The shore was very near. Life stood on the edge, beckoning to her with open arms, a sad smile on her face. She tried to swim against the society, with all her might. Responsibilty was clinging on to her shoulders, weighing her down . Despite that, she tried. She did not try to fling responsibility away. A wave pushed her back, engulfing her in the saltiness of the society. She coughed and spluttered. A tear escaped her beautiful eye as she struggled.
“Siccha! Siccha!” he called loudly.”Come here!”
Sita wiped her flour covered hands and walked into the bedroom where Arjun was sitting. As she walked into the room, she was shocked to find a disarray of paint all over the floor. The walls were black with random lines strewn all over them. The contents of her handbag, which were covered in paint, cluttered the place.
“What have you done,Arjun?”, she cried squatting before Arjun, and trying to salvage her bag. Arjun was oblivious to everything happening. “Cose yo eyes! Cose!” he screamed, a touch of impatience to his voice now. “What is it?” she said, and closed her eyes. She prepared herself for the worst. But she knew Arjun could give her better than the worst. And she was right. “Noooowww oppaannn!” he screamed. As she opened her eyes, in his outstretched hands, she saw a few thousand rupee notes painted hideously in red. Tears stung her eyes. In front of her, Arjun sat laughing happily, his eyes closed, clapping his hands, a picture of ecstasy.  She lowered her eyes, and a tear slipped out, as she saw the mess she had to clean up. She sighed, and bit back the painful sob that was threatening to come out. She looked up, and with a huge effort, smiled. “It’s beautiful, she said softly. “But now, let’s go out, okay? Sita has to clean this up, right?”. Still clapping away to himself, Arjun allowed her to get him out of the room.
As she cleaned up the room, she saw her favorite photo of herself broken in the corner. It was a mere photograph, but it triggered a significant resemblance to her own life. She could not take it any longer. She sat sobbing in the corner.
In the evening, she suggested a walk to the park. As always, it was greeted with a lot of enthusiasm.
As she bent down to tie his shoelaces, he clutched her hair, swaying from side to side in excitement, as he admired the ceiling.
“There, done”,she smiled kindly, straightening herself up. “Shall we go?”

Sometimes, Arjun would break free and run behind a butterfly or a cycle that he found fascinating. Sita had to keep her pace with him. With his frequent, loud cries of “Siccha”, he admired everything around him in wondrous enjoyment, clapping away to himself.

People stared…

Sita felt their eyes following them. In the beginning, she was embarrassed. But now, she had learnt not to mind them.
When they reached the little meadow, away from the prying eyes, Sita finally left him to himself, and sat under her favorite tree.
Arjun romped about the grass, his arms wide open as he enjoyed the warmth of the evening sun. He frolicked around, kicking the ground and twirling in childish glee. Tired, she relaxed as she observed Arjun. He was standing in the middle of the meadow, his eyes half closed, his mouth open, his hands moving about aimlessly in the air, as the sun kissed his hair gently. His face was one of pure bliss. To Sita, it was intensely calming , but at the same time, it left her with a sense of emptiness and longing for a life she would never have. After they returned home, Sita cooked for both of them, and fed Arjun. When it came to eating he threw a lot of tantrums, but Sita was very patient. She took her time, murmuring softly and gently coaxing him to eat. In the night, she sang a lullaby for him to sleep.
After he slept, she sat on the bed beside him, hugging her knees, reflecting about the past, as a great wave of ennui hit her. Life stretched out in front of her an endless aeon ,with no one to offer her a caring word, show a little bit of concern or even care if she had eaten or not. She felt so helpless, so vulnerable somehow. Despite being a well read woman, she was forced to sit at home and take care of Arjun. When she agreed to this, she had only a faint idea of what had she signed on for.
She felt hollow inside. Everything seemed wasted. Her heart got used to the steady beating; it raced no more in anticipation of a beloved. Her eyes got used to her own reflection and her tears; there was no one else. Her ears waited no more for the ticklish and soft, yet sensual whispers that would send tingles down her spine; her arms were used to hugging herself now. She waited no more.
A hundred memories trickled through Sita, as she sat on the bed beside a sleeping Arjun. This was the only time she had time to think, and reflect. And cry her heart out.
She was ten years old. Her mother, her sister Mani who was seven, and she had gone to buy the vegetables. In the big market on the road, as their mother was busy buying, the two sisters had obviously loitered behind, as they longingly admired the bangles in the store beside. Suddenly, a weak feeble voice was heard by the two of them. As they turned to see who it was, they saw an old bearded tramp with a Muslim fez on the top of his head. He was begging for money to eat, and looked very weak and famished. “In the name of Allah”, he croaked, “please give me some money. I’m very hungry” he said. Both the tender hearts pitied the state of the man. Sita immediately went running to her mother, and pulled her hand.
“Amma! Amma, there is an old Dada who wants money. Please give him money, Amma.”, she said. Her mother looked at her, “Where is Mani?!” she cried. Sita pointed out to where the old man and Mani were standing. Sita’s mother took one look at the man, and rushed to Mani. She roughly pulled Mani away from the man, and smacked her back. Mani started howling. The man was still standing there, looking at them, a sad expression on his face.
“Amma…he is still standing there. Give him money, amma. He is hungry”, Sita said. “Shut up, Sita! Let us go now. What all I have to endure with you both, the Lord only will know”, she smacked her own head, and seized both their hands and hurried out of the market place. “What happened, Amma? The other day you gave money to that uncle near the temple. Why didn’t you give today? Poor uncle”, she struggled to keep up with her mother’s thunderous pace. “Sita, that man is a Muslim! They are bad people, Sita. If I had not come on time, he would have kidnapped Mani! Evil people, they are. Stay away from them, do you understand?” she shook Mani’s hand. “What is Muslim, amma? Are we also Muslim?” “Chi chi!”, Sita’s mother cried, a disgusted expression on her face. ” Lord Shiva! We, Muslims? We are Hindus, Sita! And that too, pure Brahmins. Those Muslims, Christians, stay away from them. They are no good.” To all of Sita’s endless questions, Sita’s mother answered in rants, but offered not a single explanation. Sita could not understand her mother’s judgmental attitude, as she was too young, but in the years to come, as she slowly understood the reality of life, she realized that such people were everywhere around her.

Sita was sixteen years old now. She was sitting near the window, musing about the day’s events at college. Her elder sister Akshaya, who was twenty years, walked in. “What are you thinking about, Sita madam?” she asked, noticing Sita’s furtive smiles to herself. “Akki….? When did you come in? How long have you been here?” Sita cried, getting up quickly, trying to keep a straight face. “Long enough”, her sister said, smiling, pulling her hair up into her bun, and setting out to drape the bedsheet over the bed. Sita joined in. “Who is it?” Sita smiled again. “There’s a guy in my college, Akki. He’s VERY cute”, she said with glee. “Is he our caste?” Akshaya asked. All of Sita’s happiness vanished in seconds. “How does it matter, Akki?” she asked. “Sita,” her sister settled herself down to infuse a little of her wisdom into her sister. “Amma and Appa have already started looking for a match for me. They are very particular about the caste, Sita. You know Amma. She will get me married to a beggar, even a donkey who is our caste, but not another.” “But it does not make sense! What about a love marriage?” Sita asked. “Appa is fine with everything, Sita. Even Amma has no problem, but she’s always worried about what people outside will say. Especially, Amma’s sisters. They will have a problem with everything. Amma cannot do anything without their butting in. Love marriage? Out of the question.”  “This is not funny, Akki! What about you? You’re twenty years old! And you’re ready to get married?” “Already the society is saying that Appa will have a problem with the three of us. Unfortunately, the three of us are girls. Appa will have to give a dowry for all the three of us. I don’t want to be a burden to our parents, Sita. It’s the least we can do for them”, she said, patting a pillow. Sita looked at her sister, a mixture of confusion and angst.

Sita was 23. She sat in front of the mirror, gazing at her reflection, her eyes not really looking, her ears alert for her father’s call. The momentary anticipation inside her was mildly shadowed by a profound nervousness. Her elder sister, who was already a mother, was playing with her baby beside her on the bed. “Sita? Seetaaaa!” her father called out to her. Sita jumped violently, and hurriedly got up. She smoothed the folds of her sari, smiled nervously into the mirror for a last time, and as she started to go out, her mother pushed a tray of hot tea into her hands. “Go, go! And smile!” her mother hissed into her ears. Sita shook her head, exhaled loudly and slowly walked into the living room, her head bent down. As she peeked a little from beneath her eyebrows, she could see three strangers, two women and a man, sitting in front of her, all of them appraising her keenly. With a shy smile on her face, she served them the tea and waited for their approval to sit down.
“Sit down dear, you don’t have to stand up”, the younger woman said smiling, and Sita sat down cautiously, her hands folded in her lap. “Our boy couldn’t come today, we’re very sorry about that, Sudershanji”, the woman said. “But we like the girl a lot. She will have a great life. She doesn’t have to work at all! We have enough money for all that.” Sita’s father, a small, paunchy man beamed loudly and patted his daughter’s head. “The dowry…”,he asked hesitantly. “Please don’t say such things, Sudershanji. We want your daughter, that’s all. But at the same time, I hope you understand our little problem, and I hope you will find no issue with that”, the woman said. “Oh, there is no problem at all! Sita is a very responsible child. She will understand. Please don’t worry about it” her father reassured. “So, can we take it that the alliance is confirmed?” the woman asked. As Sita’s father replied in the positive, Sita finally looked up and acknowledged her new parents, and touched their feet.
At that moment, she did not realize that it would be the place she would be confined to.
For the next days, Sita could be seen smiling to herself. Though Sita was a very intelligent and beautiful woman, she too went through the internal apprehensions that every woman went through. She wondered if she would ever be enough for someone. Now to finally know that someone was going to accept her, she felt assured, as if a huge load had been lifted off her.
She was also grateful that she being from a family, that was facing so many financial problems, was being accepted into a rich family, without any unreasonable conditions. Her in-laws seemed like nice people too. She could trust her parents to make the best choice for her. She thanked her lucky stars. In spite of her cheerfulness, she could see a subdued atmosphere in the house. Initially she brushed it off thinking they were feeling sad to see her go away, but a few days later, she was not so sure. One day, with the wedding in a week’s time, something vague clicked inside her. “Appa?” she asked, when all of them were sitting around the table, eating dinner. “Hmm?”her father replied, his eyes on the curd rice he was eating. “Appa, you talked about some problem when they came to talk for my hand, what is it?” Her father looked at her mother who had stopped eating. Both of them looked at each other nervously, debating whether to talk or not. “Appa? Amma?” she asked, her heart beating a little faster now. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing, nothing”, her mother replied, her eyes still on her father’s.
“Amma, please! Please , Amma. It is my marriage. Don’t I have the right to know? Please Amma, do tell me what the problem is”, she asked. By now, both their parents’ heads were bent. Her father got up and went to wash his hands. He went to the settee, and sat with his head in his hands. “Appa?!”, Sita ran to her father. “Please appa, please, please. Is it so serious? Don’t I have the right to know? I have been a good daughter, haven’t I? I’ve done whatever you wanted me to do. Please…”, she cried, tears streaming down her face. Her father sat still for a few minutes, and then started crying. Sita had never seen her father cry before. He had been her pillar of support and to see him cry like this made her numb. Suddenly he took Sita’s hand in his own, and started slapping himself with it. “I will never forgive myself”, he wailed loudly, as he continued slapping himself.
“Appa! Appa! What ARE you doing? Amma, tell Appa please! What is he doing?” she screamed.
When she received no reply from her mother, she turned to see her mother crying to herself, beating her head with her hands. “Ammaaa!!”, Sita was nearly hysterical by now. She didn’t understand what to do. Her sensible sister was not at home too. Taking one final look at her parents, she rushed into her room, and locked herself inside. She slid down to the floor, and wept loudly. After three hours, she came out of her room, her eyes red, yet determined. Her parents were sitting together, their faces forlorn, defeated. She went up to them and sat down before them. “Amma…Appa…I’m your daughter. You’ve taught me enough, right? Please tell me what the problem is. I promise I’ll be brave”, she said kindly. “We sold you, Sita!”, her mother cried, fresh tears leaking out of her eyes. “We are probably the worst parents ever. But we had no choice!”, she started wailing again.
“Amma, that will never be true”, Sita said, wiping her mother’s tears. “Never think that way. Whatever you have done, will have been done with a reason. And whatever you do is decided by God. If God wanted me to face this, then it is his will and I am ready. Who are we to defy him?”, she asked earnestly. Her mother shook her head, her hands over her mouth, her sobs violent, as her father sat silently beside. “How we have wronged our daughter…God will never forgive us”, her father mumbled slowly. “Sita…your husband to be, Arjun is mentally challenged!”, her mother burst and sobbed even more.

This is the first short story of a three-part series.Stay tuned for the rest of the story which will be featured in the next issue.

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