That Sunday dawned pink and purple, the promise of another lovely, early winter day. Wild chrysanthemums, planted long ago, by unknown hands, nodded along the stretch of green that skirted their village, an unremarkable speck in north-west India. The milkman’s cycle trundled down the street, its shrill bell waking up the dogs. the puppies jumped and yipped, but the older ones only yawned with disinterest. they were used to the milkman’s daily intrusions.
When the doorbell rang, Shaaji muttered, “Yes, yes. I am coming, I am coming.”
Next to her, her mother snored loudly, a spot of drool drying on her chin. There were deep lines of disapproval etched on her forehead. Shaaji had seen these lines ever since she could remember. For a second, she considered wiping her mother’s chin. But then she didn’t. Only in sleep could her mother be this loud and free, this uncaring of other people’s opinion. Why ruin it?
The bell rang again, this time a long and impatient peal. “Yes, yes,” Shaaji groaned. “I’ll be right there.” She wrapped a shawl around her shoulders and searched for her slippers on the cold, concrete floor. They lay on top of each other, the toes and heels jutting out at odd angles, the worn leather piled up like corpses.
The baby was fussing in the next room. If the bell rang one more time, he would wake up the entire house. Shaaji hurried downstairs, tiptoeing automatically as she passed her father’s room. No, not because he was a light sleeper, but because good girls, girls from families like theirs, walked soundlessly. “You should never know a girl is in the room,” her father was fond of saying. “No girl should ever draw attention to herself.”
When she opened the door, the milkman merely gave Shaaji a nod and poured two litres of milk from his metal jug into Shaaji’s stainless-steel pot, his slim but well- muscled arms stretching against the slight fabric of his kurta.
He was a busy man in the mornings, with no time for idle banter or cosmetic attention. He wore a uniform of sorts every day – a grey kurta-pyjama, and a red-and-white cotton towel to cover his head. Breathable garments all, they were easy to buy, maintain and replicate a thousand times over.
Shaaji shut the door and brought the pot into the kitchen. She could hear voices from upstairs, her oldest brother and his wife, and their still-fussing baby. It wouldn’t be long before everyone would troop downstairs in search of their first of many cups of strong, milky tea. She didn’t want a mutiny on her hands.
She pulled out five cups and lined them neatly next to the stove. she counted again – one, two, three, four, five – just to be sure and then ran to the downstairs bathroom to change into one of her mother’s saris. Ordinarily, she didn’t like wearing saris, but today was different.
Today, it was her armour, though onlookers might say its broad, peach flowers didn’t automatically suggest war. She smiled as she remembered that satnam liked her in saris. He would lick a finger and dart it like a bolt of lightning across her navel. That one dot of wet skin would make her go weak in the knees, its memory alone enough of a burn to keep her awake at night.
When she re-entered the drawing room with the tea tray, they were all there, circled like a small army.
Her younger brother was scratching his chin and staring out of the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the young widow across the street. Her older brother was reading the sports section of the newspaper, while his wife bounced their son on her knee, trying to calm him down. Shaaji wondered how it would feel once the baby stopped crying. Probably nothing. Their village was noisy enough to absorb every silence.
Only her mother looked up as Shaaji began handing out the tea. She ran her eyes over her daughter’s choice of sari and opened her mouth, as if to say something. But her husband spoke up. “Good,” he murmured, his one word enough for the two of them.
Shaaji dropped her head and absorbed her father’s compliment. “Good” and “decent” – the only two words he considered appropriate if he ever felt the need to praise his daughter. Even now, in spite of knowing better, it was this that Shaaji craved the most.
She watched them sip their teas. No one asked her about her morning or why she wasn’t drinking any. One by one, they fell asleep, right there in their respective spots, threads of saliva hinging their mouths to their chins, their faces still turned towards their objects of attention, whether it was the nubile widow or the day’s cricket update. Her father’s glasses slid off from his nose, cracking as they hit the concrete floor. the shards cascaded like silver rain. thankfully, he would never need to use them again.
Shaaji caught the baby just as her sister-in-law’s grip loosened.
Cooing, she took her nephew to the kitchen and fed him two spoons of the milk. As expected, he fell asleep faster than the adults. Gently, she placed him on the floor and studied the room. Sure, her family members were all over the place, but besides that, was everything else in its right place? Was everything neat and tidy? She straightened a cushion that had fallen off and swept up the glass shards with a broom. Satnam mustn’t doubt her housekeeping skills.
The bell rang and Shaaji carefully skirted around her sleeping nephew to open the door. Once again, it was the milkman. Except that it wasn’t. It was Satnam dressed as the milkman. He had done an excellent job imitating the loose folds of the red-and-white turban. the grey kurta-pyjama was identical, as was the milk jug, both bought last month at the city fair.
Though she couldn’t see his eyes clearly – the shadow of the turban bisected his face in half – Shaaji felt the same longing she had the first time she had seen him at the bus stop. They were both sixteen, on their way to school, when he had asked her name. It still seemed like yesterday but in reality, it had already been two years.
Two years of stolen kisses and Satnam’s rough-farmhand fingers scorching her thighs, stomach and breasts with his touch; of her mother finding out and nearly ripping her hair from its roots and then fasting to rid her of this evil; of her brothers’ threats to wipe out Satnam’s entire family; of her father pulling her out of school; of her sister-in-law slapping her so hard that she still had trouble hearing from her left ear.
But Shaaji had forgiven her mother and sister-in-law. It wasn’t entirely their fault. It is an unwritten rule after all – old victims must forever be in search of new ones to take their place. The only bright spots in these two years were the secret meetings with Satnam and his letters that her best friend smuggled in for Shaaji inside her bra.
Satnam brushed past Shaaji and entered the room.
He smelled like he always did, of cigarettes and deodorant, and the pit of Shaaji’s stomach tingled with longing. It had been her idea. She hoped the milkman would understand that framing him wasn’t personal. It was because he and Satnam were of similar height and build.
In another life, where caste and religion would be mere words, the two could have been brothers. This step was to ensure that if anyone, say the widow, happened to be watching from the streets, they would see the milkman brushing past Shaaji’s mother.
The choice of sari was a fine touch. The neighbours must have lost count of how often Shaaji’s mother dressed in that peach print. they would think the milkman was there to drop off an extra litre or two, after all there was a baby in the house, or to pick up his monthly wage.
Later, a devastated Shaaji would tell the police that the milkman had always had a thing for her. That’s why he had first drugged the milk, then sawed off the necks of her family members – not the baby, the baby he had strangled – and then forced himself on her. It was only the chance arrival of Satnam that had scared him away.
Shaaji watched as Satnam unscrewed the lid of the milk jug. He was biting the inside of his lower lip, a habit she found endearing. Slowly, as if he was handling a baby, he pulled out yet another recent purchase. An axe. He had sharpened it the night before.
Humming to herself, Shaaji traced her little finger against a peach flower. Soon the white background would be stained red. Shaaji began humming a Hindi song, a favourite of both of them – Dil hain ki manta nahin (The heart knows no reason). Satnam looked up, smiling. So what if she drew attention to herself once in a while? She had thought of everything else, hadn’t she? She was a good girl after all, like her father had always wanted.
Excerpted with permission from Women Who Misbehave: Short Stories, Sayantani Dasgupta, Penguin Books.
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