Ruby was piqued by curiosity. Why had her first husband divorced her ? But she said only, “He is your step-father, right ?” She felt guilty for having uttered the word 'step-father'. It is a less familiar word in our society than 'step-mother.' Deepa may have been shocked by her use of the word.
    “Yes,” Deepa said.  “If my own mother is indifferent, why should the man care for me ?  My mother lives only for her own interests. She is afraid my step-father will be displeased if she speaks up for me. She acts as if I mean nothing to her. She tells me to go away.”
    “Where to ?  Who else do you have besides your mother ?  She knows the doors of your in-laws are closed against you. Where does she expect you to go ?”
    “She doesn't care so long as I stop living with them.”
    “Is she a mother or what ?  Do you have anyone else ?  Does your grandmother still live in your village ?”
    “She is old and poor. Begs for alms. Her home is a broken-down doorless hut. I couldn't be safe without a door.”

    Ruby had never thought about such things. She had been cared for all her life. Parents  had helped her find a school, helped to  plan her vacations, guided her to the right circle of friends, guided her towards a suitable marriage partner. Others had been solving her problems. She had never thought about the basic need for a secure house with a lockable door.
    “You haven't anyone else ?” Ruby asked helplessly.
    “No, nobody. Otherwise I wouldn't be in this dilemma. Mother wanted to marry this man when father died. I was against it fearing we would suffer, but mother wouldn't listen. My grandmother took us with her. My brother got lost somewhere. I had a little sister; she died. My grandmother married me at that tender age. People of our caste are idiots. They will marry boys and girls before they are ten. How are you supposed to know  what the young boy will be like when he grows up ?”
    Ruby thought she could make room for Deepa in the  servant’s cabin at the back. That way the girl would have a roof over head. But who would take responsibility for a young woman's conduct ? There was sure to be gossip. Ruby suggested Orphan Women Rehabilitation Centre. Deepa grew afraid. Going to Rehabilitation Centre was like being dragged off to jail.
    Ruby broached the question she had been waiting to ask : “Why did your  first husband  divorce you ?”
    Deepa had been sweeping; she sat down on the floor when she heard the question. “You don't know the people from Chhatisgarh,” she said with a fury. “Savages all!”  Deepa's outburst was contagious.
    “That's rubbish,” Ruby said. “I've known people from Chhatisgarh. They are no different from other people.”
    “Maybe you know people from the towns.” Deepa spoke quietly. She had been subdued by Ruby's anger.  “The people from the villages are different.”
    “A stubborn girl,” Ruby thought but she softened at the sight of Deepa's eyes brimming with tears. “My grandmother breathed a sigh of relief when she married me off.  I lived with her for a few years.  When I was older my in-laws received me into their house.  The man I had married was shiftless .He had joined a gang of thieves. He brought home nothing;  what money he made he spent on wine and luxury in Raipur and Bilaspur.  He was jailed a number of times. I pleaded with him to take up honest labour and live within our means but he wasn't interested.”
    “That's why you came away, right ?” asked Ruby.
    “Not for that reason, though I had prayed to the goddess Durga to be freed of that family.  I had fasted for sixty-four Thursdays.”
    “Did he beat you ?” Ruby asked sympathetically.
    “It wasn't that.  How can I speak about our ways of living ?  The world has advanced but they haven't changed a bit. I was born and brought up in the town, unaware of orthodox ways of village life. One day I was combing my hair on the front verandah. My mother-in-law stormed out. “Get inside, thogdi !”
    “Is thogdi another name for you ?”
    “It can't be a name. It's an insult. Thogdi means 'barren woman.'”
    “They were going out to look for a bride for my younger brother-in-law. It would be bad luck to catch sight of me. That is why my mother-in-law ordered me inside. I cried and cried that day. I wanted to be sent home to my grandmother. I didn't eat anything  for supper. My mother-in-law came to me and consoled me. She explained that it was inauspicious to see the face of a barren woman during a pious or holy performance.  Women were born to perpetuate families. If a woman couldn't do that, her life was worthless. “But you don't have to worry,” my mother-in-law said. I will solve your problem.”
    “The next days she gave me roots to eat and herbal medicine. 'What is the use of these medicines?' I wondered.  My husband was in jail at the time. After my menstrual bath  that month my mother-in-law combed my hair and asked me to put on a fresh saree. I was puzzled. There was no fair travelling through our village and no occasion to go out dressed up. My mother-in-law brought me food. “Elder brother-in-Law  will come to your room tonight.”
    Ruby was astonished. She had heard that working class people from Chhatisgarh had few taboos about sex but didn't imagine arrangements for sexual relations to be so routine.  Of course there were Amba and Ambalika from the Mahabharat. The sage Vyas had done his part in perpetuating family.
    “Why didn't you protest ?”
    “She mesmerized me somehow ; I couldn't resist.”
    “And then…?” Ruby paused.
    “Is it easy to accept such things ? He is the same age as my father. How can one accept a man of one's father's age ? I froze. But I had to tolerate these visits for three months. I became a living ghost. I would shiver from fear when the man touched me. I wanted to vomit.”
    “Your elder sister-in-law  didn't object ?”
    “What could she say ?  This was the old custom.”
    “That's why you came away, right ?”
    “My elder brother-in-law was the devil, Didi. He pounced on me like a hungry tiger whenever he got the opportunity.  He would tear my body like a bear. He would devour me like a vulture. He had no pity for my poor body. Whom could I have implored ? Who would have saved me from this agony ? Who would have alleviated this misery ? Maybe if I conceived…”  Deepa broke into sobs.  Ruby forgot about her dignity as the mistress and hugged Deepa, caressing her hair.
     Deepa wiped her tears and stood up to resume work.  Neither of them spoke. Deepa ate her tiffin alone before setting out for home. A strange silence Permeated  the house after Deepa left, like the vacuum in the sky after a downpour. Ruby felt heavy all day. She forgot that she had a world of her own besides the world in which Deepa lived.

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