That morning, I was busy as usual with my household chores. It had become increasingly difficult to bend over my pregnant belly. Sometimes my feet were swollen, and my face puffy and moon-faced. But Ramesh my husband always said I looked beautiful.
“Your face glows these days. The mischievous look has been replaced by softness. I catch you smiling to yourself and looking perfectly content with life. How I wish I could spend more time with you, dear!”
Ramesh was a tenant farmer. He worked very hard to wrest a decent yield from the dry, parched earth. We had been married for four years, and though life was often difficult, we were a happy couple.
I had studied up to Standard VIII. So, many of the village children came to me for help with their homework. Some of the older girls, who had never been to school, were eager to learn how to read and write. It was more of a recreation from work, and a time for chit-chat than for learning.
But many of the husbands were not too happy about this, and blamed me for encouraging the girls to study.
“Of what good is bookish knowledge? Isn’t it enough if they learn to be good wives and mothers?” they grumbled.
“Yes, this is unnecessary. We’ll have to ask Ramesh to put an end to the classes. Women must not be given too much freedom.”
When Ramesh told me about the concerns of the men, I laughed.
“How can learning to read and write make them bad mothers or wives?” I asked.
“They may be neglecting their work at home or doing things haphazardly, so they can rush to your classes. Be careful dear. Men don’t like their wives to be more knowledgeable than their husbands. I am an exception. They’ll say you’re a bad influence.”
“I never invited them in the first place,” I protested,
“They chose to come. Can I refuse to teach them what little I know? Besides, we have so much fun being together.”
Now the sudden summons by the Panchayat made me nervous. They had chosen a time when Ramesh was in the fields.
“Come at once,” was the order. This did not bode well for me.
“Will they reprimand me for teaching the girls?” I worried. “Were they planning to mete out some punishment?”
The Panchayat in our village was a powerful body. It could make or break a person. It had appropriated for itself all authority, and was invariably biased against women. We were mere puppets – silent drudges like the oxen that worked their fields, beaten into submission at the slightest hint of resistance, and ravished when the heat was upon them. But we could never ever protest, and had to take such treatment as our due.
A cold tremor ran through my body as I trudged the mile to where the meeting was held. I pulled the pallav over my head, partly veiling my face. Visions of the many helpless women who were dubbed witches on trumped up charges, flashed through my mind. Some were stoned to death; others were chased out of the village in disgrace.
“Will Ramesh ever be able to save me in such a situation?” I wondered.
He was a man who never stepped out of line, because he was aware of the consequences.
The Panchayat met under the massive banyan tree in the centre of the village. Its branches formed a shady canopy over a high cement platform built around its base. The president had ensconced himself on this platform, while the other members sat at a lower level, on backless wooden benches.
“Dwarfs with king-size egos,” I thought, “Sparrow-brained bullies who don’t credit women with emotions, intelligence or rights. If only I had the courage to stand up to them!”
The president looked very impressive with his large white turban. He twirled the ends of his moustache upwards for effect, as he surveyed me from head to toe. He was a powerful land owner’s son, and was there by virtue of his wealth, power and personality.
I had seen him strutting around the village ogling the girls, like he was God’s gift to womankind. He owned the only jeep in the village, and would recklessly drive over the narrow roads, scaring people out of their wits. Now I could feel his penetrating gaze even through my veil.
“Stand here woman,” he ordered, as though I was some exhibit in a courtroom.
“And you,” he said, pointing to another man, “Come this side, and face the woman.”
“Gosh, what is he up to?” I was ill at ease, “Is he planning to pin charges of adultery on me?”
“Do you recognize this woman?” he asked the man.
“I do. She is my wife,” he leered.
I looked up into the face of the man who was my husband for a night, almost twelve years ago. He looked more devilish than he did before – this unfeeling creature, who had savaged me on my nuptial night, and then disappeared without a word of farewell.
They said he was a jawan in the Army, and was summoned back to his Unit immediately, as the troops were moving towards the LOC. But no one in the village had heard of him again. His Battalion Commander had reported him as a deserter. So why was he not in jail?
I stood speechless and frozen to the ground.
“No,” I thought, “I’m happily married to Ramesh and am carrying his child. This man is no one to me.”
He stared as if he couldn’t wait to grab me. I saw the amused look on the face of the President. He was enjoying my discomfiture.
The Panchayat was discussing my future in my presence.
“Umakanth is a noble soldier – a man who was taken prisoner in the course of his duty. He has suffered immensely in Pakistan all these years. He did not desert his country or his wife. It is in the fitness of things that this woman goes back to her lawful husband, unless of course he wishes to waive his claims on her.”
“I do not,” said Umakanth, “I want her back.”
“Then she must go back to her legal husband,” chorused the other Panchayat members. “There is no other way.”
I was fuming inside. “I’d rather kill myself than go back to this ruffian,” I thought, butI dared not speak out loud for fear of being lynched. Like all other women in this community, I was just a puppet – a performing monkey dancing to the monkey man’s stick!
“But she is pregnant,” one man said, “Will you accept the child of another man?”
“Not on your life,” thundered Umakanth, “It is an insult to my manhood. She must have it aborted at once. Let her get it done and then come to me.”
I wanted to lash out at these heartless men, “No, you have no right to interfere in my life.”
But better sense silenced my tongue. The punishment for disobedience would be harsh and demoralizing.
“You have ten days to wind up matters with Ramesh and get back to your legal husband,” the President said.
“If you need any help you can come to me.”
“That suits me well,” said Umakanth, “I have a few jobs to finish by then. But no delay after that. I’ll be waiting.”
He shook his finger in my face.
I pulled my pallav lower over my face, bowed and walked back home. By the time Ramesh returned from work, I had cried myself into a nervous wreck. He had come directly from the fields, and had no inkling of the Panchayat ruling.
“Why are you crying Puthli? Are you having a stomach ache?” There was concern in his voice. “Is the baby coming too soon?”
Between sobs, I broke the news to him.
“Then we must leave the village at once. You will not be safe here, nor will I.”
“I’ll go alone,” I said,” You can say you know nothing of my disappearance. Just give me some money for the bus fare, so that I can go to my uncle’s house. He will know what to do. You stay here and pretend that I’ve run away without your knowledge.”
“What sort of man do you think I am? I’m going with you.” He was adamant.
We waited until it was dark and safe to leave. Our village was just a few kilometers away from Mudgaon. From there, we could catch a bus to Nasik. Ramesh knew a short cut through the forest. It was pitch dark. Foxes and wild dogs came out to forage at night. But Ramesh had armed himself with a stout stick to protect ourselves. And so we prodded, stumbling over stones and bramble, and acutely conscious of the eerie phantoms of the night. Pregnant women were not supposed to wander about at night.
“We’re almost there,” Ramesh said at last. “But we’ll have to wait at the bus stop till morning. The first bus to Nasik will only leave at dawn.”
My uncle was a policeman and was getting ready to go on duty.
“Puthli and Ramesh, what brings you here so early?” he asked, “Are you well my dear?”
I couldn’t wait to blurt out my troubles. He listened attentively before he spoke.
“The Panchayat cannot make such arbitrary decisions. There are laws to protect people like you. Anyone who has disappeared for seven years cannot come back and claim his rights. We will get you a good lawyer.”
“This is the same Panchayat that declared him a deserter, and permitted us to marry,” said Ramesh, “How can it reverse its own order after four years? That too, after we’ve started a family?”
“You must lie low for sometime until we can plan our course of action,” said Uncle. “Puthli,I think you will be safer in an institution that cares for girls like you. Ramesh, do you think it is safe for you to go back to the village?”
“I’m not going back. Besides, there’s no home to go back to. The last thing I did before leaving was to strike a match to our thatched roof. By now it must have been razed to the ground. I thought this would throw people off our scent. They’ll probably think we have committed suicide.”
Uncle gave him a pat on the back.“Then we must find something for you to do.”
“I can do manual labour of any kind, though so far it has only been farming,” said Ramesh.
The lady at the NGO heard my story.
“You will be safe here,” she assured me, “We must not act in haste. We will wait till the baby is born. Meanwhile, I’ll consult our lawyer and find out the best course of action.”
“But they’ll start searching for me in ten days,” I reminded her.
“Not if they think you both have perished in the fire.”
I was not convinced. They would know there were no human remnants or bones in the fire. Umakanth would not give up easily.
However, I had reckoned without my God. He cares for helpless people like me – puppets whose lives are toys in the hands of egocentric men! I was particularly agitated on the ninth day. I hadn’t slept the previous night. I did not want to lose my baby, and was determined not to go back to Umakanth. The very thought of his behaviour on that night long ago, made my hair stand on end.
As I was dawdling over my breakfast, Uncle came bursting into the shelter.
“Puthli – look at this. It’s the stuff movies are made of. There was a bomb explosion in Mumbai VT. It was placed inside a suburban train. Many have lost their lives and many more have been injured. A man was caught fleeing the station. He broke down under interrogation and confessed that he had become Umaidullah in Pakistan. He had been sent back to India along with several others, by the ISI, to indulge in sabotage in different parts of the country.
Look at this picture. Is he your Umakanth?”
“Oh my God!” I gasped, “He’s a traitor, not a hero. Will they hang him or will he be released after a few years?”
“I don’t know. But you are safe. You can go back to your village and start life all over again. The Panchayat has tarnished its image forever. It should be reported to the government.”
“I’m not going back as yet, Uncle, I want my baby to be born in a safe place.”
“By the time you are ready to go, you’ll be a different person,” assured the lady in charge of the Institution, “You will meet other women who have been through tragedies of different kinds and come out stronger. You’ll learn how to speak out against injustice or prejudice. You can’t remain a puppet anymore Puthli. You must stand up and be heard.”
Ramesh sighed. “Am I in for a tough time I wonder? Please don’t put ideas in her head.”
Poignant, powerful and enduring! Very well written, Eva. You've portrayed the character of Puthli with a direct comparison of her to a puppet - in the hands of egoistic men, very well. I loved the turn around of the event and the terrorist angle of the story. Waiting to read more from you!
lovely as it is arent we all puppets? way to go eva!