by Faith Eirans
The recordings started at 3.30 AM, loud and shrill, reverberating down the backwater that separated the mainland and the peninsula with the thousand names of Lakshmi, she who bestows prosperity.
The smell of freshly caught fish permeated the air as she woke up to relieve herself and wash her hair with the icy water from the bucket up on the roof. As the elderly fishermen brought in the night’s freshwater haul, the young men began to prepare for the excursion into the still-black sea, carrying the boats from one side of the peninsula to the other; checking the coconut husk ropes and nets; spitting paan, stretching the sleep out of their muscles.
Her gaze followed them from the roof – hidden, of course, behind the coconut thatching that permitted her indecency. Her brother was among them, tall, strong, and serious. The legacy of his unusual height gave her the advantage of being able to spot him from almost anywhere. Dressing quickly, pushing her hair back and under her sari to dry it later in the sun, she rushed downstairs to sit at her altar before her father walked back into the housing compound.
Her fervent, hastily murmured prayers at the blue lotus feet of Lord Shiva gave her deep comfort, a comfort she would savor until the last of the lights had been put out that night and her father was safely on the water again. For the moment, she knew he would be displeased if she didn’t have his tea started by the time he came back from market, so she prostrated and went out back to start boiling water.
She was waking the younger children as he walked in. His head snapped up as he heard the baby’s hungry squalls, and she hurried to shush him before their father was displeased. He looked at his daughter with cold eyes; appraising the one burden his wife had left him with. She was of no use to him, and he never let her forget that fact.
Preparing the morning meal, she squatted in front of the low stove. The pungent odor of mustard seeds wafted around her as they split in the heat, and the oil splattered her hand. She gave a small cry, quickly stifled with a glance towards her father’s figure. Breakfast was, as usual, a silent affair, for the younger boys knew that their father was tired and most likely drunk off of Nandu Uncle’s shoddily made coconut liquor. It didn’t serve to anger him in the morning – the beatings would only be that much worse in the afternoons.
She kept her eyes downcast as she prepared the younger children for school and tended to the baby, but his steady and increasingly displeased countenance followed her movements. When her pallu slipped from her still-damp hair, his eyes brightened with a greedy malice. Busy with the children’s lunch tiffins, she didn’t notice the transgression, and the colorful polyester cloth continued to travel down to her shoulders.
When at last the boys were safely on the bus and the baby napping soundly in the corner, she turned to collect the water pails to soak the lunch dal and begin the day’s cleaning. As her father stepped out of the corner where he had been squatting, she realized her loose hair had been exposed. She recognized the look in his eye when he stepped clumsily towards her – she had seen it often in the year and a half since they had scattered her mother’s ashes and said the death rites. Closing her eyes so that he wouldn’t see the revulsion and fear, she pulled the pallu low on her forehead and tucked it tightly under her chin. Opening her eyes, she slanted them towards the baby, and saw him still sleeping. She said a silent prayer, asking for surrender and acceptance; thanking God that her father left the boys alone, that he wasn’t like some of the fathers she had heard whispered about; that her eldest brother was on the sea with the other young fishermen, and didn’t have to see his father behave so disgracefully.
As he drew close, his breath in her face a mix of liquor, onions, and paan, she considered crying out, but knew from past experience that the consequences far outweighed the hoped for results. Even though Nandu Uncle and Preity Aunty were only fifteen feet away, and the path outside of the compound wall was the station of the chai and paan wallah, Aamir, no one would come to her aid – and she would wake the baby. It was this, more than anything, which destroyed her when he touched her. Her mother had been subjected to this every day until she died in childbirth, so the daughter who lived sixteen long years had known the brutal nature of her father from a young age.
It was not the fact of the brutality that horrified her as it would others. No, it was the fact, had always been the fact, that she was utterly alone in the world. In her time of need, in her mother’s time of need, those around them would not face such a shameful situation to help a woman. There was only one place to turn.
As he bore her to the cold cement ground, the buttons of her choli sprinkled around her head as he pulled it aside. She closed her eyes, entreating Lord Shiva to grant her the strength to continue.
Afterwards, he shuffled out of the house, spitting away traces of her scent and fear. She knew he went out and gambled their money, drinking until he returned home to sleep it off. He would wake only in time to show face to the other fishermen in their collective.
She had re-stitched her choli buttons and began to clean the pots and boil the milk for the curd for the following day when her brother returned, slinging the evening’s dinner catch on the table. Her hair was in its long braid and he tugged on it, eager to eat something after his long day out.
She silently served him, and as his eyes followed her, she contemplated the difference between the two men, grateful their mother had shielded him from his father’s temper, and that his sweetness was showing through.
As the smaller children walked through the door, quiet and scared, she prayed again, this time for their fates.