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Rasana Atreya

E-BOOK Bundle (Vol 2)

E-BOOK Bundle (Vol 2)

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Daughters Inherit Silence (Story of Jaya)
Talking Is Wasted Breath (Story of Madhav--Jaya's brother)

Lingampally village, Telangana, India
Four Years Ago

Good-natured bargaining was in full swing as Jaya joined the women at the vegetable seller’s pushcart, parked right in the middle of the dusty village road. She returned the smiles that came her way. She knew all her neighbours by sight, but talked only to a few.

Widowhood did that to you—no one said you couldn’t be part of society anymore, but no one said you could. She was no longer Jaya Rao. She was “that poor Jaya whose husband died.”

The vegetable seller waited patiently as more ladies from the surrounding houses streamed out. Laughing and exchanging greetings, they encircled the 3'x5' cart. They inspected the vegetables, piled artistically in pyramids, and placed their choice of produce in one of the many wicker baskets. When they were ready, the seller weighed the produce on his manual scale and added up the cost in his head.

As Jaya reached for a wicker basket, a dumpy lady, her stringy grey hair gathered together in an oily braid, gazed at Jaya in horror. “Oh, no! What have you done to yourself?”

Jaya had stepped out of her house, a freshly starched cotton sari draped around her slender frame, and feeling good about herself. Suddenly, the winter sun didn’t seem as warm anymore.

“Your skin is looking so dull, you poor thing! All those worries of widowhood grinding you down.”

Jaya was taken aback. The Lingampally Computer Centre—which she owned and operated—was doing better than ever, enough that she could finally think of replacing those big box air-conditioners that blocked the windows in both the bedrooms at home. She had her eye on the sleek, noiseless, split air-conditioners she could install high up on the wall, operate with a remote control, and not have to get out of bed in the middle of the night. She was financially supporting herself and her in-laws. Her daughter was thriving. Her brother was only a WhatsApp message away. What more could a lady want?

“Get one of those fairness creams,” Stringy Hair said. “Make your skin whiter.” She inclined her head, giving Jaya’s skin tone serious consideration. “Actually, no point. Not like there’s a husband waiting for you at night.”

A lady tittered. Others looked away in embarrassment.

Paavani aunty put a gentle hand on Jaya’s shoulder. “Ignore her,” she said in an undertone. “The poor lady needs to put you down in order to make her own life seem better. I think you look very pretty.”

Jaya smiled at her in gratitude and reached across for the tomatoes. She inspected a few cursorily before adding them to her basket. She tried not to be too picky, aware the man was a daily-wage earner. Too much leftover produce, blemished or damaged from handling, would cut into his earnings for the day.

“This Jaya,” another neighbour said, laughing. “So many years, and she still doesn’t know how to pick the best ones.”

If her years of widowhood had taught Jaya anything, it was that all commentary and advice—solicited or otherwise—must be silently borne. She smiled politely.

“Don’t let them get to you,” Paavani aunty said softly, as she paid for her purchases. With a smile of support, she left.

Around them, the cacophony of life continued. Honking scooters—balancing entire families—swerved around them, on their way to school and office. Three-wheeler auto-rickshaws careened past, tilting at alarming angles, even as school children in ill-stitched, mass-produced uniforms spilled out from the open sides, resigned to another day at school. Other kids grinned, waving cheekily at strangers.

Jaya waved back, causing the startled kids to giggle.

Meanwhile, the vegetable seller leaned against his rickety wooden pushcart, muscular arms crossed at his chest. His lungi—chequered the saffron, white and green colours of the Indian flag—was wrapped around his waist and folded up at his knees, exposing muscular calves. The skin that peeked through tiny holes in his once-white undershirt spoke of a garment of many washes.

“Blackie came late today,” a lady mock-whispered in a tone that was meant to encourage laughter, and a few obliged.

The vegetable seller gave no indication he’d heard.
Jaya winced.

As on any given day, a few of the ladies gossiped, disparaging each other, the people they worked for, and the people who worked for them. Yet the man remained unaffected, like nonreactive material against a barrage of acid. Did poverty render a person stoic?

Around the man’s rolling wooden platform, with its four repurposed bicycle wheels, the ladies continued chatting, unconcerned. Some, like Jaya, were dressed formally in saris, the others in salwar kurtas, on their way to offices. Many were in nighties.

Originally intended to be nighttime attire, the nightie had become the daytime outfit of choice, travelling all the way from the bustling, dusty lanes of North India to the bustling, dusty lanes of southern India. It owed its continued popularity to its modesty, covering from neck down, revealing neither shape nor form. This lack of thought to its design was intentional, with self-taught, mostly male tailors setting up shop under corrugated-tin roofs, and offering one-size-fits-all.

Many ladies shopped in their localities in these same garments, changing into saris just before their husbands’ return from work, and in time to light the evening lamp at the altar. Jaya chose not to wear nighties, opting, instead, for salwar-kurtas, which also doubled as daywear. With her in-laws living with her and no husband in the picture, a nightie didn’t seem proper.

Widowhood did that to you—it imposed decorum.

“What’s this I hear?” asked Jaya’s next-door neighbour on the other side, the one she couldn’t see from her house because the wall between their two houses went up all the way to the ceiling of her veranda. The only time the two met was at the vegetable cart.

Next-door aunty was almost always dressed in wrinkled cotton saris, one grandchild or the other attached at the hip. At her feet were three more, between the ages of two and five. She had a total of nine and never had the time to involve herself in Jaya’s life, for which Jaya remained profoundly grateful. This was unlike the rest of the village, which felt entitled to both her time and her life.

“Hear what?” Jaya said.

“You’re still giving your maid one holiday a week?”

The child in Next-door aunty’s arms put three of his fingers in her mouth, trying to drag her lower lip down. She smacked his arm, and he opened his mouth to wail. One look at his grandmother’s face, and his mouth snapped shut.

Jaya said nothing.

“What next?” Next-door aunty enquired. “You’ll set up a pension fund for her?” She picked up a couple of potatoes and tossed some coins into the vegetable seller’s basket. “This isn’t a big-city locality, you know. It’s still a village, even though the traffic is getting rather crazy.”

Jaya suppressed a sigh. She had started giving her maid paid holidays years ago, but complaints found their way to her each time one of her neighbours’ maids demanded a raise or a holiday. Maybe it was time to take on the anonymity the supermarket in town offered. At the very least, she would be spared the inquisition.

Next-door aunty wasn’t finished. “I thought you’d stop with the foolishness once that older one was gone. But you’re doing the same thing with the new one? You know what a headache it is for the rest of us, dealing with these people’s constant demands?” The lady readjusted the weight of the child at her hip. She was exhausted, and it showed. The bags under her eyes hung heavy. “Now they are demanding frequent holidays. I already give mine one holiday each month. Think about it. My house is crawling with grandkids. It’s a zoo. Do you think it is fair for her to expect more?”

With no response forthcoming from Jaya, Next-door aunty picked her basket up. With a rough “hmm” at the children, she got them moving.

The other ladies finished their transactions and left, some giving her the look, others carefully averting their eyes. One didn’t come between a lady and her maid. It just wasn’t done.

Jaya held open the handles of her plastic basket, and the vegetable seller transferred the produce from his wicker basket to her plastic one. She handed him money for the vegetables and he reached for his money pouch.

“What did you think of that lady, Amma?” he asked.

Amma was this beautiful, crazy word in the Telugu language, one that meant whatever you wanted it to mean—mother, an affectionate term for a female child or as a sign of respect for a lady. Context mattered.

Jaya nodded, encouraging him to go on.

“The one saying that people from big houses should not be giving people like us holidays?”

She wouldn’t call her house big, but she knew what he meant. He was referring to her higher status in society. All said, she did have a roof over her head. She hoped this man did, too.

It occurred to her that she’d been buying vegetables from him for six years. Seven days a week he showed up, rain or shine. Almost every day, she did, too. But they had not exchanged a word beyond the fluctuating cost of vegetables.

“I’ve been doing it for years,” Jaya said. “Giving my maids a holiday each week.”

“Why?” He stood silent, stolid, waiting for a response.

“When I shifted to this house,” Jaya said slowly, trying to gather her thoughts, “I had a different maid. She was my age, mid-twenties, but life had taken its toll. She looked old enough to be my mother. She had a husband but might as well not have had one, for all he was worth, the drunkard. Didn’t do an honest day’s work. He would be gone for days, doing goodness knows what. But when he came back, she knew exactly why. He beat her and took all her money.” He also forced himself on his wife, often brutally, but that wasn’t something that could be mentioned around menfolk. “I did ask her why she did not leave him.”

The vegetable seller and the lady from the big house exchanged looks of understanding. The binds of marriage were such that the more you struggled, the more they tightened around you. It took a lady of exceptional strength to rend them.

Jaya continued, “She said, as expected, that she would have no respect in society if she left her husband. She did try going back to her parents once. You can guess how that went.”

He nodded in understanding. The more orthodox the family, the less chance there was that they would interfere in a marriage. If she came to their house with broken bones, they would take her to the doctor, buy her the prescribed medication, and put her back on the next bus home. Or in a car, if they could afford it. Some parents might come in, plead with the in-laws, fall at the husband’s feet, beg him to treat her better. But they rarely took her back into their own homes. Once married, she no longer belonged with the parents. The parents might bleed for their daughter, cry in the privacy of their homes for her karma, but the sanctity of marriage must never be violated.

“So,” Jaya said, “she continued to struggle to buy food for their children. One day he broke her jaw, and I couldn’t take it anymore. I took her to the hospital. After she recovered, I helped her set up a bank account so she would have a place to put her cash. We did not tell her husband about it. Then I started giving her one holiday each week. And three weeks each year so she could visit her mother.”

Jaya also paid the school fees for the maid’s children and helped her invest her money. Compared to Jaya, the maid’s needs were few.

“Why?” He looked at her, serious, unblinking.

Flustered, Jaya dropped her gaze. She played with the handle of the basket idly, seeking the right words. She decided on brutal honesty. “Seven years ago, I lost my husband. It took a tragedy of that magnitude for me to notice my maid. In my in-laws’ house—back when we lived in Hyderabad—and in my parents’ house before that, the maid was part of the background, doing what she always did.”

Jaya was taken aback by her ability to talk so freely to this man, any man. Thoughts often gathered in her head, one word at a time, till they were churning like grains of rice boiling in a cauldron over an open flame. In the years she had lived with her father-in-law—thirteen in all—she had learned to swallow her convictions. From politics to books to social justice, the words foamed in her belly. But these words, ingested and unacknowledged, did not land without consequence. They seared her insides. They caused debilitating migraines, and lately, intense pain in the inside of her ear.

Why, then, was she able to talk to this man? A vegetable seller, of all people? Was it because he was not her social equal and, therefore, of no consequence? The thought troubled her.

“When you grow up with something, you tend not to question it,” the man said, surprising her with his insight and compassion. “It can take a life-changing event to jolt one from that perspective. Why did you change maids? Did she get too old to work?”

“He killed her.”

“Where?” His voice shook.

“In the middle of the road, right in front of the bank.”


“He found her bank passbook in the rice container and forced her to withdraw all that money for him. Then he beat her so badly, she died.”


“Two weeks ago.”


“Boy, seven. Girl, nine. They ran away.”

The man bowed his head, eyes closed, and palms joined together, his lips moving in silent prayer. He knew, and Jaya knew, the kids would blend into the streets, become part of the faceless, almost certainly exploited, never to be heard from again.

Opening his eyes, he said, “You’ve never bargained with me in all these years. You bought the slightly bad vegetables I could never hope to sell elsewhere. I used to think you were a naïve widow. I pitied you.”

She looked away, her mortification intense. She felt movement around her—people, vehicles—but her senses had dulled. Silence roared in her ears.

The vegetable seller stood in front of her, motionless, the money pouch in one hand, the cash Jaya had paid him in the other. “Amma, my name is Ramu.”

It was surreal, standing right in the middle of a busy street, rushing vehicles raining dust, in intimate conversation with her vegetable seller. With Ramu. Jaya shuffled uncomfortably, not sure how to respond.

Reaching over, Ramu returned her money to the palm of her hand, careful not to let skin touch skin. With a respectful incline of his head, he gave the rolling cart a nudge. Pushing it past a dip in the road, he walked away.

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