I wrote this story some time back. This work of fiction is not based on my own or any one else’s experiences; the core of the story was gleaned from several different sources, and it took a while before I put it together. Not everyone gets justice, and not everyone overcomes hurdles to write a success story – nonetheless, each and every story has its place in our collective consciousness.
The first thing she noticed when she walked through the gates was the missing tree. More like noticed the stump with ragged edges that marked the space where the tree had once stood. It had been big, with branches that spread out in a wide expanse, and broad, smooth leaves that looked like little green plates. She used to gaze at the tree from the kitchen window, wondering what life was like for the crow that had built a nest there. Where was the crow now?
The next thing she saw was the neighbour staring at her with an odd mix of expressions – curiosity, contempt, pity – almost as if each feeling was taking turns to appear on her face, then hiding itself upon being spotted. She stared back blankly, at which the neighbour turned away. She walked up the two steps that led to the house, and went into the hall. She was home. Or maybe, ‘home’ was where she thought she was heading to when she boarded the plane that morning.
The immigration officer who stamped her passport looked pointedly at the purple patch above her left eye, and at the knitted scar near her temple. But – thankfully – didn’t ask any questions. He was a young boy. She sensed pity, maybe fear, in his glance.
She nodded off to sleep soon after she boarded the plane, tired from all the nights she had spent crying in the kitchen, and the drudgery of the days that preceded them. When the stewardess gave her the lunch tray, she peeled away the aluminum foil slowly, hesitantly, dreading that her husband would materialise inside the aircraft and fling the tray away. She ate every bit of the meal, carefully ensuring that not even a scrap was wasted. And then fell asleep again. She woke up only when the stewardess patted her shoulder gently, and told her that they would be landing in a few minutes.
Her mother and father had come to the airport. She found them standing outside, looking small and meek amidst the well-heeled crowd that walked quickly, dragging stylish suitcases, and chatting on fancy phones. She felt odd as she walked towards them, clad in an over-size salwar kameez, clutching her red vinyl travel bag and cheap brown handbag. They seemed to have become thinner and greyer. They didn’t say anything, but their gaze rested more on the ground than on her face. She wondered if it was because their necks were bent with worry. Or if they couldn’t bear to see the scars that marked her face. Or if they feared that their worry and anger would burn a hole through her.
The driver of the rented cab seemed to sense the morose mood of his passengers, and switched off the cheery Bollywood song that was playing. She and her mother sat at the back, with a measured distance between them. If she closed her eyes, she could pretend to be a lone passenger.
She leaned against the wall, and stared at the empty space outside the kitchen. Her parents were speaking in low tones in the other room, no doubt wondering what they would tell the relatives and neighbours about her ‘visit’. Probably wondering when – if – she would go back. Maybe planning the formal visit to her husband’s parents, where, behind closed doors, they would bargain or beg.
She didn’t want any part of the conversation. For the moment, she was content to rest in the uncertainty that surrounded her future. Sometimes, it was better not to know – it left room for hope. An odd poem floated into her mind, something about a woman’s journey beginning in her mother’s womb, destined to end when her bier was lifted from her husband’s home. Where had she read it? Or was she making it up? Had she broken the rules? Brought dishonour to her maternal home? Made herself an object of scorn and ridicule? The questions swirled in her mind, but they didn’t hurt or prick. Like flowing water, they washed over her, leaving behind a sense of emptiness and calm.
She heard the ‘caw-caw’ of the crow from somewhere nearby. It hadn’t left after all. It seemed to be telling her of how it had lost its home. Maybe it would rebuild it. She listened to its insistent cries, waiting for it to finish, so that she too could share her story.