Nobody knows how to look at her anymore. She walks down the street to a dark blue wooden ironing cart to hand over a bundle of freshly washed clothes wrapped tightly in a bedsheet. The man eyes her strangely, like she’s covered in soot. Women in the market talk about her in hushed whispers - she catches a few lazy stares and comments frivolously thrown to the wind. When she’s at the shop, considering which tomatoes to buy as she rolls them delicately between her fingers to check if they’re spoiled, she is aware that the women alongside her are sizing her up in the same manner. Others part their drying laundry like curtains to watch her in a heady mix of curiosity, wonder and judgement. When she had left, the severe, thin parting between her hair was lined with crimson powder. Upon her return, it had all gone, leaving a barren valley of unanswered questions that the townsfolk were hesitant to venture into. In the first few weeks of her return, they all keep their distance. It was almost as if they believed that divorce was contagious and that any interaction with her would infect their own marriages.
She was used to being regarded with suspicion. Her mother had died when she was very young, so the women in her small town had decided it was their responsibility to make sure she grew to be a well-rounded woman. She had listened patiently to their opinions when she was young but as she grew older, she became increasingly wary of their concern.
When she was just a little girl, she had watched a movie at the local theatre. It was really just a room with seven wooden benches, a projector and a dirty white cloth draped on the front wall like a makeshift screen. She had watched a beautiful lady swaying and twirling in tune to the music and she was mesmerized. She was determined to learn how to dance. She would sing loudly, stretch in the veranda and skip on the road to school. She tried to coax Miss Nandita, her schoolteacher, to let her perform at the annual talent show. Unfortunately, her love of dance wasn’t appreciated by her teacher and the townsfolk.
“It isn’t an artistic craft or even an acceptable hobby”.
“It reeks of sensuality and narcissism”.
It would make everyone take notice of her. And girls her age weren’t meant to be looked at, she was told sternly by her teacher. Their disapproving glares held her transfixed, like a deer in headlights, immobilizing her.
The only person who rarely voiced his opinion was, ironically, the only person who truly mattered - her loving, wise mathematician father. Murthy was gentle and soft-spoken, each word it seemed was uttered only after careful calculation. He gave his only daughter everything she needed, including a suitable education in English and home-cooked meals with ingredients measured with utmost precision. His preoccupation with work and household chores left him with barely any time to spend with his little girl. The only moments they shared together were in the warmth of twilight and the dim glow of the television. They would share a plate of cut fruit with a sprinkling of salt, pepper and chilli powder as they watched the news together each evening on an old television set that was just a little bigger than a square clock. Some nights, especially when it rained, Murthy would have to bang hard on the top of the television set to get the picture to return to perfect clarity. This was the only time she witnessed any sort of heightened reaction from him at all. Theirs is a complex relationship - one where a deep love was tangible but never expressed.
Without a sibling or parents to engage in casual banter, she grew up a lonely child. Her friends were few and even those she did make, she couldn’t hold on to. While her father pored over equations and calculus, her nose was most often stuck in a book or up in the clouds. She was very content on her own and didn’t need a companion or a marriage to feel complete. Years later, she would find that this was a sign of maturity. But when she was growing up, she was told repeatedly that she was reclusive, an odd creature and would be a misfit in society.
When she was married and finally moved to a big city, she was looking forward to the freedom from her inconspicuous town and its way of thinking. She was hoping to discover an extroverted personality, a gregarious laughter, an infectious energy that would make her feel at home in the world. She imitated people that she met, emulated their mannerisms but at the end of an evening of pretending, she would feel utterly depleted and retreat into sadness. This confused and infuriated her new husband. He was an accountant, but with the confidence of a psychiatrist, he made multiple diagnoses - told her she was attention-seeking, suffered from bipolar disorder and finally in exasperation told her that she was just ‘too much to for him to handle’. She left when the whip of his tongue led to lashing on her skin. Her exposure to a bigger world and another person left her so claustrophobic that she ached for her small town where she felt safe.
When she had left her town, she was like an autumn leaf that fell in tune to the season. Girls her age were meant to marry and leave at a certain age. So she did. She didn’t make a sound and no one noticed that she had gone. But now that she was back, she was impossible to ignore - as strange as snow in a desert. There were uncovered manholes, rats on the street and frequent power outages but Divya’s divorced state was the first thing they sought to address. She had no interest in a second attempt at playing wife. But the women of the town were undeterred by her lack of enthusiasm.
Rumours were cooking and the aroma was everywhere. It drove the older women of the town into a frenzy. It wasn’t long before they got together to devise a solution. If divorce really was an illness, they wouldn’t waste time with complicated medication and a drawn-out recovery period, lest it spread. They would simply slap a band-aid over it and that would be it. This band-aid would take the form of Anand, a widower with a five-year-old daughter. Poor unsuspecting Anand was a skilled carpenter and clearly had a vacancy in the typical family unit that she could fill. With the desperate need for a wife and stepmother to his daughter, the collective of women was insistent that he would be willing to graft her into his family.
“Anand has agreed to meet you at the local bakery for coffee”, they announced triumphantly, one day.
“What did you tell him about me?” she asked.
“That you’re young, slim, and a decent cook.” they replied, confidently.
“And that I’m divorced?” she prodded.
“Now, why would we go and ruin everything by saying that? We don’t want him to refuse to meet you!” they stated, without the slightest trace of guilt.
“Why would he? His wife is dead - he’s unmarried again, he’ll understand.” she retorted.
“It’s different.” Divya was told plainly.
“Why?” she asked, her every vein pulsating angrily.
“Because, in his case, he didn’t choose to be single.” they spat.
They arrived each Saturday to present her with assorted homemade oils and creams for her skin and hair, promising that it would make her appear fairer, younger and more radiant. As if their blemish-correcting properties would render her completely flawless, obliterating the fact that she was a young twenty-something divorcee. Divya didn’t understand why this was so important to them. Did they genuinely want her to find love and be happy? Perhaps remaining single set a bad precedent for their daughters? Maybe this reflected negatively on the town, at large? She took their gifts and promptly stored them with all these niggling doubts she had - right at the dark lower shelf of her cupboard.
There was only one boy in town that she really fancied. She had loved him since she was a young girl of 15. The first time she saw him, he was teaching a few younger boys to play cricket with writing pads instead of bats on the road outside their school. Her stomach had flipped like a chapati on a pan. She was a bit disappointed when she found out that he was happily married now - she had seen him riding his cycle into town and he’d nodded to acknowledge that he noticed her. He still had the same effect on her stomach so she was relieved that he didn’t stop and make conversation. Of course, she couldn’t tell anyone about how she felt. She posed a big enough dilemma as it is. Moreover, his mother was the most enthusiastic member of the committee of women who were trying to solve her as if she were a problem.
Murthy did not question her upon her return. He wore his concern in deep creases on his forehead but never once did he challenge her decision. The townswomen probed but Murthy staunchly deflected their criticism. Whether he doubted the quality of his parenting or was itching with curiosity, nobody knew. The family of two resumed their tradition of watching the evening news - Murthy gently swaying on his rickety old rocking chair with Divya at his feet, legs crossed and her fingers deftly slicing raw green mangoes. The affairs of the world played out loudly on the screen and their own stayed obediently in the corner.
To escape all the unwanted attention she was regularly subjected to, she got a job as a teller at an agricultural bank in the neighbouring town. She rode a crowded bus that always tilted dangerously to the left because of the unequally distributed weight. She got off at the local train station and took the local train each morning to work - it took her 11 minutes to travel 25 kilometres. She saw a set of men all squatting in a row, every day at precisely 8:14 am as she passed the riverbank, with their patterned lungis lifted over to cover their heads, exposing coal-coloured buttocks. They had just enough shame to conceal their identity, but evidently not enough to stop them from defecating in public. Divya had always wondered about this culture of shame. Why women revealed stretch mark streaked navels and smooth waists in their saris but a perfectly fitted salwar kameez that hugged her curves or a stray bra strap was considered criminal. Why they cared so deeply about orphans and widows, but the divorced were treated like sinners.
She came home early from work one evening and to her surprise, saw two chairs in front of the television. One of them had a little bun like a rabbit’s cottontail peeking over the top. She heard their murmuring abruptly come to a stop. Her father had company? He usually never had people over, except for the occasional troupe of little children who came for after-school mathematics lessons. But it wasn’t exam season yet. She hung her bag delicately on the nail behind the door and walked into the room where the pair were still seated quietly as if they were bracing themselves for a punishment at the hands of their parents. She walked right to the front of the room and was shocked to find an aged, but still stunning Miss Nandita, looking back at her nervously. Her father looked extremely uncomfortable. “Miss Nandita came over to watch TV.” he stuttered as he attempted to offer an explanation. “Yes,” she nodded eagerly. “So nice to see you after such a long time, Divya” she added. Divya smiled at her. “You too, Miss. Would you both like some chilled buttermilk?” she asked. They nodded, easing up a little. Divya walked off to the kitchen to prepare some for the two of them. Maybe love would find its way to her one day. It would come dancing in, unexpected, as Miss Nandita had for her father. She did a little pirouette after she stirred the salt into their drinks. Nobody could stop her now.
She went back to the hall and sat at her father’s feet with her own glass of buttermilk and a plate of sliced fruit. Hope rose in her like a fluffy white rice cake. Murthy paused his rocking to get up and whack the television. Divya held her hand up to stop him. ‘I’ll do it, Pa.’ she said. She shoved a piece of guava into her mouth with one hand and with the other clenched in a fist, she gave the television a loud thump. Startled, it snapped back into focus. Murthy leaned back into his chair, Miss Nandita smiled and Divya sat down again. This was her home. It was okay to be broken here. In time, it would all be clear again.
This work has been published in Beetle Magazine's August 2020 Issue.