The pile of old books and newspapers were to be disposed of that day. The next day was Diwali and a lot of junk had to be cleared. I looked up at the rack of old books and magazines. Why hadn’t they cleared it all these years? I knew the wedding that was due in a fortnight was the catalyst. We all have a lot of accumulated baggage, odds and ends. Only when we are asked to make our lives uncluttered, do we resent the effort.
A cloud of dust rose from the books that fell to the floor in slow agonizing thuds. I cursed my Father for having accumulated so many books over the years. I knew people would give their right arm to be able to collect so much, but to me it was just junk, nothing more. I remembered my classmates who would drop in occasionally and be awed by the collection of books. One girl had told me excitedly, ‘Do you know how lucky you are to be able to stand in front of these books and be able to choose? You have such a cool Dad.’ Yeah, right. They did not have to live with him, did they?
Then I caught sight of a familiar book. Familiar because I had seen it in Amma’s drawer in her wardrobe. When I had asked her about it, Amma quickly shut it and hid it out of view, just like the weird soft packets that were stashed out of view.
I put away the notebook and sorted through the rest of the paraphernalia and asked the maid to take it away.
The wedding was an occasion to be treasured. All the members of the family, guests and friends were very happy about the arrangements and went away laden with gifts. I was tired but happy. I was sure my daughter would find happiness in her new home.
A week after the wedding, I was putting away my silks and jewellery when I caught sight of the old notebook. Amma’s diary, I thought in derision. What did Amma have to write about? Nonsense-just some old-fashioned nonsense I was sure. If it were Baba’s diary, it would have been a different deal.
Now I looked over at her mother sitting in an armchair, basking in the sun and cradling a cushion to herself. She was too tired, too old and senile to care.
I had been told that it was not right to read another person’s thoughts immortalized in a diary. I considered it ridiculous that people wrote private stuff in books that were lying around. They were asking to be read. I also suspected people wrote stuff they couldn’t voice hoping others would read them and know. Anyway I did not think of the moral dimensions of flipping through an old notebook. Amma did try to control me when I was young, much to my chagrin. I wasn’t too worried now.
May 10, 1966.
I want to study further. I want to become a doctor. They told me that I had studied enough. I matriculated with a first class. My brother, the self-professed dunce, gets to study. I don’t. I wish I could speak up but I cannot. They look at me but they do not really see me. I cannot speak to Amma because she is not interested in knowing me for who I am. To her I am just a burden. She just wants to get rid of me. Because I am a girl, and the oldest as well.
December 18, 1966.
I was standing in the kitchen this morning when Amma reached out for the bag of jaggery on the high shelf. She knocked down a can of oil that was there beside the bag. The oil can tipped over and a cascade of oil landed slowly on my head. Ammama gave me an ominous look and told everyone it was a terrible omen to be drenched so in oil. She made a mixture of soapnuts and shikakai and scrubbed away at my hair, reciting the prayer that wards off evil, all the while, but who can prevent what has to happen? The same sense of doom was shared by Ammamma and me. Everybody forgot about this little incident but I constantly touched my hair feeling the grease that refused to let go.
December 21, 1966.
Nobody gets married during this period. From the fourteenth of December to the Festival of Sankranthi all auspicious festivities are put on hold. My family lives the Farmer’s life. We are the busiest this time of the year. It is time for the harvest, so we cannot spare time for celebrations. Yet Amma is bent on getting me married now. I am able to write this now as people have given me time to change into my saree.
December 21, 1966.
I had studied in school that the nights of December 21 and 22 are the longest of the year. They certainly are.
December 31, 1966.
Today while I was putting my ornaments away in my trunk, he came up to me and told me that he had a few debts to clear and he wanted my gold. How could I refuse? I gave everything to him and he went away. I was only worried about what my mother would say if she saw me without my jewellery.
January 14, 1967.
We went to Amma’s house for Sankranthi. Amma gave one horrified look at me and pounced on me at the first available opportunity. ‘Where are your jewels?’ I told her I put them in my trunk and could not find the key this morning. Amma pursed her lips, but said no more. My husband was very nice to everybody and ate well. Ammama had outdone herself. Amma did not speak to my husband at all. Baba laughed a lot. I did not say much. I just wanted to come home as soon as possible and hide myself under the covers.
January 29, 1967.
We went to my brother-in-laws’s house. Everybody looked at me curiously. A new bride is supposed to be decked in ornaments. They stared at my bare neck and arms. I pretended not to care. I volunteered to cook fish for the afternoon meal. They went to the market and bought a huge river fish. I do not like river fish. I think it is too bland. I scaled the fish and pulled out the entrails. I remembered there was an ancient belief of reading fortunes from the entrails of animals. I didn’t know if it was true but I knew if the gall bladder burst, the fish would taste bitter. I pulled out the liver and other organs with surgical precision. I would have made a good doctor. I wanted to. Who cared about what I wanted? I chopped the fins off, seeing my mutilated dreams in the offal. The fish curry was demolished in a few minutes. I was left with the head and the tail, and a whole lot of praise.
January 30, 1967.
My brother-in-law’s wife decided to show everyone how fish was supposed to be cooked. My husband took one mouthful and made a face. He spat it out into his cupped palm and ate rice with dal. No gravy too. Remember, a surgeon’s skill is required.
December 21, 1967.
It has been a year. People are asking me questions. My husband fusses over every child he sees, pampering it, even the one with a runny nose.
June 22, 1970.
Went to see a doctor today. She pushed and prodded and gave me a list of medicines to take. I don’t like the idea of my mother making vows at every holy shrine she visits and thinks about. I am tired of praying, fasting and all these rituals.
March 14, 1971.
I am on a roller coaster of pain. I cannot do this. I need to sleep.
March 14, 1971.
It is evening. It is finally done. My youngest sister brought halwa for me. She took one look at everything and fainted. She will never be able to eat halwa all her life.
October 15, 1971.
In a cold city in a cold country surrounded by cold people.
November 19, 1971.
Walked 5 miles. Washed three rounds of clothes.
November 20, 1971.
Walked 5 miles. Washed three rounds of clothes.
November 21, 1971.
Washed five rounds. Baby ill.
November 22, 1971.
Baby ill. Washed six rounds.
November 23, 1971.
Alone with baby. Baby smiled.
November 24, 1971.
Alone. Baby sleeping.
That was the last entry. There was no mention at all of my father or me.
I remember my mother’s silences and my father’s frequent absences. My mother’s perpetual frown and obsession with cleanliness.
Always at the threshold of a family, but never a real family.
Mind you she took good care of me. I never had a runny nose or dirty ears or grubby knees. I never got my share of hugs and kisses either. Baba was there for that. I never sensed warmth from her. How could I? She was a living corpse.
I looked over at her still sleeping in the sun. I drew the shades and walked away with the notebook, without disturbing her. I tore it into little shreds.
I was glad I read it- how she was deprived of a life, all her life.
At least now I know how she died from the inside.