The New Woman

Short fiction by Dr. Sangeeta Sharma

The whole body of frail Suhana was palpitating. With effort, she lifted her head and tried feeling her forehead just to find blood oozing out of it. The pain was agonizing. She had hit over the sharp edge of the table kept in one corner of the room after being shoved by her drunkard husband Suhail. Slowly Suhana, who was six-month pregnant, got up in the dark to sense whether Suhail was still awake but could hear the deep, regular breath of her brute husband on the bed   which was now amplified due to the silence of the night. Suhail was now in deep slumber, snoring and inebriated.

It was a wintry night of a small town at the outskirts of Jaipur. People were huddled in their beds under thick quilts. The only fault of poor Suhana   was that she had wanted Suhail to eat something which he was not agreeing for. However embittered Suhana was, for her husband, she could not be careless towards his health and was always worried about his gradual movement towards his doom. She kept masticating the manner in which the booze was eating up his interiors. Suhana used to feel envious of her friends who always recounted the numerous ways in which their husbands pleased them during their pregnancies. In-laws cooked and offered all their favourite dishes and husbands relented to all their desires , expensive or inexpensive.
In her case, it was the contrary.

Suhail was an extremely genius guy but misdirected he had lost interest in his job and one fine day he received the pink slip from his company he was in. Unemployed and frustrated, he had got addicted to alcoholism. Right from morning; he started downing liquor on an empty stomach. Short of money, instead of standard drinks, he gulped the country liquor which was much cheaper. But despite being jobless and an alcoholic, he was a staunch patriarch and never had a soft feeling for his wife who was highly devoted to him.

Suhana was a highly qualified girl. As soon as she cleared the finals of her chartered accountancy course, her parents had married her off in this family. They thought, Suhail is earning well and is the only son of his mother and so their daughter will not have any problem in making adjustments in the new family.

On the other hand, a 25-year old, gritty girl Suhana juggled day and night in setting up her new consultancy venture. She poured into standard commercial magazines and journals to be clear in her direction. It was like a dream come true for her when by the end of her first year of marriage, she could establish good contacts and set sailing her consultancy business. She earned enough to meet both ends of her family.

A tall, attractive  and educated woman as she was, people quickly got impressed by her demeanour. But post-marriage, all her attributes had been nullified. She very often wondered about the role a woman  in a typical, lower middle-class family. She was no less than an unpaid servant in her marital home. Washing, cooking, cleaning and entire work of the household was her responsibility solely. When she returned from work, she found mother-son duo waiting for her to come and cook. Her ma-in-law was no less nasty. From morning till night she roamed, least concerned about the household work or anything else. To top it all, when Suhana delivered a frail  girl-child after two years of  marriage, the conservative ma- in - law kept taunting her for delivering a girl. “After two years of marriage what have you given to us? A girl!  Who will arrange for her dowry? Your father?”

When her ma-in-law returned, she expected piping hot meal waiting on her. “Hey you! What have you been doing all day? Dozing? Have you prepared some meal? Heat it up well before serving.” She used to sit at the table tapping her fingers while Suhana rushed around with the small baby hanging on one arm and the other busy serving the stuff.” While at home, she bossed over her and kept hurling abuses for not bringing good luck to the family and for not maintaining it in the manner she desired and to her parents for giving birth to such a good-for-nothing . Patted her son and slapped her now and then for not fending enough for the family. Suhana literally trembled in her presence. Whatever little Suhana could fetch from the newly set business, got consumed   in the family hearth.
The violence that she was subjected to today was not uncommon but had become a regular feature of her life. And her ma-in-law was a mute spectator all the time. It seemed she drew sadistic pleasure out of it.

She could not reconcile with the brutish treatment meted out to her and was despaired at the dismal situation of a young educated housewife in a typical Indian family. When unmarried, she had heard of random deaths caused due to dowry and domestic violence and used to recoil within herself and had always prayed, “Oh God! Be with me and bless me with a kinder fate.”

But reality had come harsh on her. Violence had become an integral part of her life. When neighbours noticed and inquired about her greenish-blue eye or limb, she defended, “Oh my baby dashed her head onto my eye during the night!”

 At other times she said, she had slipped in the bathroom and had swollen her elbow or skidded while walking and so on and so forth.

But she could gauge by the concealed smile of her neighbours that the truth was not concealed from them as they have often heard nasty voices travelling out of their house every other night.
Suhana’s mental torture grew by the day. Once in her fit of anger, the ma-in-law just tossed the baby on the bed from her lap and shouted, “Where are you? Take hold of your witch?” The young one broke into a shrill brawl, out of pain. The old woman continued yelling at her, “ Fetch at least one lakh from your father! Tell him Suhail needs money for his treatment. My son is not keeping well at all.” Deliberately, she turned a blind eye to her son’s addiction to alcohol, his unemployment and allowed him to sleep through the day in his shut room on the pretext that he was not well.

“Get yourself properly treated by a doctor. You are not capable of producing a male heir for the family. Get money from your father,” said the frustrated ma-in-law, ignoring the scientific fact that it is the father who is responsible for producing a male or a female child.

These words made Suhana burn with anger. She knew the extent to which her parents were agonized by her mental and physical harassment in her marital home. But penniless as they were, they were helpless too. She had three younger sisters to be married off and her father was a retired teacher from a municipal school. They were already in want of money and looked up to some support from their elder daughter. Suhana did not have the gumption to mention the unreasonable demand of Suhail and her mother before  her father. She knew it will  be a strong blow to the already flailing health of her father.

Every night, strange thoughts crept and circulated in her mind  for hours  not allowing her to sleep. “What would be the future of my little one with a drunkard father and cruel granny, in case I am not there?” she had often thought. “ Nobody needs me nor her!” These thoughts never left her mind. Her face had gone pale in the last few months due to lack of sleep and carelessness towards her physical appearance.

She had lost all interest in maintaining herself. “Who is there to appreciate?” thought she.
That night she could not sleep. She kept tossing on her bed. It was around 2:00 a.m. Suhail and his mother had been sharing the bedroom which was meant for her right since the birth of her daughter. With pussy-foot she got out of her bed, crouched out with the fast asleep baby in her arms.
As if possessed, she opened the main door of her house; left the door behind her wide ajar and with resolute steps, started climbing upstairs. Within no time, she reached the terrace floor of her seven-storey building. Her determined eyes were unblinking. The child in her arms was breathing deeply. Possessed with some supernatural power and  dupatta draped tight across her breast and back,
 Suhana climbed up the sill of the terrace boundary and stood upright, fearless. Minutes later shrill cries echoed in the neighbourhood  with a loud thud.

And with that Suhana jumped on her bed gasping and breathing hard. She took a few minutes to understand that the reality is different than what she had just seen as a ghastly dream. Her child was fast asleep on her left  wearing an innocent smile on her face. She  felt soothed. The child was her biggest strength.  “I have to live for her. I am responsible for this young life,” she mumbled to herself.
She did not want her thoughts to veer in the wrong direction. Of course, death was an escape from every problem, a different world thereafter – far from pain, fear and  a mad scramble  for worldly things.

But at the same time, she was aware that her business had immense potential to grow by leaps and bounds and that it was just the beginning. Once it takes off, there  would be no dearth of funds and no looking back. On the other hand, she did not want to be the cause of further agony to her wearing-out parents of losing their most courageous  child, who was their greatest hope.
Being a brilliant student throughout her career and a woman conscious of her rights, she knew that law is  in favour of women and she can, any time, sue her in-laws.

“Was she a coward?” she questioned herself and found a resounding ‘Nope’ ringing in her mind.
Suhail was precious to her with whom she had taken the seven vows of being with each other in good times and bad. She wanted to revive his interest in life than drowning himself into alcoholism.
She recalled the romantic self of Suhail that had energized her as well as melted her from within - so often, post-marriage. The mushy words he had murmured and his love-filled mischiefs brought a faint feeling of cheer in her sullen heart.