Women are like still water.
Calm and composed.
Clear and yet, oddly deep and foggy to the rigid mind.
Women are like a willow tree.
A single being but with many hands, different masks and numerous roles.
All fulfilled with the grace of a dancer and the ruthlessness of a general.
All done in the name of duty; all done in the name of love.
What was done was what was needed to be done.
That was their vital role.
Selvi had always admired her mother. Being born in a big household with half a dozen of siblings vying for love and affection was never a good sign, especially when there were more girls than boys. Even though it was the early fifties, girls were still undesired then and so, they were rarely given love or affection.
Selvi knew it; she knew the circumstances were unkind towards her and still, she desired her mother’s love and acceptance more than anything else. That was the beginning of everything. From the moment she decided that her mother’s love and acceptance would be her life goal, from the moment she decided to surrender her needs in order to reach that goal, Selvi ceased to exist. She no longer belonged to herself.
She was always known as the second best. She always had a title in front of her. First it was Annamalai’s or Sinthamani’s daughter. And then, as she grew older, it was Bala’s sister. Her eldest brother was the man of the house then and so, almost everything belonged to him, including herself.
Simply put, she was the bridesmaid. Always second best – she was always secondary to someone else.
She tried not to dwell on it. After all, her life’s goal was to gain her mother’s love and affection. Nothing else would matter once she has gotten those two sacred things. Or so she thought.
The first thing to trigger the panic in her mind was when her mother pulled her aside one evening and told her that she was going to be withdrawn from school. She gaped at her mother like a lost guppy as her mother proceeded to explain to her that education is wasted on females as they do not need it to run a household or more specifically, a marriage. And so, they did not want to waste the money educating her since it would be useless and a waste. They preferred to keep her at home, locked up in the kitchen while the money was channelled to provide the best of everything that was possible for her four brothers.
The second thing that triggered the big red panic button in her life was the fact that as the years went by, her parents started saving money and jewelleries for the sake of their children’s marriage and she, being the fifth child in the family, was overlooked in favour of her two older brothers and older sisters. She understood the fact that the siblings that are older than her should get married first. What she did not understand was that the fact that her parents totally ignored her, hence there was no dowry for her marriage. The dowry that was supposed to be given for her marriage was instead allotted aside for her sister – in – laws. That broke her heart as she had already imagined herself wearing those jewelleries. The knowledge that what was promised to her no longer belong to her was unbearable.
That was when she decided, she had to start looking out for herself. She knew that no matter how much of love she poured out for her mother, it would still amount to nothing compared to the love that her mother had for her brother.
She was worried about her future as no one else in her family seemed to be worried about her life. She knew that her parents had passed the reigns to her brothers and hence, they expected her brothers to provide a good future for herself and her sisters. This of course also meant that any prospective husband would not be of her choosing and of her liking.
She needed some kind of direction to take in her life, a new goal in life. She refused to be like any other female Indian that she knew in her life – always the housewife, always the follower of men. Not that she was against them, no. All she wanted was to be surer of her life. And so, she decided to go on a small journey, to find what truly made her feel happy and satisfied – what truly made her feel alive.
Unlike other Indian women, her mother does not possess the flair or the finesse for cooking. Oh, her cooking was delicious alright but there was always the sense of sudden emptiness after the body’s system had gotten used to the onslaught of aroma and taste, as if the taste did not last long to reach the belly.
Selvi unashamedly was obsessed with her aunt’s cooking. Even though her own mother’s cooking was more like an art, her aunt’s cooking represented raw talent mixed with self-serving satisfaction. There was something in her aunt’s cooking; something that her mother did not put into hers. She was sure that it was some kind of sorcery.
Her aunt laughed at her.
‘ Sorcery? Hah! That’s a good one, little Selvi. It is not sorcery, my dear. Unlike your mother, I do not rush to prepare meals for my family. Unlike your mother, I only cook for a small number of people. I take my time, slowly and patiently and finish my cooking just in time for the flavours to simmer and mix around nicely. ‘
‘ So you mean your cooking is tastier ‘cause of your patience? ‘ Selvi asked dubiously.
Her aunt peered at her out of her horn-rimmed spectacles and sighed deeply.
‘ It is love, Selvi. Love is the special ingredient. Your mother has been hardened by the years and the burden she carry on her shoulders for looking after eight people, eight bellies to feed, nine including hers. Cooking is no longer something fun and filling for her like it is for me. Cooking has become a chore for her – a chore that she no longer desire. There’s no love in her cooking the way there is in mine. ‘
Selvi gasped at her aunt. She never knew love was so powerful. Back at home, she spent the whole day watching her mother prepare first lunch, then dinner. Her mind was full of thoughts on the conversation she had with her aunt moments ago as she watched her mother sauté the long beans.
She made up her mind then. What better way to test her aunt’s theory than to try it out herself?
She observed her mother for a full week, taking up mental notes on the recipes and the techniques her mother used. Her mother had raised her brows at Selvi when she spotted Selvi the first two times but slowly, she got used to having Selvi around. At times, Selvi will help her mother with the chopping and the cutting and the cleaning.
When Selvi conveyed her desire to cook to her mother, her mother was sceptical at first but she allowed Selvi to cook something simple and so, Selvi cooked egg curry. The egg curry was made up of boiled eggs mixed into spicy brown curry that tastes almost similar to a fish curry.
Selvi made sure she did not rush. She wanted to savour the moment. She cooked as she liked, straying from her mother’s recipe from time to time. Mostly, she made it with her father’s, mother’s and siblings’ faces in her mind. She allowed the love that had swamped her and had threatened to gush out to pour into her cooking.
The curry was slightly burnt and the eggs were slightly overcooked but her father and her siblings loved it. They had heaped praises on her as they licked the bowl clean, which made her feel proud and happy at the same time. Her mother, however, was not happy about her end results. She complained about her mistakes, harping on it until the table grew silent.
As she cried herself to sleep that night, she found out that her aunt’s words were true. Love was definitely the secret ingredient.
Yet, she knew that she has not discovered her talent, her passion yet. She had perfected her cooking but it was not filling the void within her. Cooking came naturally for her, as if it was born with her. She still felt dissatisfied with her life – she was still incomplete. And then, she saw the advert near her house one day.
“ SEWING AND STITCHING CLASSES FOR FEMALES ONLY “
She ran back home and broke the news to her mum, expressing her desire to enrol in the class. Instead of saying anything, her mother asked her brothers’ opinion.
‘ Why do we have to ask them?’ she asked her mother furiously, feeling slightly dejected as her brothers never allowed her to do anything that made her happy.
‘ They’re the men of the house. Of course we have to ask them! We women are never allowed to do anything without their consent. Silly girl, haven’t your learn this already? ‘ her mother chided her.
Her eldest brother, as expected, was furious upon hearing about her wish.
‘ Why do you want to take up sewing? What purposes does it serve you? ‘ he demanded.
‘ I’m sure she wants to meet some boy outside, ‘ her second brother supplied. He had always envied her as she was the fairest amongst her siblings and always grabbed the attention and the soft eyes of outsiders immediately.
She started to cry. She felt heartbroken with the way her brothers were treating her. Her third brother sat at the corner silently, indifferent to the goings and comings of the house as always.
‘ No, Amma. I’m sorry, I can’t allow her to run free. What would outsiders think? She’s of marrying age now. What if she gets spoiled by some no good low caste boy? What will happen to our family’s name then? ‘
Her sobbing grew louder. Inside, her sisters increased the volume of the television. They too were ignorant of the household matters. For them, their lives were in the safe hands of their brothers and they were content with it.
She tried to open her mouth to object the slander being hurled at her but before she could do so, her youngest brother, the apple of her eye, spoke out.
‘ Anna, if Akka truly wishes to enrol in the class, I don’t mind accompanying her to it and back. After all, it’s not far from here, just five minutes away. We both can walk to the class. I’ll just sit at the coffee shop downstairs and wait for her. Waiting two hours, twice a week is not a big deal for me. ‘
Selvi eyed her brother. Chandra was definitely the apple of her eye. He could clearly see the desperateness in her eyes and was trying his best to help her. Her eldest brother on the other hand, had doubts about agreeing. He was afraid of Selvi’s influence on Chandra and Chandra’s devotion towards Selvi. However, he finally relented.
‘ Okay, I’ll allow you to go but mind you, Selvi. One word; one wrong word about you and our family, and I’ll personally make your life a living hell. And Chandra, the same goes to you. ‘
Her mind did not register anything that her brother had said. She was overjoyed that she now had the opportunity to broaden her limited experiences and discover more about herself. Chandra accompanied her diligently for the classes without complaining about it. He even provided a listening ear to her whenever she wanted to talk about her classes.
Selvi was happy with her classes. Her teacher was impressed with her raw talent as she did not possess any previous experience in sewing and stitching yet she could easily provide a clear and neat stitches. Unlike some of her classmates, Selvi had already moved on to the next level in just two weeks of classes. She was now tasked with creating baby sweaters and baby bonnets. Looking at her handiwork and the joy and pride in her teacher’s eyes made her feel content for the first time in her life.
It was during the walk from home to the class with Chandra that Selvi met Ahmed. He had recently opened a small sundry shop at her housing area and was friendlier than Malik, the owner of the previous sundry shop owner. Chandra loved to stop by at Ahmed’s shop as Ahmed sold a lot of magazines and comics that could be only bought in the capital. As he stood there pouring over the pages of the magazines, Ahmed would speak to Selvi. Though shy at first, Selvi gradually became friends with Ahmed.
Selvi savoured the moments she managed to spend with Ahmed as he was the only male friend she had. He was thirty-four then, eleven years older than her but she enjoyed the conversations that they had as she felt that the conversations with him were illuminating and mind opening. Though Ahmed was dubbed as a “playboy” back then, he had always behaved in a gentlemanly behaviour towards her, which in return had strengthened their friendship.
Ahmed’s religion was never an issue to her as for Selvi, God was always singular to her, not plural like the belief of her parents. She was careful not to disclose her beliefs to anyone as she knew her own mother would kill her had she disclosed it openly as her mother would see it as a sign of blaspheme.
Slowly, unbeknownst to Chandra, she fell in love with Ahmed. Ahmed on the other hand, was oblivious to Selvi’s feelings. He had always been on the receiving end of countless women’s affections and so, he had always perceived it as they came. He had taken Selvi’s flirty and charming affection the same way as he had taken other women’s flirty and charming affection.
Back at home, her brothers began to trust Selvi to venture out on her own, thanks to Chandra’s winning endorsement. It was an unexpected move by her brothers as the surprise that she felt was mirrored on her mother’s and sisters’ faces. She felt smug as she had earned their trust rather than surrender her life to them altogether like her sisters. At the same time, she felt giddy with excitement as it meant that she could spend more time with Ahmed alone.
After all, who would notice if she skipped a few classes?
Ahmed had told her once that he lived nearby the playground, at a haunted house. She goggled at him, amazed at his tenacity and bravery in living alone in a haunted house. He laughed at her when she told him about it.
‘ Don’t be silly. There’s no such thing as ghosts. Though, with the mess I’m living it, people would think that a ghost had wrecked my house. ‘
That evening, he found her waiting for him outside of his house.
‘ What are you doing here? ‘ he asked.
‘ I came to help you clean your house. I’ll be real quick so you don’t have to worry. ‘
He stared at her. He was worried about the onlookers, as they might perceive things wrongly and here she was telling him that she would be real quick with the cleaning that she did not have to do in the first place. Smiling a little at her kind heartedness, he opened the front door to allow her in.
A small cleaning service soon became a weekly fixture, with cooking services slotted in as well. She often accompanied him as he ate; listening to his stories about his hometown. She was truly the first companion he had in this new neighbourhood.
Yet, what he had worried about became true. Tongues were wagging; silently at first but soon, it became louder, so loud that it eventually reached the ears of her brothers.
Her eldest brother, accompanied by her mother had stormed into Ahmed’s house one day while she was serving him lunch. Appalled with her daughter’s behaviour, her mother started shouting at her, pulling her by the hair as she screamed in pain. Ahmed stood there helplessly; the rice and dhal that she had cooked for lunch still loosely sticking to his fingers. Her brother shot a warning look at him and spewed profanity at him, making it clear to Ahmed that he was not welcomed anywhere near Selvi.
As her mother dragged a sobbing Selvi away, Ahmed rose to wash his hand, trying to ignore the neighbours’ speculative glances.
At her house, her brothers each took their belts to her, slashing her with those cheap imitations of leather. Cheap or not, the belts left deep welts on her back and thighs. Her eyes were puffy from all those tears whereas her voice was almost non-existent when she made her way to bed that night.
Everything was over, she knew that. She had abused the trust her family had on her and now, her life was firmly in her brothers’ hands. As she fell asleep that night, dimly she was aware that she had lost the opportunity to discover herself as well.
The next day, when she finally dragged her sore, aching body out of the bed, she found her whole family waiting for her in the hall. That was when they broke the news to her that they were getting her married as soon as possible to her father’s friend’s son. Her heart broke upon hearing the news but before she could utter any dissatisfaction about the news, her brother interrupted by informing her that she had no say whatsoever in the matter. And exactly a month from that day, she was married to that man.
Despite being broken with the fact that she had lost the man she loved and was forced to live with another, Selvi had adapted to the married life quickly. Even though she had previously fought to maintain her identity and refused to hand over her life to be run by anyone, the severity of the beatings she received from her brothers had made her forgotten those lofty ideals she had held closely to her heart.
Her husband’s every command was followed like a rule.
Twelve months after her marriage, Selvi was gifted with a baby girl. She gave her daughter a very simple name, one that carries the meaning of ‘pure’ for she was determined to bring up her pure daughter in a way that surpasses her parents. Yet, the demands of marriage and parenthood proved to be a big challenge; one that her husband was not up to.
It was only after her daughter’s birth did Selvi found out about her husband’s true nature. His family had a history of schizophrenia in their bloodline that more often attack the male members of the family. And the very fact had been conveniently withheld from her until a sudden panic attack and a frantic rush to the hospital with her wailing eleven-weeks-old daughter on tow brought the news forward.
She had a big argument with her family, especially with her brothers for hiding the real fact from her. It was during that heated exchange did she found out that the fact that she was married off as soon as possible was so that no prospective husbands or wives for her siblings would be scared off with the whiff of an interfaith relationship brought on by her.
Brought to her knees by her tears and the burden of an intolerable family, her wailing daughter brought her to her senses. She knew then that despite whatever bad luck that had befallen her, she had to survive for the sake of the purity that came out from her – for the sake of her angel.
Her relationship with her husband grew sour after that. He began to realise that his body was not as normal as he thought it was. Selvi, who did not know that her husband had been left in the dark about his illness, berated him as she thought he had lied to her as well. By the time she realised that he had no idea about his own illness, it was too late to take her words back. The damage had been done. He began to have doubts about his sanity.
A mad person is not mad to his mind. To him, he is simply different. But, once you convince him that he is mad, even if there are chances to be cured, he will remain mad. That is psychology.
To forget the shameful knowledge about his unstable mind, her husband turned towards the bottle to forget his pain and shame. One small gulp became a bottle. A whole bottle became two and in a short while, the numbers began multiplying. Tired with his alcohol-reeking breath, she began to nag at him to abandon his drinking ways, which in return often fell onto deaf ears.
As his booze binging days grew, so did her constant nagging. A particular habit she learned from her mother. Not that it worked on him, mind you but nagging, even to no one in particular, eased the heaviness clutching her heart. If an outsider had witnessed her nagging one day, they might have classified her as a schizophrenia patient as well yet she was oblivious to everything.
Until one day, when her world came crashing down.
Her husband’s patience and sanity finally snapped as he pushed her against the wall and started hitting her with all his might. Their daughter was wailing at the corner of the room; just ten months old and too confused about her surroundings to decipher what was going on. Selvi shielded her face yet the blows kept on coming, until tired, he fell down on a drunken stupor.
That was the beginning of the daily bashing she received.
Despite all those beatings, Selvi found that she was unable to keep her mouth shut. She had to nag him, even if it meant another round of fists pounding on her. Nagging became an addiction to her as she began to nag on matters that did not concern them as well. And, as if in penance for her nagging, almost like accepting punishment, she receives every blow silently.
Until the day he raised his hands on their daughter.
She was in the kitchen on that fateful day, cooking for him though her cooking was no longer filled with love like before. Her mouth, of course, was moving with venomous words tumbling out of them.
Her husband sat there in the hall, his second bottle of Guinness empty beside him while the third was dangling in between his forefinger and his middle one. Unable to stand her nagging anymore, he smashed the bottle on the armrest, its frothy liquid spilling everywhere, flying together with the shards of broken glasses.
He was approaching her when he suddenly caught a movement at the corner of his eyes.
He turned and saw his daughter crawling towards him, her chubby, baby face plastered with determination to make it somehow, someway towards him.
And he raised the broken bottle that he still held in his hand.
As he brought it downwards, a blur of colours flashed in front of his eyes while the sharp ends of the bottle met its mark. He took a step backwards and as he did, saw Selvi unfolding herself with her baby in her arms, unmarked. A slow trickle of blood began to drip from her deep gash on the bridge of her nose.
That fateful day, she decided.
Enough was enough.
She walked out of his house without a single backward glance.
The sight of her, bloodied and bruised with only the clothes on her back and a sobbing baby broke her mother’s heart. She knew she had played a part in ruining her daughter’s life for the sake of her sons yet her heart just could not take the fact that she was one of the reasons for her daughter’s predicament.
The divorce papers were filed and almost two and an half years after moving out from her childhood house, Selvi moved back in.
One evening, years after the divorce, as she sat on the floor, braiding her four-year-old daughter’s hair, she remembered her search to find herself. She smiled silently. Over the years, she had slowly discovered herself only to lose herself once again.
Her unhappy marriage and her unrequited love had turned her into a bitter woman. And suddenly, a thought came into her mind. What had happened to Ahmed? She immediately push that thought aside. Her messy, tangled life gave her no excuse to find up about her first love.
She began looking for a job as her childhood house held too many sad memories than happy ones, which made it hard to live there any longer without feeling any ache or hurt. She did not want her mother to spoil her daughter the way she had spoiled Selvi with false hopes and dreams. She wanted her daughter to have a normal childhood that she can get, which meant relocating to a different house, far away as possible from her mother and her brothers.
She prayed wistfully for Chandra, who had left the house in anger after discovering that she was set up by their brothers to marry a mentally unstable man. Chandra could not take the fact that their family had made her a pawn for their own selfish needs and that he was too blind to see what was happening to her. She knew that Chandra would be a perfect influence and a friend for both herself and her daughter as well.
It was with this wistful thinking that she bumped solidly into Ahmed at the supermarket.
She was flustered as she had knocked some of his items out from his basket. As she picked up the things that she had knocked over, she noticed that he was staring at her daughter.
‘ Your child is so beautiful. ‘
She smiled genuinely for the first time in years. Later, she noticed that he was waiting for her near the entrance and so, she approached him. He surprised her then by taking her hand in his and pulling her to a nearby coffee shop.
Nervous, she hastily made her order and waited as the waiter walked away. In her mind, thousands of questions were swirling around, all harping back to one point. Why did he pull her to the coffee shop? Almost as if he had heard the question, he began asking about the baby. Selvi relaxed considerably, even though it had given her a small jolt to know that he knew all the happenings of her life. Apparently, the gossip vine had never been as busy as it was during her divorce.
When she walked out of the coffee shop that day, she walked out with a relieved mind that she had her “friend“ back. This time, her brothers did not dare to interfere once again. She could go and visit Ahmed every day without anyone’s objection. The gossip vine had started once again but she could not care less. She was slowly turning back into the old Selvi and it was all thanks to Ahmed.
One day, Ahmed had to go back home to fetch some items that he had forgotten to bring to the shop. He had no choice but to ask Selvi to help him look after his shop for a while as his employee had went out on a lunch break. She agreed to help him instantly, without a doubt. Though she had no idea what she was supposed to do, Selvi agreed to help on.
The most amazing thing happened then.
As she began attending to the customers and helping them out with their purchases, a small ball of joy began to form in her belly. And when she made the sale and rang the cash register, the ball of joy erupted. She had never felt such satisfaction in her life before. The process of selling the items made her happy as she felt she had a personal connection with the buyer as they chatted about the item, its uses and its price and a quick anecdote on places that has lower prices. She was truly enjoying herself. And she knew that she had finally found what truly made her happy. What truly made her happy was not being happy with herself. What truly made her happy was by making others feel appreciative and happy. She was born to serve, not be served.
She was still radiating with happiness and laughter when Ahmed came back.
‘ What happened? ‘ he asked.
‘ Oh, nothing. Just life. ‘
Without thinking, without wondering, he spoke out loud.
‘ Selvi, marry me. ‘
She blinked at him.
‘ I’ll take care of your daughter. I’ll be a good father. I’ll never raise my hands on both of you. I’ll never drink. I’ll never hide anything from you. All I ask in return is for you to love me and give me a chance to prove myself. ‘
In that moment of silence that followed after his proposal, Selvi wondered about something. How was it possible that the person who had indirectly helped her notice her path towards fulfilment and satisfaction and the person who was promising her another dream could be the same person? Actually, she realised that she did not care about semantics that much.
All that she cared about was the fact that she was no longer the bridesmaid now. She had her own voice.