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Anjali Kajal

translated from the Hindi by Kavita Bhanot

Listen to a reading by the translator
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This is a big city – full of overpriced shops, tall buildings, countless cars – where everything is expensive. But like all big cities, dotted around its borders, fanning out like wild mushrooms, you’ll also find little bastis like this one.


The people who live in these bastis are neither villagers nor city-dwellers – they’re just ordinary people. In this particular basti, on the edge of this particular city, stands a small house, where Ma lives. It’s a tiny, one-bedroom building, standing among several others near a local graveyard. In front of it, there’s a small courtyard with no walls. Ma is sitting under a tree in this courtyard, on a charpai. Because there are no walls, she has a view of the entire alley. Every now and then her attention moves towards the end of the street, then returns, disappointed.


The silence of the deserted street is making the dull hot afternoon even more unbearable. There isn’t a soul in sight. Ma becomes increasingly restless. She gets up, goes to stand in the alleyway, and peers down it. There is nobody there. But her gaze trusts that any second, Jasbir will appear on her bicycle. Standing there, Ma is soon soaked in sweat. Just as she turns her back on the courtyard, the sound of her neighbour’s voice reaches her ears. ‘What happened? Why are you standing here?’ 

Concealing her irritation, Ma says, ‘Nothing. Tinku went to his uncle’s house and hasn’t returned yet.’ She lies so smoothly, but her neighbour still makes sure to poke her. 

‘Is Jasbir back?’ she calls. 

‘No,’ replies Ma, ‘she’s coming back a little late today. She warned me before she left.’ 

Ma returns to the charpai. From here, she can see the graveyard. There is an eerie silence, a kind of desolation in the air. A shiver runs through her. Jasbir is very late; the truth is she never said anything about being late today, before leaving. Ma made lunch for her hours ago. 

Jasbir’s life is so busy, full of responsibilities. Even now after her finals are over, she never gets any rest. College is over for everyone else, but because Jasbir is a judo coach there, she still has to go in. She has represented her college in many competitions and won many awards. She also teaches Judo in a school. 

Ma goes back inside and checks the clock. It’s nearly 4 o’clock. Jasbir is due to go somewhere else to give tuition in an hour’s time, she suddenly remembers. Ma recalls how hard Jasbir fought to convince her father/mother/brother to let her give classes. 

The family had first come to the city years earlier in search of employment and a better education for their children. What was there for Dalits, after all, back in the village? They didn’t have any land that they could farm to fill their stomachs. Instead, they laboured on other people’s land for peanuts. It was almost impossible to make enough money for the children’s education, or to cover the cost of medicine. 

But it is almost as difficult to make enough money here in the city. Since coming to the city, the children’s father has been working as a machine operator at a hosiery factory. Tinku is still at school. Jasbir, knowing how difficult it is to manage the household budget, was determined to help her parents. One day, she received an offer to teach economics to two boys; she did her utmost to get her parents’ permission. There were two big obstacles: first, she would be teaching boys; second, she would have to travel to a small village near the basti, to teach them in their own home. Eventually, after a lot of persuasion, her parents consented. The boys’ father came in person to reassure Jasbir’s parents. 

And so, every evening, Jasbir began venturing out on her bicycle to teach. 

The environment they live in is suffocating for young women. Everybody interfering in everybody else’s business. In small communities like this, a careful eye is kept on everyone’s daughters. Girls are brought up in such a closed and protective atmosphere that they suffer from a lack of confidence for the rest of their lives. Jasbir hates anyone interfering with her private life. No one ever asks, ‘Where is your son? When will he be back?’ she points out. They just couldn’t bear the idea of a girl putting aside her fears to study, a girl trying to be independent. One day, Jasbir reprimanded a nosy local woman for prying and asking such questions, and from then on, the neighbours became even more suspicious. 

Jasbir doesn’t care about such interfering women, though sometimes she feels sorry for them. Is it their fault they’re kept ignorant, discouraged from learning? From childhood, looking after home and hearth has been their purpose, their training, their entire world. That is where their lives begin and end. Whenever Ma says something like, ‘But what will the world say?’ Jasbir turns round and firmly tells her: ‘Ma, please, stop worrying about this nonsense; stop wondering what the sparrow will say, what the crow will say.’ 

Remembering this conversation, a smile spreads on Ma’s face. But what is she supposed to do, she thinks. Jasbir is hardly ever home. The children’s father is always at work. Her son is usually out gallivanting with his friends. It is Ma who is left at home, she’s the one who has to bear the gossipy neighbours. Jasbir gets infuriated by them. Ma remembers Jasbir’s tirade: ‘Who are these people that you care about so much, Ma, that you feel ashamed around them? These people are frustrated, they haven’t made anything of their lives, nor will they let anyone else make anything of theirs! Do you remember Bubbly from our mohalla? When she was young – her hair in two neat plaits, in her high-waisted salwar, on her way to school each day, only lifting her head to say ‘Namaste’ to any passing elders – Bubbly was declared a ‘good girl’ by the neighbourhood’s self-proclaimed ‘judges’– whoever they are! When the same Bubbly started going to college, when she set foot outside the basti, when she learnt how to dress well, when she started to walk with her head held high, the same Bubbly became ‘spoiled’, she became a ‘bad girl’. Then those neighbours started sending their sons after her, to keep track of where she went. To check if, under the guise of college, she was actually going somewhere else – all so they could manufacture a scandal so big and juicy it would force her to remain at home. I’m not going to lower my gaze when I walk past those rascals in the street! I’m not scared of them!’ 

The truth is that Ma fully supports Jasbir. She gives sharp replies to her gossiping neighbours and always tries to bolster Jasbir’s confidence. She wants her daughter to stand on her own two feet. Ma is surprised that in her own youth, she never fought for her rights, inside her family or outside. Perhaps she didn’t have the strength. But for her daughter, she has been able to stand strong. 

Ma has lived a difficult life. Compared to her husband, she is not educated, and has spent most of her years feeling like a burden. Ma doesn’t want Jasbir to feel like this. She wants Jasbir to get a job before she gets married. The happiness she feels as a mother whenever Jasbir wins a prize – whether for poetry or drama, judo or karate – is immeasurable. 

But what is this poisonous worry that, of late, has begun coursing through her veins? She is sweating now. Her heart is beating fast. She tries to reassure herself. Why am I getting scared? There could be many reasons for Jasbir not being home yet. She has told me a hundred times that if she is ever late, I shouldn’t worry. With this thought, Ma gets some momentary peace. 

Interrogating her fear, she realises that it is connected to a particular incident in the past. One that led to everyone praising Jasbir. Even the newspapers wrote about it. Ma, too, was proud of her daughter at the time. But despite this, or maybe because of what happened, Ma often finds herself enveloped in fear. 


It happened about four, maybe five months ago as Jasbir was returning from college. Her campus is in the most beautiful and peaceful part of the city. Next to the campus is Civil Lines. Jasbir always feels an odd sense of excitement, cycling on the clean wide streets of this district; there isn’t a bump in sight (and if one ever appears, it is flattened immediately). Cars travel at high speed down these roads, but still, for Jasbir, there is nothing to fear. She likes to cycle fast. What she likes most of all is that she is rarely harassed in this area. 

After that, the streets become narrow and crowded again, there are shops and a vegetable market. Here, everyone walks as if they are running late for an interview, or as if they are on their way to some terribly important job, for which they are indispensable. 

None of the drivers – scooter, car, or rickshaw – give a damn if they hit someone cycling or walking, or if anyone loses their balance because of them. And if it’s a girl, they seem to enjoy it all the more! As if it is their right to drive dangerously close to them, almost sticking to them. They get kicks from it; the chance to press against the girls’ bodies, to see them get flustered. Their dupattas slip, or in a moment of panic, their faces express a number of colourful emotions. The men enjoy playing in these colours. 

Most of the time, the women don’t say anything in return. Or if they do say something, they can’t do anything. If they react and start arguing, the men respond with such disgusting abuse that, shrinking back in utter shame, the women dissolve into water. There’s nothing more the women can do. 

That day, as Jasbir was cycling to college along the same busy street, a random scooter, speeding past, grazed against her. She heard the sound of cloth tearing. An entire sleeve of her kameez was torn, all the way to her shoulder, leaving her arm exposed. She glared after the driver; to this day, she can still hear his poisonous laughter. He was already too far ahead, there was nothing she could do. She wrapped half of the dupatta around her arm, and the rest around her neck. With great difficulty, she reached college, feeling humiliated and full of hatred for every man in the world. To her, it seemed as if some people were amused this had happened, the way they all stared at her bare arm. It was as if, instead of eyes, they had thorns sprouting from their faces. 

What crime have we committed, she thought, that we should put up with this abuse? She burned with rage. So often, when something like this happened, the reactions of family members and others would be: ‘Why didn’t you hit him with your shoe? Why didn’t you slap him?’ But who exactly were these girls supposed to fight? They wouldn’t know where to begin. Were they expected to always walk around with a shoe in their hand ready to strike? God knows what the girls from smaller bastis, or from faraway villages, have to put up with every day. But these girls, full of dreams, want to move in stride with the twenty-first century, and leave behind the creepy society they live in, that still doesn’t see women as anything other than bodies; they want to reject this society, to slap it in the face. 

Anyway, later that day, with her sleeve still ripped, Jasbir was cycling home. She had survived the bazaar, and was just reaching the outskirts of her basti, when she started to feel a scooter was tailing her slowly and deliberately. She continued cycling at the same pace, as if she hadn’t noticed. That’s when the scooter picked up speed and passed her; there were two boys on it. Jasbir breathed a sigh of relief – but too soon. Suddenly the scooter slowed down again, this time in front of her. For some time, it continued like this – sometimes slowing down, sometimes speeding up. Just to annoy her. Jasbir became very irritated. But she knew such boys well, if she said anything, they would only reply, ‘We didn’t say anything to you. What did we say? We were just going about our business peacefully.’ And it was true that they hadn’t said anything. After playing this game for a while, sufficiently entertained, the boys went away. 

Jasbir cycled into the basti, seething with anger – whether it was at the potholes on the street, or at men, all men, she couldn’t quite tell. Her feet also hurt from cycling so much. Just then, two more boys – this time on a bicycle – pulled up alongside her. Being almost home, she decided to simply ignore them. 

First, one of them called out: ‘Sohniye! What’s going on?’ 

Jasbir didn’t reply. 

‘Won’t you say anything?’ the other one said. By now Jasbir’s fury was threatening to boil over. But she remained silent. When they started using dirty language and making filthy gestures towards her, Jasbir lost her temper. 

‘I’m warning you!’ she said angrily. 

‘What are you going to do?’ they said, grinning shamelessly. 

Jasbir pulled up and got off her bicycle, letting it drop to the ground. She gave their cycle a big push so that they both fell off with a loud crash. 

There was a line of shops along that particular street. People turned in shock to see what was happening. Before the boys could recover from their hard fall onto the concrete, Jasbir started throwing them around. Against the powerful moves of this judo expert, they were helpless. Jasbir struck several blows to their backs. 

By this point, quite a crowd had gathered. Some shopkeepers came and pulled the boys away. Blood trickled from their mouths and noses. A sardarji kept asking Jasbir, ‘What happened, my child?’ When Jasbir told him about the harassment, he turned to give the boys a slap himself. Scared, they started crying and asking for forgiveness. The crowd was left gobsmacked. ‘Well done,’ they said, gathering around Jasbir. 

News of the incident spread like a forest fire through the basti. It was covered in the local newspaper and even reached Jasbir’s college, where the teachers heaped even more praise on her. Jasbir had become a hero for all the girls there. 


It’s now been a while since this incident took place. But still, for some reason, a vague fear continues to eat away at Ma. Anytime Jasbir comes home late, worries creep in. Following the local news has become a part of everyone’s daily routine these days. We hear or read the news, express our regret, then proceed to forget all about it. But is it possible to completely forget the tragedies we read about? When a loved one is late returning home, don’t all those terrible stories flash, one after another, in our minds? 

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It’s now been a while since this incident took place. But still, for some reason, a vague fear continues to eat away at Ma. Anytime Jasbir comes home late, worries creep in. Following the local news has become a part of everyone’s daily routine these days. We hear or read the news, express our regret, then proceed to forget all about it. But is it possible to completely forget the tragedies we read about? When a loved one is late returning home, don’t all those terrible stories flash, one after another, in our minds? 

Ma is scared that those boys might come back to get their revenge on Jasbir. She tries to talk herself out of the fear – they wouldn’t dare do anything, she tells herself. They were frightened that day. They probably haven’t dared to look at another girl that way since. 

Anxious and tired, Ma returns to the charpai, and just as she goes to sit down, she sees that Jasbir has returned. In a worried voice, Ma asks, ‘Where were you? Is everything okay?’ 

Jasbir looks exhausted. Maybe she shouldn’t have asked this question as soon as she arrived, Ma thinks. Whenever Jasbir gets home, she doesn’t like to talk for a little while; probably working through the anger she’s picked up on her journey home. 

‘Everything is fine,’ says Jasbir in a tired voice. 

Ma goes to get water for her daughter. ‘Why did you take so long?’ she asks, handing her the cup. ‘At least let me know when you’re going to be late. You have no idea what state I’ve been in. One of these days, I’m going to die worrying about you all.’ 

‘Ma!’ says Jasbir. ‘Some of my students are participating in a competition the day after tomorrow. There isn’t much time and they only found out today, so we had to practice. I called the neighbours, but nobody picked up. I’ve told you so many times not to worry if I’m late. Knowing that you’d still be worried, I felt stressed as well!’ 

Jasbir catches sight of Ma again. Her face is withered and she looks ill. She feels a surge of sympathy for her mother. ‘Ma, sit here,’ she says. ‘Tell me what happens to you. Why do you feel so scared?’ 

‘My child, you know so little about the world. It’s not easy being a woman in our society. You can’t trust anyone, can’t know what’s lurking in their minds. Who knows what family those boys belonged to? Hatred can attack at any time.’ 

Distress stirs deep inside Jasbir. ‘Ah, so that’s what you’ve been worrying about? Ma, do you know how it feels to put up with all this? These boys don’t know how a girl feels when she’s hemmed in, when dirty gestures are made towards her, when rude words are thrown at her, when she’s pushed, when poisonous laughter surrounds her, when her clothes are torn, when her body is touched. Are we just a spectacle, Ma? Are we only walking, talking bodies? Today, they tear our clothes. 

Tomorrow, in the middle of the market, they’ll take our clothes off, and they’ll clap. Ma, am I a spectacle to gawk at?’ 

Surprised and fearful, Ma’s gaze is fixed on Jasbir’s moving lips. ‘The way that these men stare at me,’ Jasbir continues, ‘it feels like hundreds of tiny dirty ants crawling over my body.’ Listening to her daughter’s words, the hair on Ma’s neck stands on end. ‘I don’t want to be imprisoned in the home,’ says Jasbir. Her voice becomes gentler. ‘Ma,’ she says, ‘don’t worry so much. And don’t be scared of anyone.’ 

All of a sudden she laughs. 

Slowly, hesitantly, Ma laughs too. ‘Theek hai. Now go and wash your hands and face,’ she says to her daughter. ‘And I’ll go and get your food ready.’ 


Ma has now started to feel scared of her daughter too. 


Anjali Kajal.jpeg

Born in 1978, Anjali Kajal is Deputy Manager in Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), and has been writing short stories over the last twenty years. Her first story ‘Itihaas’ was published in 1999 in the renowned Hindi monthly magazine Hans. The story was about a dalit girl who faces caste-discrimination in her college. It was read widely and translated into other Indian languages like Marathi and Gujarati. Her second story was about a young girl who fights against sexual harassment while struggling with poor economic conditions. Her other stories have been published in various popular Hindi literary magazines. Kajal was honoured by Punjab Hindi Sahitya Academy, Jallandhar for her contribution to Hindi literature in 2003.

Kavita Bhanot.jpg

Kavita Bhanot’s fiction, non-fiction, reviews have been published and broadcast widely, including the landmark essay 'Decolonise, not Diversify' (Media Diversified/Lines of Dissent.) She is editor of the anthology Too Asian, Not Asian Enough (Tindal Street Press 2011), the Book of Birmingham (Comma Press, 2018) and co-editor of the Bare Lit anthology (Brain Mill Press, 2017). She is currently researching Punjabi literature as a Leverhulme Fellow at Leicester University. She was selected for the National Centre for Writing's Emerging translator Mentorship Programme and was mentored by Jeremy Tiang. Her novel won third prize in the SI Leeds Literary Prize. Kavita has been reading and mentoring for TLC for the last nine years. She is especially interested, in all aspects of her work, in the politics of reading, writing and publishing.

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