When Ashima saw the envelope, she burst into tears. There was no need for grief because it did not contain a card announcing someone’s funeral. It was an invitation to her sister’s daughter’s wedding. She had not seen her sister for almost fifteen years. This daughter must be nineteen years old now; nineteen years and three months exactly. Her name when she was born was Parul but now they called her Mondira.

Ashima wiped the tears from the wedding card, which was red with a huge gold and pink lotus in the centre. It was wrapped in gold tissue paper and tied with red and green silken thread. It looked expensive and gaudy. She would have never chosen a flashy card like this. She would have chosen a simple design, maybe a tiny garland of red flowers on pale cream paper.

But she was not the mother – not anymore. She had given her daughter away. No. They had forced her to give away her baby girl nineteen years and three months ago.

Ashima tried hard not to think about her lost child. She had her sons to take care of, her lazy good-for-nothing husband to worry about and the household to manage. But sometimes at night, when the moon shone through the window, covering her bed in a glinting light and she could not sleep, the terrible day came back to her.

She watched herself crying silently; she counted the minutes, waiting for the pain to end. Then the moon vanished behind the clouds, darkness fell around her and all was calm. As she listened to her husband’s gentle snores, her face wet with tears, she tried once again to erase those painful memories about her lost child; she tried and failed again.

It was dawn when Parul finally came out of her womb, screaming like a fishwife, an ugly bundle of blood and mucus.

“Oh! We see bad, bad temper here,” said the midwife, laughing as she held the baby upside down as if it were a freshly killed chicken. “I better give her a little slap, just to remind her she is a woman and not a prince who can show his temper to the world.” Ashima saw her slap the baby hard on her bottom a few times. She remembered before she drifted off to sleep again that her brave little girl had screamed even louder.

Had they made her docile now with regular beatings? Or had they let her grow up spoilt and wilful? She was very pretty, people said. She was the only child of rich parents and she would get a good husband, people said.

Many years ago Ashima had waited outside her school, hoping to catch a glimpse of her but when the bell rang and all the girls rushed out, she did not know what to do. How would she recognise her daughter who she had not seen for ten years? She watched, panic-stricken, as all the girls ran past her, each one looking like her own flesh and blood.

“Let her go, Ashima. Give her to your sister. She will grow up in a wealthy home. You already have three boys. Think of their future. If you please rich relatives, it always helps everyone in the family. We will never get a chance like this. This is our moment to trap them forever in our debt. Give her away. She is only a girl. They are a burden on the family,” her mother said, stroking her palm, cajoling her.

Her father, usually quiet and mild-mannered, became surprisingly agitated when they came to take Parul away.

“Ma moni…are you sure? I do not want you to have any regrets later. You can refuse if you do not want to give your baby girl away,” he said, but he took care to whisper so that her mother could not hear. But her mother’s sharp ears caught every word.

“No, she cannot refuse now. She promised her sister and I have told Rani the baby is hers. It was all decided before she was born, remember? If Ashima had a girl this time, we would give it to her. Be happy she is not asking for one of your sons,” her mother said, giving her husband a sharp look, surprised and annoyed by his bold behaviour. In thirty years of their peaceful wedded life, he had never once contradicted her. “So the old man still has a bit of fire left in him. I must douse it at once,” she thought and swiftly turned around. Narrowing her eyes into strips of black, she aimed them like darts towards her husband. She twisted her mouth into a jagged curve – a formidable combination of a grimace and a smile. It never failed to work. Her husband looked down at his feet and began mumbling nervously. She watched him for a moment, making sure he was his old, obedient self and then said loudly, “So all is decided and we are all happy now.” She smiled at them, picked up the baby and walked out of the room. The door slammed shut.

The door always slammed shut when her mother finished talking. Even now when she was a senile old woman muttering incoherently all day to her long-dead husband, screaming at people only she could see, Ashima still feared her mother’s voice. She still feared to be reprimanded by her.

They gave her baby away nineteen years and three months ago and she had never stopped regretting it every day of her life. She tried very hard not to think about her loss, pretending nothing had happened, but the pain clung to her, hiding in the corners of her mind. At night suddenly two small hands would grab her neck and two tiny eyes would gleam in the darkness. Sometimes when she was alone in the house, she heard a baby wailing but she could never find it.

“You are mad. Just forget her now. She would have been just an extra mouth to feed,” her husband said. “Look at our healthy, handsome boys. How well they are growing now that we can give them better food to eat.” Her daughter was a weed they uprooted and threw out so that their sons could have more sunlight to grow taller, healthier and stronger.

She wished she could see her just once so that she could remember her face for the rest of her life, but her mother did not want her to visit her sister or see her daughter. “People might find out and then they will call your poor sister barren,” she said. At first, her sister Rani wrote her letters telling her how Parul, now renamed Mondira, was growing up, sharing small things about her, like her first word– “bandhu”; her favourite food – “bananas”, but then after a few years, the letters stopped. Ashima was not invited ever to visit. The door was slammed shut once more. Her sons were never told they had a sister. Her husband forgot he had once had a daughter.

Now nineteen years and three months later, Ashima held her daughter’s wedding invitation in her hand. She was surprised they had invited her. Maybe now there was no longer any danger of her snatching her child back or people talking. Ashima carefully put the wedding card in her sewing basket. Then she took out a deep red thread and began sewing flowers on the soft cloth. She embroidered at night when the moonlight did not let her sleep. She lit a lamp and sat near the window, making tiny stitches in the cloth, thinking about her child. Sometimes her husband woke up and muttered angrily, but she ignored him and he went back to sleep.

He had never cared for their baby girl. “Let her go. We will save the dowry money. The boys can have a bit more,” he had said. “Your sister’s husband is so rich, if we please him, he might find jobs for our sons when they grow up,” he added, sounding just like her mother. She sometimes thought they had plotted this together. Rani, the rich daughter, should be kept happy and what did poor, insignificant Ashima’s sorrow matter? Her husband often sat up at night planning what they would do with all the money her baby daughter would bring. A girl who brought in money was a rare thing; a rare, precious thing which could be bartered only once in a lifetime.

Her sister’s husband had been generous with money and gifts. He had paid for the boys’ education in a good school, for Ashima’s operation, for the roof of their house to be repaired, and for her husband’s new dentures. Her little baby girl had made life easier for everyone but Rani’s wealth could not do anything to take away the pain, which dug its claws deep into her heart at night.

Excerpted with permission from ‘A Revenge in Thread’ in Mayadevi’s London Yatra: New and Selected Stories, Bulbul Sharma, Speaking Tiger Books.