There are certain things a man cannot do. Like bleed every month; even in June. Ma wanted me to stay home on such days. She would try to convince my ten-year-old brother to take lunch to Papa at his Aggrawal Sari Shop after school. He would ask why I did not want to go. Ma would tell I was ill. Brother would stare at me with doubt and irritation. I would smile back, hiding my own irritation at mother for forcing me to stay home. This time he was watching WWE, under a fan groaning in full speed. In the lemonade advertisement on television, the sun was using a red and white striped straw to suck children’s heads. Brother shook his head and said that it was too hot for any sensible person to go out now. He pointed at the sun on the screen for proof.
“I will go.” I said. “He is right. It is too hot for him. I will go and come back in no time.”
The shop was fifteen minutes away on foot. Ma often insisted that I walk because a young girl riding a bicycle across town might draw unwanted attention. She looked cute when she was worried like that for me. I have not been able to explain to her that riding the bicycle gave me a sense of control. On some days if I wanted to avoid the lingering eyes of men at the tea stall behind our home, I took the longer route. I would accelerate in full speed if men on the road waited to pass comments. Sometimes I raced with the dogs too. If I told Ma about these little adventures, the bicycle would be taken away.
“Be careful. You might leak.” Ma told me as I took out the bicycle once again.
Ma was right. If I painted my trousers red, and the town saw, there would be whispers about my shamelessness. I was careful around the potholes that day, wondering what other things a man cannot do.
Men cannot have a kitty party of their own. I had learned this from Ma’s TV serials where women sat together once a month to discuss families. I told Ma one day that Dadi was very lucky to have her own little kitty party almost every week at our veranda. Ma had laughed a lot and told the same to the ladies who had sat on the veranda that evening for a cup of tea. The neighbours loved my Dadi, who had spent most of her married life in Hazaribagh. Every evening, as she sat on the veranda, her eyes glinted with the memories. The days that the ladies did not visit, Dadi read scriptures. Sometimes, on our request, she told us again about her first airplane travel when she married our, now dead, grandfather. The air hostess grinned a lot more then. They offered full glasses of water and one whole bottle of mineral water at times. They distributed toffees like it was their birthdays. Every time we discovered something new. This time I discovered that these are other things a man cannot do. Become an air hostess. And outlive Daadi.
When my grandfather was alive, the Aggrawal business earned enough money for air travels to different countries. After his death, his three sons divided the five shops amongst themselves. My father was the youngest. With sad eyes and folded hands, as Ma told me, he adjusted for the shop that earned the least. His two elder brothers told Papa that he could take care of the house and the old woman.
The old woman said nothing when the extended family members, neighbours and friends ridiculed her two elder sons. They came in numbers, some visiting every evening, telling her that they have stopped visiting Papa’s elder brothers. Ma wished they would stop visiting us too. She was tired of saving milk for so many cups of tea. It did not bother me much till one day they raised the question of my bicycle adventures.
“The men stare”, they said. “A young girl of such respected house should not ride around in knee length frocks. She is growing up now. She should spend more time in the household activities. Why do you let her do the outside work? Ask the brother.”
At first, the suggestion seemed harmless, like other discussions that brought no significant change either in a person or the community. Ma, who was happy to serve tea to the women for the first time, discussed with Papa that night about what the neighbours think. Papa nodded. His fellow shopkeepers had suggested the same. He had also noticed how the staff at his office looked at me when I entered everyday with lunch. This needed to stop.
“But you had no problem till now!” I cried.
“This had to happen someday, betu. Look at your friends. How many of them still ride bicycles?”
“But I like to!”
“You cannot do everything that you like.” Ma said.
However, my brother did not like riding bicycles in the afternoons. It was then arranged that Papa would send one of the staff boys to get lunch for him. I went to Dadi’s room and cried on her lap. She placed her hand on my head.
“It is not their fault. They did it for your own safety. If you want a better life, study hard. Get on that aeroplane with your own money. That way you will get to fly as long as you live.”
I had always thought that the Dadi in the veranda was a woman absorbed in happy memories of her past. Her hand on my head suddenly felt heavier with this seemingly new revelation. We did not speak more that night. Next day I decided to get back at my neighbours by refusing to serve them tea or snacks. Ma did it anyway.
In winters, Ma smelled of the blue-bottled Nivea and knitted woollen clothes. She bought cheap wool from street vendors till her brother refused to wear sweaters made out of wool that pricked his skin. Ma saved the best wool for him and told me that women adjust more. Brother often teased me by pressing his soft woollen sleeves on my cheeks. As a revenge, I reminded myself of the growing list in my head. Men cannot adjust as much as women can. One shivering December, Ma surprised me with a brown scarf that was made out of the left-over wool from my brother’s pullover. Out of happiness I rolled extra soft rotis that day as part of my kitchen training. The rotis were the colour Ma wanted my skin to be – creamy white. Brother did not leave the sides of the rotis in half-moons. Ma was pleased and declared that I was finally trained in cooking. Unknowingly my brother had already started influencing decisions meant for me. The idea clenched my throat. I skipped dinner and went to my room to study.
When my tenth grade results were announced, a reporter came to our house for the first time. I still have the newspaper cut-out in my purse. Under the heading ‘Humaare Hazaribagh ki topper’, Papa is grinning like a child. He had called his brothers.
“Betu has made us proud today.” The black cord of our landline had danced in waves around his ears. “Of course, this wouldn’t have been possible without your blessings.” He had continued. I wished he had meant it sarcastically.
Next morning, Papa read the interview in the papers. The reporter had stated correctly that I wanted to go to Kota to prepare for my engineering exams. In the evening, Papa sat in my room, near Daadi’s feet and cried.
“I do not have money to send you to Kota.”
“That’s okay.” I said after a long silence. “I will study here.”
Papa did not even try. He touched my head. “Mera Raja Beta.”
Daadi had been very quiet in the room, as still as the June air. Later, she made the phone call to my Bade Papa, father’s elder brother. My Bade Papa, father’s brother arrived in the evening and offered us money, four lakh rupees. Papa was taken aback, and folding his hands, he said, “It is not necessary. She has applied here to Women’s College.”
“But she wants to study engineering. This is the least we can do as a family.” Bade Papa said.
“Will it be safe to let her stay alone in a hostel in an unknown city?”
“Give her a chance.” Dadi said.
Next evening, people visited again. They wanted to confirm if it was true that Dadi’s elder son had finally come around. Ma was furious, for the milk that would now be needed for tea. She was less furious, but enough to show it, for the hypocrisy of Bade Papa. How dare he go around advertising his money!
“We will return it to him when the time is right”, Papa said.
In Kota, at the front desk, the warden did not lose patience. She answered all of Ma’s queries and showed her around. She assured Ma four times that women are always safe anywhere in Kota. Ma, still not convinced completely, left me at the hostel gate with tears in her eyes.
There were two ways that people dealt with the pressure of clearing the IIT JEE exams in Kota. They either studied a lot, or not at all. I was a star performer. My tests ranked me among the top 10 percent of students. Professors predicted my rank in the JEE exams around 1500-2000. My roommate, on the other hand, was always out, watching a movie with the boys, or visiting the fast food stalls, and sometimes bringing me the famous Kota Kachoris. She never took money for the Kachoris. She knew I had wanted a non-AC room in this desert heat, that I listened to radio on my tiny Nokia phone whenever I wanted a break from science, and that I worried a lot about doing justice to those four lakh Rupees. There was a time when I was running a high temperature, and she had brought me food in bed, warmed the milk in the mess kitchen downstairs, and got me the notes of each lecture. She had a rather childish handwriting, the e’s and a’s, the l’s and the t’s hard to distinguish. On most evenings, when the hostel gates closed at 7, we had dinner together in the mess downstairs. That’s when she told me about the latest gossip in the coaching classes. During one of those dinners, from across the table she whispered to me that sex hurts, quite bad. My first instinct was repulsion. How could she? And when! But then I heard myself ask her questions.
“Worse than a cramp?”
“Does it hurt a man too?”
She laughed hysterically, turning a few eyes. I immediately looked at my plate of cold rotis and a very bland potato gravy. Men cannot feel that pain, I noted.
One evening, she did not return. There were no messages or calls. The warden raised the alarm. When she asked me if I knew where she could have gone after the classes, I shook my head. Later that night, they were found in a hotel room that did not care about identification cards. The two lovers were shoved into police custody; the parents were called and my roommate was expelled from the city where women were always safe, everywhere. I did not get to meet her. When I called, the number disconnected. I felt like I had lost an elder sister and could not do anything about it. My mother was disgusted.
“Thank God, betu! You are safe. That woman! Chee! How will her parents live with this shame? So much for sending a daughter to study!”
I felt my body shiver with rage.
“Ma, would you say the same for brother?”
“What do you mean?”
I disconnected the call before it got worse, not realising that it had already happened.
Later that day, I couldn’t concentrate in the classroom. My head was clouded with guilt. Dadi was home-schooled till ninth grade after which she boarded the flight of toffees. Ma got as far as eleventh. I was counting my privileges when Papa called. I cut the call seven times before the professor asked me to go outside and take it.
“We are coming to take you home. You can finish the rest of the study here.”
I tried forming words. I tried asking why. I tried to scream. Instead I shivered and waited for Papa to hang up. My tiny harmless Nokia phone started slipping from my hand, like my future.
Papa and Ma stayed at a hotel in Kota for two days to clear the formalities. I had only paid first year’s fees which summed up to around two lakh rupees so it was easier to pull me out of the coaching classes before it was too late. The professors repeatedly requested them to reconsider the decision. Ma repeatedly told Papa that she had warned him. A girl should not stay alone in a foreign city at such a young age. According to her, this was the exact age when they ran the risk of bad influence.
“It is not your fault.” She told me. “You have never talked back like this. It is because of that roommate of yours. I shall have a word with that warden before we leave.”
“I want to study. Please. I am sorry.”
“You can study there too beta. God forbid if something happens, everyone will blame you. The men will get away easy.”
I was suddenly too tired of keeping tabs of things that men cannot do. I was tired of begging or hoping or talking to my parents. I was tired of myself too, tired of trying too hard to do justice to things that did not exist. The journey back home was burdened with silence. At one point, I hoped that the train would derail from the bridge and fall into the river below.
Dadi was sleeping in her room when we arrived. Brother was busy packing his own bags.
“Where is he going?” I asked Papa accusingly.
He had decided to study in a famous coaching class in Ranchi that made promises of a bright future for kids if enrolled at the right age. I stared at the pamphlet in disbelief, wanting to strike out ‘kids’ and write ‘boys’ instead. He was in ninth grade, the exact age when Dadi left home and school.
“You have the money to send him to a four year course! You have the confidence to send him to a foreign city?”
“My god. What black magic has that roommate done on you!” Ma gasped. “How can you talk like that with your own father!”
“My father! Really? Is he my father?” I reeled towards him. “Are you my father? What have you ever done for me!”
Ma slapped me hard. Once. Twice. Thrice. Brother ran to stop her. I screamed. I screamed till I could not hear my own voice. I screamed till my brother shook me. Then I pushed him away and ran outside to the garage. The neighbours had gathered at their portico. I wiped my eyes, pulled out my bicycle and opened the gate without looking at them. If they wanted a show, I would give them one. My hands were steady again. I climbed on the bicycle, took one deep breath and accelerated at full speed, ringing a bell at the alarmed men on the road, wiping off the list of things that only they could do, leaving my audience behind.
Legend of Non-English words:
- Daadi – Paternal Grandmother
- Roti – Chapatti
- Humaare Hazaribagh ki topper – Our Hazaribagh’s topper
- Betu/Beta – a form of addressing a child
- Mera Raja Beta – My lovely son
- Marwari – People from a community originally belonging to Marwar region in Indian subcontinent
Medha Dwivedi, originally from Ranchi, Jharkhand, is currently based out of Bangalore. She divides most of her time between Computer Algorithms and Literature, and often treats herself to Bollywood Drama and Jalebis. She is part of the Bangalore Writer’s Workshop community, and her work has been published in The Bangalore Review, eFiction India, blogs and college magazines.