My Aunt, Oeshi
When my aunt, Oeshi, finally reaches our house (after a thirty-two-hour train journey and then a forty-five-minute-long auto ride), ma ushers her inside and out of the rain. She scrunches her nose slightly at the smell of sweat, and the heady odour of bodies pressed together wafting from Oeshi bhua’s kurta.
Papa and I stand by the door, his arms crossed and mine hanging limply by my sides. He’d dressed up for the occasion, a new checked shirt, with short sleeves that exposed his broad, hairy arms.
Oeshi bhua bends down in front of us and touches his feet. He pulls her up almost immediately, looking uncomfortable. Papa had been reminded of his superiority to his sisters throughout his life by multiple elders. It was harder for him to accept this superiority when he learned that the only thing that deemed him so was his sex. He felt unnerved whenever his sisters bowed in front of him or began to address him with the formal ‘aap’ as opposed to the casual ‘tum’. My dadi, his mother, used to prop him up in front of her friends, his sisters huddled behind her giant frame, and allow them to marvel at him. In response, her friends would exclaim, ‘Finally, you’ve been blessed with a boy. He will bring you much prosperity.’
Indeed, papa had brought dadi prosperity. He’d paid the dowry for all his sisters’ weddings and had financed his own. Still, my grandparents had bitterly fallen out with him when he decided that it was time for him, along with ma and me, to move to Bangalore, closer to ma’s family.
‘How will we support ourselves? Your sisters are gone, and we are so old.’ For a year, dadu and dadi hurled guilt-inducing comments at him – whether he was on the way out to catch the metro to work or stepping back into the house at eight in the evening. One morning, before leaving, he’d stepped into their room while they were having rusks and chai and brandished our plane tickets at them.
He moved them into a smaller flat and hired a full-time caretaker, in addition to the maid who came every morning to sweep the floors and do the dishes and laundry.
Bangalore had been a good change for us. Papa’s face seemed to brighten, and when he’d come home, he’d sit at the dining table and tell me stories about growing up; the way he and his siblings would fight one another for the thick cream skimmed on the fresh milk, or how his college friends would drink during the day and frantically study for their classes in the night. Ma became livelier too. She would often have light-hearted, sarcastic exchanges with papa, no longer bound by what her in-laws would think of her if they heard her taking a dig at their only son.
Now, she pours tea for all of us and places it in a turquoise ceramic tray, along with some pakoras and chutney.
‘Darshana, I’m always blown away by your cutlery.’ Oeshi bhua examines the tray’s carvings. Ma laughs bashfully and waves her arm, brushing the compliment away.
‘How’s everyone at home, Oeshi?’ Papa does not look her in the eye. He dips his pakora straight into the chutney bowl, even though ma had gotten plates and a small serving spoon to the table.
‘They’re well. Actually, Girish has been promoted! Yes, last week. We all went out to celebrate. That nice Chinese place that we go to, no?’
I look down at my mug as she speaks, trying not to contort my face. The Chinese place, in fact, is greasy and dingy and adorned with tacky furniture and blinding lights that don’t flatter the decor at all. The walls are lined with mirrors, and the seats are cushioned with bright red and gold fabric, making the restaurant seem garish.
‘Even Abhishek is doing well,’ Oeshi bhua goes on. ‘He just finished sixth standard two weeks back. Ranked 4th in the class. I told him to practice maths more, do more sums. If he had, he would have placed at least 2nd.’ She rolls her eyes, but her face gleams with pride.
Papa nods. There is something he wants to ask, but he does not say anything more than ‘I’m glad to hear it, Oeshi.’
Later, they stand outside on the balcony. Ma asks me to help her with dinner, and as I enter the kitchen, I am bombarded by the smell of fried onions and turmeric. She kneads the roti atta furiously, her forehead creased.
‘What are the siblings doing then?’ She wipes her hands on a cloth and turns to me.
‘They’re just outside, chatting.’ I prop myself up on the counter, looking around at the array of vessels and vegetables lining the surfaces. Ma takes a knife out of the drawer and begins to dice some carrots.
‘All they do is reminisce when they meet. Your father ages back thirty years when he gets together with his sisters. Always gossiping and giggling about something.’ Her eyebrows are raised, but I can hear the bitterness in her voice. Ma’s own siblings, two brothers, Ramesh and Shankar, ten and fourteen years older than her respectively, were always distant from her. When they did deign to spend time with her, it was in attempts to control some aspect of her life. When she met papa, they’d immediately disapproved, and protests such as ‘he’s not in our caste’ and ‘why do you want to marry a Punjabi? Are our Telugu men not enough for you?’ and even ‘your complexion is so dark, how will you ever fit in with those North Indians?’ were raised.
Still, ma and papa got married towards the turn of the century. She moved with him to Delhi, and although her brothers were quite right in their doubts, papa loved her fiercely. His family never dared to question her right to be included in the household to his face or hers. They did, however, enjoy discussing her amongst themselves.
Papa and Oeshi bhua enter the dining room, still talking about something.
‘Accha, can you believe that Sima chachi still hasn’t forgiven me for staining her white blouse with mango juice? She brings it up at every function. What am I supposed to say to her? It was forty years ago!’ Oeshi bhua yells, and the two of them burst out laughing, settling down at the table.
‘It’s been so long since you’ve come home, Prakash. Why don’t you all visit for a few months? I’m sure Payal will also be so happy to see you and spend some time with you all.’ Oeshi bhua glances at ma and me, before adding, ‘How about it, Darshana? Do you mind sharing my brother with his family?’
Ma stiffens for a moment, before plastering a smile on her face.
‘How can I ever say no to that?’
Oeshi bhua looks pleased with herself and ma puts the curry down on the table with more force than usual. Papa is oblivious to the silent battle playing itself out between his wife and sister, though I can see what will come of the aftermath. Oeshi bhua will pull him aside later and say something along the lines of ‘Sometimes I wonder how it would have been if you decided to marry someone closer to home, more our type. I’m sure our children would have been great friends.’ And then ma will be in a mood with him until finally he cracks and asks what’s bothering her, and she’ll burst out with ‘she acts as if Diya and I are nothing to you! As if we’re not your family. She comes into my home, eats my food and disrespects me?’
After dinner, we bring out the old carrom board from the back room and dust it off. Oeshi bhua sprinkles boric acid over it and begins to arrange the carrom men carefully, placing the red queen in the centre of the board. Papa sits next to me, showing me how to position my hand and the angles I should push the striker with to get as many pieces into the pockets of the board as possible. Oeshi bhua watches this exchange fondly, nodding approvingly as I get a black one in on my first try. When her turn comes, she pockets four coins in a row, before aiming for the queen.
‘Let’s bet on this, Prakash. What are the odds I’ll win the queen?’ The queen is blocked by two other coins and awkwardly angled away from the pockets.
Papa laughs. ‘Alright, I’ll play along. There’s not a chance you’ll be able to get the queen.’
Oeshi bhua winks at me, before swiftly flicking the striker away. It rebounds against the other side of the board hard and hurtles towards the red coin, gracefully pushing it into the net. She cackles triumphantly and scoops her winnings out. The score, by the end of the game, is five to twenty and I watch defeated as she piles the carrom men on top of one other, towering over my small mound.
‘Diya beta, what colour is your hair supposed to be now?’ Oeshi bhua begins to put the pieces of the carrom set back into their case.
I’d been anticipating this question, though I hadn’t expected she’d wait so long before asking it.
‘I’d dyed it turquoise a month ago. It’s fading into yellow now because I’d bleached my hair.’
Oeshi bhua looks at my dad and makes a face. ‘Wow, Darshana lets her do all this? The girl is running wild.’
It was true that a lot of people considered ma to be cavalier in disciplining me. My friends always referred to her as the ‘cool mom’, while my dad’s side of the family enjoyed using my personality to reflect ma’s own shortcomings. If I ever lost my temper in front of them, it would be because she didn’t teach me to respect my elders. If I wanted to wear shorts to the shops, she hadn’t conveyed the importance of staying virtuous and pure to me. Most times, I dreaded visiting Delhi, afraid of condemning ma in yet another way.
Ma was a cool mom, though. I was allowed to stay over at my friends’ hostels after a night of clubbing, and she never said anything when I dyed my hair. She liked to laugh at boys I had crushes on in high school and would sit with me and interrogate me about my friends’ relationships. Of course, there were things she’d never be okay with, like the fact that I did coke with the boy down the street every few weeks when his parents would travel. Or that I had a giant peony tattooed across my ribcage. What ma didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her.
‘I’m not running wild,’ I reply, my face getting warm.
‘Beta, when people see your hair, no one is going to think you’re a respectable girl. No one will think you’re suitable for their son.’
Oeshi bhua laughs. ‘So, no one will want to marry you, isn’t it?’
I bit my lip hard. Licking away the iron taste, I narrowed my eyes.
‘It’s not exactly my life’s goal to get married.’
She laughs again and looks at papa to see his reaction. He’s watching me, arching his eyebrows warningly.
‘What has Darshana taught her, Prakash?’ Oeshi bhua laughs once more. ‘Of course, you have to get married, Diya. I got married at nineteen! And I had Abhishek two years later. Look how happy we are.’
‘Well, Oeshi bhua,’ I clench my fists. My heart beats hard in my chest and the words I’m about to say catch on my chest. Rage is gathering in my stomach with such fury that I begin to feel nauseated. ‘I don’t really want to turn out like you. You aren’t exactly a role model to me.’
‘Diya, that’s enough.’ Papa barks, standing up. Immediately, I cower back into my chair. Papa, though playful and light most of the time, can get incredibly violent when he’s angry. His voice thunders through the room and involuntarily, I flinch. I’d honed my reaction to his shouting over the years, learned to betray no shock or fear, but now, he catches me off guard.
‘Get out. Now.’ He points to the front door, his other hand pressed against his forehead. I feel tears begin to well up in my eyes and turn my face away as I walk out.
Oeshi bhua sits on the edge of my bed, watching me organise my books. She glances up at my empty bookshelves, and then at the stacks on the floor.
‘Have you really read all this, Diya?’ She picks up my copy of Das Kapital which, admittedly, I had not read.
‘Most of them, yes.’ I smile, taking the book from her and placing it on my ‘low priority reading’ pile. She continues staring at the books on the floor in disbelief. I begin to feel conscious, spoilt, at the number of books I have. I’d gathered a fair few since the fifth grade: my Eragon collection, Malgudi Tales, the classics – all Penguin editions.
‘But I’ve always loved reading,’ I say, and Oeshi bhua looks at me with awe that I don’t deserve.
‘You know, if I had a daughter, I’d want her to read too.’ She flips through Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School and blanches at the illustrations in it. I feel my face getting warm as I hurriedly pull it out of her grasp.
‘It’s not too late, you can still have a daughter.’
Oeshi bhua doesn’t reply to me for a long time. It takes me some time to realise that she’s staring out the window, her eyes dark.
‘I almost had a daughter. She would have been close to your age, you know?’
I hadn’t known that. ‘What happened?’ I clear my throat, before adding, ‘if you don’t mind me asking.’
She shrugs and looks around. ‘At the time, we couldn’t afford to have a girl child. Girish was just starting out in his company. His father was having issues breathing, and we needed to support them.’
‘So, what happened?’ A sense of dread begins to take hold of me, as though I am watching a car crash about to happen but can’t warn any of the people in the cars, can’t even look away. ‘Oeshi bhua, what happened?’
Silent tears spill over her lashes, but Oeshi bhua’s frame is entirely still. ‘We were lucky, actually, that Girish had friends in the hospital. It’s illegal to ask about the sex, you know, but we could still find out. Quite early on.’ She bites her lip, and a throaty, choked squeak leaves her trembling body.
‘The operation itself was simple. The first time, at least. I thought it was the right thing to do, no? But then Girish started making more money. His father got better. But still, they didn’t let me have my baby girls. Three of them, they pulled from my stomach, from my body, Diya, three beautiful babies.’ Now Oeshi bhua begins to weep. I feel as though I should do something, hold her, tell her that she doesn’t have to think about it. I cannot move, though, I cannot even breathe.
‘When we had Abhishek, that was the only time Girish seemed to be happy that he married me. Finally, I gave him a son. Finally, I did my duty as his wife and gave him a son. But God wanted me to have those girls, Diya, I never had the chance.’
Papa knocks on my bedroom door, before opening it. He looks at Oeshi bhua for a second, and then at me, and walks over to her.
‘Come, Oeshi, why don’t you take some rest?’
Later, he sits with me in the living room. I don’t know what to say or do or feel. Papa leans forward, propping his head onto his elbows.
‘Oeshi’s been through a lot. We shouldn’t have let her marry into Girish’s family.’
‘I thought fufar ji was progressive. Educated. He was always so nice to me, so interested in my course.’
‘It would surprise you, Diya, how many people of good backgrounds still believe that a wife should know her place and a daughter should not have one at all.’ papa rubs his face. He looks tired, helpless. ‘He’s been hitting her. She’s not telling me, but I know the look on her face.’
He tells me about Girish, about the alcoholism and the rape and the abuse. He tells me about how, before we moved to Bangalore when I was younger, Oeshi bhua would spend nights at her parents’ place, curled up on a mattress on the floor, while Girish would bang on the door, insistently till early hours of the morning, swearing drunkenly at dadu and papa, and even at me. He tells me about negotiations they’d had with Girish’s parents about separation, and each time, Oeshi bhua would be blamed, would be threatened and shamed. It was her responsibility, they said, to make her husband happy, to bless her family with a male child. If she could not do her duty, then Girish could not be held accountable for his actions.
Everything he said felt borrowed from different parts of books I’d read or movies I’d seen. It seemed as though the abuse of a woman was covered with such inevitability that the only thing I could do was shrug and cast it with all the other stories I’d heard about all those other women, fictional or not. Cast it with my own stories; about the security guards in my apartment complex, my home, staring at my chest each time I walked past; about the boy who tried to stick his hand down my trousers after we shared our first kiss; about the time I fell asleep at a house party and woke up to a stranger undoing my bra, and how I couldn’t even stop him, I couldn’t even speak. When I tried to talk about it with ma later, she told me never to relive it: ‘It’s happened to me too. My father’s close friend. When I was twelve. You can’t dwell on these things. Move on. Learn from it.’
When I stand up to leave, papa takes my hand.
‘I shouldn’t have told you all this, Diya. You’re too young.’
I stare at him. How can he believe that his daughter would not already know about the way her body is treated as currency? How can he pretend that this violence, pervasive and unselective, has not already found me, has not already damaged me?
‘Papa, you haven’t told me anything that I didn’t already know.’
In the morning, I sit in Oeshi bhua’s room, watching her pack.
‘You don’t have to go back, bhua. You can stay with us, you know that.’ Ma wouldn’t be too pleased with my generous offer, but she would learn to live with it.
‘Tum kya kah rahe ho? What are you saying, Diya? I have a family. I have a son and husband that I need to take care of.’ She laughs and stung, I look away.
‘This kurta looks horrible, no? Pass me one from my suitcase. That pink one, with the beading.’
She pulls off the navy top she is wearing, her back to me, and I see a welt, yellowed and simmering, splayed across her chest in the mirror. She yanks on the pink kurta, and turns, adjusting her hair.
We stand by the door as her taxi pulls up. The monsoons have left the ground muddy, and when she walks, spots of dirt fleck the bottom of her trousers. When she turns to say goodbye, I see something in her face that I had not noticed before. I look at ma, see it mirroring Oeshi bhua’s. Something like acceptance, but more sinister, more destitute. Compliance. Somewhere in my body, my blood begins to burn.
The taxi pulls away and in seconds, is out of sight. Papa and ma walk back into the house, shaking stray raindrops out of their hair. I stand outside, letting the rain thicken and blend into my skin. Some sort of anger begins to take form — some sort of resistance.