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Short story: The Vocal Woman — Mamta Kalia

Mamta Kalia's literary brilliance is mind-blowing but her understanding of the human psyche, especially of women is simply phenomenal. She should be read by all. Maybe that's why I am putting 'The Vocal Woman', her short story translated from Hindi to English by Mamta Kalia herself, here.
— Ed



The Vocal Woman

A short story 

by Mamta Kalia


Who has kept the broom upright? Mom-in-law demanded furiously.

Getting no response she warned Mira, ‘Dare you to keep it thus again!’

She wanted to say she will fire Mira but she knew how hard it was to find a new maid. And then Mira was always in a mood to give up this job.

‘I didn’t keep it’ Mira retorted,
‘I did it Biji, Shikha came to the courtyard’

‘Why did you do that! Don’t you know that keeping a broom upright means the family will be in debt and disease?’

‘I never heard of these things’ said Shikha

‘I wonder about your roots. You’ve learned nothing in your mother’s home. My kaka is passing through a rough patch in business and here you keep the broom upright in the washroom. This is the height, I say!’

‘To my mind, the broom lying flat on the washroom floor can bring more problems, Its straws get wet and weak. Its knot gets loosened and it looks awful.’

‘I am forgiving you this time but mind you, never keep it upright again. Do you get me!’

‘There’s no sense in this Biji. The broomstick can be kept anyway.’

Biji lost her cool. What stubborn and lazy girl has her son selected to be his wife. I had warned him to keep away from this odd woman but he was bewitched by her.

 Shikha laughed in her heart. Biji thinks she is full of wit and wisdom when most of her observations lack logic. On seeing her unaffected Biji became furious.

She confided in Mira ‘Shikha has no sense !’

‘Biji, would you like to have a cup of tea? Shikha asked.

Biji kept sitting with her back towards Shikha. She did not feel obliged to answer Shikha. She always felt that Shikha’s voice locked courtesy.

Shikha kept a glass of tea in front of her when she flared up. ‘I am sick of my constipation. You want to kill me with endless cups of tea.’ 

Shikha deferred further discussion and moved to the room with her glass of tea.

Shikha’s husband Kapil, was different from his family in the sense that he had an original bent of mind. When he looked around with matrimony in mind, he found Shikha, his junior in BSc. quite attractive. Actually, she was so different from all those women whom he had seen in his family framework. Her full name was Deepshikha but if someone asked her name she said, ‘my parents have given me a wrong name. I am neither the self-effacing lamp nor a low burning light. I am a blazing flame! I am Agnishikha’

She always glowed like a blazing flame on one or another issue. Her brilliance was noteworthy. When Kapil heard her in a debating competition, he was so impressed that he decided to woo and win her. He was already associated with his father’s business house. There was no issue about employment when he proposed to Shikha. They tied the knot in a simple wedding ceremony sans the noisy network of traditional marriage. Shikha fell for his handsome looks, debonair demeanour, and originality of thought. She did not know that love and marriage are two different areas to live in. One needs emotion, the other, action. Married women all over the world had a set persona. They had to live a life of consent. They were locked into their household world. They all lived in monotony. They all had the same expression of bored beauties. There was a mold and you had to fit in. Some women decked up their monotony with Lakme lipstick and eyeliner. But even then, monotony surfaced. Shikha often guessed what Nita in the flat opposite, would be wearing today, and mostly she guessed right. The tragedy was that women little realized the irony of this rest and arrest. They were left at home in the morning along with maids and mothers-in-law, babies, and doggies to while away the day. Their days were spent in awaiting their husbands for lunch and dinner, watching trash tv serials, garnishing dishes, reading women’s magazines, napping in the noon, dusting the dustless artifacts, yes ma’am-ming the mom-in-law, and going to bed when the husband yawned a signal.

Biji grumbled as soon as Kapil came home, ‘your wife thinks she is very smart. She hardly listens to me. Keeps back answering.’

Kapil lost his cool. Shikha must live like a good consort. She must keep mum, especially before Biji. She thinks the home is her debating platform and biji is her opponent debater.

Kapil assured Biji, ‘I’ll speak to her.
She won’t argue anymore.’

‘She is queer, she won’t listen’, Biji made a wry face.

At night, Kapil accosted Shikha, ‘why do you always clash with Biji?’

‘The vice versa of your question is also true’, said Shikha.

We are not talking like rivals on a dais. You have to respect some relationships.’

‘Even the wrong statements?’

‘Mother is never wrong’

‘No one is perfect.’

Kapil lost his cool. ‘You mean Biji is imperfect. You must be sorry for yourself. You always talk too much trash.’

‘You want to gag my voice!’

‘I want to live a quiet and peaceful life.’

 Shikha felt a sense of burning down her belly. Kapil’s statement was asking a dozen new questions. She clipped her lips and decided she will not open her mouth, so much so that these people will miss her voice altogether.

But she could not keep her resolve. Some or the other issue came up and she erupted like a volcano and was again branded a foul-mouthed feminine. Shikha flared up. She wished that just as there are toilets there should also be talklets where you voice out your fury, flush down your words and come out clean and composed. She felt odd that here she was in the company of people who did not require her words at all. Only two words were needed to run the home, ‘yes’ and ‘oh yes.’

 ‘Shall we make Chhole tomorrow?’

‘We will make Chhole tomorrow?’

‘Should we change pajama strings?’

‘Yes, yes, we should change pajama strings.’

 She tried to talk to some of her friends. She found them brimming with family pride.

‘My husband is so good.’

‘My partner is unique.’

‘My kids are epitomes of etiquette.’

 ‘Oh, my son always stands first in his class.’

Shikha felt she is the only one who lacks these lofty feelings for her family.

She spent many hours of the night not sleeping but sulking about her fate.

Without being aware of it Shikha was being transformed into a full-time housewife. She had never visualised this change. How strange it was that two young people drew towards each other due to their unique originality of thought and are now colliding due to the same inborn originality. They were being slapped down by their own rivals.

The biggest enemy of their bliss was their daily routine. It was eating away their tranquillity like termites in a tree.

Kapil wished Shikha to take over the major part of routine upon herself and set him free from his original thinking. Shikha’s desire was no different. Their routine was more robust than their desires, it awoke with the first shrill shriek of the call bell in the morning and went to bed at twelve midnight. Biji was the watch guard of this routine. She did not permit any shift in this timetable. Shikha would cope up with the daily chores listlessly and when all was quiet in the home at night, she brushed, washed, and changed to relax with a book or a writing pad. She worked late into the night and woke up a little late in the daytime. Her daytime duties dragged a little Biji hit the nail on her head, ‘whatever are you doing late at night. Keeping the lights on for nothing! Is this the way to run the house !’

Her father-in-law muttered a proverb of the 1940’s ‘Early to bed and early to rise etc. etc.’ their comments were right but Shikha found them askew, she picked up the listless routine of dusting, cleaning, and mopping while her mind kept asking for a pen; paper and a book. Sometimes on a holiday, Kapil tried to help her with the household jobs. Biji admonished, ‘it doesn’t seem proper that you do a woman’s job. Don’t be henpecked.’

The house was hammering a warm human relationship into a mechanical one. Whatever symphony developed between Shikha and Kapil at night was strangle in the daytime. Biji was content that she spearheaded the family expertly. She often told her son, ‘Don’t you worry. A few more years and I will set her right.’

Shikha was not set right even after she becomes the mother of her two babies. The only change was that she shifted her dilemma from all else and focused on Kapil and the kids.

The children were not big enough to answer all the questions. Moreover, they were pampered by their grandparents. They grew somewhat stubborn. Back from school, they spent their day playing video games, listening to loud songs, thrashing each other and somehow finishing their school homework. After a busy day in the office, Kapil spent his leisure hours reading and chatting with friends, Shikha felt all the more alienated in the four walls of the home, she looked back nervously at her past ten years and the next twenty years. Will she become a glimmering taper instead of a flashbulb! Her brain kept challenging her.

She felt that life should be lived a little differently. So she said to Kapil, ‘Let’s go out for a day or two.’

‘where to?’

‘Anywhere. ‘Say, Jaipur or Agra.’

‘Who knows us there, why to be stranded in strange, unfamiliar towns?’

‘Oh, there’s so much to see. We will roam, We will buy titbits. Oh we will feel fresh.’

‘All these titbits are available here itself. There’s no sense in going so far when the T.V. shows every place so graphically.’

‘How long are we going to survive on sense alone.’

The boys made fun of her.’ ‘Tomorrow you’ll say let’s go to the Andamans.’

‘That means we are not going anywhere. We will grow roots like trees in one place.'

‘Why don’t you consult a doctor. I find hormonal changes in you’ said Kapil.

‘I think even your hormones are undergoing change.’

‘You have this itch to speak tit for tat. It is senseless.’

Shikha remembered those days of love when her words were not called senseless. It was so different to know this man as a lover and win him as a husband. She thought Kapil was unique and he turned out just average. He wanted a tradition of yes-man-ship at home. He wanted a Gandhari as a wife who should be deaf and dumb in addition to being blind.

The children shared her proposal with grandma, Biji just flared up, ‘Now Kaka will kick his business to go to Jaipur. Why? To entertain his wife. Look at me, I never ever stepped out of my home.’

‘What about all your pilgrimage trips here and there’ Shikha retorted.

‘You call these religious trips, fun tours. You do have an acid tongue. How will you ever run your household?’

Alas, there was no Godrej lock to shut someone’s mouth or these people would have clapped one on my mouth and hidden its keys in a safe.

So thought Shikha, ‘oh how long will all this remain unchanged.’

The sons behaved like little princes. After breakfast, they left their plates on the table. Shikha often shouted, ‘There is no room service going on here. Pick up your plates and put them in the kitchen sink.’

‘No chance mom’, the elder son said, ‘what if I don’t?’

Shikha gave him a tight slap.

One day the son thrashed her back. Not lightly but hard-hitting on the mouth.

The inside of her check was slit open. Shikha was stunned. Not only did she lose her speech but also her wits. Her jaw was jammed.

The son didn’t pick up his plate even then. They lay on the table until the evening.

No one scolded the son.

Biji watched the entire episode like a teleserial. She said, ‘you always talk rot that boils people’s blood, your son is what you’ve made him. These habits should have been taught in their infant years. What was the harm if you picked up the plates?’

‘What was the harm if he did it!’

Shikha repeated her words.

The father-in-law uttered another 1940 proverb, ‘as you sow, so shall you reap.’

Kapil said, ‘At first you targeted me. Now you are victimising the children.’

‘I am the victim; you are all hounds.’

Shikha wanted to say but her jaw was jammed; her lips were swollen. She found that she lost not only her voice but her face in living as per the family dictate. She felt she should gag her mouth or stitch it up surgically. Her existence should be soundless. Her limbs should serve the family. That’s it. She may not be able to speak right now but words will keep boiling inside her. The family may block all her pores but the words will be in her inner cauldron, boiling and boiling. After her death during the autopsy, the words will flow out of her body and write her manuscript. These words that are stuck in her liver lungs intestines, bullet vocal cords, will run out like sharp arrows and spikes, they will infest the air with a blue venom, they may even invent a fatal acid.

For the present, her mouth is jammed but this is not silence. Her words will carry on the fight.

By: Mamta Kalia

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