Each year my birthday has a set routine. There is some kind of felicitation ceremony; Appa is usually travelling; the school hangs a dried-up garland on a photograph of a man I do not particularly like; they sing bhajans I do not particularly enjoy, and I distribute chocolates to the friends that know it is my birthday. Alpenliebe or Coffee Bite, each 50 paise if I don’t have a chocolate allowance, Eclairs if I can manage it (anywhere between Rs 1 and 1.50).
And paneer butter masala. Only way I’ll eat chapatis. Won’t you eat, how will I get you to eat more than half a chapati, Amma would say, then she’d realise paneer butter masala would do it. Rice by the heapful, chapatis like a beggar. Mixed with jaggery and ghee, chapati-sweet, this is okay.
Sixteen and Anna is teasing me, saying you are sweet sixteen now, oh so sweet, all the boys will be running after you now, shut up Anna I tell him.
I return from the morning’s ceremonies. The door is open and my father sitting at the dining table looking at the caller ID on the phone.
9820. That’s Kiran’s number, Kiran, the older boy who I’m not supposed to call.
‘I don’t understand, see,’ he says. In his tellings of stories we know this is the tone he uses with the students he considers his dumbest. Slow patient a minute away from thunder. He comes home and relates them as triumph tales.
‘I told you…’ he exhales, ‘not to get in touch with Kiran ever again.’
Our small community. 9820. Everybody knows everybody.
Vaishnava Jana To still rings in my head, its boring, virtuous tune. We have been raised to chant the Hanuman Chalisa each time we feel very scared. The tiles have little blotches of blue, grey, white. Sometimes I try to count how many such patterns are in a single tile.
I told you not to, he says, in the same slow, dangerous voice. He is a bad, useless fellow. He will just use you. Then why did you get in touch with him?
I know this voice. The silence that falls in Math class when nobody knows the answer to a question and Bhaskar Sir keeps asking.
The phone is from the Girias at Bhashyam Circle. He often jokes about not having any money. So I think we are very poor. Once I get beaten because I told my friend, wrongly, having imbibed too many of these ‘where will I get the money from?’ conversations, that we’re too poor to pay the fees.
Answer me. Don’t lie.
Then what is his number doing here? Blood explodes in his eyes. Am I mad? Do you think I don’t know whose number 9820 is?
Leave her alone, ri. Amma from the computer room. It is almost time for lunch. What does she know?
Sometimes he uses this line on her when she is upset at me for not cleaning my room. What does she know? Why are you comparing yourself to an eleven-year-old?
Now he stands, crashes the phone to the floor. The caller ID screen is almost certainly destroyed. What does she know? His laugh shakes him but he is soundless. He walks towards me. I shrink away behind a chair, but he reaches my neck, pushes me to the wall, digs his nails into my neck. She’s a dirty little whore, there’s nothing she doesn’t know. Dodmanshi, he says, pushing me back and releasing me. Big woman. I have never understood that particular insult. There’s a steel tumbler of water on the table. It would be so easy to reach for it. But it’s best not to move. Leave it, she’s just a stupid child, I’ll tell her not to call him again, I’ll talk to his mother, Amma is reasonable, pleading. He turns on her. You! You? You? She’s your daughter. Where do you think she learned this from? In a second he has reached the other end of the room where Amma is standing. Both of you sluts. I’m a man trapped with women, dirty, dirty women. He’s pacing up and down our giant hall. Can I find my room when his back is turned? But what about Amma then? And if he catches me? Anna is bathing in his room. Perhaps he has heard the warning signs and wisely decided to stay in. Good, good. But what should I do about Amma? She is the only one who can hold her own against him.
As if, who was that woman in your computer the other day, don’t go turning this on me. That does it. He grabs her head, pins her to the wall. His teeth are bared, a wild dog preparing to attack.
Slaps her side to side with each word, who do you think you are, you bitch. Out of the corner of my eyes, he’ll kill her, he’ll kill her, stop, please stop, now my stupid tears, won’t stop, held her against the wall, fist on her face, Amma pushes him to the wall, he knocks her to the ground, Amma crying, shouting —
Stop Appa please stop please stop, louder shriller, the balcony door is open, Sunday morning, where are the neighbours, Vasudha aunty who peeks in every afternoon, where. Now he drags her by her nightie, her long maroon Juliet-brand nightie, the one we bought in Malleshwaram 8th Cross, to their bedroom, locks the door. It’s all because of you that she’s grown up like this, he’s shouting, huffing, dragging her inside.
I move at last, rush to bang on it. Please stop, Pa, please stop, I can think of nothing else to say.
I stop my manic banging on the door. There’s utter silence. Then a sickening thud. He must have knocked her down again. My mother is howling at least she’s alive. I hear her: Look what he’s doing to me, Sheela! Look, call all his colleagues and tell them, he’s standing on me.
This blood-eyed man stamping on my mother’s soft, gentle, strong body. I shout louder, louder, louder, bang harder.
STOP – The door opens. ‘Get out of the way.’ He shoves me.
No. No. Stop, I say.
So now I watch him push and beating my mother. He has ripped apart her nightie. He carries a flap of it in his hand.
I push him with all the heft my 45-kilo body can manage. Something has taken over me. I reach blindly into the blue plastic tray where we keep the ladles and knives. I fish out a big black knife. I go at him.
Stop. Right now. I wish my voice could be a boom but it shakes, shrill, breaks.
He laughs. He laughs, walks up to me. Call, he grips my chin with his fingers, shakes me. Let’s see if they’ll believe a stupid sixteen-year-old girl over the word of a scientist.
I think he tires after a while. He switches on the tv. My mother is locked in. Once in awhile I hear her sniff.
Anna comes out. He does not meet my eyes. His cheeks are blotchy. He goes into Amma’s room. Anna loves hugging her, often wants to after these fights or at other times she’s crying. But she doesn’t hug. She is not a hugger. She shakes him off.
I finally reach for the water and return to my room, grateful for its door. My guitar is there, and I hold it to me, too scared to play or make any other noise.
By 4 o'clock it has gone quiet again. Maybe he has left. From my room I can hear the pressure cooker’s murmur, a sizzle. Tomatoes, paneer deep-frying, I think. I gather enough courage to step out. Amma’s nose is still red. She switches on the mixie for cashews. They make the gravy extra-creamy.
The doorbell rings. It is Swapan, Pa’s friend from yoga camp. A protégé of sorts. I open the door, and he has a bouquet of flowers and a cake. Why was I crying, he asks. No, nothing, I’m not well, I say. In a few minutes Pa is back. Has he drunk? How is he calmer? We sit around the table and laugh, share cake. Swapan leaves soon.
Get ready, we’re going to Yeshwantpur, he says. Yeshwantpur is where all the cycle shops are. My birthday gift is a cycle worth Rs. 4800/-. A costlier gift than I’ve ever received. Then Shanthi Sagar in Malleshwaram for dinner. My birthday dinner is the veg burger with a cherry on top.
This is how it works, Amma says. I’ve grabbed the window seat at the auto, cycle crushed against us, I’m holding the handle, my cheeks flushed with the air. I turn to her, smiling. This is how what works? You’ll understand when you’re older, she says. Boring. I turn back outside. Yeshwantpur is quiet because of the holiday, and I don’t want to miss the breeze.
The next morning there is breakfast on the table by eight. Amma isn’t even limping. There’s silence between them, but I think it’s okay. That evening he comes home with a string of jasmine. His route home now takes him past a flower market, he says. Amma rolls her eyes but wears it immediately.
My cycle is the talk of my class. It has gears. The only other cycle with gears is Kiran’s. Soon it’s time for athletics, regionals, nationals. I go to Pune with my team and get a bronze, and call Amma from the yellow coin payphone. We celebrate Anna’s birthday and send him off to IIT Madras. Pa goes to Belgium for a month on work and returns with a suitcase full of chocolate. Then, one day, after tuition I come home to a missing cycle. I look for it everywhere: maybe I’ve forgotten where I’ve parked it? That day when the doorbell rings I see that Pa’s eyes are bloodshot again.
Neha Margosa is a writer and journalist based in Bangalore.