Shiva saw 11 missed calls registered on the cracked screen of the mobile phone. A brief pause and once again-
Rohini pleaded from underneath her blanket which she had pulled over her face, to turn off the phone. Shiva placed it on the window sill and looked at Rohini and amma who were lying down on the mat. It was almost midnight but from her visibly heavy and laboured breathing it was evident that amma was still awake. Nothing to do except stare at them and wish away the present situation. Two minutes later Shiva looked at the phone again.
17 missed calls.
From the day her husband died, nobody had ever seen Gomathy motionless except she when she was in deep sleep. Idleness would force her to mourn and unless consciously avoided, grief and widowhood would consume her. The only way she could survive was to keep busy, constantly move and find things to do. It was not a difficult task when one had two children. Even in the most vulnerable, lonely moments that precede sleep, she had trained herself to worry about their future. It was a perfect escape.
Two days after her husband died, rubbishing suggestions of the family elders that she should not be seen outside the home, she resumed her duties at the Gupta mansion. The Setamma, herself a widow and matriarch of the Gupta family was more than willing to put aside her superstitious beliefs because the palatial house was falling apart and in two days dishes had piled up.
Gomathy spent the next decade working in that house with Rohini and Shiva as de facto helpers.
23 missed calls. 3 text messages.
i am outside of your house. waiting.
Shiva peeked through the window, and of course, there he was..leaning against his bike, smoking a cigarette.
u r wasting my time.
if u dont come in 5 min deal off.
But Shiva knew that he would not leave. After all, they were both desperate albeit in very different ways and so was confident enough to text -
Pls wait. 10 min.
And just as expected, came the reply.
ok i wait.
Shiva was suddenly overcome with disgust and ran to the basin and threw up. Neither amma nor Rohini moved.
“Shiva is like the man of the house now”, Rohini would hear her mother say to all and sundry who came to offer help, money, and in a couple of instances even re-marriage. When people came to amma trying to convince her about the necessity of male companionship and protection, she would point to Shiva. True, her sibling had always been a precocious and outspoken child but as a result of their mother words, the 12 year old slowly began taking on the role of their father.
As Rohini grew older she too understood that she had an important role to play in ensuring that Shiva was able to master the role of the man of the house and altered her relationship and behaviour accordingly. So, even now as she heard the muffled gagging sounds, she knew better than to offer help.
Gomathy's Rs.1000 would not suffice to meet the family's needs so Shiva became an apprentice at Gopal maama’s tailoring shop and brought home Rs.1500 every month. Gopal maama, the industrious brother of her late husband, managed to bag a contract with a big garment factory and in five years, Shiva was 18 and earning Rs.5000. Who knew something as liberating as employment would put Shiva’s fortitude to the test.
No amount of aggression seemed to suffice to protect oneself from the drudgery and humiliation on the factory floor. Constant abuse would often result in even middle aged men, twice Shiva's age breaking down. There was no reason, logic or sympathy. Just meeting targets and obedience. No, it was actually subservience, something that Shiva was not used to.
Adding to this, past illnesses that seemed trivial came back with such severity that amma was barely able to walk on most days. Discontinuing Rohini’s studies to take care of amma was not an option and so Shiva taking leave often was the only solution. Lokesh, the factory manager preyed on desperation and ceased the opportunity. He had laid out his conditions if leave applications were to be considered favourably. For Shiva who had just begun coping with subservience, blackmail was unfathomable.
Gomathy had seen that vile Lokesh loitering around at the tea shop near their house, smoking and playing vulgar music loudly on his mobile phone. She had even noticed Shiva talking to him on a few occasions. It was 12.30am as Gomathy pretended to sleep and she heard Shiva turn off the tap, walk across the room and shut the door gently, walking out of the house.
In a society that where a woman’s strength was only measured by her tolerance and acceptance of her circumstance, her beloved Shivagami would be Shiva, strong and aggressive like her late husband. As the man of the house, she would be able to make decisions and create choices serving as the rock of their family, their protector.
She saw her daughter everyday, to live up to this manufactured reality only to see it being broken little by little each day as Shivagami grew older. Tonight, she knew that that struggle had ended in defeat. She heard the bike speed away. Shivagami and Lokesh were headed towards the ARP lodge where she would fulfill Lokesh's conditions tonight on a filthy bed in a dingy room. Gomathy turned towards Rohini and hugged her close. They lay in silence and eventually fell asleep.