Short story selected for the 2014 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology
She was labelled a bitch. Of course, after two divorces, both initiated by her, she was viewed with suspicion. There is nothing more annoying than being a lowly single divorcee woman in Indian society. Their status is on the lowest rung on the societal ladder. Of course, the men are always at the top of the societal hierarchy. On top of everything else, a female divorcee faces far more ridicule and suspicion than a widow or a single working woman. She is considered a despicable. The male chauvinist society consider it abhorable that how a woman could even think of giving up on the sacrosanct alliance of marriage!
But she was not always the bitch. Her mommy, Sheela, had named her Mira. I knew Mira because she lived down the road from ours; also sometimes my mother sent me to her house when our sugar supplies ran out.
I was there when her second divorce proceedings took place. Back then, I was a young lawyer trainee, and I happened to hop into the courtroom where Mira’s case was being heard. Her second husband, Madhav, had alleged mental cruelty on her part for refusing to have a child.
“No, no, child, please reconsider,” Mr. Sharma, the kind judge, tried to reason with Madhav.
“I cannot live a single minute with this woman. In fact, she is a man on the inside. She likes girls, for God’s sake!” Madhav said through his counsel. The court was in uproar and the remarks had to be expunged. Madhav was granted his divorce, and Mira showed no emotion at the verdict when she came out. I stayed back but did not acknowledge. Inside the courtroom, some people jeered at her, but she walked quickly to her waiting car. Sheela Aunty had come to escort her back. But she had not come inside. Perhaps, like all mothers, Sheela Aunty liked seeing her daughter settled in her home and not in ruins.
Mira would always dress impeccably, but she would dress like a man. We used to think she was a tomboy, but later, when she reached marriageable age, people started noticing the difference. Her breasts were barely visible, perhaps due to an excessively tight bra. In contrast, she accentuated her masculine features. She never waxed her legs or bleached her hair.
“Don’t walk like that, Mira. Keep your arms to the side – boys swing them, not girls,” Aunty would say. But Mira would not listen.
Rajmohan, Mira’s father, was employed as railway personnel, selected through the prestigious Special Class Railway Apprentices (SCRA) examination. Sheela Aunty’s family had been comprised of erstwhile zamindars and were very rich, which basically meant that after Mira got a job in one of Gurgaon’s many MNCs, prospective suitors came calling.
Dheeraj, a shy young man, was the first suitor; he was a doctor. I remember him clearly as if it were yesterday because the meeting between Mira and Dheeraj had taken place in our ancestral home. As Mira’s family lived in Gurgaon and Dheeraj’s in Meerut, both had selected our home in New Delhi as the rendezvous. My father, Mr. Raman, a dentist by profession, loved lending a helping hand, especially in marital matters, so in spite of my mother Jahnavi’s objection; meeting was arranged between the two families.
Dheeraj was very nervous. He kept requesting for the use of the bathroom. The two met briefly and were married a month later. The marriage was a grand affair as Mira was the only daughter for Mr. and Mrs. Rajmohan. But there was trouble soon after – first, Mira returned to her parents’ house for a month, then for a year and finally forever. There were hushed tones of a divorce, and my mother confirmed it later. Dheeraj married soon after, but Mira did not.
Thereafter, she took to drinking, and that is when she met Neha, a self-proclaimed lesbian. She had a husband but would openly solicit women. She had already extended her feelings to me on more than one occasion. Once, she got hold of me at the Karol Bagh metro station. I was using the elevator to climb when she caught hold of me.
“Hi, there! Roopi?” she asked.
“Umm . . . Hello Neha,” I replied.
“And how are you this morning?” she asked holding my hand, which I tried to shrug.
“Am good,” I said, trying to keep myself at a distance, but she kept inching closer.
“You look wonderfully good today. Don’t mind, am a lesbian.”
“I sort of know that . . .” Or perhaps the entire neighbourhood knows, I thought. I recounted the entire story to my mother when I reached home, and she did it to the muhalla, and soon, everybody came to know that Neha was desperate for a partner. Eventually, Neha found her solace in Mira.
Neha and Mira’s initial meeting was at a disco in Chanakyapuri. They lived just two blocks away from each other, so meeting was not a problem. Mira’s parents were not aware of the nature of the relationship until they caught them red-handed.
One night, Rajmohan Uncle had landed at our doorstep in his hour of need. Since my father also worked part-time as a freely available advisor, he loved advising everybody, and unlike others, he was discreet and never revealed details to anyone, so his reputation had grown as a problem solver.
“Bhaisaab, what will I do?” cried Uncle Rajmohan. “This girl is going to spoil my reputation.” He refused the tea I served him. Mommy and I listened from behind the curtained partition. This was too good to not listen to. Mommy put a finger on her lips to indicate that we should remain silent.
“I caught them near naked in bed. Imagine her boldness, doing it in my house and that too with a woman. Oh, I never thought I would have to face this.” Rajmohan Uncle covered his face with his hands and wept bitter tears.
I don’t know what Papa said to Uncle Rajmohan, but he refused to discuss it with us. Again, Mira was married within a month – this time to a lawyer from Bombay. Neha went back to do whatever she did before meeting Mira. But the second marriage to Madhav too produced the same result. Mira was back to her parents’ house in three years’ time, and before Uncle could do anything, Madhav had used his legal skills to finalise a speedy divorce.
“What will I do, Mr. Raman, two marriages, and this time my son-in-law said it plainly too…” Uncle Rajmohan wept when he came to our house to seek advice.
“What did he say?”
“Your daughter likes girls.”
“Hmmm,” was all Papa could manage to say.
Mira’s parents did not give up on her. Mira found a job, and Sheela Aunty forbade her to meet Neha. She was married again – this time to a divorcee, who even after knowing about Mira’s sexual inclination still accepted her. That Rajmohan Uncle had promised to give him a dowry of fifty lakh rupees for reviving his clothing business seemed to do the trick.
Once again, Neha and Mira’s relationship revived as they met frequently. Rohan, Mira’s third husband, was a drunkard. He did not care what Mira did. Neither was he interested in sex. He’d plenty of sex from his frequent overseas business visits. Meanwhile, both Neha and Mira were formally denounced as bitches.
“But then, there has to be a husband and a wife, isn’t it? I mean, who is the male and who is the female in this kind of relationship?” my mom queried, out of curiosity.
“Not all lesbians do role enactments, Mom,” I had to explain to my mother.
“What!” she exclaimed.
“What I mean is that there doesn’t have to be necessarily a man or a woman in a lesbian relationship.”
“Shut up! How do you know all these things? You should stop reading that novel. What is it called? The Second Sex…”
“It’s not a novel, Maa, and it’s certainly not about homosexuality,” I said. “And you were the one who brought it up,” I added. Mommy hastily turned and went into the kitchen. Sex was still a taboo subject in our otherwise liberal family.
Whether Neha and Mira were lesbians was debatable as they never acknowledged the relationship publicly, and Mira at the time was married. That the marriage was turbulent was known only to a select few. Often, they would disappear for extended periods on foreign visits and not bother to inform their families. Rohan did not care. As long as he had a peg of whiskey to drink at night, he was happy.
Mommy was a bit scandalised and wanted to discontinue all relations with Mira’s family, but Papa would not listen. Rajmohan Uncle continued to come to our house, and after a while, Mommy and I even stopped eavesdropping. It was always the same; Mira and Neha are at it again. This time around, they have gone to Bangalore without informing anyone.
Then one day, we learnt that the police had caught them one night near one of the malls. Rajmohan Uncle later said that they had made love inside the car. Neha had somehow managed to slip away, but Mira had been held by the police.
I was requested by Uncle to take up Mira’s case. He had called up Papa, who told me to visit the thana. I was reluctant as it was five in the morning, and you know, the Delhi winter could be cruel, but nevertheless I went. Mira was there. She had been there the whole night. Uncle and Aunty were by her side, perched on rusty iron chairs outside the thana.
“They are asking for money to let her go,” said Uncle, taking me aside and whispering into my ear.
“What is the matter?”
But before Uncle could respond, Mr. Pandey, a burly policeman, came out of his room. He was wearing his khaki shirt and a lungi down below. I realised that he must live nearby as he hadn’t bothered to dress up properly.
“I am this lady’s lawyer,” I said. He didn’t even look at me. Even though I had got my license recently, I had handled many cases by now, and I knew the police loved this. They just loved to make people wait, ignoring them, which is the best harassment tool that I have come across.
“I am talking to you,” I said, pointing at him.
“She is not a lady. She was completely drunk when we brought here last night, and she refused to talk unless she got a light first. Her friend was lucky. She got away. Otherwise, we would have charged them both,” Mr. Pandey said.
I fumbled for words when the senior station house officer (SHO) Mr. Naik came outside.
“You, her lawyer?” he asked.
“You look too young, license wicense hai bhi. Are you studying?”
“No, no, I am legally a lawyer.”
“Ah! I see. Come inside then, the ‘legal lawyer’, and bring the girl too. Her parents can also come in… if they like?” Mr. Naik looked at Uncle and Aunty, who nodded.
He made us sit down in a dingy corner and sat on the opposite side. His torso was partially buried behind the umpteen files stacked in a disorderly manner.
“I can slap Section 377 against her if I like,” Mr. Naik quipped. The three pairs of eyes moved towards me: Uncle, Aunty and Mira were looking at me. I flinched. I had absolutely no idea what Section 377 exactly contained. I knew it had something to do with homosexuality and order of nature, but if I remembered correctly, it banned penile acts, and Mira was a girl. But I was not sure. The SHO didn’t look like someone well versed with the law, so I decided to take my chances and argue with him on this ground.
“She is a woman, and there is no penile act against the order of nature. Have you even read Section 377?” The SHO fumbled, and I realised I could make him come round.
Mr. Pandey, the same lungi-clad policeman, came in and said, “We can slap with a crime of indecent exposure.”
“Do you guys have some specific offence or have you detained her here to find out under what Section you can book her against? You will let her go without any conditions or I am calling the media,” I said firmly.
Both Mr. Naik and Mr. Pandey huddled up quickly for a conference. Then Mr. Naik seated himself in his chair and pretended to write something.
“Hmmm… Give us some money and we will let her go. We had to buy a Marlboro pack for her last night. She was dead drunk that she didn’t have a clue as to where she was.” I nodded at Uncle, signalling that he must pay up. In any case, I wasn’t sure that what I had just said about Section 377 was in fact correct.
“And look after your girl. If she goes on exposing her cleavage like this, she will find herself in more trouble. We may not be there the next time to protect her,” Mr. Pandey advised. We looked up to see a fat policewoman, who looked more menacing than the two other guys. Mira hurriedly buttoned her blouse. Aunty wept silently while Uncle paid five thousand rupees.
“Yeh kya hai? At least ten we want,” said Mr. Naik.
“Just take it. We don’t have enough cash,” I said and hastily led Uncle, Aunty and Mira outside before the SHO and his gang could change their minds.
I called for a taxi and away they went. There goes my first case and that too unpaid, I thought. That was the last time I saw Mira. I learnt that Mira had been forced to shift again to another house because of the shame and lewd comments she encountered after this particular act. People would call her a bitch and ridicule her. But Neha and Mira stayed together.
After this particular incident, the Resident Welfare Associations decided that Neha and Mira were a bad influence on their wives and daughters, so they pressurised Rajmohan Uncle so much that he had to shift to Noida. Neha’s parents did not have to shift. Neha found a job and took a rented accommodation near Mira’s house in Noida. We did not hear for a while from Mira or her family. Even Mommy’s aunty jee news network was unable to provide any news.
A few months later, Mommy stumbled on a news column with a headline: ‘Two women in their thirties jumped onto the railways tracks’. There was an interview with Rohan, who blamed the railway authorities for their negligence.
“It was because of the continual police harassment, I think,” said Mommy.
“They never told me. I could have helped,” I said.
“Yes, but the neighbours had also started pestering the family. They were ostracised, and Mira was fed up of the indecent comments passed at her day in and day out. Young boys would follow her every day to the metro station when she went to the office…”
“Hmm. Society never changes,” I shrugged.
“What?” asked mommy with a puzzled look.
“I said society never changes. It always remains the same. When I was young, love marriages were treated with disdain. Now, gays and lesbians are treated with contempt. Ten years from now, they will earn legitimacy and transsexuals will be looked down upon. You see mother, societal setups for ensuring their legitimacy have always wanted certain groups that they can look down upon for if there are none at the bottom rung then it doesn’t make much sense for the top ones to be at top,” I said in one breath. Mommy looked at me with her mouth open and she covered her mouth with her saree’s end.
“Umm,” she managed to squeal before she rushed to the refuge of her kitchen.
Mommy and Papa visited Rajmohan Uncle’s family. Sheela Aunty was inconsolable.
“Nobody understood my daughter. We should not have got her married forcibly and especially to that drunkard. At least then she would have been alive,” Aunty cried. Rajmohan Uncle was neither sad nor depressed. His eyes displayed a sense of finality, closure, as if he somehow knew that this is how it was supposed to end.
“I called her a bitch in anger once, that triggered it,” wailed Aunty.
“It was a suicide. She left a note,” said Uncle.
“Don’t show it to the damn police,” advised Papa.
“Yes,” said Uncle and went inside. Meanwhile, Rohan pretended to be the sad husband at loss but kept inquiring about the LIC policy frequently which Mira had kept with her mother for safekeeping.
“I hope they don’t make a suicide out of it, as we won’t get the insurance money then,” Rohan said.
They did not make a suicide out of it. Both Rohan and Neha’s parents got a good lump sum. Sheela Aunty showed me and Mommy her suicide note. It was short.
I am sorry, Mommy, was all it said. And it was signed as The Bitch.
Bhaisaab- Big Brother, used for an elderly male person
Thana- Police Station
Yeh kya hai- What is this
Ritika Pathak is the author of two novellas and many short stories. She is a teacher in an elementary school and lives in Shimla, India.
Illustration by Alan Van Every (Featured image on the front page)