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The Beginning

by Anjani Raj
(Bengaluru, Karnataka, India)

“Wake up, wake up Guddu. You’ll be late otherwise. Wake up!”, said his mom tapping on his legs. Guddu grunted, pulled the blanket over and tightened his grip over the blanket.

“Guddu didn’t wake up yet?”, boomed his brother’s voice.

Guddu got upright, rubbed his eyes and said, “I am up, I am up.”

Guddu’s mother poured hot water heated on the chula outside the house in the bathroom bucket. “Guddu brush fast and go to bath before the water cools down”

Guddu nodded and dragged his feet to a small opening behind the house while scrolling on his phone. Sunita shared a tiktok of Shah Rukh Khan singing to Kajol. Guddu liked it and replied, “This is how I’ll sing to you at our wedding.”

By the time Guddu was done with his bathing, his sister-in-law served him hot tea and some Litti. Her cheek was swollen and there were belt marks on her hands. His nephew must have scored less in his exams again, thought Guddu.

His brother stood in the single bedroom that was just big enough for a cot and an almirah, waiting for his wife. She came in hurriedly and got his clothes from the cupboard. She took his towel and hung it to dry on the ropes outside. She gathered clothes he discarded outside the bathroom and put them along with the laundry. She gave him his comb and headed to arrange his chappal by the main door.

Guddu donned ripped jeans, that he had carefully ripped himself, and a pink shirt. He and his brother headed out, pushing their makeshift tiffin cart.

“Tomorrow is Sunita’s last exam?” asked his brother. Guddu nodded.

“Good, while coming back the day after tomorrow we’ll stop at the pandit’s house and get good dates for marriage. It's already too late”, said his brother. Guddu nodded again.

Sunita and Guddu were related in a way that cannot be explained fully without tracing a very complex family tree. The most important thing is that they are of the same caste and they can marry each other. Guddu and Sunita knew this for a fact for as far as they could remember. But unlike other such couples betrothed as young children, Guddu and Sunita actually liked each other. They were in the same school till 8th grade, after which Guddu dropped out to help his brother. Still they talk almost everyday on WhatsApp and forwarded cheesy tiktoks to each other.

Guddu rolls out the paranthas and cooks them on the kerosene stove while his brother takes orders, serves customers and collects money outside Bhagalpur railway station. Everyday around 8am, a train from Patna comes in and their business sees their busiest hours. They live in an adjacent village and have to wake up earlier than most to make it on time. Today’s train brought a group of women from the city conducting a field survey.

Guddu’s brother scoffed in disdain and spit on the road, “Here they come again every year, in their tight jeans and tighter shirts, dressed like men and putting strange thoughts in our women’s heads.”

Guddu served them paranthas and turned up his nose when one of them asked for more chutney.

After an hour or so Guddu wrapped up his work, pushed the cart home and had lunch. He then headed out to meet his friends. He found them lazing under the shade of a peepal tree beside the pan and cigarette stall.

“You look like a hero today. Beedi or soda?”, asked Chandan. Guddu took the beedi and took a deep drag from it before handing it back.

“How’s your sister? All good with her now?” asked Guddu.

“Yeah yeah. Dad thrashed her up pretty good. She’s now sitting at home and learning how to cook. We are expecting to marry her off this year. You interested?”, smirked Chandan.

Guddu shot an annoyed glance. “Do you want me to tell Sunita you are trying to set me up with your sister?”

“Yeah yeah tell tell. She’s the boss of you two anyway. I’ll ask for her permission only”, laughed Chandan.

“Shut up Chandu”.

The school bell rang and students poured out of the main gate. Guddu spotted Sunita and signaled her to come over. He bid adieu to his friend, and walked towards her. They both began their daily leisurely walk home.

“I got you the pink bangles” said Guddu, handing her a package wrapped in newspaper. Sunita had been looking for this exact shade since last year's mela. Guddu saw many similar bangles over time but he knew she would not settle for anything less apart from exactly what she wanted. He was pleased with himself when he finally found them on his way back from a screening of Kabir Singh at the single screen movie theater.

“Thank you” said Sunita smiling, “You are my hero!”. She tore through the package, slid the bangles over her wrists and jingled them. They looked even prettier set against her fair hands. She looked around and gave a quick hug to Guddu. Sunita loved Guddu for many reasons. At first, mostly due to convenience, later because Guddu loves her and isn’t afraid to show it. She loves that she can brag to her friends about the pretty bangles, the romantic walks and seeing movies before any of them because Guddu always gets the first show

Satisfied with the big smile on her face, Guddu cautiously moved on to the pressing issue, "So what have you thought about it?"

“Guddu, I really think we should do it. I asked the TA and he said I can get 10,000 rupees per month as a starting salary because my English is so good. 10,000 rupees, Guddu, just imagine. Our kids will have the best backpacks in the entire school!”

"Why? You don't think I can get them good school bags? I earn 5k-6k now, but I can move my operation to Patna anytime we need more money"

Sunita held Guddu’s hand tenderly, “It’s not about that Guddu. Extra money is always good. Your money is split between you and your brother anyway. This will be wholly ours. I can send some extra money to Ma and Papa also”

“What are you talking about!”, Guddu jerked his hand away. “Your Papa had 18 years to prepare for how to live without a son in old age. You don’t have to worry about them anymore. Think about Ma. Who will help her with kitchen work, who will look after kids if you go to work everyday!”

“I’ll manage Guddu. Besides, there is Babhi to help.”

The cigarette burning faintly and their chappal hitting the dirt road rhythmically punctuated the silence for the next several minutes. By the time Guddu plucked out another argument from his head they had reached her house.

“Bye”, Sunita said. Guddu put his hand up momentarily and walked away.

His mind was on Sunita the whole way home. As far as he could remember he always wanted to make her happy. She had the most beautiful smile. He stole mangoes for that smile. He took her to movies for that smile. He enacted cheesy movie dialogues for that smile. He got into a fight with Ramesh for that smile. He saved every year and paid for all the rides she wanted to go on in the mela. He even fought with both sets of parents to let her continue her education. He was starting to regret the last part now.

He entered his home, and sat down absentmindedly on the charpai. His nephew was playing in the yard with his friends, and his niece bought him a cold glass of lassi. He gulped it all in one shot and lay on the bed. The rhythmic sounds of his Babhi thrashing clothes against a stone and the sizzle of his mom making thekwa would have been enough to lull him into his afternoon nap. But his mind was buzzing like an irritating bee.

Doesn’t she care about her kids? How will she manage giving milk to a kid, doing all housework and going to work also. What will she even do at work? Guddu’s body shivered in disgust as he imagined sleazy men swarming around Sunita like flies around a ladoo. But why does she even need to work? It's not like he doesn’t or can’t earn enough. He works very hard every day. He even dropped out of school, not that he ever liked it as much as her, to provide for his family, and he has done very well so far. Their income increased from 3k-4k to 4k-5k now. All because of him. Why doesn’t she still trust him? His family was not well off but they were never in such a dire state that they had to live on a woman’s earnings. Just imagine the horror, his friends, his mom, his brother would all laugh at him, mock him and be furious with him. Sending women to work like those Chuddras. Running a house with a wife’s income. It was a slap. To him. To his family. And to his ancestors. A much harder slap than if she had simply refused to marry him. It was all his fault. His mom warned him not to indulge her too much or she’ll turn into a brat. And that is exactly what is happening.

No. This will not happen. He vowed to put an end to this right away.

Next day, as usual, Guddu headed to his chai sutta point, bought a few cleaning supplies his mom asked for and waited for Sunita.

“I saw your texts. Girls these days, they forget their place so often. It is so irritating. You can’t give in Guddu. Have some pride.”, said Chandan

“I have pride. I'll sort it out, mind your own business.”, seethed Guddu.

“Okay okay, chill out!”

Guddu finished two beedis by the time Sunita came out the gate. Guddu signaled her and they started their walk home.

“How did your exam go?” asked Guddu.

“I aced it!” replied Sunita. “As usual.”

“Listen Sunita. I thought about this a lot. You cannot do it. I’ll take care of your parents if that’s all…”

“I filled the application.”

Guddu froze. His legs stopped walking. His mind fogged with rage, shame and helplessness. He could hear his heart thumping in his ears. The blood drained out his face and rushed back in just as quickly. He faintly registered Sunita's voice as going on and on about how this is good. His stomach dropped and his vision blurred. His body started to move of its own volition.

He lifted his hand and in one clean swift motion delivered a slap that knocked Sunita to the floor.


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