Two-way street

Smriti Sinha

Streets of India are where all the action is, quite literally. Except for maybe
procreating, anything else that people do inside their houses, Indians could very
well be doing on streets. Eating, crapping, reading, shopping, just hanging out,
picking a fight, you name it, and I know for a fact that it would be happening on
some Indian street at that particular moment. Being a woman, born and raised here, in a very middle class family in the 70s, I can say that I used streets only for the prime purpose they serve – taking me from one place to another. I never actually gave them much importance or even observed them. It also must have to do with the kind of a person I am. As a kid, I would rather hide behind a book than be seen out with friends. And now, when I am middle-aged and can easily spend time watching the world go by, I simply don’t have time. To cut this rambling short, I hadn’t paid much attention to streets. Till that day.

This happened way back in 2015. I was struggling in a bad marriage and what kept me in it was the stereotype of a happy family and that kids need both their parents. I felt claustrophobic but didn’t know what to do about it. Or maybe I knew that I could always walk out but it being a difficult choice, I saw it as impossible. Convenient, eh? But that’s how I thought…and lots of other Indian women do too, as I learnt over time. We lived in a tier-II city. On that particular Sunday, my husband had taken the children (we have two) and me grocery shopping. It was a bimonthly ritual in our household. What it entailed was me being left at a superstore with my list. My daughter would always stay back with me. My son too would’ve loved to but he was whisked away by the dad because, stereotypes. So I would stroll from one aisle to another, dumping items in my cart as my daughter pretended to be of help. She was all of 9. And help she was, bringing comic relief to an otherwise tense situation. “Why tense?” you ask. Read on.

By the time I got to, say one end of the store, husband would call on my phone asking me my whereabouts. He was done with whatever he was up to, and wanted to join me. Fair enough. But he wanted to join me in aisle 1, irrespective of where I was. I would trudge back, with a laden cart, only to have to retrace my route, now with the two men also in tow. Husband would scrutinize everything I picked and replace/discard/add items as he willed. I had no problem with that. The problem lay in his explanation of each decision of his. Why did I pick up a known brand of ketchup when the in-house one was cheaper by Rs 2? He was replacing the jam because I shouldn’t be compromising on quality. How does it matter if it’s costlier by Rs 5?  Contradictory, right? Believe me, it can mess with your head if you do this
twice a month, for 11 years.

So that Sunday, he spared me this torture, maybe because the list was much
shorter; very basic groceries, like rice, flour and pulses needed to be picked up. I finished that in ten minutes, called him and we heaved the stuff into the boot of the car. Then I asked him what was next on the agenda. Yes, I needed to ask because I never got to decide what we would do together as a family. He looked at me and said, “You sit in the car, I need to look at some stuff.” “Then we will come along, after all, what will I do sitting in the car?” I said. “Sure! Then you go ahead while I sit in the car, I can’t be seen with you,” he said. “What did I do now?” I asked. “You’re a public embarrassment,” he said. Just like that.
And something died inside me at that moment. Standing on that street, it hit me
that my husband didn’t respect me at all. And that’s the least you should expect in any relationship. For once, I did not beg or plead. I sat on the front seat, not
realizing that our 10-year-old boy had heard it all. He also stepped in and his sister followed suit. They told their dad they would wait with me. “As you wish,” he mumbled and walked away.

For the first time, I accepted my reality. I sobbed my heart out, my kids all the while trying to cheer me up as best as they could. Finally when I had stopped bawling, we sat looking out the car. As the world went bustling about its business, my children and I sat in the car, cocooned in its safety. And I saw clearly that this was my world__ my children and I. This was the complete picture. This was my happy place. I just needed them around to be content, irrespective of the location, it could even be a car parked on a busy street, with the AC off, mind you. We sat looking at people and my children prattled on, just so I would not break down again. Some people even looked our way, maybe out of curiosity, who knows? And then they continued walking. I realized that my fear of log kya kahenge (What will the world say) was totally unfounded. If they are looking at me, I am looking at them too. So why am I the only one concerned about being judged?

Have you noticed how, if you find someone staring at you and you stare back at
them, they look away? We sat in the car, the three of us, doing just that. And it was another life lesson for me. If I was scared of how people react to my walking out of my marriage, I should look them in the eyes and they will look away. I also learnt, much to my amusement, that you hold someone’s attention only for so long. After that, they get busy with their lives. So, it dawned on me, this is how it will be if I choose to chart my own course. People will get curious, and then they will move on.

We noticed passers by couples, families, some even walking alone. I told myself that if someone loves you, they wouldn’t want to walk away from you, as my husband had done that day. They would make every effort to either have you with them or would stay back with you, like my children did. Most of all, they wouldn't be embarrassed of being seen with you. It was a shock to realize that he could and would leave us to our device, without so much as an explanation.
But how come I never made any plans excluding him? And if it did happen, it
happened by chance, not by plan. When I saw him walk away, not turning around even once to ask us to accompany him, I understood our equation. We were supposed to obey him. If he told us to sit, we were to sit. We were to follow him, if he so wanted. But that’s not how it should be, I thought, for the first time in my marriage. It is a two-way street.

As I composed myself, I noticed we were parked very close to the crossroads. I saw it as a sign. What I was going to do next would bring us to the crossroads. But why do crossroads confuse people? Because there are too many choices and they don’t know which one to take? But isn’t that much better than having no choices at all? That road ahead, and the ones to my left and right, showed me my life hadn’t reached a dead-end. There was still so much I could do. It didn’t matter if the path I took wasn’t an easy one; at least it would take me somewhere. Because staying put doesn’t always help. Status quo isn’t always good. Soon after that afternoon on that street, I told my husband I was leaving him. It wasn’t easy, because first he laughed at me, wondering aloud what a homemaker could possibly do. That was followed by the whole range of emotions from him: disbelief, anger, grief, regret. He even tried being extra kind to me, showering me with compliments, taking us out for dinner. But nothing could wipe away what he had said to my face on that street and I also couldn’t possibly unlearn what I learnt that day.

I have moved out since. I got into full-time employment, again, first in my hometown and then in Delhi. I am fighting court cases with my ex and raising my children with help from my family, both financially and emotionally. I have also worked very hard to get my career back on track. I had given it up just so I could keep my marriage going. But after that day, I have stopped being apologetic about the person I am, because I know nobody really cares. I have stopped being apologetic for wanting a career; for preferring to read or write in my free time instead of slogging in the kitchen. I have started speaking up because why shouldn’t I? I have also learnt to be a little kinder to people because now I know that things aren’t always what they seem. For someone who has never sat on pavements with her friends, has hardly ever even hung out at malls (we didn’t have them growing up), that half hour inside a car
parked in a market street helped me look out and within.

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