I guess she always expected to marry the guy next door rather than the one across the street. But the guy next door was hasty, tried to spirit her away, and her father turned to me for help. I cut a deal with the old man: protection in return for his daughter’s hand. He didn’t love it, and put in some conditions to retain a sense of self-respect. I quickly consented to those.

Lover boy objected to our wedding. I told him he had only himself and his medieval tactics to blame. He said all right then, if you’re so modern, why don’t you let her choose for herself? Why force her into something at her father’s bidding? The town’s elders were making disapproving noises about the whole mess and, being naïve in those days, I agreed to leave the decision to her, provided he stayed out of her life for a bit.

I set about trying to win her over. Even when life was tough in our family, she had a room of her own and no obligation to cook. The cousins didn’t like it, cooped up with their growing broods, resentful of the promises I made to her dad. I expected gratitude from her, or at least an acknowledgement of how privileged she was, but she remained distant and sullen. We did share some happy moments early on, when she allowed me a glimpse of her enchanting smile, and I let myself believe we were on the verge of happiness.

But each time I felt a breakthrough was imminent, she would dash my hopes by bringing up my commitment to the elders. I realised she was just playing along, and would spurn me if given the chance. I wasn’t prepared for the loss of face. Luckily for me, the neighbour, who wouldn’t stop barking about the issue, was too dumb to keep his side of the bargain. So matters dragged on, and I was content to let them drag, having other things on my mind. Business was picking up, and the townsfolk treated me differently now. Lover boy wasn’t doing as well, and even his patrons didn’t trust him.

I would occasionally point to his state of affairs and mention how lucky she was her father had picked me over him. “Do you seriously still carry a torch for that rogue?” I’d ask. “Whether I want to be with him, with you, or by myself is not the question,” she would respond. “The point is that I have a right to make that choice and you haven’t let me do so.” In my weaker moments I thought a straightforward divorce might not be so bad. But I feared her talk of independence was a ruse, and she would shack up with the man I hated as soon as I let her go. Sahir Ludhianvi might have been speaking for me when he wrote:

तुम अगर मुझसे न निभाओ तो कोई बात नहीं
किसी दुश्मन से निभाओगी तो मुश्किल होगी

I would not mind your being unfaithful to me,
But couldn’t abide you keeping faith with the enemy.

I don’t know precisely why things took a turn for the worse. I had placed curbs on her movement, but that was because of rumours she met the neighbour in secret. She still had an enviable amount of freedom, which only her stubbornness prevented her from appreciating. One day, out of the blue, she grew hysterical. She began to claw and bite in a way unbecoming of her beauty, which retained its capacity to melt my heart despite all her unfairness to me. I tried to placate her for a bit, and then punched her in the face.

This initiated a cycle that made her innate pig-headedness clear to everybody. I mean, here she was, in my house, under the thumb of a man stronger than her in every way, but refusing to come to heel. Each little injury she inflicted, each scratch, was met with a pummelling, a broken arm here, a broken jaw there. These punishments became routine.

She took to wailing dramatically at each beating. The busybody elders expressed concern. I asked them what they’d do if their wives behaved like madwomen. “Just try to keep the noise down,” they replied, “or we’ll have to take action.” I was worried for a while, but soon realised the threats were hollow. I was a big guy in town now, and didn’t need any of their condescension. I played loud music to drown out her histrionics, giving the decrepit hypocrites an escape route.

I’m not stupid. I know any hope of love between us has faded away. Our marriage has gone from cheerless to dysfunctional to abusive. I’m not afraid of that word. Yes, the relationship is abusive, but only because she left me with no other option. What sense does revolt make when I’ve made it amply clear that she will never have a choice to leave, that I will never grant her a divorce, and that the law is on my side? I can see in her eyes that she has little real hope for Azadi or whatever she chooses to call it. It’s all just a reflex now, second nature, as is my response. It’s not how I wanted to be, but I am only what she has made me. While her antics have become tedious, a part of me looks forward to her next outburst, having grown to enjoy the feeling of my fist landing hard against her flesh and bone.