Remarriage. The mere sound of that word feels like scorpions crawling over my body. I’ve told Mother several times not to let khalabis, those wretched matchmakers, cross our threshold to market matrimony.
From sunrise to sunset, what do they do? Nothing but go from door to door, wangle coffee at one place, snatch breakfast at another, and wheedle lunch at a third place. What a life! Like parrots, they reel off the virtues of girls waiting to marry. They troll the genealogy of every Muslim family in the town. The good and bad of every household is all grist for their gossip.
Some of them seduce their prey into their web, brandishing attractive nazaranas, gifts, and singing panegyrics about their clients’ marriageable children. The khalabis exaggerate their clients’ wealth. "You’re lucky to bag such a match," they whisper into the ears of the boys’ parents. "It’s your good fortune that your girl is stepping into that household," they tell the girls’ side.
Lately, Rabia khalabi has been dropping in at our house quite frequently. Never mind that there is no girl of marriageable age at home. My three brothers are already married, two of them with the good offices of this garrulous woman. One day, I heard her chirping in my mother’s ears that it is a good idea to look for a husband for me.
"The boy has been widowed recently. Poor guy, he is struggling to bring up motherless children. He has a government job that brings him a comfortable salary. He’s pressing me to find him a good girl," she was telling my mother when I entered the room and surprised them. They instantly changed the topic, conspiring to put the real topic on hold.
Thereafter, my heart always palpitated wildly at her sight. I felt as if there was a fireball hovering over my head and counted the minutes for her to disappear. I’d regain my peace of mind only after her exit.
Rabia came again today, maybe to reopen the old conversation with my mother. What kind of disaster awaited me, I wondered. Though I pretended to browse a book, my mind was busy with thoughts of my mother and the khalabi. I tuned my antenna to pick up on their conversation. The words on the page didn’t register in my brain. I was afraid they’d call for me every time I heard them raise their voices. But it passed.
Father returned from afternoon prayers. It was a Friday; so, he didn’t go to his shop, the biggest in town. It was named Sultana Cut Piece Centre, after me.
"I’ve asked the boy’s side to come see Sultana," my mother told him after he sat beside her on the mat.
He looked at her pensively.
"It has been three months since the iddat—the wait period after her separation from her husband—has lapsed. Age is catching up with her. We can’t sit tight. How long can she stay with us? We can provide all comforts but not a husband. I never thought Allah would deny His blessings to our only daughter." Tears flowed from my mother’s eyes. She stuffed her mouth with her sari to stifle her sobs. "Quiet, Salima. Whatever Allah desires will happen. Is it in our hands to escape what He determines is our lot? I’ve been praying to Him at every namaz to rekindle the light in my child’s life. He is merciful and will certainly shower His blessings on her."
I was convinced that Father had endorsed my mother’s plans. Their conversation upset me. I ran to my room.
After the evening prayers I lay on my bed. Mother has been urging me not to go to sleep without dinner. "I’m not hungry," I said. She wouldn’t listen. I drank a glass of milk to escape her nagging. However hard I tried, I couldn’t fall asleep. My mind had surrendered to the buzz of indecipherable thoughts. How was my baby, Rizwana? She wouldn’t fall asleep unless she’d played on my chest and gurgled "Ammi, Ammi" and patted my cheeks. She would kiss me and refuse to go to her father despite his pleas. Nothing could happen in the house unless she had fallen asleep.
All my woes began after Rizwana’s birth. In the first seven years of our marriage, life had been full of celebration for us. We sought each other out. Raja Khan was sometimes uncomfortable talking to me because I had a B.A. while he had not even cleared his Intermediate exams.
His father owned a big jewellery shop in town. Raja had taken over the business after his father’s death. In managing the business, he’d surpassed his father quickly. Father had arranged my marriage with Raja because Raja Khan’s father had been his friend. Raja was burly, with a squashed nose. Yet, his was a face that drew people in. My parents had given in dowry whatever Raja’s mother had demanded. My mother-in-law was gentle and treated me as if I was her daughter. Raja was quite proud of me, my beauty. He’d write lyrics about me like a poet. Life was good, but not for long. As if by ill luck, my first child died when she was two. And then I had three more daughters.
All the love notwithstanding, Raja divorced me one fine morning. He uttered "talaq" three times. What did I do to deserve such harsh punishment? Was it my fault that I had given birth to three daughters?
"Three daughters in a row! I hoped the third would be a son. Now the whole town makes fun of me. I can’t step out of my house and hold my head up high," he’d constantly complain.
Discontent simmered. I’d told him to take a second wife if he really wanted a boy. Two wives would be too many to manage, he’d said. Not wanting a showdown, I’d tolerated every taunt of his. But one day, like a bolt from the blue, he came home with two witnesses and shouted "talaq, talaq, talaq". That was the end.
The community elders met and demanded that he return the gold he’d been given at the time of our marriage. His relatives argued that with three girls to raise, it was not possible. In the end, he yielded to the pressure and agreed to return the gold. The elders told me to accept the money and go home. I meekly accepted their verdict. In ten minutes, the curtain had come down on ten years of marriage. Raja Khan had turned me into a childbearing machine. And now, my mother wants to hand over the machine to a different person. I am overcome with self-pity at my helplessness. I have been crying myself to sleep lately, and I do the same tonight.
Next morning, as usual, I sit down on the threshold of my house at the trunk road intersection. My children, who are no more mine, now tramp to the convent school every day at eight, and pass in front of our house. The convent is in a lane right next to our house. I’m afraid that they will lose their way if I don’t keep a watch over them. I don’t skip this routine, ever. Every day I wait for the eight o’clock bell expectantly. Would Raja Khan scold them for talking to me? My heart dims. I am angry with myself for entertaining such negative thoughts. Those ten minutes I spend with my children are my anodyne. Bliss. All my pain vanishes whenever I hug them. This wait, sitting on the threshold, is for savouring that moment of joy.
They’re my children who experienced the warmth of my womb for nine months. Today, I can’t even say they’re mine. They’re Raja Khan’s children. Not mine.
Lo, they’re coming. I feel as if paradise is moving towards me. "Ammi jaan!" they chorus together and fall in my lap. I crane my neck to see if any of Raja Khan’s men are snooping around. The children twist around me. I give them milk candy but the youngest refuses to touch it and pouts.
"Won’t you eat, Rizwana?" I say. She shakes her head.
Her eyes fill. "Mother beat me," she sobs, looking at me piteously. I feel a stabbing in my heart. Mother is Raja Khan’s new wife of ten days.
"Why?" I ask the eldest.
"Rizzoo insisted on sleeping by the new auntie’s side when daddy and the new auntie were in their bed. Auntie brought her to my bed. But Rizzoo went back to their room. Auntie lost her temper and slapped her."
Her words rent my heart. My children are motherless while I’m still alive.
"Didn’t your daddy say anything?"
"No," the elder children say.
"Keep her with you, Ammi. She has been crying all night. She stopped only after daddy said he would throw her out of the house."
My second daughter was about to say something. I shut her mouth with my hand.
My mother, who heard the children crying, comes out and says, "If you coddle them, they’ll never leave you. You must harden your heart and forget them."
The three hang on to the skirts of their grandmother. "Daddy will beat you if he finds out you were here. Go away," says my mother and sends all of them out. She then turns away from me and blots her eyes. Seeing them leave, I can’t contain myself either.
One evening, Father came home in a frenzy. Seeing me in the hallway, he said, "What, you’re not ready yet?"
I understood what he meant but said nothing.
"They’re coming in the evening. Make yourself presentable." I looked into his eyes.
"You don’t understand, my child. Do as we tell you," he said and caressed my head. I built up the courage to say, "Excuse me, Father, but I don’t want to marry."
"My child, it is our tradition."
"I don’t deny that. But our scriptures don’t sanction talaq, yet it has become a game. You know, Father, what’s the real purpose of talaq?
"Only when man and wife are unhappy with each other; when it becomes difficult to carry on as a couple; when there are no chances of rapprochement and when they think it is impossible to go any further, only then talaq is permitted. Just uttering talaq three times on petty pretexts is not fair, Father."
He nodded and gazed at me thoughtfully.
"Look, Razia Sultana, it is their sin, not yours. You’re an educated woman. We won’t force anything on you against your wishes. But make sure you don’t bring shame upon us," Father said.
Mother walked on to the scene and seemed to understand what was going on at once. "We don’t want anything other than your happiness," she said.
"People like me who married fools can’t escape this fate. But I want to lend a helping hand to unfortunate women who are trapped in such awful situations. I want to teach a lesson to irresponsible men like Raja Khan. Tomorrow, I will apply to a college to study law. I want to be a lawyer and take on such talaq abusers. Please, give me a chance," I pleaded.
"My child…." They stop mid-sentence, too happy for words. "I’ll prove that your daughter is virtuous. I’ll make sure that the family reputation doesn’t suffer. Please bless me," I said, touching their feet.
"May Allah protect you," they blessed me by placing their hands on my head. "Your happiness is our happiness," they said, together.
Excerpted from The Greatest Telugu Stories Ever Told, selected and translated by Dasu Krishnamoorthy and Tamraparni Dasu, with permission from Aleph Book Company (Rs 699, pp. 200)
(Shaik Hussain Satyagni is a writer, besides being a legislator, actor, party official, literary activist, and filmmaker. He is the former chairman of the A. P. Forest Development Corporation.)