would he drive then when he was in town? It seemed to not matter to anybody at all that she had to go everywhere by bus. He confiscated the keys from the son and told him the deal was off. The son stormed out of the house and did not come back home as long as the father was around.

Once he was gone, the son came back. He pestered her again to give him a motorcycle. He would not sit for the final exams if she did not give him the bike. She tried to reason with him – the exams were so near, there was no time left to spend driving around – he needed to use the time to study and do well. He did not reply. A couple of days later he showed her an advertisement looking for a kidney donor – he said he would sell a kidney to buy the motor bike. She did not know what to do – she gave him the money. He got his bike. He was not to be seen for many days afterwards. She feared for his life. He would disconnect, every time she tried to call him. Her frantic SMSs were never answered. One evening he came home smelling of cigarettes – ‘Please God, let me just be cigarettes and not anything more. I can’t bear the thought of my son drinking’ – she pleaded to her gods. She had seen what alcohol could do – had seen her husband destroying himself with too much alcohol – ‘please God, spare my son, please.’

He told her one day that he would not sit for the Class XII exam. He had not prepared. In any case he was not interested in studying any further. He had found a business partner and was going into business. What business, she asked. ‘These are new areas, to do with the digital world, you won’t understand,’ he told her roughly and went out. There was nothing for her to do but to pray and to wait for him to come home. The gaps became longer, before stabilizing; he would come home roughly once every two weeks. She also saw that his visits home also coincided with his need to get his clothes washed, and to get some money from her. She gave him what he asked for silently. He never asked her how she was or whether there was anything he could do for her. ‘What had she done wrong in his upbringing that today he had become so cold and distant?’ she often asked herself. Answers did not come as easily.

Then one day the dreaded news came, he had had an accident and had broken his left hand and leg, and a few ribs. The motorcycle had been severely damaged. She thanked God that he was still alive, she was not complaining. She took him to hospital, waited on him, took care of him, fed him, washed him, and continued to do all that long after he was back home. He was forced to stay at home – at least that -- she was happy, in a rather strange way. She went to the police station and told the policemen to do whatever they wished with the motorbike but to not give it back to her son if he ever came asking for it. She didn’t want any more accidents.

The accident seemed to have had some effect. He studied and sat for his Class XII exams, one year later. Passed. He wanted to join a fancy private engineering college in Bangalore where all his friends had gone. She resisted – you are going there to study, not to spend time with your friends; she persuaded him to join the much better reputed college in Chennai instead. He was very resentful. From day one, he decided to make his mother pay for this – ‘It is very hot, I can’t stand it here; the food is very spicy, I can’t eat anything; this place is run like a school – I will not accept it – who do they think they are.’ This went on… whatever happened in Chennai, it was her fault. She tried talking to her husband – instead of supporting her, he also joined the son in blaming her. What was the need to send him to Chennai?

He started bunking classes, not sitting for exams. A couple of times the parents were asked to come – her husband refused to go with her…she went alone, for the first time in her life, by air. Stayed in a hotel in Chennai also alone for the first time…went and begged his teachers to give him another chance. He reached home before her, spending all of Rs. 16,000 on his air ticket. His reason: as if having to live in that damn hell hole was not bad enough, hearing her beg and plead for him was the limit – he would have nothing more to do with it. He was not going back.

She begged and pleaded, with him this time. He had only two semesters left. The better part of his course was over. It had been a very expensive affair. He should go back and finish the course before starting on something else. ‘I did not ask to go there, why are you blaming me now for the costs?’ She went with him to Chennai over the Durga Pooja holiday period and tried to settle him in. He was sullen. She didn’t have a lot of leave, had to return. Two weeks later, she found him waiting for him when she got home from work. What happened? He wanted to celebrate Diwali at home, so decided to come home. This time the air ticket was a whopping Rs.19,000. ‘Don’t both of you earn, who are you saving it all up for, it is for me, isn’t it? So it doesn’t matter whether I spend it now or later,’ he told her.

She had given him her ATM card to her salary account – he had started withdrawing a lot of money – for no obvious reason. She noticed that it did not take long for money to be withdrawn from the account, whenever there was something there. She did not know how to stop him. One way to prevent that would be to spend the money before he did so – she had once gone by air and stayed in a hotel all by herself, she could do it again -- she started taking off to the airport on a sudden impulse – buying a ticket for the next flight out, whatever the cost, regardless of destination, and setting off. Staying in hotels, going on sightseeing trips, eating in restaurants – spending her hard-earned money; her colleagues at work were alarmed but stood by her. They could see that she was desperate. Those aimless trips to unknown destinations gave her a sense of power – there was something at least that she could do on her own, she kept doing it time and again.

By then her demented husband had started calling her a whore, firmly believing that she was having an affair with someone else and was taking off on these trips with him. There was no one to turn to, no one who she could ask for help, no one who would understand her, she was alone…she had worked like a slave all her life, at work and at home, but it had amounted to nothing, no home, no family, no bank balance… did it make any sense to continue to live? It seemed so pointless. On one of her trips she had landed in Lakshwadeep; she thought she could fling herself from the boat (that they were taking the next day) and drown. That night she spent settling her bank accounts, adding nominees, transferring money, repaying debts. But the next day the kindly old lady sitting next to her on the boat was so nice to her that she did not have the heart to interrupt the lovely time she was having for a change. The moment passed.

Meanwhile her son had given up on engineering and had discovered a new found love for physical fitness – he enrolled himself into the most expensive gymn in town, rented a flat right next to it, installed himself there and immersed himself in a strict fitness regime. The gymn helped him find a cook who knew how to cook ‘health foods’. She was needed only to foot the bills. She did not hear very much from him these days. It was only from the bank statements that she came to know how expensive this latest fancy was. Let him be, at least he is not racing around town on a motorbike. He is safe, and healthy, she consoled herself. Six raw eggs whipped with full cream milk every morning, various salads, juices and fruits with whole meal cereals for lunch and dinner; he was doing it right, at her expense. But how would this ‘getting fit project’ lead to a job, to his being able to stand on his own feet, she wondered. The chances were very slim – the bones that he had broken years ago would stand in the way of his being able to go all the way, the trainer had told him. He would become fit, but he would never be able to make it his profession. So there was still some way to go, she told herself. She would have to wait till he was done with this present obsession and would find himself something else to do.
She had stopped meeting her friends – she did not want to talk about her situation; all the others seemed to be doing so well – had lovely homes, caring husbands, beautiful families. She wanted to be happy for them, but only landed up hurting herself, so it was better to stay away. Hers was a lonesome world, especially when it came to having her meals in the evening. Sometimes she would ask her son to come home to join her – he would promptly decline the invitation saying that eating what she cooked would kill him. Her husband rarely came home those days. When he called his words were full of venom -- spiked innuendos, accusations, abusive language. She wondered what she was doing when the two people for whom she had given up everything else in her life did not value her, did not care for her, could not even stand her.

When did things start going wrong, she asked herself? It did not take her long to realize that things between her husband and her were never right, even in the beginning. He had been always ashamed of her, because she was not fashionable, did not paint her nails, could not speak English fluently. He had ridiculed her in front of her friends when they had come to visit her soon after their marriage. She had never forgotten the humiliation. And things had only got worse. Perhaps it is because their son was the offspring of an unhappy marriage that things had gone wrong for him too. He had never seen his father showing her any respect or affection, so he never learnt to do so either.

She thought of her years before she got married, of her dreams and hopes; she was young then, and even pretty. All these years of travelling everyday by bus to work, of eating roadside food every lunchtime and of not caring for herself had turned her into an old hag, prematurely. Had even one of her dreams come true? Having lived in rented flats all her life, she had dreamt of a home of her own someday. But who would build it for her? Certainly not her husband. And the last time he had visited he had told her that if a fat and ugly toad like her could find herself a boyfriend he would also go ahead and find himself a mistress, that it was all over between them. Not once had he given her a chance to say anything in her defense. Not once had he asked her how she was? She silently served him dinner and then sat and watched TV in the living room till he had finished drinking and fallen asleep.

What was the point in carrying on? Was she needed only for her salary that others could spend? Her husband sent almost his entire salary home to his parents and two unmarried sisters, or so he claimed. It was her salary that was taking care of her and her son. And in recent times, with the huge expenses her son incurred to remain ‘fit’ there was not much left for her. But then who would feed her son if she did not do so? He was her son after all, her responsibility. The father had not done anything for his son in recent years. She could not bear the thought of her son having to do with less. No, that must not happen. She must make sure that he has all he needs. What were parents for? One day everything would be all right. He will come good some day. She had given up on her husband but she just could not give up on her son. Because giving up on him would mean admitting that she had failed.

Once on one of her mad trips she had visited the Brahma Kumari Ashram in Mt. Abu. ‘Can I come and join you here?’ she had asked the Kumaris. ‘Of course,’ they had told her kindly. ‘But don’t run away from the world, it has its ways of finding you.’

Latest by then she knew that she was trapped!

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