As I sat on my couch sipping a cup of coffee and watching the sun disappear in a pinkish sky, my mind wandered and the retreating figure of that unnamed woman swam in front of my eyes. Her mustrd pallu swaying behind her, the sliver of coffee colored waist peeking from the many folds of her saree, her jet black hair oiled and tied into a small bun at the nape of neck. I smiled, albeit a little sadly, at the memory.
I had met this nameless woman five years ago in a nondescript government hospital in an ordinary small town. Let me tell you how I reached that hospital. I had gone on a surreptious weekend trip with my college mates, that included my then-boyfriend as well. The whole thing was very hush-hush. I was in my final year and had lied to my parents about spending the night at a friend’s place for a sleepover. Instead we had taken a moonlit bike ride on the highway and had landed in a small seedy motel of sorts. Call me naive or downright stupid, but when you are a teenager in the throes of your first love, terms like security and safety mean nothing. I was riding high on the waves of passion and was eagerly looking forward to stealing a moment or two alone with my 'soulmate.' Anyway, the trip was supposed to be one last adventure before we got ready for the monotonous grind of daily life so it was special in more ways than one. The first night of the trip was extra special for us, me and my boyfirend, as we had planned to consummate our love. However, when we were finally alone, we stood gawking at each other awkwardly. I was suddenly shy and didnt know what to do. After moments of nonsensical small talk and nervous giggles, we inched closer and without warning his lips were on mine. I had seen in movies that when you kiss you were supposed to close your eyes, so that's what I did. It was my first time kissing him, in fact my first time kissing a guy, any guy. I stood there with his tongue exploring my mouth waiting for magic to happen, but sadly nothing did. When we finally broke apart, I could see that he was smiling. He moved his hand down my back, tugging at the zipper of my dress and I panicked. I mumbled something about going to the washroom and rushed away. As luck would have it, I slipped on the wet surface and landed on my back with my leg twisted at an odd angle. Listening to my scream, my boyfriend rushed inside and took me to the aforementioned nondescript government hospital where I met her.
As we entered the almost empty waiting area, my worried boyfriend, after helping me sit down, rushed to find a doctor. My ankle hurt and I was a little woozy—not from the kiss but from the fall. I looked around to divert my attention from the pain and spotted her, sitting few chairs away from me. She was the only other patient in the large blank room. She was dusky and was wearing a mustard saree with big multicolored flowers. I noticed the big orange bindi on her forehead and deep red sindoor that generously adorned her parted hair. I got up, with considerable difficulty, and limped next to her. She looked up at me and smiled, a kind of blank smile. Her mouth was curved into a smile but she didnt look happy, it was the kind of smile that doesn’t reach your eyes. She had big black eyes lined with generous dose of kajal and full lips. She looked to be my age, probably younger.
I sat down next to her and said, “hi,” with a small wave. She just gave me another of her tight smiles.
“I was getting bored sitting alone. Do you mind if I sat next to you?” I asked in English and immediately regretted it. No way she could understand me.
“You are already sitting,” she said innocently without a hint of sarcasm. I was surprised at her clear diction and a little ashamed at myself for jumping to conclusions.
I noticed that her hands were placed over her burgeoning stomach. She was obviously pregnant.
I congratulated her in my bid to make conversation, "When is the due date?” I asked motioning at her saree covered tummy.
She smiled the same vacant smile, “Three months.” she started fidgeting with her green glass bangles absentmindedly.
I nodded. We both sat silently next to each other. I could hear the seconds hand of the huge clock hanging on the wall make its way around the dial. Tick, tick, tick, tick. With every tick, the leg would give a painful jerk as if in synchronization with the clock.
When the silence stretched on for a while, I asked again, “First baby?”
She nodded wordlessly, still fidgeting with her bangles.
“How long have you been married?” I exclaimed. Before you dismiss me as a nosy little gossip monger, I would like to add in my defense, that I was asking all these questions so that my mind would be occupied with something else other than the shooting pains in my leg.
She hesitated a little and stopped fidgeting. She looked at me, right in my eyes, and said, a little defiantly as if challenging me to judge her, “Five months.”
She must have seen the shock on my face because she averted her eyes and the fidgeting started again. After my initial bewilderment, I was quite in awe of her. Please remember I was a teenager back then and this piece of information, albeit scandalous, somehow made me see her in a different, more liberal advanced light. Look at it from a teenager's point of view - here was this 10th pass girl from a small town telling me, a total stranger, quite nonchalantly and without remorse that she got pregnant before marriage; and here I was, a supposedly cosmopolitan, educated metropolitan girl, who panicked after a kiss. Now, I am not endorsing premarital sex, to each her own, I was just amazed at her gumption.
After a minute of silence, where I contemplated whether to continue speaking to her or just sit there quietly, my inner over-enthusiastic chatterbox took over and I blurted out, “You seem like an open-minded progressive woman. I have a question. I have read somewhere that a third person, detached from the problematic situation, is able to give great advice. So, since you are a detached person I need to ask you something, okay?”
She just sat there, stone-faced, blinking.
“I am sorry did you understand anything I just said? Should I talk in hindi?”
She nodded, a little smug, “I understood everything. I went to school till 10th. I can speak English, read English and write too.”
She went on to told me that how her father couldn’t afford her and her two brother’s education simultaneously so she was made to drop out after 10th and how she hated her brothers who instead of going to school would go and play with their friends while she was stuck at home helping her mother.
“Didn’t you protest?”
“I did but my father said I have to get married and do house work only so what’s the point in my studying," she shrugged.
I remember thinking, ‘this is still prevalent in our country.’
We both sat quietly for another minute before she asked, “you have a problem?”
“Oh yes!” I exclaimed suddenly remembering, “See, I have this uh… boyfriend? You know boyfriend, special friend…”
“I know,” she nodded.
“Okay so today, in the evening, we shared our first kiss and it was not what I thought it would be. I mean it was not bad, but it was not great either. It was a little gross to be honest. I didn’t see stars or hear violins or anything. I just kept waiting for it to end. And this got me thinking what if I am not in love with my boyfriend? I mean maybe I think I love him but what if I don’t? What If this is a mistake? What if the kiss was a sign that he is not the love of my life, huh? Maybe I am thinking too much? It was just a kiss, a first for both of us so maybe we need a little practice? Does it get better with practice? What was your first kiss like? Was it with your husband? Did you know, after the kiss, that he would be the one?” I went on and on. She just kept staring at me with her big black vacant eyes. When she didn’t answer, I prodded her, “Well?”
“I don’t know,” she muttered looking down at her hands.
“I don’t know what? You don’t know what your fist kiss was like? Oh, you don’t remember?”
“No, I don’t know what kissing is like. I have never been kissed,” she said. Her cheeks turned a little red.
That shut me up.
“You are joking right? I mean you are married and pregnant?!”
She stared at me and just shrugged.
I was confused. I was just about to ask her to explain herself when she stood up and looked straight ahead at a middle aged man. He looked like he was in his late forties. He was balding in the center and the remaining hair on his head were orange, the kind of orange you get when you use henna for a prolonged period of time. He had bushy mustache and a potbelly. He was walking towards us and had a slight limp in his right leg.
“Is he your father?” I said trying to stand but giving up when an excruciating pain shot up my leg.
“He is my rapist.” She said without blinking an eyelid.
“What?! Wha…? You want me to call security? What is he doing here?” I said wondering why isn’t she more scared or defiant or angry or anything! She stood there staring at the approaching man without a hint of emotion.
“No need. He is also my husband.”
I just looked at her. No sound escaped my lips. She looked down at me, “He raped me some seven months ago. Two months later I realized I was pregnant. He came forward as he wanted the child. He said he would marry me. My parents agreed and here I am.”
“Why did you agree?”
“Who would have married a woman who was raped and pregnant? What would have become of my child? My parents, the panchayat, the community... everyone thought this was a good idea. This way he also got a chance to atone for his mistake.”
I stared at her dumbstruck, “What about you?"
“What about me?”
“Do you love him?”
She looked at me as if I am a hare-brained child, “What is love? Have you seen it? touched it? I haven’t. And I don’t believe in things that I can’t see or touch.”
The man reached us. He murmured something in accented Hindi. I caught him mentioning something about the lady doctor. He held her hand and started walking in the opposite direction. She didn’t protest. She walked behind him, wordlessly. I kept looking at her until they disappeared at a corner. She never looked back.
Her blank eyes still trouble me. I wish I could have done something. I hope she is safe. I hope she has found happiness in her child.
I took a sip of my coffee. I can''t help but frown at the hopeless situation. Five years ago, I was worried about a trivial issue like a first kiss while there was a woman who was forced to see the face of her biggest tormentor everyday, cook him, lay next to him in bed, bear his child/ren. That day at the hospital I realized that, sometimes, we think our problems could fill an entire ocean but in reality they are nothing but a mere drop in that ocean. We make our troubles as big as we want them. Everyone around us are fighting their battles... some more difficult than ours, some have it a little easier... but everyone has their own battles nevertheless. A little less judgement, and a lot more compassion might go a long way.