Subadra felt sorry for Ruhi.
She felt sorry for Pavana, Kamali, and Meena too.
Pavana was barren for three years, despite seeking the help of two allopathic doctors, three swamis, and one witch doctor. Ruhi’s husband had a mistress. Kamali’s husband beat her, and Meena bore only a string of daughters. Worst of all was Parimala, who fought to stay unmarried and sabotaged all of her potential matches. Spinsterhood was the greatest misfortune of all. All the girls in this neighborhood were getting married off and this made Subadra feel quite left out.
One day, Subadra’s father came bursting through the door and announced that the matchmaker had found her an excellent match, and that she would be married off that very year. Subadra reminded herself how lucky she was compared to all her friends, despite having to abandon her computer science course in the second semester. Although she was swept up in the swirl of joy from her family and friends, disappointment lurked inside her. On the days Subadra went to the market and saw her former classmates with books on their backs, her feet fumbled and forgot to move. An ache passed over her heart, for she couldn’t take that road. It led to places unknown, where men and women laughed and talked as equals. Where all her achievements would be her own, and her failures too. Where for the first time she could be a person, not just a woman. But you can’t have it all, she told herself. That simply isn’t how the world worked, her mother repeatedly said. She trudged toward the market and thought of things to come.
The groom was a successful businessman with a fine house of his own in the very same neighborhood. She could frequently visit her friends and family. His house nested in the nicest spot, overlooking the lake. It was a large and comfortable house with two maids, a cook, and a courtyard. And when Subadra caught a glimpse of him at a family gathering, it was love at first sight. He was honey-skinned and tall. It was as if she had always known him. Ever since she was a little girl, it was told and retold to Subadra by her elders, that the man she would marry was someone she would have married many times over in her past lives. Such was the infinite nature of a marital bond. Subadra’s young, innocent heart swelled with love as the lanky man smiled, nodded, and moved through the crowd.
Subadra longed for children, perhaps even more than she did for a husband. When she held her little nephew in her arms, she thought of her own dear boy she would have one day, of how she would shower him with love and wisdom, and watch the landscape of his face change from childish softness to manly ruggedness. She thought of the little girl she would decorate with ribbons and jewels, and share secrets with, those not meant for male ears. But how will you have a job and manage them? Pavana’s sister-in-law was an architect’s assistant. Subadra had often heard Pavana’s mother lament of how her grandchildren would now be sacrificed to “drugs, sex and all sorts of moral deprivation” because her daughter-in-law wasn’t at home to keep them in line. That little fear quelled Subadra’s dream of being a career woman.
Marriage took precedence over a higher education. It was clear from Subadra’s match that Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, hadn’t fared as well as Parvathi, the goddess of fertility and marriage, in deciding her fate. But one cannot expect much success from a woman abandoned by her husband and given away in an incestuous marriage to her own father, Brahma, the creator of the universe.
Meanwhile, goddess Parvathi made sure she arranged Subadra’s stars in such a way that the wedding took place the same month the match was confirmed, and Subadra got pregnant soon after. This made Parvathi exemplary in the eyes of her husband Shiva, the divine destroyer, famously known for imprisoning his other wife Ganges, the river goddess, into the knot of his hair.
Married life was near perfect. Subadra’s in-laws treated her kindly, as long as she listened to them. Her husband’s only fault was that he bought jasmine flowers for her hair instead of the kanakambaram she so liked. His unwavering opinion was that the jasmine, known for bringing out the femininity in women, suited Subadra best, whereas the kanakambaram, famously known as the firecracker flower, made her look rather rowdy. They matched the fiery glint in her eyes, the one she tried so hard to hide. So she paraded with a heap of kanakambaram in her hair all day, only to discard them for a string of jasmine come evening. She relished the admiration in her husband’s eyes when he came home from work. But she was determined to have it both ways.
Good fortune came to her in the form of her daughter Samandhi, a beautiful chubby girl with the clearest skin and a thick mane of hair. When Samandhi was born, Subadra’s father-in-law pronounced his granddaughter lucky too, for on that very day their family business made an enormous profit of forty lakh rupees.
“Goddess Lakshmi is here,” the father-in-law announced, smiling broadly. Everyone who pitied him for having no male heirs now sizzled with envy.
“We’ll go on that foreign trip now,” Subadra’s husband said.
Meanwhile, despite the relief, Subadra felt a mild perturbation only a mother would feel for a daughter. A daughter, no matter which household she was born into, was always a responsibility. She would be a giveaway to another man’s family. Subadra’s heart sagged a little at the thought, and it made her clutch the infant closer. A son would have brought sheer joy. At his birth, which would be the pedestal of motherhood, all of her womanly purposes would culminate. She looked forward to it.
But thank God for the appearance of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, at the time of the girl child’s birth. She saved the babe, Samandhi, from a bleak reception. When Lakshmi wasn’t busy massaging the feet of her husband Vishnu, the sustainer of the universe, she could manage such kindnesses. If not, the girl would have had much to endure on Grover Street. There would have been stares and whispers behind her back, and pity heaped upon her and her mother’s heads. In other brutal parts of the country, she would have been killed off with sips of cacti milk before she could see the light of day.
Grover Street was full of activity during the festival week of Deepavali. The families gathered at Subadra’s childhood home. It was her father’s turn to host that year. Eons ago, Lord Krishna and his warrior wife Satyabhama had slayed the demon Narakasura, in a brilliant triumph of light over darkness and ignorance over knowledge. In honor of their victory, people celebrated by lighting lamps, bursting firecrackers, and making sweets.
The men gathered over cool drinks and tobacco pipes in the courtyard. The older women bossed the younger women about. There were a dozen dishes to be made and countless chores to be done. The paruppu polis were the most tedious to make. The stuffing needed to be gingerly rolled out into rotis, without cracking through the dough. Ruhi and Meena were sweating at it. Subadra handled the varieties of halwas and payasams simmering in jaggery with effortless patience. They needed nonstop stirring to get the consistency of the sweet sauce just right. The ladoos still had to be shaped. Pavana was slow as a snail with it. The samosas and murukkus were the only savories that stood at the center of the kitchen table, waiting to be carried out. Kamali, grinning most satisfactorily, was garnishing them off with sun-dried curry leaves. They took breaks at the kitchen table for a little scandal mongering. The loudest of them was Parimala, the twenty-nine-year-old spinster.
The friends not only tolerated Parimala, they enjoyed her. When they were schoolgirls growing up together on Grover Street, Parimala stood out with her odd but endearing ways. Her penchant for trouble was endless. No other woman on Grover Street was expected to be “just friends” with men, wear pants to functions, get a higher education, or own a business. After earning a degree in fashion, she started a boutique, designing clothes that hardly covered the ladies. Her friends were pretty sure that her unwomanly ways would never land her a decent husband. Not that Parimala cared. They lived vicariously through Parimala’s life, and she found endless amusement in their stories about their children and husbands and household troubles. Although they chided her for her wild and free life, they enjoyed her tales. Ruhi especially liked the one where Parimala kicked a fellow right in the nuts at a party. His wife was Parimala’s colleague and even though they were celebrating a business collaboration, that didn’t stop her. The degenerate was trying to feel her up, hoping that this “modern woman” would be accommodative, but he was sent howling out of the building with the fear of God in him.
Subadra often imagined herself in Parimala’s shoes. She envied her carefree joy and freedom. Subadra daydreamed of being able to finish her computer science course one day and work at a multinational company. But then she snapped out of her daydreams and scolded herself into being grateful. To leave her young child with others? To be too tired to tend to a husband at the end of each day? To not glory in the joys of being a mother and wife? Preposterous! Poor Parimala, she told herself, to have accumulated such terrible karma, to have the sorry lack of a female figure to lead her by example.
Parimala ate while she watched her friends wipe and scrub and wash and grumble. She thought they made a pitiable lot and was tickled by how they all felt sorry for her, even Kamali, who bore a black eye from her husband.
As she stuffed her mouth with samosas, Parimala said, “If you marry without first knowing yourself, you’ll be miserable all your life.”
But nobody paid attention to spinsters in this country. Especially ones who generously cussed and showed fondness for green apple vodka. Spinsters were considered creatures of ill omen. You wouldn’t want to run into one at a wedding, or on any other auspicious day. Sadly, there were no unmarried goddesses to stand up for Parimala. So, she fought for herself. Although her words were ignored, they hung in the air like a reek, unpleasant for their truthfulness.
Subadra swallowed hard. What Parimala said caught her off guard. Somebody had to say something real quick to distract everyone from it.
“The ingrates,” Meena muttered soon enough, eyeing her husband slurp a bowl of payasam, “gobbling up those sweets we took ten hours to make in ten seconds.”
“Oh come on,” Subadra chided, taking the opportunity to calm her own flutters. “It’s the most expensive week for them, all the money they have to work hard for so we can be festive.”
“You might as well be one of them,” Kamali grunted. “Ohhh, all that hard work to make money so our families can have food in our stomachs and clothes on our backs . . . donkey poo.”
Kamali spat and rolled her eyes.
Subadra stood up, aghast. “Akka, you’re being unfair!”
“Am I? They’ll always want to make money, married or not. Ever seen a man without a career? But we can’t have it all, can we? We must choose one or the other.”
Subadra wanted no part in this kind of bashing. It was disgusting, ungrateful, and wretched. Summoning all her conviction, she stormed briskly out of the room, carrying a second serving of payasam for her husband. As she headed back to the kitchen with her husband’s empty bowls, she heard the shrill cry of her baby.
A moment’s delay would make her a terrible mother, so she dumped the dishes and rushed to Samandhi. In the privacy of her room, she stuffed a breast into the infant’s mouth and twisted in agony as the blisters on her nipples stung. She longingly eyed the bottom drawer of her closet where the breast pump her cousin had sent her from Singapore lay untouched. “A magical contraption,” her cousin had gushed, “you’ll never have to suffer the horrors of breastfeeding. The best part is that someone else can feed the baby while you nap.”
That never happened. The mother-in-law pronounced it a travesty.
“What better job does a mother have than to feed her own child?” her mother-in-law asked her.
Now, Subadra had had enough. In the darkness of her room, she plugged in the pump and put up her feet in relief. Just when everything was getting a little better in her world, her mother-in-law walked in. The old woman took the baby away from Subadra, as though from harm’s reach, then she crumpled her face in severe disapproval and pronounced, “Modernity contaminates the sanctity of motherhood.” When Subadra opened her mouth to explain, her mother-in-law sneered, “Why are women obsessed with firm breasts? Now that you’re a mother, all you need to worry about is how to feed your child with them, not how to seduce your husband.”
Tears started in Subadra’s eyes. Her palms clenched the armrests, as she tried hard to swallow the angry words that edged upon her tongue. It must’ve been the hectic Deepavali week, the sleepless nights, the sore nipples, the crazy breastfeeding hormones that compelled her response. After the years of half-hearted acceptance of things that didn’t quite make sense, this particular exchange culminated in Subadra calling her mother-in-law an “ignoramus, interfering old goat” before taking her baby back.
This sent the woman straight to her son, bubbling with vengeance.
“Get out,” he said. His whiskers trembled in rage.
“Fine,” Subadra snapped back, equally furious. She knew they expected an apology, contrite and desperate, and a babble of pleas, fearful and trembling. Instead, not a squeak came out of her throat, not a tear from her eyes. She packed a bag for herself and her baby. There must’ve been a dozen difficulties that pushed this button inside of her. But nobody cared. A husband’s house was no place for a wife with a tongue.
Even Shakti, the most independent of feminine forces to don the heavens, audaciously managed to leave her husband too—for a while. The reason was quite legitimate. Her lord got into a perfect mood for a misunderstanding which ended with him beheading their darling son. The mess was sufficiently fixed by placing an elephant’s head onto the boy’s shoulders. That’s how Ganesha, the god of prosperity came to be. If that didn’t restore marital peace, what would?
Subadra sat at her parent’s house, her heart breaking, but her spine stiffening.
Since this situation could not be left to the mercy of modern-day debauchery, an immediate council was summoned by goddess Sita. No one was more worthy of spearheading this contingent of wronged wives and mothers than her. Her husband, Rama, had abandoned her upon a rumor that Sita’s chastity was questionable. Despite Sita’s loyalty, tested by fire, she was banished to the forest with her two young children to save Rama’s face. But even in exile, her devotion was so monumental that she lived the rest of her days with her husband’s name upon her lips. To her right sat Kannagi, who faithfully followed her whore-mongering husband, Kovalan, all the way to Madurai and burnt the whole city down to avenge her husband’s murder. To her left was Savitri, whose unrelenting pleas convinced Yama, the god of the underworld, to restore her ordinary husband from the brink of death. The assembly was completed by Yashodhara, whose husband sought enlightenment and saved the world by leaving his wife and infant in the dead of the night to pursue it. It would have been a more successful enlightenment had it come to him before he married Yashodhara.
These goddesses pursued weak and waning men down paths that led to loss and grief. It was different from the kind of pursuit that young men made after women in courtship, their hearts heavy with love, and their loins seething with lust. These wives clinched divinity for the sacrifices they made for their families. Temples were built for them alone.
They now gathered to persuade Subadra through tales of their extraordinary feats, to collectively move her toward the sacred duties of womanhood. So, they descended from the pages of history and holy scriptures. They descended from the mouths of her mother and her aunts.
Days turned to weeks without word from her husband. But why would there be? It was her folly that got her turned out, her father said.
“What has Subadra been doing here for so long?” the neighbors asked.
“Oh, her husband is away on business,” her mother lied, keeping her voice from trembling.
“So she must be with her in-laws then.”
The helpless lies spoken to keep face traveled to Subadra’s ears and stung her. At night, they poured out as tears.
The only thing that kept her afloat in this swirling sea was her darling child. Each day she found strength to wake up and be, for Samandhi.
Subadra was embarrassed to face her friends. The cloud of rejection and abandonment was so dark upon her that each time Kamali passed by their gate, Subadra cowered in her room. She hardly went out.
Her friends had all sorts of advice for her, and most of it was furiously delivered.
“That old hag! How dare she interfere. You should have dished out even more.”
“Ugh, why is your husband so old-fashioned? We’re living in the 21st century!”
“Poor you, outing you over such a silly matter.”
When the pity party was finally over, Subadra’s head still hung low with shame and grief. Parimala took her aside. She tipped Subadra’s face up to the light of a sunbeam from the window and asked, “Do you still love him?”
“With all my heart.”
“Then you should go back.”
Subadra had many days and nights to contemplate what her misfortunes would be if she went back to her husband’s house, and what they would be if she remained at her parents’. To never fully belong to either was to never truly feel at home. But one thing tipped the balance. In that swirl of hopelessness, she remembered her husband’s face the first time she saw him, standing out like a beautiful blade of grass, tall and lean among the weeds, and all the tender moments shared with him since. The surge of love in her chest gave her the determination to mend this broken thing. In that sacred moment, all faults were forgiven and forgotten. Subadra returned to her husband’s home meekly, but wholeheartedly.
The council of goddesses were very pleased with themselves, believing they had single-handedly dealt with Subadra’s situation. They moved on to the next woman, on their never-ending list of those needing to be led down the path toward feminine grace.
In the months and years that followed, Subadra eased into the life that was laid out before her. On quiet nights, she went over the little trophies she collected along the way: the smiles of her husband, the relief of her parents, the approval of her in-laws, and the home her children would have, surrounded by all who loved them. That home would have no cracks, none visible. The roof above her head felt secure, not like the perilous one Parimala had, always shifting. Her dreams remained sweet, because they remained dreams, and not threatening things that needed to come true.
Generations of families survived on the fortitude of women like Subadra. The women mastered tolerance by shedding secret tears upon their pillows and, if lucky, upon the shoulders of their sisters. They talked of it until their tongues ached at the base of their throats. They slammed pots and pans in their kitchens to unburden themselves of the sting. They prayed to idols of metal and stone, and took leaps of faith. They believed in divine purpose, knowing that without it, there will be no other way to accept their life, or possibly, love it.
As their skins grow thicker and their hearts stronger, a terribly unfair equilibrium will be created. They will understand that no man is perfect. They will see the faces of their children and build for them a semblance of home. They will love unconditionally, by laying down each night beside a broken man, without trying to fix him. Malleable, like air or water, these mothers will take the shape of everything around them, bending without breaking. They will bring together things that are falling apart. They will creep out of their kitchens and hold up half the sky. Logic will fail to accommodate grief of such proportion, so they will imagine a reprieve at the altars of temples.
They will pass this on from mother to daughter as a legacy.
A year later, Subadra will finally bear a son. This time, no god or goddess will need to save the day. The boy will be a benevolence all by himself. She will teach her daughter endurance but teach her son nothing. By doing this, Subadra will sustain a wretched cycle. Her daughter will grow up soft and gentle, and fit herself like an ornament into someone else’s treasury. The son will grow tough and rigid, and will set out to find his own riches.
Only one thing will fill her days and dreams.
He will be woven into the web of societal expectations. His mother’s virtues and skills will shape his mind, form the mold into which he will fit every woman he will ever meet. Yet, he will never be able to see them as his equals. The privilege to be human and to get away with it, will be solely his. This will be an all pervading contradiction in his life, but he will not be aware of it. A woman will only be as worthy as the sacrifices she makes and for all that she offers. And the only way he will know how to repay her is by duty.
Subadra, gray haired and glorious, will sit in her courtyard of her husband’s house, surrounded by her children and grandchildren, sun-drenched and fulfilled. She will be the envy of all the women on Grover Street and know it. But one day she will flip through the pages of Femina and see Parimala featured on the cover. Designer of the Year. And she will remember that day when Parimala asked her the most important question. And she will remember her answer.
Behind her smile, in some faraway forgotten place, she will feel a hollowness. But she will brush it away. Her son will be coming home from a business trip. When he arrives, the aroma of the semiya payasam his mother so lovingly made will waft to his nose. Between mouthfuls, he will inquire whether she has eaten her meals and taken her medicines.
She will smile and nod a yes. She will fill the hollowness with his happiness.
It will never occur to her son to ask her, what is that faraway look I see in your eyes? What did you give up to make this life happen? What are your joys and your sorrows? What were your dreams? Did they all come true? What can I do to make you happy? Truly happy?
All he will notice is her gentle strength. The calm determination which drives her through her days and years.
For him, his mother will remain a goddess exalted at the altar of imagination, worshipped from afar, but never understood.