|| 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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
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.