It wasn’t the custom but the Upadhyays treasured their daughter more than their sons. The boys, whose births were celebrated with dholaks and nagadas, had fairly attractive features, but as they grew older, became of dull countenance and leaden minds.
The youngest, their daughter Gomti – at whose birth the dholak players had been packed off and sent home – grew unexpectedly prettier each day. When she entered her teens, her mother would often find herself staring at her daughter’s luminescent complexion, her sharp, small nose, her peach-hued lips, her appealing hands. By the time she was sixteen, Gomti was a beauty head to toe.
Naturally, when it was time to find a boy for her, her parents considered the task no less monumental than building a bridge across the river that bore their daughter’s name. No boy in Pilibhit seemed good enough.
People thought them unnecessarily fussy, given that they represented the girl’s side (a side decidedly underrated in Uttar Pradesh), given that they weren’t wealthy. But this idle gossip was of no importance to the Upadhyays; what was money in front of rare beauty? Suitor upon suitor left them dissatisfied. If the boy was handsome, he wasn’t rich enough, if he was well off, he didn’t seem particularly pleasant company, or worse, had sick parents to attend to.
Gomti was a girl who had never overstretched herself with household chores.
How could she have done any of that stuff when most of her time was taken up by her mother rubbing oils on her face, her limbs, her hair? She was forbidden to go out into the harsh sun without her large, black umbrella; she was scolded when she got wet in the rain because it would diminish the radiance of her face. Too much attention to schoolwork would strain her eyes, so a tutor they could ill-afford was asked to read her lessons to her. Gomti had been her mother’s most significant project, and the Upadhyays weren’t about to let all this hard work go to waste.
Two years went by before they found Ved Prakash. Tenth pass, above average looking, eldest son of a big but healthy family, future inheritor of a house with several rooms, most importantly though, an unassuming, sweet boy who shyly exchanged a joke or two while meeting the parents of a beauteous girl. This showed he had confidence. He ate well, but not too much. He didn’t allow a fly to park itself on his mouth like another boy had.
Gomti’s parents warmed up to him immediately. Besides, marrying Ved Prakash meant her sasural would be in nearby Bhoora village and really, it was this last bit that sealed the deal.
The Upadhyays left no stone unturned in their lovely daughter’s send-off. They put together an uncommonly large dowry – jewellery, clothes, steel utensils and some cash to top it all. Everyone who attended the wedding was sent home with a five-rupee note in their pockets as opposed to the two-rupee note which was the norm. When the time came to bid Gomti farewell, Upadhyays from far and wide cried so profusely, the entire congregation felt its heart break. Several baraatis couldn’t help but sniffle along.
And thus was Gomti wed.
In her new home, it caught Ved Prakash’s family by some surprise that Gomti took no part in household duties.
She wouldn’t stir from her bed or chair. Not ever.
In a sort of abstruse calculation, her adoptive family had taken her prettiness to be an indication of other good qualities – industriousness, initiative, enterprise – but far from helping in the kitchen, a job clearly in the orbit of daughter-in-law duty, Gomti expected others to pick up her clothes hung out to dry or peel her orange.
Her in-laws brought up the matter in hushed tones with their son (they didn’t want to offend their new bride), and were only too glad to vigorously nod in quick agreement that this was a temporary phase, the girl missed her family, or possibly felt nervous she might make a mistake or her cooking might be judged harshly, that soon she would begin taking up responsibilities. But it only worsened.
Gomti began complaining of headaches. At different times of the day, she could be seen lying flat on her back in various parts of the house, her arm resting on her eyes – gently moving in the rocking chair in the verandah, on the diwan in the baithak, on the grass under the peepal tree.
The domestic help would stare at this odd person in their midst; they had never seen a daughter-in-law so brazenly flaunt her laziness. When alone, they sniggered about her, gave her the moniker of “kaamchor bahu”. It was this that caused her mother-in-law heartburn. Good-natured matriarch that she was, she hated loose talk about her family. Seeing her anxious made the quiet and reserved head of the house quieter (never a good sign).
Amiable Ved Prakash too developed an impatience with his wife; he became quietly exasperated. An abrasive tone wasn’t the norm in this house, but just a couple of months after the wedding, everyone was walking on eggshells, unsure when the first eruption would happen. Ved Prakash tried bringing up the topic every morning when his wife awoke, but as soon as he had begun, Gomti would put her head in her hands and ask him to stop criticizsng her because a headache was coming on.
The girl’s appetite dropped, she lost weight, acquired a listless look in her tired eyes. She wasn’t remotely interested in anything besides the throbbing inside her skull, which at times was sharp, and at times dull, but always, always present. Her in-laws told themselves the headaches were an excuse to skip work, but Ved Prakash took her to doctors, not just in their village but even in distant Agra. Nothing worked.
Her in-laws had no choice but to send for her parents in Pilibhit. Ved Prakash’s mother didn’t hold back her frustration in the bitter letter she wrote to them. She accused her samdhis of dumping their daughter on her wonderful, virtuous son who didn’t deserve a curse such as this.
“Your beti wouldn’t move her little toe when she came, now she’s gone crazy,” the letter said. “Come immediately!”
When her parents arrived, they felt the earth beneath their feet give way. Gone was their ethereal daughter. Instead what greeted them was some kind of a ghost. A ghost sitting at the atta chakki outside the kitchen, relentlessly pounding grain into flour. This is what Gomti had obsessively taken to in the last two weeks – from the moment she woke up, she plonked herself upon the grinding mill, poured huge amounts of wheat, rice, barley, whatever she could lay her hands on, into it and then, she would grind and grind.
If there was no grain, she would grind the empty chakki. Holding the millstone with both her hands, round and round she would go, round and round, her head spinning along with it in circles, non- stop, till it was a balletic movement, smooth, rhythmic, unstoppable.
It was the only thing that alleviated her headache, she told them. She felt like doing it all day long. And then she began doing it at night as well. Which was the last straw for her father-in-law. Brought up to stay out of the matters of womenfolk, the gentle, middle-aged man had stayed resolutely silent all this while, but one night, when the insistent sound of the chakki didn’t allow him to sleep, he stormed towards the kitchen, shouting furiously in a volume no one had heard him use before. He didn’t stop shouting to even draw a breath. He commanded her to stop.
He now told her parents to take her away; they didn’t want her dark, disturbing presence in their home any more. Her mother broke down; her father couldn’t stop his tears either. That’s when Gomti suddenly let out a heart-stopping shriek. An inhuman, guttural scream.
Excerpted with permission from Bijnis Woman: Stories of Uttar Pradesh Told by My Mausis, Buas, Chachas, Tanuja Chandra, Penguin Books.