When Shiuli was 13, she had a nightmare. Her grandmother was on a hospital bed in a white night gown, pale and unlike her usual strong self. She had plastic pipes around her mouth, hands and body, her limp grey hair dangling in a mess. She could barely speak, besides a few incoherent syllables strung together. Her family members surrounded the hospital bed and Shiuli stood afar, in a corner, watching blankly, finding it hard to extract any emotion from her insides. Her grandmother died a few moments later, and she woke up with a jolt. It was a Sunday morning and she wanted to shake the thought off her head. She brushed her teeth and sat with her mother to help her make the weekly list of groceries for her father.
They had only reached Beans – 500 grams, when the phone rang. What! and Oh, no! were the only two expressions she heard her mother exhale. She had a flinching feeling about her nightmare coming to life, and her grandmother surrendering to death. Shiuli stretched on the sofa with her hunched shoulder against the backrest and her legs dangling, in deep thought about what she saw last night. She even believed it was her delinquent
nightmare dream that had killed her grandmother. Was she angry with herself?
Her tenacious grandmother was a tender soul to the children of the family, and she loved Shiuli with every inch of her being. She would oil her hair and then neatly braid it, feed her sugar and bread and even tie her shoelaces whenever she visited her grandmother. But what had passed before Shiuli was born, was slowly known to her only while growing up.
Shiuli’s mother was a stylish Bombay girl, living a comparatively liberal life than most of her contemporaries. Back in the 60s, her clothes did not reek of suppression, she tied her hair the way she liked and spoke to whoever she wanted to. She was always with her girlfriends — wearing inexpensive lipstick, losing her head listening to Cliff Richard on the radio and watching an occasional play free of cost. She graduated with an honours degree in Economics after consistently staying top of her class and was planning a career in law.
Her father was in Pakistan making a living for the rest of his family in Bombay. He had chosen to stay on the other side of the border after India was partitioned in 1947 because he had to take care of his cotton ginning factories. The family of eight siblings and a mother depended on him monetarily, but it was difficult to wire money in those days because the Indian currency would get devalued in foreign exchange and only a paltry amount would come through. So the family made a trip to Pakistan every year to live with their father for three months, and bring money back home to sustain them through the next nine months. While in Pakistan, Shiuli’s mother learnt how to drive a Toyota Crown, tame horses in her father’s stables and enjoy the hard showers of the cotton seeds that fell on her head after being separated from the cotton.
By the time Shiuli’s mother, the youngest daughter in the family, was dreaming of venturing out in search of an independent life in the form of employment, her mother passed away. All her older siblings were either married or studying medicine or pursuing a career in engineering. She was given the innate task of taking care of her youngest brother, help him with school work, make him his meals and ensure he made it to college.
At 23, the elders of the family decided she should now get married, and so, without much approval, she was sent from her parents’ home to her husband’s. She agreed to marry, as long as her husband lived in Bombay, the city of dreams, the city that was hers, where she had seen carnivals and curfews, and wars and weddings. Three years into her marriage, her husband had to move to Calcutta because his business was flourishing in that part of the country. Unwilling, she went with him. She left her friends, family and the streets of Bombay behind, along with a part of herself.
Unfamiliar Calcutta failed to win her over, despite its old-world charm and leisurely pace. She was among strangers, inside her house and outside. On top of that, she was living with roughly thirteen people in one flat — her husband’s five brothers, three sisters, two parents and a few kids. The men of the house went to work in the morning, and returned only by late evening. The daughters went to school or college followed by craft or Bharatanatyam class. It was the sole responsibility of the wives to take care of the house, and particularly Shiuli’s mother’s because she was the youngest daughter-in-law.
Her schedule was something along the lines of this:
4am-6am: Wait for running water to start, clean the floors of the whole flat, shower, wait for all the women in the house to shower, pray together
6am-7.30am: Cook breakfast for thirteen people
7.30am-8am: Serve tea and breakfast to everyone else and then to yourself
8am-10am: Cook and pack lunch for all the men in the house to take to work
10am-11am: Do dishes, iron husband’s clothes, take out his socks and shoes, make sure everything is in place
11am-11.30am: Breathe while the mother-in-law was resting
11.30am-1.30pm: Cook lunch for the women and kids in the house
1.30pm-2.30pm: Serve lunch to everyone else and then to yourself
2.30pm-3.30pm: Do dishes, clean kitchen, do thirteen people’s laundry
3.30pm-5pm: Cater to mother-in-law’s incessant complaining about something or the other
5pm-6pm: Make tea and snacks for everyone, serve tea and snacks to everyone else and then to yourself
6pm-7.30pm: Make dinner for thirteen people
7.30-8pm: Ask your husband about his day and make small talk
8pm-9pm: Serve dinner to everyone else at the table with cutlery
9pm-9.30pm: Serve dinner to yourself, sit on the kitchen floor and eat in unknown shame
9.30pm-10pm: Do dishes, clean and wrap up
10pm: Go to bed feeling numb
Shiuli’s mother was not allowed to wear lipstick, get her eyebrows plucked or even wear heels. Eyebrows? Why? Why are you wasting money for something so unnecessary? Why do you want to use sanitary pads? Use cloth and wash it and reuse it. This won’t work here. Don’t stand like that and don’t sit like this. Don’t leave your hair open and what! Is that foundation? Hurry up and finish the dishes, my knees are hurting. Oil them and rub them. Why do you want to call your family in Bombay now? Don’t you know you are allowed only two trunk calls every month?
And if she had to go visit her family in Bombay, her brother wrote a letter to her father-in-law seeking permission, and her father-in-law responded in a letter agreeing or disagreeing. She was also being forced to have babies. Her depression had a large impact on her physical state, and she went through three miscarriages in the process. Barely having a moment to confront her new reality, her prime passed her by. She didn’t even have the time to realise that she was no longer the same person, that her confidence had found another place, not inside her. What was her purpose? Why did she study so hard? What was it that mattered? She was stuck.
Fourteen years later, Shiuli was born. And soon after, they moved into a separate house. Shiuli grew up in the absence of her grandmother albeit barring the necessary visits. How does Shiuli know these stories? She had stolen glimpses in her grandmother through all the hair-braiding and shoe lace-tying. She had seen her mother go weak in the knees every time they planned to go visit her grandmother. She had overheard her parents argue spitefully over her grandmother. She had heard her mother cry on the phone. Many many times. And willingly, her mother had shared a few stories with Shiuli, not with the intention to malign the old woman, but only to make Shiuli aware. But her mother had said most with her vacant eyes.
Shilu straightened her hunched shoulder that had become numb from sitting on the sofa and she sat up to shake off the pins and needles from her back, her eyes glinting and her soul beaming. She looked at her mother, who was struggling to find a feeling within her, any feeling. And Shiuli thought, well, dreams do come true.