MA IS SCARED
translated from the Hindi by Kavita Bhanot
This is a big city, full of overpriced shops, tall buildings, countless cars; everything is expensive here. At the edges of such big cities, you always find, dotted around like mushrooms, small bastis like this one.
The ordinary people who live in slums such as this are neither villagers nor urbanites, but something in between. On the edges of this particular city, in one such basti, in a small house, lives Ma.
Ma’s home is near the graveyard–a small one-bedroom house. There is a little courtyard outside with no walls. Ma is sitting under a tree in this courtyard, on a charpai. Because there are no walls, while sitting there, she can see the entire street. Every now and then her eyes travel towards the end of the street, then return, disappointed.
The silence makes the dull hot afternoon even more unbearable. There isn’t a single soul to be seen. Ma becomes increasingly restless. She gets up, goes to the doorway, and gazes toward the end of the street. 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.
As she returns to the courtyard, the sound of the neighbour’s voice, from the doorway of the next door house, reaches her ears. “What happened? Why are you standing here?”
Disguising her irritation, Ma says, “Nothing. Tinku went to his uncle’s house and hasn’t returned yet.” She lies so smoothly, but still the neighbour makes sure to poke her. “Is Jasbir back?” she calls.
“No,” replies Ma, “she’s coming back late today. She told me before she left.”
She sits back on the charpai. From here, she can see the graveyard. There is an eerie silence, a kind of desolation all around. Ma feels uncomfortable. Jasbir is very late returning home today; before leaving she hadn’t said anything about being late. Ma prepared her dinner long ago.
Jasbir’s life is so busy, full of responsibilities. Even after taking her final BA exams, she hasn’t sat and rested at home. The holidays have started for everyone else at the college, but Jasbir still has to go in, since she is a Judo coach. She has participated in many competitions in her college and won many awards.
Ma goes back into the house and looks at the clock. It is nearly 4 o’clock. She remembers that at 5 o’clock, Jasbir is supposed to go somewhere else to give tuition. Ma recalls how Jasbir fought and argued to convince her father-mother-brother to allow her to give classes.
Years earlier, the family came to the city in search of employment and to educate the children. After all, what was there for dalits in the village? They didn’t have any land that they could farm to fill their stomachs. Instead, they laboured in other people’s farms for peanuts. It was almost impossible to make enough money for the children’s education, or to cover the cost of medicine.
It has been difficult to make enough money in the city as well. Tinku is at school. The children’s father, since coming to the city, has been operating a machine in a hosiery factory. Jasbir, knowing how difficult it is to manage the household budget, wants to help her parents. One day, she received an offer to teach economics to two boys; she tried to convince her parents in whatever way she could to allow her to do this. The two biggest obstacles were, first of all, that she would be teaching boys, secondly, that she would have to travel to a small village near the basti, to teach them in their own home. But eventually, after a lot of persuasion, her parents agreed. The boys’ father came in person, to reassure Jasbir’s father-mother-brother.
So, every evening, on an old cycle, Jasbir goes there to teach.
The environment that they live in is suffocating. Everybody interferes in everybody else’s business. In that small community, a careful eye is kept on everyone else’s daughter. 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 doesn’t like any interference in her private life. The fact is, she will say, no one ever comes to ask: Where is your son? When will he return? They just can’t bear that a girl has put aside her fears to study, that she is trying to be independent. One day, Jasbir told off an interfering woman as she asked such questions, poking and interfering in their lives. Since that day, the neighbours became even more uncomfortable and jealous.
Jasbir doesn’t care about these interfering women, but sometimes she feels sorry for them. They are kept ignorant, she says, kept away from learning. Since childhood, the home-family, the chula-chauka, husband-children–this has been their purpose, their world. This is where their life begins and ends. Whenever Ma says something like, “But what will the world say?” Jasbir turns around and firmly tells her mother, “Ma, please, stop thinking about all this nonsense; stop wondering what the sparrow will say, what the crow will say.”
As she remembers this, a smile spreads on Ma’s face. But what, after all, can a mother do? Jasbir hardly stays at home. The children’s father goes to work. Her son is usually having fun with his friends. Only Ma is left behind at home, and she has to stay amongst these gossiping neighbours. Ma remembers what Jasbir says to her; “Who are these people that you are so bothered about Ma, that you feel ashamed around? These people are frustrated, they haven’t made anything of their lives, nor will they let anyone else make something of their life. Do you remember Bubbly from our mohalla? When Bubbly studied in school, she would make two plaits, tie her salwar high on her waist and walk to school with her head down, lifting it only to say namaste to the ‘judges’ of the mohalla, those who decide which girls are ‘good’ and which girls are ‘bad’. They all considered Bubbly to be a good girl. When the same Bubbly started going to college, when she set foot outside of the basti, when she learned how to dress well, when she started to walk with her head held up high, the same Bubbly became ‘spoiled’, she became a ‘bad girl’. Then these neighbours started sending their sons after her, so they could keep track of where exactly she went. To check if, under the excuse of college, she went somewhere else instead, so they could create a juicy scandal, so she would have to stay at home. I’m not going to lower my gaze when I walk past those useless loafer boys in the street! I’m not scared of them!”
The truth is that Ma fully supports Jasbir. She gives sharp replies to gossiping neighbours. She always tries to bolster Jasbir’s confidence. Because she wants her daughter to be independent. Ma is surprised that in her own youth, she never fought for her own rights, in 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. In comparison to her husband, she is not educated. She has always felt as if she is a burden for others. Ma doesn’t want Jasbir to feel like this. She wants Jasbir to get a job before she gets married. Her happiness is boundless whenever Jasbir wins a prize, whether it is for her poetry or drama, her judo or karate.
But what is this poisonous worry that runs, always, 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 getting home yet. She has told me a hundred times that if she is late, I shouldn’t worry.” With this thought Ma gets some momentary peace. Thinking about her fear, she also understands that it is connected to a particular incident. It is because of this incident that everyone praises Jasbir. Even the newspapers wrote about it. Ma felt so proud of her daughter afterwards. But in spite of it, maybe because of it, Ma still often finds herself enveloped in fear.
Four or five months ago, Jasbir was returning from her college, which was in the most quiet and peaceful part of the city. After leaving civil line, Jasbir is always filled with a strange kind of excitement as she cycles on those clean wide streets where there isn’t a bump to be seen. Or if there ever is, the street will immediately be smoothed over. Cars travel on that road at high speed, but still, for Jasbir, there is nothing to fear. She likes to cycle fast down that road. What she likes most of all about that street is that she doesn’t face any harassment there.
After that stretch, the narrow, crowded part of the street begins, where there is a market. Here, everyone walks as if they are late for an interview, or as if they are going to some important, urgent job for which they’re indispensable.
Those on scooters, in cars, driving rickshaws don’t give a damn if they hit anyone who is cycling or walking, or if anyone loses their balance because of them. And if it’s a woman, they seem to enjoy hitting her even more; as if it’s their right to intentionally pass by so close to the women, almost sticking to them. There are many benefits for them in doing this; the chance to press against these women’s bodies through their clothes or to see them become agitated and anxious; sometimes their dupattas slip, or, in that moment of sudden attack, their faces go through a number of colourful emotions. The men enjoy playing in these colours.
Most of the time, the woman doesn’t say anything. Or if she says something, she can’t do anything, and if she does something, start an argument for example, the man responds with such disgusting abuse, that out of shame, she dissolves into water. The women can’t do much else in these situations.
That day, as Jasbir was cycling to college, a random scooter, driving past, came very close to her. She heard the sound of cloth tearing. One entire sleeve of her kameez was torn off her shoulder, revealing her arm. She glared after the scooter driver, who had already driven off; she could still hear his poisonous laughter. She couldn’t do anything, since he had already gone too far ahead. Tearing her dupatta, she wrapped half of it around her arm, and left the other half around her neck. With great difficulty, she reached her college. She felt humiliated, full of hatred for every man in the world. It seemed to her as if some people around her were happy that this had happened to her, that they were all looking at her bare arm. It was as if, instead of eyes, those people had thorns sprouting from their faces.
“What crime have we committed,” she thought, “that we should put up with this behaviour?” She was full of anger. So often, the reactions of family members and others, when such incidents happened, were, “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 start. Girls from such bastis, from faraway places, from villages, put up with all kinds of things everyday. Were they expected to walk around with a shoe ready in their hand at all times?
These girls have their own dreams. They want to move into the 21st century, leaving behind the creepy society they live in, which still doesn’t see women as more than their bodies; they want to reject this society, to slap it in the face.
Later on, that same day that she had her sleeve ripped off, Jasbir cycled home from college. After escaping from the bazaar, she reached the boundaries of her basti, where she felt as if a scooter was following her very slowly. She continued cycling at the same pace, as if she hadn’t noticed. That’s when the scooter picked up a little speed and passed her; there were two boys on it. Jasbir breathed a sigh of relief–too soon. Now the scooter slowed down again, 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 peacefully on our way.” And it was true that they had not said anything. After playing this game for a while, entertaining themselves, the boys went away.
Jasbir arrived in the basti. Full of anger and irritation - whether it was at the potholes everywhere in the street, or at men, all men. Her feet also hurt from cycling so much. At that time, two boys on a cycle pulled alongside her. She decided to ignore them, since she was virtually home. First one of them called out. “Soniye! What’s happening?” Jasbir didn’t give him a reply. “Won’t you answer?” the other one said. By now Jasbir’s bubbling anger was threatening to boil over. But still she remained silent. When they started using dirty language, making filthy gestures, Jasbir lost her temper.
“Shall I tell you?” she said in anger.
“What will you tell us?” they said shamelessly, grinning.
Jasbir stopped her cycle, got off and walked over to them. She gave their cycle a big push–they both fell onto the ground with a loud crash.
On the side of the street was a long line of shops–when they heard the sound, everyone turned to look. Before the boys could recover from falling onto the hard pavement, Jasbir started throwing them around. They could hardly fight back against the moves of a judo expert.
Quite a crowd had gathered by now; some shopkeepers came and pulled the boys away. There was blood coming from their noses and mouths. A sardar kept asking Jasbir, “What happened, my child?” When Jasbir told him about the harassment, he also gave both boys a slap. They became scared and asked for forgiveness. The people around them were left open-mouthed. “Well done,” they all said to Jasbir.
After that day, news of the incident spread like a jungle fire through the basti. It was covered in the local newspaper and even reached Jasbir’s college, where the teachers also praised her. Jasbir became a heroine for other girls.
Some months have passed now since this incident. But still, for some reason, a vague fear continues to trouble Ma. Whenever Jasbir is late returning home, negative thoughts enter Ma’s mind. “But why do I have these negative thoughts?” she asks herself. Following the news has become a part of everyone’s daily routine these days - reading it, watching it. For some time, people are sad about the latest news, then they forget about it and continue with their lives. But is it possible to completely forget? When a loved one is late returning home, don’t all these news stories play, one by one, in our minds?
Ma is scared that these boys might try to get revenge on Jasbir. She tries to talk herself out of the fear–they wouldn’t dare to do anything, she tells herself. They were very scared that day. They will probably never dare to look at another girl that way again.
Trying to convince herself, Ma returns to her charpai. Just as she goes to sit
down, she sees that Jasbir has returned. In a voice full of anxiety, Ma asks Jasbir, “Where were you? Is everything okay?”
Jasbir looks exhausted. Maybe she shouldn’t have asked this question as soon as Jasbir arrived, Ma thinks. When Jasbir returns home, she doesn’t like to speak much for a little while; probably having picked up a lot of anger along the way, during her journey home.
“Everything is fine,” says Jasbir, in a tired voice.
Ma goes to get water for Jasbir. “Why did you take so long?” she says, giving the water to Jasbir. “At least tell me before you leave when you’re going to be late. You don’t know what kind of 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 left. They only found out today, so we had to practice. I called the neighbours but nobody picked up the phone. I’ve told you so many times not to worry if I’m late. Knowing that you must be worried, I felt so anxious and stressed too!”
There are tears filling Ma’s eyes. Jasbir sees her mother’s sad face and seems to feel bad.
“Ma, sit here,” she says. “Tell me, what happens to you? Why do you feel scared?”
“My child, you don’t know about this world. It’s not easy being a woman in this 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 arises from deep inside Jasbir. “Ah, so this is what you’ve been thinking? Ma, do you know how it feels to put up with all this? These boys don’t know how it feels for a girl when she’s restricted, when dirty gestures are made towards her, when rude words are thrown at her, when she’s pushed, when poisonous laughter is directed towards her, when her clothes are torn, when her body is touched. Are we a spectacle, Ma? Are we only walking talking bodies? Objects? 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 show to watch?”
Surprised and afraid, Ma keeps looking at 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 body stands on end. “I don’t want to be imprisoned in the house,” says Jasbir. Her voice becomes more gentle. “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. “Teek hai. Now go and wash your hands and face,” she says to Jasbir. “And I’ll go and get your food ready.”
Ma has now also started to feel scared of her daughter.
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’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.