The nightly race home lends an air of chaos to the streets of Delhi. Visibility is low and blood pressures high. Blaring horns and hot temperaments layer the urban soundscape. Pedestrians perform life-endangering stunts as the city enters the Third Act with a frantic look in her eyes. Suneeta tries hard to turn her desperate run into a steady walk. She is far enough from her home to call it a safe escape, also far enough to start worrying about where she is headed. She is alone in a city that no longer feels like home.
“Ma, I got in!”She was thrilled beyond belief. Being accepted on merit over brilliant peers from all across the country was a sudden revelation to her. Suneeta stood tall with a sense of pride she had never felt before. She was 21 years old, 3 years older than the legal minimum marriageable age in India. She knew it as well as her mother, who stood in front of her still not sure about how to react to this news. Suneeta had always been a bright student, sincere and hard-working, but she had no clear answer to what she wanted to do in life. She was never asked the question that her aunts and uncles always posed to her brothers – “Beta, what will you become when you grow up?” All she got were comments on her appearance and culinary skills. Suneeta knew she was in uncharted territory. No woman from her family had even thought of doing a Bachelor’s degree, leave alone a Master’s. This turn of events had clouded her mind enough to not worry about the meaning and purpose of studying further. She knew it had been a long shot – first, getting into the college, and second, having her family let her do it. Ma controlled her enthusiasm but couldn’t hide her worry. “We’ll see,” she said.
The traffic light is stuck at a blinking yellow. It’s a free-for-all, yet cars stand their ground in disdain, bumper to bumper challenging each other head-on. Women drivers sit patiently looking at their phones, with their windows rolled up and doors locked. Men step out to take control of the mayhem. Suneeta stands at the intersection looking in all directions, considering her options. All other pedestrians pass her by, taking advantage of the gridlock. She knows she can’t be just standing around like those young men hanging out at the pavement. She has to look purposeful in order to avoid their attention. She has to look like she has a home to go to, a husband or a father or a brother waiting for her at home. Otherwise she is ‘fair game’.
“Baba, I know you will worry about me when I’m far away, but the degree will help me find a good job.” She looked at him with imploring eyes. She knew he found it hard to say “no” to her. She also knew that this was not a foolproof argument. Why would she need a good job if all he wanted was to find her a good husband who would provide for her? She was going to be 23 by the time she finished her degree. One good offer had come their way already, without their even trying. Waiting for another two years might make it too late. “Beta, you will not need a job. The boy has a good package in Delhi. He will take care of you.”
The clock ticks away on her wrist. She knows it’s only a matter of time before this busy street turns into a desolate scene. She is as afraid of the group of men, as she is of the police car parked in one corner. She cannot stand out. She will not be taken back to her husband’s house. She paces forward, clutching on to her bag, high on adrenaline brought about by the possibilities of the night. She spots a public toilet across the busy street.
Invitation cards had been printed. Her parents wanted to get the best of everything for her. She knew that all this generosity came more out of them trying to put up appearances than out of their love for her. Instead of trying to make sense of it all, or to reason with them, she was told to just enjoy this special life event. Once the whole family had arrived, all of her father’s financial worries and her mother’s emotional ones got drowned in the festivities that took place each night. The bright strings of lights flickered all around the house, announcing the upcoming marriage to the world.
Suneeta catches herself staring out into the blankness that feels like her future. She pushes herself to cross the street. That toilet could be her safe haven, at least for the night, she tells herself. After a mix of some smart manoeuvres and desperate requests, she finds herself on the other side of the street. She cautiously enters the public toilet and instinctively turns towards the mirror. For a moment, she looks confused, as if she doesn’t recognise what she sees. She inspects the reflection as if she is looking at someone else. Her shirt’s arm is ripped from one side, and she has dried blood on her lips. Black smudges of her kajal can be seen under her eyes. Her hair is a mess.
All her friends came to the wedding, even the ones who were studying in big cities. They all looked so happy sitting in her room by the mirror at which she was getting ready. Suneeta was the centre of attention, at the receiving end of all affection. The five-day wedding soon became a blur, much like her father’s ledger. The night she left her father’s home, her joy knew no bounds. She was heading towards a new life in the big city, with someone her father trusted. The traditional sorrow one feels at this point in life could wait till later.
An old woman walks into the public toilet holding a bucket in her hand. Suneeta is startled. She wipes her tears and washes her face with full force as she mentally scraps her plan of spending the night under the public toilet’s roof. “Your husband did that?” the old woman enquires. Suneeta looks at her, feeling disoriented. “I could have said boyfriend but you are wearing those bangles.” Suneeta raises her arms and looks at the red and white bangles still around her wrist, not knowing what to say.
Once in her husband’s home, life became routine soon enough. She was a good cook and liked cleanliness, which was always an asset for a homemaker. He was excited about having someone at home doing everything for him since his mother lived far away. He would take her out for a movie once in a while to show his appreciation. She, on the other hand, would have to show hers every day and night. He would not excuse her even if she were feeling unwell. Any attempt at avoiding nightly duties on her part would lead to massive fights. He would not come back home the next day. She soon learnt the ways of living a lie, pretending to be happy on her afternoon phone calls to her mother, smiling for his friends who came over every weekend to spend drunken late nights. Suneeta was 22 years old now, and already her life felt like it was over. Or at least, she hoped it would soon be.
“What is your plan?” the woman with the bucket asks Suneeta. “You must have had a plan before you left?” Suneeta looks lost. She shakes her head. The woman puts the bucket upside down on the floor, and gestures for Suneeta to sit down. She looks into her eyes and says, “I am not going to mince words here. It’s not going to be easy, but nothing good comes easy”.
“Meenu called yesterday. She was very happy. She got a promotion.” Suneeta tried to sound calm but her enthusiasm was clear. Her husband had come back late from work, and she was serving him dinner. “Good for her,” he said curtly. “She was telling me that she can put in a word for me at her office, for a part-time…”, she was afraid of saying the word. Her husband froze, the colour of his face turning a soft red.
Suneeta sits on the bucket in one corner of the public toilet. “All the strength you will ever need in life is within you. You will be amazed,” the woman tells her. Her eyes pierce through her soul, giving her comfort. “It’s all over…There is nothing left… I thought I did what I was supposed to… What happened? What did I do wrong?” tears roll down her cheeks. The woman lets her cry.
He had hit her. That had been the breaking point. To lose your dignity in gradual, subtle ways can be acceptable. Suneeta had learned this from all the women she grew up around. But to be on the receiving end of physical violence was dehumanising. She had heard of husbands beating their wives, and knew that a lot happened behind closed doors, even in her own family, but she had never imagined the intensity of the shock when it happened to her. That was it. That had to be it. Without a doubt in her mind, she had fled.
Suneeta is calm. The dark clouds in her mind seem to be parting away. Walking out of the public toilet, Suneeta can see the first rays of the sun shining in her eyes. It is a new day in every sense of the word. She thinks of Meenu, her friend, and the possibility of a job, of a salary, of independence. It will not be easy, she tells herself, but nothing good comes easy.
Cover Image: Ratna Khanna