Jhyalkhana: glass prisonThe room was full of guests and the atmosphere was of abounding extravagance. As women in sparkly clothes hovered around Laxmi, I walked straight up to the dulahi and handed her the gift. “Badhai chha! Don’t forget us now that you got your life partner,” I teased. In response, she just smiled and her eyes sparkled. She looked beautiful in a bride’s attire. It seemed like the traces of coyness accompanied by beaming hope only added to her charm.
The room was full of guests and the atmosphere was of abounding extravagance. As women in sparkly clothes hovered around Laxmi, I walked straight up to the dulahi and handed her the gift. “Badhai chha! Don’t forget us now that you got your life partner,” I teased. In response, she just smiled and her eyes sparkled. She looked beautiful in a bride’s attire. It seemed like the traces of coyness accompanied by beaming hope only added to her charm.
Sarita and I had reached late. There was barely enough time to mingle with friends. As soon as we got the message that the eating area was beginning to empty, we moved towards the chowk downstairs. This was where the actual party was happening. People were dancing to english songs playing on the cassette player. It felt as if we were witnessing a mela of some sort. Guests kept walking in and out of the venue in their colourful party clothing. Sarita and I took a round of the buffet table filling our plates before sitting down to eat.
“The party is so grand!” I started the conversation.
“The party is great, but I am worried about Laxmi. I wonder how her life is going to change now,” Sarita retorted.
“I hear that the groom just came back from Ranchi. I don’t know the whole story, but only this morning my brother told me they are marrying her off to a baulaha.”
This was shocking—a mad man? A chill ran down my spine.
Sarita continued, “Why are they throwing such a big party? Does it even suit the family’s financial stature? It is ridiculous how they care so little about their daughter’s future.” Around this time, she had begun to sound angry, “Satya Bina, I didn’t even want to come to the party! I only came because I knew you’d be upset if I didn’t.”
The food suddenly lost all its taste. The party felt bland. And my ears started getting hot and red.
“This probably means Laxmi knows nothing about the man she’s marrying,” I said.
“Of course, she doesn’t. I think they tricked her into it. Whatever, she’s already getting married. By tomorrow morning, the behuli will be at her new home,” she said, “I don’t know what is going to happen or what we can do about it.”
“If this is true, Laxmi is going to be devastated!” I started panicking. Our plates had emptied and there was no appetite left for the rasbari.
“I want to go see Laxmi one more time, Sarita.”
“Sure. Let’s go.”
We went to the room upstairs. The room was as crowded as it was before. I watched the bride from the door. For some reason, the face I had seen earlier was now transformed. It felt like I was looking at a moon while it faded away. It hurt to even see her this way. I couldn’t linger any longer. Sarita and I got out of that place.
Upon reaching home, I tried sleeping but it was impossible to fall asleep. All I could think of was the grandeur of the party and wondered about the sordid truth behind such extravagance. My train of thought stopped abruptly at the thought of the bride and how her life was going to change. My brain hurt. What if Sarita was right? What if Laxmi was really getting married to a baulaha and had no idea about it. What kind of conspiracy was this? I didn’t know what to do, where to go. I was boiling in anger and getting more restless by the minute.
“Is this a situation where friends should intervene?” I wanted to run to Laxmi and steal her away. I wanted to scream, ‘this is not a new beginning, this is the end of your life!’
But I did nothing. Laxmi got married. Eventually the celebrations came to an end. And I never saw her again.
One morning on my way home from the campus, I ran into Laxmi’s mother.
“Nani! How are you? You haven’t stepped a foot into our house since Laxmi left,” she inquired.
“You married off my friend in such a hurry,” I said teasingly, “Why would I drop by when my friend doesn’t live there anymore?” We laughed.
“On a serious note Ama, does Laxmi ever visit?” I asked.
“I don’t know what to say. It feels like we sold our daughter off,” she sulked, “They don’t let her stay over at her maiti. Even when we send someone to bring her home, Laxmi only ever gets to stay for so little time. We can’t even get the conversation going before her in-laws send in their car to pick her up,” by this time, her eyes welled up, “Dukha payi, her life is ruined.”
My heart felt heavy. I didn’t have it in me to ask any other question.
“I’ll try to drop by when Laxmi does next time.”
“Okay, I’ll see you soon.” We parted ways. On my way back, all I could think of was Laxmi.
She was a close friend. We got along really well. We often talked of our future and weaved our dreams together. Little did I know that we’d reach a point in life where we’d be worlds apart.
We used to tease Laxmi, saying she was the prettiest and luckiest among us all and that because of this she would probably be the first one to leave us.
“We’ll see who leaves first,” she always retorted. Well, she was the first one to leave us after all but not for the reasons we thought. And not for the right man. The more I thought about it the heavier the truth weighed in my mind. Flashbacks, memories of our friendship flooded my head.
There was a literary seminar in the college once. Laxmi had liked literature, she also had a knack for it. For the seminar, she had recited a very powerful poem called ‘Us Women’. I couldn’t remember the entire poem, but I did remember how it had made us feel.
Let’s untie and free these worthy hands
And tame our fate, define our destiny
Don’t you dare think women are to be caged!
She had even managed to get a prize because ofthe poem. How did this freedom-fighter’s life fall apart?
Mothers’ Day. I knew, Laxmi would visit her mother on this day. So, without a second thought I decided to walk to her maiti and take my chance. I met her brother at the door. “Is your Didi already here?”
“Yes she is.”
I sighed in relief. I was finally going to see my friend for the first time in forever. I walked straight towards her room. There was nobody. Murmurs trickled from the buigal upstairs. It was mothers’ day and I didn’t want to interrupt a mother-daughter moment. I wanted both parties to soak in each other’s presence till their heart was filled with warmth. As I waited in the room, I looked around lost in a flood of memories.
The room often roared with laughter when we hung out there.
“The more you laugh, the more you cry!” Her mother would often warn us ‘tarunis’. Who knew those stupid words actually meant something and would prove to be true for one of us.
I didn’t realise half an hour had already passed when Laxmi’s mother came in.
“When did you come? Why didn’t you come upstairs?”
“I didn’t want to disturb..”
She called for Laxmi right away, “Laxmi... Bina is here to see you!” Laxmi showed up right away.
“Look at you my old friend!” I smiled. She didn’t smile back.
I looked at Laxmi from top to bottom. She donned a very expensive saree, golden bangles, an Asarfi necklace, and a green potey. She was covered in jewellery, but the sadness in her eyes overshadowed it all. She had shed some kilos. Her eyes had lost their sparkle and an eye-bag hung heavy on her face. She looked like a different person altogether. She had lost her glow and charm. She had lost the life in her.
“Looks like you completely forgot your friends after you got your life partner huh,” I wanted to make light of the situation. She forced a smile, but said nothing in response. When her mother left us for some privacy, an awkward silence filled the air.
Every attempt I made at a conversation failed. For every question I had, she only replied with a “Khai—I don’t know.”
But I didn’t stop trying, “Are you going to sit for the exams?”
She finally broke her silence, “Exams...college...that part of my life is over! Everything is over. Soon, this life shall be over too.”
“Bihe happened. Everything is ruined. My sweet dreams have turned bitter. There is no hope.”
I pretended like I knew nothing, “But everybody gets married once in their lifetime. This doesn’t mean your life is over, Laxmi!”
“You call it a marriage? It’s a trap. I don’t live in a house, I live in a cage—it’s a Jhyaalkhana!”
“Just tell me what is going on,” by now Laxmi had let her guard down and was ready to explode.
“I need help Bina. I don’t know if there’s any point in living anymore. I want to get out of this hell, but I am hopeless and helpless, I need help!”
“I’m here to listen. Tell me everything in detail. Is it true that his head is not in the right place?”
It was true. Laxmi’s husband was mentally ill. He had been admitted to the Ranchi Mental Hospital at least twice before he was brought back home. He was a hopeless case. There was no cure. Hence, when some relative told the parents that it would all get better once they got him married, the parents bought into the idea. And Laxmi was the scapegoat. Laxmi had no idea what she was marrying into. Her parents did. Her parents knew that the man had something to do with Ranchi, but while weighing in they looked at all the property and prosperity the family boasted, instead of focusing on their daughter’s happiness.
“My father was told that my husband had recovered. He didn’t bother cross-checking. And because my in-laws had done him some huge monetary favour back in the day, my father just caved in.”
But, Laxmi didn’t cross-check either. When she was told that her parents had found her the perfect match, she believed them.
“Can you imagine being cheated by your own family?”
“But shouldn’t you have seen him before getting married?” I got a little crossed at her own naivety.
Turns out Laxmi had decided to see the groom and the Lami had showed her a photo of this very handsome man. “He looked like a good, humble man.” She thought her parents knew best. She thought that it was all going to fall into place. And hence, she never bothered to meet the man in person. Once she got married to the baulaha, she learnt that the man couldn’t even stand the sight of women.
“He screams at me every night! He cannot stand my presence. How can I live with this man?”
“How did this happen?”
Laxmi’s husband had his own story. He had fallen deeply in love with a girl from another caste. But the family, in doing what it did best, plotted a conspiracy against them. They broke up the relationship in the worst way possible. As soon as the relationship ended, the family plotted another conspiracy to get their son married to the woman of their choice. Upon hearing the news, the ex-lover committed suicide. “And he lost his mind. Imagine having to lose someone you have loved so much.”
Laxmi slowly boiled with anger and hatred towards her in-laws, as she told the story.
“There is so much I need to say, you have opened the floodgate, Bina.”
“It’s okay Laxmi, I am listening.”
“The house is like a Jhyaalkhana.”
From outside, Laxmi had a perfect life. She didn’t even have to move a twig around the house. Her mother in-law, polite and soft spoken, demanded that Laxmi lead a comfortable life. At any point in time, Laxmi could have as many servants as she needed to get things done for her.
“My mother in-law tells me that I am like her daughter and the Malikni of the house. She could easily pass as the best in-law in the world. The only job I have in the house is to stay pretty,” Laxmi revealed, “But in the evening they shove me into the baulaha’s room and lock me inside.”
They threw her in like a “goat thrown at the tiger.” Every night Laxmi was locked in with her cuckoo husband who couldn’t stand women. He would scream “Who are you? Are you Yashoda?” And once he realised she is somebody else, he would tell her to leave. But where could Laxmi go? He would jump out of the bed and pounce upon her, pushing her against the door just to get her out of his territory. But with the door locked from the outside, there was so little Laxmi could do, except for gethurt.
“The noise spills into the quiet night, waking the neighbours up! I lose my dignity every single night Bina. How embarrassing is it?”
“I will tear you down and eat you up if you don’t get out of this place.” The man screamed everyday. And every day, Laxmi feared that he really would. And then she wished that he really did. She wished he would help her end her life.
“But, I’m still living.” Laxmi held her hands against her eyes and let out a wail. “Why me Bina? What wrong did I do? Didn’t I deserve a good life partner? It’s over. It’s all over!”
“No Laxmi, it’s not over, you are not over. Let’s look for solutions here,” I said.
She clenched my hand tightly and said, “I don’t want to live, but I can’t bring this life to an end. I want to run, but there’s no place to run. I have attempted running, but every attempt failed and gave birth to a new security guard, new police to keep me caged.”
Laxmi’s in-laws were filthy rich. They could buy the town if they wanted to.
“But you have to get out of that Jhyaalkhana,” although I couldn’t advise further on what she could do where she could go, I did ask her if she had a plan.
“I think about this all the time, but I don’t have a plan.”
Laxmi was fighting a fight for her life. By the day she was trying to find a way out of the cage disguised as a house, by the night she was at war with a headless man who wanted her to be Yashoda—the love of his life.
To be honest, Laxmi wasn’t mad at her husband. She pitied him. She pitied his loss. Every once in a while when he asked her if she was Yashoda, she wondered if she could fake it. “Maybe he will buy into it and calm down, give his life another chance?” Laxmi was confused. “I don’t know what to do. Tell me what to do.”
It was all too much to take. The air felt thin. Before I could tell anything, Laxmi’s mother entered the room. I couldn’t tell if she heard it all, but her face was painted in gloom. It was as if a dark cloud hovered over her face and she’d break into a downpour any moment.
“Don’t you girls need to eat? The Kaaldut will be here any moment,” upon hearing her mother’s warning Laxmi immediately stood up and looked out the window.
“One of these days, I am going to send it right back to where it came from! I am sick of it all. I don’t need to go back to that gross life anymore. I don’t need any of it. All I want is my freedom, my life back!” Laxmi was angry and for the right reasons, “I am going to take control of my life.”
Her mother contorted her face and broke into a sad murmur, “You can’t really change what has already happened. There is no solution. Even if you take control of your life, what will society say? Even if you break free, what will we do? Patience and tolerance are keys to living life. You have to tolerate…that’s what women do.”
“It’s too much Ama, too much. I don’t care what the society says because it just watches you quietly when you are getting buried in filth. It never pulls you up. It never shows you the way out,” Laxmi continued, “For the first time since my marriage I have found the courage to say I want to get out of this rut, please don’t push me back into it.”
“Please DO NOT push me back into the rut.”
“La, la… eat first,” her mother tried to dodge the conversation and shoved plates of mithai in front of us.
I didn’t have the appetite for all the mithai, and Laxmi, she seemed lost in a different universe altogether. She looked at her plate for a long, long time before we heard the honk of the Kaaldut.
“Lau na! It has already arrived!” Laxmi’s mother rushed into the room. She looked at us in an attempt to hurry Laxmi up. She was panicking as if Laxmishe would die if she didn’t move now.
I looked at Laxmi. She was still in her own universe, unaffected by the honking. She didn’t hear anything at all. Laxmi didn’t seem to be in a hurry anymore.
The story was first published in Nepal Bhasa in 1984.