Sheela stood in front of the marital fire getting married to the man she was destined to marry since birth. Her grandmother’s dying wish was that she married Hari, her uncle. Prior to the wedding, her father did not ask her if she had any objections to the arrangement; her mother did not have a say in the matter; and the marriage was fixed a few days after she became legally eligible for marriage. She was eighteen and Hari was almost thirty.
As she prepared to take the fateful seven circles around the auspicious fire, she looked at the skies and thought: the clouds bring in the moon on a palanquin of stars; is it night or the marriage of the moon with the sun? The skies are multicolored, like she was with her ruby-red bangles and shimmering sari. The shifting winds bring in the rains on a palanquin of wind; is it monsoon or the marriage of the seasons?
Hari led the way around the marital fire and Sheela followed him. He repeated the spiritual mantras after the priest, “Our love has become definite by your walking one with me, my beloved; we will, together, share the responsibilities of food and finances and a home. May we have wonderful righteous children; this is my wish to god, and may their lives be long and fruitful. This is my vow to you, my lord.”
Sheela followed Hari, a step for a step, repeating his words under her breath on her turn, only a whisper but more vivid in her mind than the bleating shehnai trumpets or the pounding mrudangams drums. Her eyes traced the concrete floor, following the pattern of his steps, an order that her rebellious mind had often rejected. “Together we will share the responsibility of the home, food and finances. I vow to commit myself to my entire share of the responsibilities for the well-being of our home and our children.” A promise placed carefully in each step like a legal document signed in court, a signature at the altar witnessed by many a watchful elder eye. The fire reflected in her eyes, an eyewitness to this union of souls, the flames promising longevity to their marriage.
The chants went on, “I shall fill your heart with courage and strength, my lord, at all times; I shall celebrate life in your happiness. May god bless you and our household.”
A few more steps and Sheela would become Hari’s ardhangini – the “other” half of man without which a man could not live. He would possess one of her eyes, her upper lip, and her left breast. She would own half a mustache and half a manly chest.
On the first night, Hari tried to take Sheela into his arms. She slept on the bed, a bit distanced, her breath faster, and more hesitant. When he tried making love to her, she turned on her side and pretended to sleep.
“Not today, Hari,” she whispered. “We must save it for later. We must put aside our love and not spend it all in the first night.”
He lost his drive almost immediately. The sudden excitement of new flesh, more tender, yet fuller than he ever imagined, ebbed as soon as it began. After he made his initial assessment of his new bride, he had little left to do. He bored easily. She struggled to keep pace with his breathing for her lungs filled faster, smaller in size as they were. Every once in three exhales, she met his inhale. His heart drummed against her back like an erratic water hammer – hers, lighter and smaller, feminine, throbbing like a pulse at the base of a palm. She reached for his foot with hers, tracing the length of his leg subconsciously.
His mind quickly went back to his own self-seeking thoughts. The lust that had slipped into his brain from the region of his loins ebbed away. More divine, noble emotions returned to him. When his attention was not held by something more important, like a breast, or a rounded buttock that filled a palm with amazing fullness, it wandered back to its original position like a stretched spring, back to thinking about the problems of life and living.
The first few months of marriage slipped by with Sheela settling into her rhythm of cooking, cleaning and running errands, a routine that was almost every Indian woman’s destiny. Slowly, the boredom, which first started as a niggling irritation, turned into an itch to do something with her life, besides what marriage had carved out for her.
One day, she was dusting the bookshelf in the living room when her eyes fell on her wedding card, displayed on the top rack. She took the card in her hands and traced the words embossed on it with her fingertips: “Sheela weds Hari”. The card had a gold imprint of the Lord Ganesh in the center. She was struck by the magnificence of the figure. Wedding cards carried great importance in Indian weddings, and wealthy people spent a fortune getting the jazziest cards printed. A thought crossed her mind.
That evening, she spoke to Hari. “I want to start earning for myself, Hari. I don’t want to sit at home all day, doing nothing.”
Hari did not look up from his newspaper. “Why do you want to work? Don’t I make enough?”
“I want to do something with my life.”
Hari did not say anything, busy chewing his Zarda paan. Sometimes, she worried about him. She had read in a magazine that chewing tobacco caused mouth cancer. Hari was getting addicted to smoking, too. At first, it was a cigarette a day. Now it was five cigarettes. But whenever she tried to make him stop chewing tobacco and smoking cigarettes, he would dismiss her by saying “I have a body made of steel. Don’t worry. If cancer was in my fate, I should have had it years ago.”
“Did you hear me?” she said.
He looked up at her over the rim of his thick glasses. “Yes, I heard you loud and clear. But who’s going to cook, and clean the house. Besides, what will people think? Offices and streets are not for women.”
“I’ll manage the cooking and cleaning. I’ll work from home. And let people think what they want to. I don’t give a damn.”
Hari finally put the paper down and looked at her. He sighed, as if realizing there was little point in fighting her. “Fine, what the use is arguing with you. In the end, you will do what you want to do. So, what sort of work can you do from home?”
“Print wedding cards.”
“Print cards. You want to setup a printing press at home?” He laughed. “What kind of business is that?”
“The one business that will never fail in this country. People can stop eating out, but can they stop having weddings.”
“Hmmm, I never thought about that.”
“I’ve been reading up on how to run the business. It needs only a small investment. It will be hard work, but if I can use my spine for something useful, then so be it.” She did not expect Hari to support her in her endeavor. All Indian men were the same. They were insecure about their wives becoming more successful than them. She had been saving up money, ten rupees every month from the expense money Hari gave her each month. She did not spend the money on saris like the other women did. She already had a big collection of saris that would go to her future daughter when she died, her inheritance. If Hari did not help her, she would start the business with her savings.
“Fine, when would you like to start,” Hari said.
“What?” Sheela could not believe what she’d just heard. “What did you just say?”
“I said I’ll buy you a press.”
“Really! Like a real printing press.” Sheela said. “I hope you are not lying.”
“I never lie.”
“Today, I’m going to make your favorite dish for dinner.”
“And I don’t take bribes, either,” Hari said, smiling. He got up and came to her side as she started cutting vegetables in the kitchen. He put his strong, hairy-as-a-bear arms around her. “But it’s true what they say. The way to a man’s heart is definitely through his stomach.”
She cut the onions into tiny slices, and then the chilies. Hari liked his food hot. “How is everything at work? You don’t look very happy these days,” she said.
Hari sighed. He stood there, resting his hands against the wall. He drew cartoons for a local Telugu magazine. “They hired a new guy, Godbole. A smart chap, young, maybe twenty-thirty. He knows computers and the boss likes him a lot. He can’t draw a decent caricature if you ask him. He uses the computer to do all his cartoons. But tell me this – can computers figure out how to make people laugh. What makes people laugh comes from the heart.”
Sheela wiped the onion tears from her eyes. “Can you cut this for me?”
“Sure,” Hari said and took over form her at the cutting tray. “You are lucky you have me for a husband. Most men don’t even step into a kitchen. Anyway, this Godbole guy is not even from our city. He came from Bombay. First, these computers are taking away all our jobs. Now, we have these outsiders coming to our city, settling down here, taking our jobs.”
“Maybe you should do a cartoon on that,” Sheela suggested.
Hari’s face lit up with a smile. “That’s a great idea. See, that is how cartoons are born. Not from computers but from day to day life. Do you know how I became a cartoonist?”
“In eighth grade, the teacher caught me doodling in class. I was in the middle of drawing a funny caricature of her. In it, she had a big tummy and even bigger buttocks. I had enhanced these protuberant parts of her and wrote the letters ‘EPND’ below it – Ever Pregnant No Delivery. She was so furious, she sent me to the principal’s office. I got a good caning for what I did. The next day, I drew another caricature. It was of all the teachers in the school. I put the principal right on top. He was very happy to see it. He even had it framed and hung it up on his office wall – ha-ha.” He finished cutting the vegetables and rinsed his hands in the sink. “This Godbole guy thinks cartooning is for mediocre people. He wants to become a famous painter. He has dreams of one day becoming a M.F. Hussain. ‘One has to adapt,’ he keeps saying. That’s his favorite mantra. He’s still young. When he is my age, he’ll realize that dreams are dreams and life is life. I’ve been trying to save up for a painting exhibition for years, now. Life has a way of conquering all dreams.”
Sheela did not agree with Hari on that last statement. She believed that one should not let life conquer your dreams. One should go after their dreams and learn to conquer life.
The next morning, when she went to the market to buy groceries, she felt a strange, new sense of awareness in her heart – as if she was seeing life in a new light. Her mind felt empowered by the thought of her new business, and when she saw the helpless people, sitting around the market place, she thought to herself: Why do we accept life the way it is? Why do we admit to the judgments life hands down on us! Her eyes settled on an ‘untouchable’ who sat by the entrance holding an aluminum tin, muttering ‘mother, father, have pity on me’. His only fault in life was being born an untouchable. He was condemned to pass this fault on to his offspring in a never-ending chain of untouchability. Yes, untouchability was hereditary, like a skin disease. These low caste people had cleaned toilets for centuries. In some way, Sheela felt guilty for having taken part in the practice herself. But who would clean their toilets if not for the untouchables
A pretty young bride wearing a simple sky-blue polyester sari walked by, picking eggplants with her husband, a balding man who seemed twice her age and size. She must have been married off to this man for a smaller dowry. That was the fate of most middle class brides – sold off to less suitable men because their parents could not afford the lavish dowries.
On her way back, as she passed the railway station, she saw a coolie on the platform, waiting for the next train to arrive. What a life he had, stuck beneath bone-crushing piles of luggage – a weight always attached to his arm like an unrelenting, nagging wife.
Next, she saw a sleeping beggar on the street corner. He probably ate only once in two or three days, stilling his bodily functions, only to be awakened by the clatter of the occasional coin on the pavement. He looked deaf. A good thing in some sense, because people cursed at him as they walked by, utterances that were better off not heard.
Then, she saw a priest at the temple door wearing a puzzled frown on his pious face. He must be thinking – why am I trapped inside my own religion, unable to speak against it. I am a victim of my own prejudices, my godliness. I am forced to make sinners appear like saints. I hail murderers as messiahs and cowards as martyrs. Sheela thought that the priest was no different from the beggar. His religious beliefs had muted him and made him deaf to the realities of life.
As she took the road home, she had just one thought on her mind. She was not ready to accept the judgments life handed down on her. She did not want to be like the untouchable, or the coolie, or the young bride or the beggar or the priest. She wanted to break the chain of fate, and go after her own destiny.
A few days later, the printing press was delivered. Hari had paid ten thousand rupees for it. He could have used the money to pay for his art exhibition, but he made a sacrifice for her. Maybe her grandmother had been right in choosing Hari for her.
She set the press up in the verandah and started training herself on how to use it. During her spare time, she went to the Central Library and read up about screen-printing. She learnt that the Chinese invented the art during the Song Dynasty. The method was introduced to the west only in the 1700s, when it was used to print expensive wall paper, usually on linen or silk. It involved making a screen from a piece of porous, finely woven fabric and stretching it over a frame of aluminum or wood. Originally human hair was used to make the fabric, which was replaced by silk and eventually by modern materials.
During the first weeks of her starting the business, which she called ‘Destiny Wedding Cards,” only a few orders came in. Soon, the word spread around town. Her prices were lower than other presses, and soon people realized that she did not sacrifice on quality, either. ‘Cheap and Best’ became her motto, besides ‘Value for Money’. Clients began pouring in by the dozens. Her dedication and eye for detail had to pay off sooner than later. Each night, she sweated over the press like a possessed woman so that the cards would be ready for pick-up by dawn. By the end of her first year, she had saved up enough money to pay for a mortgage on an apartment. When the time came, she would write off her flat to her daughter, if a daughter was written in her fate, as dowry, and retire to the apartment.
She was making plans for life, finally, instead of following the plans life had made for her. Life had come a full circle.
Hari came home one day looking confused. He slunk into the sofa and threw his keys on the coffee table.
“What is it? Everything alright at work,” Latha said.
“That guy, Godbole, he made fun of me today. He told me that I was just a lowly cartoonist – that I would never be a great artist like him.”
Sheela set the table with the mats and went to the kitchen to stir the sambhar. Hari came into the kitchen and stood by the stove.
“That man is getting on my nerves. The reason for his ego is the painting exhibition he had recently at the Taj Krishna. Apparently it was a big success. He sold ten paintings and made one lakh rupees in an auction. It was in the news.”
Sheela put the sliced radish into the sambhar and stirred it.
“Have you cut the radish into thin slices? I like them thin, you know that,” Hari said, leaning forward until his nose was inches from the simmering lentil stew. “Smells good.” He took another breath, a deep one. “You should see Godbole’s paintings. You will laugh. There is no form, no composition, nothing. Just color splashed all over like a lunatic running around with a brush.” He took a spoon, fished out an uncooked radish slice and put it in his mouth. “Godbole calls it modern art. But there is nothing modern about it. Picasso painted similar paintings over a hundred years ago,” Hari said with a cynical snicker. “The same faces with crooked eyes and features. The man is plagiarizing, that’s all there is to it.”
Sheela knew in the heart of her hearts that Hari was just jealous. She did not say anything, but continued stirring the sambhar, wiping her brow from time to time with the edge of her sari. She had a long day and she still had a hundred cards to print before she went to bed.
“You have seen my paintings, haven’t you? The dancing lady – and also the Lord Krishna on the seven-headed snake. I painted those when I was barely a teenager. If I wanted to, I could have become a great artist. Guys like this Godbole will be nothing in front of me. But I was forced to become a cartoonist because in those days, Artists made no money. Things are different today. I just missed my boat, that’s all.”
Sheela served dinner on the dining table, which was embossed with Formica peacocks. “Let it be, Hari. The past is the past. We have to stay focused on the future. Now, have your dinner. Don’t think so much. It’s bad for your digestion. And the doctor said you have to watch your cholesterol and blood sugar.”
Hari sat down and pulled his sleeve up the length of his thick, hairy arms. “I am thinking about the future. The boss is thinking of promoting Godbole. He’s been in the company just three years, and already, he’s climbing up.” Hari took at large scoop of sambhar and shoveled it into his mouth. He spoke with his mouth full. “I am not a lowly cartoonist. I am an artist, you heard me, an artist.”
“Ignore this Godbole guy,” Sheela said. “Eat your dinner calmly.”
“How is business by the way,” Hari said, licking the curry off his fingers.
“I have a big shipment tomorrow. I might have to work through the night. You go to sleep. I’ll come to bed when I am done.”
“Don’t work too hard,” Hari said. He finished dinner, left the plate on the table for Sheela to clear up and disappeared into the bedroom.
Soon, Sheela heard his loud snores. She had her dinner by herself. It was going to be a long night.
Sheela feels the rays of the sun on her face and opens her lids. The window on the side of her bed is open and she hears the calls of the morning crows. Another day – a new day in the exact same blueprint as any other day, unchanging and unrelenting, she thinks, as she lifts her body up with all her strength. For how long can she continue doing this, jumping through the hoops of each day? One day, she will wake up and not be able to get off the bed. Sitting there, she watches the floating particles of dust, dancing about, moving without a pattern, in the sunlight. If only we humans can be as free, she thinks. If only we are not tied to life and its unchanging patterns of small joys and greater sorrows – burdens that hold us down and prevent us from flying.
The voice of the mullah screaming a morning prayer floats into her brain and reminds her that her morning prayers are long overdue. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, the first thing she notices, as she did most mornings these days, is the empty bed.
Hari must have left for work.
She covers her head with her pallu and sets about the days work with the determination that she always started her days with. She turns the tap in the courtyard and is relieved when she hears the sound of water gurgling into the aluminum drum instead of the usual hissing sound of air.
For the past two days, the water had not come. There had been warnings in the newspapers about the severe shortage of water in the city. The excessively hot summer, had dried up the rivers. Her bath, the last couple of days, had been limited to a paltry pot of water instead of the customary bucketful.
She hooks up a green rubber hose to the tap and drops the hose into the drum. She leaves it to fill and walks to the front door to check on the milk. The milkman has filled the container she had left at the doorstep. The milk looks watery and rundown – and she thinks that the only person in town who does not seem afflicted by the water shortage is the milkman. She walks back to the kitchen with the container. As she warms the milk on the stove, her minds shifts back to the water filling into the drum. Soon, the water will be gone. A portion of it, she will use for her bath, though she is always considerate and makes sure she never exceeds half a bucket even on the days when her body begged for the sweet caress of lukewarm water. Half the drum needs to be saved for the people upstairs. She remembers her old house where she grew up, and thinks that she is living through the same problems her parents had borne all their lives. Lives in India rarely change with the churning of time. One never escapes the cycles of petty problems.
After she fulfills her first light duties – she starts her morning work on the printing press. She has a huge order of wedding cards to take care of before dusk. Two thousand cards have to be printed and packed in envelopes. This is a busy season for marriages, as it always is during the month of June. She lifts the screen panel and holds it up to the window. In the bright sunlight filtering through the wicker sieve, she checks to make sure that the panel has set properly and is devoid of any defects that would ruin the cards. Even the slightest tear in the cloth means a leakage of the color. She examines the picture of Lord Ganesh embossed on one corner of the screen, next to the picture of a bride and groom. The rest is the printed text of invitation – who is marrying whom and the time of the Muhurtam, the auspicious hour when the knot would be tied. She places the screen panel onto the slot in the press and makes sure it is secure.
She scoops a blob of lemon-yellow paint and rolls it over the panel. Placing a blank card under the screen, she spreads the paint over with a roller, up and down, side to side. She lifts the panel and picks the card out using just the tips of her long fingernails. She examines the impression of the yellow Ganesh embossed on the glossy off-white paper. Perfect, she thinks and leaves it to dry on the drying shelf.
The doorbell rings. She goes to open the door and sees Hari standing there, his shoulders sagging, a big frown on his face.
“What happened?” she asks.
He slumped onto the couch and threw his bag to the side. “They fired me.”
“It’s Godbole. He’s been promoted to manager. The proprietor called me this morning and told me they didn’t need me anymore. Just like that…”
Sheela sits down next to him and places a hand on his shoulder. “It’s alright. You can find another job,” she says, although she is well aware that the economy is in a bad state and unemployment has sky-rocketed in recent months. There is very little hope of him finding a job very soon.
“How are we going to manage… the expenses, the bills….”
“We’ll manage, don’t worry,” she says. “It’s a good thing I started the printing business, don’t you think.”
He sighs. “Yes, I guess so.”
“Maybe you can work for me, on printing cards.”
He laughs. “I’d rather work under my wife than work under that Godbole.”