They were at it again. It was the stickiest day of April – fireworks and praying palms intermingled in the heat as the celebrations of Vaisakhi closed in on Bata 2, Gali No. 12, Ganesh Nagar, New Delhi, 110092. Two floors of incessant whispers had followed her from her wedding day in Kabul to her new home in Delhi. Six months of criticism from her sisters-in-law had been boiling down her throat. It wasn’t her place to retaliate yet. She had no confidante. Her husband was a new friend after all. So, she had swallowed the whispers down her throat instead of floating into her ears.
The bricks were paper thin. The cracks in the ceiling, damp with monsoon winters, always let noise pass through. She had heard it all – the taunts about her dowry, her cooking that wasn’t to their taste, even the time of day she woke up. The sisters-in-law whispered about their little brother finally being married. Even though, as children, they threw him down wells and tied him to trees overnight as punishment, now their ladla little brother was in need of constant protection from them. You would have thought coming to Delhi would have made them leave behind their backwards habit of gossiping, but instead it was her who was the “backwards village girl.”
Acres of emerald dusty gardens and the soft mountains of Jalalabad were now a lifetime away. Who would have thought back then that womanhood would stab you in the underbelly of your abdomen? Her chai ji had only taught her how to cross stitch patterns on pillowcases. But the cross-stitches across her belly pricked with a sharp newness of giving birth in a paradoxical city like Delhi. Her belly wailed in stitches now under her silk kameez carefully chosen for this post-pregnancy phase. The wail of her child curdled into the corner of the wall as she cried out for attention. That was another surprise – womanhood and motherhood were birthed as twins from a marriage adorned in vermilion love.
Her silk gauze dupatta trailed unwillingly behind her as she moved towards her unnamed child. The salwar was made of thicker silk to make sure everything was hidden. Now the insides of her thighs were drenched with the morning sweat, each step forward reminding her of this uncomfortable fact hidden in the corners of her groin. It was only when the wails turned to screeches that she moved outside of her thoughts and into the reality of her child’s cries.
“Sandeep’s wife! Where are you, Sandeep’s wife? Come downstairs and bring that daughter of yours down with you.”
Sweat trickled down her forehead as she moved her baby from her breasts to her shoulder. The baby would have to wait to be fed until after she had gone to see her wretched sisters-in-law downstairs. Her heartbeats deadened with trepidation at what new debacle would be played out downstairs. What did they need to see her child for? She didn’t like the way they held her baby – their false embraces reeked of unkindness. She knew it was because she was a girl instead of the boy they had been expectantly waiting for.
“Oho! Look at her crying! Didn’t you know you’re supposed to feed newborns when they cry like that? Didn’t your mother teach you anything?”
Taunts were rising with each decibel as she stood in silence, knowing even then that any reply would just lead to pain, broken bottles and unjustified rage.
“Give her to me.” Sister-in-law number two swiped the baby from her shoulders, leaving her body as a meaningless mess in the middle of their makeshift bedroom-turned-living room. While slapping her baby’s back a little too hard into silence, she resumed her unnerving chatter in Sandeep’s wife’s direction, while focusing her cross-eyed face toward sister-in-law number one.
“They’ve completed the naming ceremony. It was a beautiful little event, much better than anything we should have put on for a girl. But there you have it, probably something to do with the unorthodox ways your village family works.”
“They better have paid for it! The birth of a girl isn’t our responsibility, I hope your family knew that?”
She stood in silence and stared at her cracked, dry feet instead of replying. When had they decided they were going to the gurdwara to name her baby? Her husband had told her they had to delay the naming ceremony because of the 42-day mourning period the family had to respect for his relative who had died a few days after her baby was born. When had they all gone? Without telling her? Hopefully the letter from the alphabet they picked from the sacred pages of the Guru Granth Sahib was a good one to come up with a name from. She had so many ideas for names she had been collecting from Bollywood films over the years. Khuda Gawa with Amitabh Bachan had only come out recently and she knew the heroine’s name was just …
“Sandeep’s wife! What do you think of our little Zara?” sister-in-law number one barked at her directly this time, pulling her back from her thoughts.
“Oh. That’s her name. Zara,” Sandeep’s wife said, as she absently gazed towards the kitchen: cumin, garlic and turmeric infused in an oily tarka which stuck to the walls of the makeshift living room; the maid in the kitchen sat on the brick stool, fuelling the stove with gas cylinder while chopping onion after onion, streams of tears rushing down her face. Her body contorted into arms and legs fitting into shapes to carry out her tasks. She lifted her arm with the chopping knife to wipe the unforgiving sweat from her forehead, exposing ladles of sweat sitting quietly in her armpit.
Looking directly into the squinting eyes of her sisters-in-law now, Sandeep’s wife lowered her voice even more and said, “Yes, good name. Thanks for naming Zara. I’m glad. I’ll feed her now.”
Softly lifting Zara’s body, she laid her on her shoulders, walked to the music of her anklets up the stairs, her silk gauze dupatta trailing behind her.