winner-open-road-review-short-story-prize-2016-in-partnership-with-nhp-centreShe stared at the bran yellow of the paddy husks, heaped in piles two hundred metres away from her body. Yellow seemed to reflect off other mountains of yellow; light pouring through every nerve of her eye. She squinted as shades of light danced with lozenge greens, browns and lemony whites. Her own body seemed bathed in the light of the outside world while the deeper shades of roomy interiors canopied her back.

Her mother had left home for the city, early in the morning. She had had a baby brother who she hoped fitted into her palm. She was also told they might look similar but she did not believe that. Her smile seemed lopsided and her features felt scrunched all the time. Her back was always pressed down with an invisible weight and her voice always seemed like it was coming from far away. It was difficult to understand how her mother thought anybody else could be like her. She sometimes felt words jumped and danced and before she could approach them, they ran away teasing, like little boys that throw stones at strangers.

She turned to look at the ceiling, indistinct and blurry after the bright suffusion outside. She stared and smiled without realizing her jaw was beginning to hurt. She stared until there was nothing left to see. She rolled her back as if on wheels and looked at the farthest end of the ceiling. She did not have to bend too much. The rafters of the ceiling looked like a game to her; a game of stops and starts where little girls jumped in dancing motions to avoid the moving sticks. The rafters were dancing, light was appearing in hot flashes and her back was beginning to prick. She curled up in comfort.

Some hours later, her mother came back from the city.

Her mother left home every morning after collecting darbha grass from the neighbourhood. She took the rickety bus to town, got off, walked three kilometres to the town bus stand from where she took one of the suburban buses that carried her into the interiors of a behemoth, belching people, fumes and misery. She sat down at her regular station, greeted her fellow sellers and sat down to her work. She first separated every line of grass, pulled them gently to their beauty and tied them with themselves in quick motions. By the first hour of work, she had created and heaped many bushels of grass, ready to be taken away in a trice.

After grueling days of sun and noisy customers, she counted her earnings and it seemed sufficient to support a family of two. She had had no education and her daughter resisted all attempts to be tamed. She remembered her mother who worked till the last sinews of her body showed themselves in serpentine patterns on her hands and legs, cried till she had no tears left and pulled her children close as if they were the last defence against an unfair world.

She thought of her own daughter, alone in the shed, waiting for her with nothing else to occupy her by. Toys did not work, she would lose interest and become angry. She could not get along with the others at school and the teachers had told her that she was slow, unable to understand basic ideas that other students grasped readily and was difficult to handle. She generally sat by herself, sometimes saying incoherent things that no one wanted to understand.

She wished her own mother was around so that she did not have to worry about her daughter. She had a calmness and strength of spirit that would quieten her daughter; she just knew it.

At 11 AM, some men came by the shed to enquire about the price of the land. They had seen that lands had become fragmented in their absence and they wanted to consolidate all the holdings in order to maximize effort and minimise management. They poked around in the village, trying to find out who owned which pieces of land and the information, as always, was readily available. They came to know of the lady and her daughter and thought they would go across to bargain.

They saw the girl, not young enough to be a child and not old enough to be an adult. She had the sallow complexion of someone who got no sun. Her eyes looked distant. They asked her about her mother and she said that she had gone and would come back. They stared at her, waiting to understand. She repeated what she had said and the expression on their faces did not change. She could not comprehend what was happening inside her. She only knew that her chest was hurting and her eyes were starting to see everything moving, running.

They stared at her and said, quietly, that they would come back the next day.

The mother sat at her stall everyday, selling darbha grass to the fat, pious women celebrating the presence of god in their lives. She did not understand how a grass that grew copiously in her backyard could have so much value for people. She was thankful this grass brought her money, but she did not understand anything else. Her people prayed to the village shrine, with very different offerings. Grass was for cattle, not gods. But who was she to judge?

She came back home early. Her daughter, of late, had been crying in the evenings and when asked, would murmur and burst into tears again. She would clutch her arms and run the pads of her fingers down her face and cry. She had become used to her inexplicable behavior and only did what she could. When her daughter refused to listen, she would step outside for some fresh air, arrange the material she needed to make dinner and shut her daughters’ cries out. In some time, she would stop crying and they would both eat dinner in silence.

This had become routine for many months.

*

The piles of paddy were growing in their backyard; the mother had found out from her friends during the fair that the village lands were being consolidated by the landlord’s men. The other women had mentioned how they had to sell their hands at a price smaller than they hoped to get. It was land that had remained in these families; they could not gain much for selling but atleast it fed the family. She was glad she had been spared the trouble of bargaining for her land. It was the only possession she had, apart from the shed. It was the only home she had ever known and she did not ever want to lose it.

Her mother, and the child’s grandmother was going to come home for a couple of months. She had wanted help in maintaining the shed; she would do it herself but she needed someone to sell the darbha grass in the market. She also needed to take her child to the city; she was complaining of aches, pains and was sick. Her stomach was growing in size, almost like a malnourished child’s. She was worried that her child had not been eating in her absence and she wanted to take her for a free health check-up.

Her child was also constantly crying and clutching her arms. She would again run the pads of her fingers on her face, and sometimes clutch her own thighs. Her gestures were always frantic, as if she was telling a story with no words to an audience with no power to listen. Her mother stared at her, willing their eyes to communicate but her child was difficult to understand. She had come to accept the difficulty of her situation.

The next morning, while her mother packed the grass (she insisted on tying the bundles at home, for which she had to get up an hour earlier; her mother had always been a precise, careful woman) she fed her child food carefully. She seemed to be eating well; infact more than her usual quantity in the morning. She realized that she had not spent many mornings with her daughter. By the time she came back in the night, the day was a distant memory, blanketed by exhaustion.

Both mothers lost track of time that morning, since the routine had been upended by the presence of a third member. At 11 AM, they heard footfalls. A group of men appeared at their doorstep, talking and laughing loudly. For ten seconds, the two groups stared at each other until the silence was broken by the wails of her daughter.

Some people in the village felt bad for the mother. She was a hard-working lady; she did not deserve ignominy. Others felt she might have committed many wrongs in her past to obtain a daughter like that. Many others believed the matter could be hushed up if adequate measures were taken; what was done was done. She was already a woman living at the very margins of the village; how much more could life torment her?

She went to the city with her daughter, despairing. Her daughter clutched her mother in fear at the sheer numbers of people around her and burst out crying. She pointed vigorously and wanted to run back to the safety of the shed. It took the mother all of her frail strength to hold on to her; she was sometimes helped by others in the bus. Many others only stared.

She reached the only corner in the city that belonged to her; a corner she had made her own by working and paying for it. She spoke to some of the women who had become steady companions. They guided her to an organization that had helped them set up their own little businesses. It was apparently run by women, and only women can understand the pain other women have to go through. She hurried through the city, tugging a resistant crying child-woman.

She had found the address by asking many along the way. All the signboards looked the same to her; squiggly ink on rectangular frames. She reached the third floor and made her way, shyly to the glass door from where she could peek into the sleek confines of modern offices. She spoke to the guard and mentioned that she wanted to speak to Esha. That was the only name her companions could agree on. She was made to stand in a corner while the guard went inside only to come back to tell her that she wasn’t in. The mother was now desperate. She could not come so far again; her mother was taking care of the home. Who knows how long she could stay? What about her daughter?

The guard went back inside and asked her to speak to a tall, well-dressed, fresh-smelling woman.

The lady sat down. The mother did too, clutching the hand of her daughter, who by this time was too tired to protest anything. She sat down meekly, staring at the lady out of the corner of her mother’s sari.

In quick descriptions, the mother explained what might have happened. The lady mentioned that she wanted to hear the victim’s version. She gently addressed the child and the child receded into the folds of her mother, until she was invisible. Knowing that she could not ascertain much, she took them to a gynecologist friend and everyone’s worst fears were proved.

The mother was told that the child had rights; reproductive rights. She was told that the child-woman could and should keep the child. After all, it had been born to her. She was too far gone to have a safe abortion, especially considering the mother couldn’t pay for the treatment. She could barely earn to keep them alive. In all likelihood, the lady continued, we do not know how long this has been going on. Did the daughter have a lover, for example?

The mother went back to the village, with her daughter. She did not understand the city and its people. She curled into her own world, one that made sense. She went back to the lap of her own mother, of the land that nourished her and the shed that supported her. They all looked back at her with the unshed guilt and metallic sparkle of hands that hide.

*

Aprameya Manthena is a research scholar at School of Arts & Aesthetics, JNU and has studied Literature and Cultural Studies during her time in University.

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