The bitterness of the first pain experienced in your life not only fills you with immense sadness, it also conditions all the coming days and years of your existence.
It is like the hammer-stroke on the red-hot iron which shapes it into an obedient spoon or a cruel knife, a pagan cauldron or a sickle with sharp teeth, or just a pair of tongs which keeps fumbling through ashes for a sparkling ember so that the frozen life could thaw a little, so that a small lively oasis of fire could remain alive and vibrant in the infinite flood of darkness and desolation.
If I look back I can’t pinpoint the precise moment when the blacksmith’s hammer struck first. Probably it struck again and again in quick succession. Probably that’s how girls are brought up.
If you think of it, the phrase ‘brought up’ seems to be singularly inappropriate for them. The right thing to say would be that they are always ‘pushed down’.
I was a very lonely child. Lonely and sad. From the mist of the past the first memory that comes to my mind is that of the birth of my younger brother. Nobody had time to talk to me. Everybody was tense. There was a lady doctor and her helper, a midwife whose name was Shama. Running from the kitchen to my mother’s closed room with huge cauldrons of boiling water, she would look at me and smile.
Something unusual was happening. I had no idea what it was. All the same it was something mysterious, which was also terrifying. I sat alone in the storeroom, hidden behind the huge boxes which contained quilts and linen.
When Shama brought a pink-and-white bundle to me and said, “Look, now you have a brother to play with,” I looked away and cried.
My mother developed some strange complications during her delivery. For a number of years after that she couldn’t even walk up to the bathroom or toilet without someone’s help. That is when both my parents started scolding me. Whenever they found me playing around, they always said, “Girls shouldn’t while away their time like that. They should learn how to serve their elders. You should be with your mother and look after her.”
My mother took my brother in her lap and nursed him. I couldn’t remember ever being so close to her heart like that. I felt neglected and ignored as if I was nothing. The only time I sat close to her was once or twice a day when she combed my hair and plaited it. I was always terrified of that moment because I had an unwieldy growth of hair and it hurt terribly when she combed it.
I was convinced that my younger brother was her real child, while I had been picked up from some gutter.
In my imagination I started weaving a fairy tale, that my real mother had died, and my grandparents thought they couldn’t bring up this ugly duckling. So they threw me on the roadside. Anybody could pick me up, just anyone: a street dog, or a cat with shrewd, sparkling eyes, or a huge black eagle, or these people who had brought me home and adopted me out of pity.
Probably they were repenting now.
A long time after that I read a poem describing the plight of a koel’s eggs hatched in the crow’s nest. And I thought it was a poem about me.
I had just one friend. Her name was Rohini. She lived next door. Her father was dead. In the kitchen, wrapped in a white cotton saree, working silently like a maid, with deep sorrow in her very sad eyes, sat her mother day after day.
Rohini and I sometimes played in the small portico outside our houses.
We were hardly six when Rohini’s Dada jee and my father ordered us not to play there anymore. “It is not good for girls to play outside in the porticos,” they said.
The season of playing was over. The sad season of loneliness had begun.
My grandmother was incharge of the kitchen. Though the cooking was done by the servants, serving food was my grandmother’s domain. She decided what everyone would eat. She often said, “Girls shouldn’t be given butter or milk. It makes them grow faster.”
But my father didn’t want to discriminate at least in the choice of food, because he probably thought that this equality in feeding both his children absolved him of all the other discriminations.
So both me and my brother were given fresh, home-made butter in the morning, each with half a roti saved from last night.
My brother was younger to me. Probably half a roti and a ball of butter was enough for him. But I always felt that I was still hungry.
Once Rohini and I were just talking on the outside portico. The neighbouring shopkeeper, who had become a millionaire during the beginning of Second World War because the prices of steel had soared sky-high, offered us some sweets. Both of us refused, saying that we had just eaten. He asked, “What have you eaten?” I don’t remember what Rohini told him, but I said, “Fresh butter and half a roti.”
He laughed and joked about the roti part.
The news reached my father. He grabbed me with one hand, slapped me with the other, and roared, “Girls don’t talk to men. You won’t talk to any man from today onwards.”
That was probably the first slap of my childhood. I was deeply hurt, as if he had singed the flesh of my cheek with a red-hot iron rod. The way they used to brand the slaves in the past, the way they brand herds of cattle.
I could actually smell the roasted flesh of my cheek. For many days, many weeks, the smell of burning flesh haunted me.
I had been going to school for a couple of years now. My younger brother too was now in school. But his situation was totally different from mine. He used to go to his school along with a couple of chubby, noisy boys from the neighbourhood; came back laughing and kicking, had his glass of juice and snacks, and again went out to play. Life for him was all fun, joy and laughter.
For me, it was a slow, burdensome thing. Going to school and coming back from there was done under the care of my grandfather. In the school, there were other sad girls who moved slowly from one plant to the other during the recess and talked about their personal sorrows and sadness. Since I couldn’t share—I still can’t!—my hidden pains with anyone, I was like a lost soul. Quiet and sad.
At home I was always told of the imminence of the big scarecrow of marriage looming large on the horizon of my life. I was told that I should learn cooking and cleaning and looking after the house because that’s what I’ll be doing in the unknown house which will be my future home.
Spending the day was comparatively easy: going to school, doing homework, cleaning the house, helping in the kitchen. But in the evenings time seemed to stand still. I felt like a small grain of wheat being ground between the two huge millstones of earth and sky.
During these tedious and boring evenings I went to the open terrace at the top of our five-storeyed house, and lay down on the string cot which was always lying there under the sky, whose colour had turned blackish under the angry sunshines and lashing rains. I lay down and looked at the greying sky which seemed very close and comforting. Lots of crows flew across this greyness, flying towards their night shelters, their homes. And I wondered where my home was. I couldn’t even fly in search of it because I had no wings.
There was a radio in the house, but my father switched it on only to listen to the news. He had his own ideas about making the best use of time. For him listening to the news was useful while listening to songs or music was a sacrilegeous waste of time. Reading the newspaper was useful, while reading a magazine or a novel or poetry was mere nuisance.
My grandfather was very fond of walking. My father said it was a waste of time. Eventually my grandfather managed to legitimise his wanderlust by taking the two of us—me and my brother—for long walks to Lawrence Garden* in the evenings. He broke my father’s initial resistance by arguing that walks were essential for the health of the children, and my father being a doctor, was naturally convinced about the health part.
The grey roads led us to strangely mysterious places—gardens laden with flowers, and the zoo where life unfolded itself in myriad forms and shapes.
At night I dreamt about the lionesses and giraffes and cranes. The crane picked me up and took me to faraway lands where nobody admonished me for playing, for reading poetry. Faraway lands, where there were lots of open spaces and azure skies, where nobody warned me not to peep out of the curtains, not to stand on the balcony, not to play with Rohini, not to listen to music, not to read novels, simply because I was a girl.
When I look back I wonder how a girl-child’s parents become adept at clipping down her childhood. The way the feet of the Chinese girls were bound in hard shoes so that they remain small. The way bonsais are grown. The way large trees which are destined to spread their wings towards heavens, which are meant to take in all the sunshine and rain and grow up tall and strong, are dwarfed into small decorative items fit to be admired in posh, sparkling, drawingrooms.
All the parents of girls know this art of growing bonsais. Instead of giving them infinite space and sunshine and rain and fertile soil, they make their girls grow in small pots which can just be carried away from one drawing-room to the other.
It was a day like any other day, and the evening grey like any other evening.
In that grey evening something terrible happened which left me bitter and devastated and desolate for many years and filled my heart with sadness and loneliness.
That evening when we left home for a walk, a sharp nail in my shoe started piercing the sole of my foot. I didn’t tell anyone because I was afraid I would be left back at home, deprived of the only hour which took me out in the open spaces, away from my cage.
So I walked silently. Every step that I took hurt terribly. I was walking on a sharp, exposed nail.
When we reached Nisbet Road crossing where the statue of Queen Victoria stood in its awe-inspiring glory, I saw a shoeshine boy, one of the sort who sit on the pavements and do small repairs too. I told my grandfather about the nail in my shoe and requested him to get it pulled out or hammered in from the shoeshine boy. But he was talking to one of his friends, so he ignored me.
By the time we reached Simla Hills*, I felt that the nail was being pushed upwards, from the sole of my foot up towards my knee.
The pain was unbearable by now.
I started crying.
I didn’t know how to assert myself. I was never taught to demand anything. On the contrary I was always taught to be meek and humble and uncomplaining.
My grandfather was walking ahead of me, chatting indifferently with his friend. My brother was running here and there chasing the butterflies. I was dragging my feet to keep up with them, crying all the time.
It didn’t occur to me to remove my shoes and carry them in my hands, and walk barefoot. That was the curse of having been brought up in a city.
By the time we reached the top of Simla Hills, I was crying my heart out but without producing any sound. I was feeling faint with pain.
At the top there was a sort of plateau where benches were lying, with trees spreading their arms over them. There was only one man there, who was taking a leisurely stroll. He looked at me and said with genuine concern and compassion, “Why are you crying, my child?”
“The nail,” I sobbed.
“Nail? Which nail?”
“In my shoe,” I pointed at my hurting foot. I was still standing. He held my hand gently and led me to the bench. I sat there, and he sat beside me. Very gently he undid the laces of my shoe and removed it. When he looked at the sole of my injured foot, he was shocked. “Oh, my God!” he said. I still remember, he said just that.
He then picked up a stone and hammered in that nail. Then he gently wrapped my foot in his handkerchief and slipped it back in the shoe. He looked at me and smiled, patted my shoulder and went away.
I was full of gratitude for his help and his tenderness, but I couldn’t utter a word of thanks to him. Silently he helped me and quietly walked away.
I looked up. My grandfather was looking at me with disapproving and furious eyes. I shuddered.
He led us back home. It was dinner time when we reached home. I went straight to the kitchen and asked my grandmother for something to eat. My grandmother was always anxious to finish off early, so she served me food in a plate. I was just going to eat the first morsel of food when my father entered the kitchen. My grandfather followed him, and stood at the entrance, looking on with eyes glaring with anger and malice.
My father almost pounced on me and slapped me so hard that I felt the roof had fallen on my head. It was like an earthquake, leaving behind a lot of unrecognisable rubble. The plate fell down and broke into a hundred pieces. I fell down on those pieces. I didn’t know where those pieces pierced my flesh. I only knew that hot and red blood was soaking my frock while my father kept kicking me and shouting, “How dare you talk to a stranger?”
Everybody, my grandfather, my grandmother, my mother, my brother simply kept watching the whole thing. As if they were seeing a religious ritual, the ritual of initiating a girl into a state of being a permanent dwarf, a sacred ritual of clipping her wings and silencing her soul.
Initially I couldn’t understand what was happening. Then gradually the words reached me, “Girls don’t talk to anyone. From tomorrow you won’t stir out of the house.”
That night I desperately wished for a miracle that would extract my soul out of my body. In the morning everybody would look at me and say, “She is dead. It is better this way. She was a mere girl. Useless. And she was such a big headache too. Good riddance from perpetual nuisance!”
The memory of that night has spread its dark shadows over my entire life. After that night a fear constantly mauled me from inside. I could never walk straight, could never look anyone in the eye, could never laugh with abandon, could never pour my heart out to anyone.
They slashed away the branches of my soul with a pair of razor-sharp scissors, cut off most of my roots, and planted me in a pot full of sand, ashes, charcoal powder, and a bit of soil. I was transformed from a free and proud tree to a bonsai plant, living at the mercy of measured doses of water and constant clipping of leaves.
All the parents who are unfortunate enough to give birth to girls instinctively know this art of dwarfing them into mere bonsais.
There was infinite sadness in my heart and constant restlessness in my soul.
I returned to the top-floor terrace and started spending my evenings lying down on the string-cot worn out with hot sun and lashing rains.
Every evening I looked at the sky and saw flocks of crows flying towards their nests.
My soul kept crying in the greying dusk,
“Where is my nest, my home?”