A silent Radha sits in a corner and stares into the void that lies before her. It’s a profound silence, free of words and thoughts. She sees it before her; her whole life filled into the tiny room, she sees it in the curve of the dirty cup, the crumpled bed sheet, the disarray of clothes and the muddy slippers placed on the floor. A life she does not want to be involved in.
She thinks I cannot pick up the dirty cup, fold out my clothes or just make that bed.
So she hides in that corner away in the shadows. Outside, her mother is bathing her youngest brother under the hand pump. He squeals and cries and mother holds him firm under her tight grip, a slippery ruby soap in one hand. She is alive, Radha thinks, her face animated amidst the spraying of crystal cold water, a purpose in her eyes even if it is as simple as rubbing the grime off her filthy offspring.
No, my mother does not sneak off into a corner and stare at emptiness.
The rest of her younger siblings, four of them in all, play their favourite game of Gilli-danda excitedly, seemingly oblivious to their empty stomachs. In another shed, her older brother prepares this season’s crop. The sun scorches him, and he seems tired. He is barely twenty-two and already a wrinkle appears on his forehead, his hair too has greyed. His back bent, he arranges the bales of stalks into clean piles. Physical labour stretches his muscles, and his nerves pull tight on his arms. He is pondering over significant matters, about money the crops will bring, the interest to be paid on their debt and their mounting expenditure. He wonders if they would again celebrate a miserly Diwali without new clothes or sweets.
He manages to smile at her sister as she approaches him. They were close before gender difference separated them into stereotypical roles. Sometime back he used to imagine that her soul was a reflection of his but no longer. She is just another mouth to feed, like the rest of his brothers and sisters.
“What will the wheat bring?” She asks.
“Not much. I am afraid. It will not be enough to pay back the debt and will be barely sufficient for the food.”
“You will never pay back the debt, the interest is too high. The moneylender is bleeding you,” She tells him, composedly, in a matter of fact way.
Keshav winces. He would have preferred if she had just glossed it over. But someone has to talk about truth.
“I am worried about all of us eating enough if the prices go up again.”
“We will survive if that’s all we need to do,” she states curtly, almost heartlessly.
Keshav meets her eye before turning it towards the fertile waste that lies before him. In summers the foliage is more of a dull yellowish hue. The burnt leaves, the golden hue of wheat crops, the dust scattered everywhere lends a thirsty look to the landscape with the dreaded hot summer winds flowing straight across.
This country is a parched land, its rivers drying, and it stretches on and on with a few oases in between. The earth that lays beneath the feet looks tired unable to sustain the pressure of a billion lives. It seems like it has run out its blessings to her children yet it is being scavenged and foraged, people digging deep into its womb to provide for men’s need. Somewhere the delicate balance of life is disturbed, and no one knows about it.
“Make some lunch,” Keshav asks his sister brusquely perturbed by her unfailing honesty. He throws the crop in the thresher too soon.
The thresher grinds to a halt. Stalks, grains, and husk fly everywhere. The air turns dusty in the shed as chaff and straw shoot like arrows. Radha coughs and Keshav swears in the choicest slurs known only to a man. The machine is ancient and the new ones are too expensive. He tugs at the thresher to check what mechanical failure has led to this. A stalk is stuck somewhere inside its rusted parts.
“You should give the wheat to Raghu like everyone else,” Radha suggests.
Keshav hits back as brusquely, “And who will pay him 10 rupees for that?” He has no time for her. He squats on the floor and tinkers with the machine but is unable to start it. He yanks the stalk out and checks for loose nuts and bolts, the machine groans like a woman in labour and screeches to a painful halt again.
Keshav stares at it uncomprehendingly, unable to stir it into action. Radha takes out a blanket and waves it to clear the air. She starts putting the crop in bundles.
“Let us go to Raghu’s shop; there is no other way.”
Keshav stands up dejectedly, shouts at the children to help their sister, which they do excitedly. He goes inside and counts his money. He takes out a harmless looking 10 rupee note and looks it at with desperation. His hands feel heavy as he slowly tucks it in his vest.
The kids have by now packed the crop in two neat packs; his mother has helped Radha put one on her head. Keshav comes out, they put the other load on him and they go out of their thatched hut.
The overcrowded village is cramped with unplanned houses and shops, some made of brick, others of mud. The lane barely a foot in width stinks of filth. It is overflowing with open drains; dogs and donkeys roam around. In a curve ahead, a temple with a goddess stands covered in red and black threads from head to toe. Keshav and Radha both bow to it as they pass.
Keshav goes inside the dark, dingy interiors of the shop. He is in there for a long time.
The heat burns on Radha’s skin as she waits outside; the unforgiving ‘loo’ slapping her straight across her face. The torture of standing there makes it an unimaginable world, a world too real to exist.
When Keshav comes out, they walk back with the grains on their head and sit under the shed of a peepal tree for breath. The village school is in front of them, children run amok, and it seems classes are not on. Radha wonders idly – Had mother sent her to school like this, would she have been better off than she was now? Keshav looks at his feet. He is a little troubled and sneaks glances at Radha intermittently. After a while he mutters, “Umm, Radha.”
“Yes, what is it”?
“Raghu was saying something to me. You know how he was promised to this girl of another village when he was seven, but his fiancé passed away a couple of weeks back. Now his parents are looking for another girl.”
Radha exhales. She had heard the news and was not oblivious to the looks Raghu gave her these days. As per the tradition of their village and community, a girl or boy was wed or promised as children. However, the ‘vidai’ ceremony when the bride moved to the groom's house and consummated the marriage was performed much later; almost till the time when the couple reached maturity. According to the community elders, it was an arrangement that suited both the tradition and the law.
Radha’s ‘husband’ died at a young age and she was labelled unlucky by the community. Keshav’s mother broke his engagement when their father died.
“His parents will never agree,” Radha says.
“Raghu has a fledging business. His parents have less sway over him. He is a strapping sincere lad. Not like the drunken rascals that roam around these days. He will never leave you in any want of money.”
“Have you observed him really? He is brazen and rude,” Radha speaks out, aloud.
“All men are, you think I am not?”
“You are different; he is shallow and selfish. I have never seen him care for anyone. I don’t know how to prove it to you; it is a woman’s instinct.”
Keshav tried to pacify her, “You can control him with tact, a woman can achieve wonders if she can please her husband.”
Radha rolls her eyes, “But why do I need to wed at all?”
“What do you mean, all women must marry, take care of their house, bring up their children, look after the husband, cook and clean. Same as our mother.”
“There are children in our home too that need caring and all these chores I do anyway. If I have to do the same job, why to go to a different house. Raghu can cook and clean for himself; his mother is strong enough to take care of the house and her son. I am not going to marry.” Radha argues doggedly.
Keshav stares at her uncomprehendingly. Why is she being so obtuse? He wonders if she is naïve enough not to know the meaning of marriage.
“You do not understand, this is an excellent opportunity, the only one you are ever going to get. Our society has disintegrated, only the traditions have persisted, the values behind them disappeared. Men are evil; you cannot even imagine the depths they can sink to. Would you rather I sold you to a middle-aged widower from another village who beats you every day.”
“You are never going to sell me!” Radha exclaims, "And what about dowry? Raghu will want dowry.”
“Yes, that may be so. There will be some dowry for appearance sake but in return, Raghu has secretly agreed to help us with our debt. He has a shrewdness about him for these things. You can influence him too in our favour. Think of how you can help your brothers and sisters. You know they starve every passing day.”
Radha is incredulous. Until today she had faith in humanity because her brother was part of it but now she is not so sure.
“You want to trade me” she chokes up unable to say more.
“Trade you? You foolish girl, where do you get such notions in your head. I do not know what troubles you. Raghu lives just a few houses away. You know his parents, his family. They have a decent reputation. You will see us every day. Things will hardly change for you after marriage.”
Radha stares at the mud underneath and mulls over what life has to offer her if she chooses to marry, and speaks after a few minutes. “If there is no change to my current life, I will die.”
“How long will it take you to realize that none of us can change anything? This place is a hell we must all burn in,” Keshav blurts out angrily.
Her mind is without walls.
Feeling that he is unable to explain himself what it means, he sighs and gives up. Who knows if Raghu will really help him? He may be conning him to wed his sister. He knows that people are deceitful but he knows too that everyone needs another to survive. It is a risk one must take.
“Let’s see what mother says. I must tell her.”
Radha clucks in disagreement and is impatient. She does not trust her mother. Their mother barred Keshav from marrying because she wanted no other woman to lure away the man of the house.
She is selfish, Radha thinks. Men have evil in their hearts but women have it ten times over.
“Will you force me if she does not listen to me?” Radha asks desperately wondering if she has an ally in him.
Keshav does not answer. He is angry with the way things are, but he has no power to alter it. He cannot pay back the debt. He cannot feed his family. He will die working hard, yet will remain steeped in ignorance and poverty. But he has accepted his fate after his father’s early death.
“There can be a change,” Radha utters quietly. Her heart is beating, she feels the pulse of life go through that statement.
Keshav wonders if Radha has found a way he has missed. He decides he does not want an answer.
“It is late, we should go home now,” he stands up to put the heap of grain again on his head.
“I will run away,” she tells him anyway.
“What?” he mutters.
“I have been turning it over in my mind a long time. Today I have decided. I will go to the city and work. I am not afraid. If the world is cruel so be it; it is not exactly a heaven right now either. I am scared of stagnating to death here. Even if I never wed, I am not going to stay here. I do not ask for any money from you. I will go with whatever I have.” She stands in front of his brother waiting for some kind of validation. He gives none, and she realizes the path she has chosen none will come. There will be no protection for her now since a woman can expect support from members of the family only if she remains within the traditions that bind them.
Radha makes her decision and turns away. She hopes he will not tell mother. She is not sure.
Keshav still does not say anything. He helps her pick the bag of grains, and they walk back in silence.
Keshav lies on his cot at night. Then he gets up and checks his bag; there is some money left. He takes out as much as he can and slips it into Radha’s purse. He also puts in a note with the name and mobile number of a friend he knows in the city.
He goes back to his cot and thinks of how life would be for him once Radha leaves. The last thought in his mind is – If she can drop everything and walk away, why can’t he?
But I have mouths to feed. Keshav tries to sleep.