The Drowning

I still cannot believe that it was a dream, or that it was not. Every day, I could see the man clearly, pitiably struggling to hold on to his dear life. I do not know how he got there or why. All I know is that on a lovely dark night, I saw a man drown. In a river so beautiful you’d think it cannot hurt a fly, let alone take a human life. It is a half-hour drive from my home, this river, if I go there deep into the night, as I do every weekend. I have been doing this for three years, it was always secluded but never this way. This night, two weeks ago, I drove there with a friend, and we stood on the bridge under which the water flows, watching the way the waters flow, and it was all calm and cold until he left. He left because he had to go say Hi to his girlfriend whose parents were fast asleep. I waited there alone because I loved that: being with myself on a chilly winter night, watching a pristine river shimmer magnificently under milky moonlight. Soon after he left though, as I was rubbing my hands together and blowing on them, I noticed a little churning in the waters. Was it a small boat? An animal? Hell, it was a person. A grown man, bobbing up and down far, far away into the distance, at what looked like equal distance from both the edges of the river, moving violently but in rhythmic motions, as if he was performing a set of squats, only too quickly. My first instinct was to stare harder, move closer, until I realised I was perched too precariously over the bridge parapet. Next, I looked around on the bridge, to stop some commuter and tell him or her what I just saw, to see if we could do something about it, although in retrospect there was nothing three as one could do about it. There was nobody. Not a single vehicle moving anywhere around — not even on the roads running alongside the bridge. Was I stunned? I am not sure — I felt heavy in my feet though.

I turned around towards the river and presently I don’t see him, or her, it’s hard to tell, but the figure was more masculine than feminine. The figure, now, isn’t there. I feel thoroughly relieved – it was just an illusion – but as I reach the parapet again and peer, it feels like dread became a soul and dived right into my lungs. He is there, or she is, but the person is still there, bobbing, and all I could think of was how this is not how it is supposed to be. Life, nobody told us, would be this hard. I come to my senses in a moment and check my pockets for my phone – the nearest police station is a two-km walk and my friend would be able to come back here in just as much time as the police would take to respond – five minutes, maybe ten? I call my friend first, but the call doesn’t go, and so I call again, and again, and as I get increasingly frustrated I notice something that hurts my chest – there is no network in both of my sim cards. This doesn’t happen, it just hasn’t happened before. Either of them always works, even if I’m in an elevator. I restart the phone, restart the networks, but it doesn’t work – nothing is working – and I turn to look at the man with the desperate hope that somehow, someone from somewhere has come to rescue him. But he is alone, still fighting the river, still alive and still staring at death. I stand still, my vision is blurred, I feel dizzy, and I am not sure if I am breathing. I see her face now, as if it has appeared in the infinite space between the white river and the black sky — clear, beautiful, crying but not sobbing, resolute but unflinchingly unsmiling. That was the only time I had seen her like that, two years ago now, after eight years of watching her smile widely at the smallest of reasons, a smile that always gave a glint to her large, perfectly lovely eyes. That was the only other day I was shadowed by this feeling — a feeling of sinking, of drowning, and of being able to do absolutely nothing about my own impending, premature death. Of being completely chained by helplessness. Why didn’t they tell us before? Why did the parents, the teachers, the well-wishers, the friends and the foes; why didn’t the movies, books or paintings tell us? That this is life, that it just hurts, and that there’s nothing you can do about it. How hard could it have been to prepare us? ‘Look, son, you will break one day, into small pieces, and if you can find the strength to sew the pieces back together, do it, but you won’t recognise yourself thereafter, because you won’t be the same anymore.’ How hard? Why don’t they ever tell us that you will drown one day, and even though someone standing far away on a bridge yearns to save you, he cannot. Nobody can, nobody will. You will drown, and die, and it will be a sore catastrophe, and people will grieve, but there’s nothing you can do to defer your sorry death. The death of your emotions, the death of your beliefs. Of your self-esteem, self-confidence, ego, pride and faith. The inevitable death awaits you, son, and all you can do is walk right into it and hope to limp out, somehow alive. Why don’t they tell us?

“Dude, why are you crying?”

The jolt of the voice hit me like a sharp slap. I could feel a whole person walk out of me that instant. I felt relieved, but I was still shaking. It was my friend, and I was blankly staring at him, and wiping my cheeks and looking at my wet palms, as if questioning the very truth of my own thick tears.

“I, I, there’s a man there, there, he’s drowning, come, see…”

He and I perched over the parapet now, peering, our eyes narrowed, bodies bent, searching the calm waters, he confounded by me, I confounded by the absence of my nightmare.

“He was there, right in the middle of the river, there, and he was drowning…”

I couldn’t believe he had drowned in such a short while as I was lost in the tempest of my tears. Was his body floating right under our feet now?

“Dude, it’s okay, you’re unwell, let’s go home, there’s nobody here,” he said, his voice also shaking a little now, but lacking the pain of my voice.

“No, no, you don’t understand. There was this one man or woman in the river, trying not to drown, and I couldn’t reach him, and there was nobody here except me. I tried calling you, there is no network, look…”

And as I showed him my phone, we both stared at it silently. How was this possible? Both networks were showing full signal now.

“Bro, there’s network, and there are enough people around here, look at the cars passing by. It will be morning in a while, and we should get some sleep. I’ll give you a pill that will help you sleep well. Come on, now, come,” he said, and dragged my heavy feet into his car.

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Ashraf Saves a Lady

It was an odd scene for an attempt at suicide. The lady was completely covered, in a black burka, only her wet eyes and small hands visible. The convulsions of her body, hard to tell through her wide, loose burka, suggested she was sobbing. She looked like she was studying the dirty river beneath the bridge, as to where she could find a somewhat clean spot and jump aiming at it. She looked strange to Ashraf, and he turned red at the thought of having to stop yet another woman from jumping off the bridge. Really, he would ask himself in every such ‘case’, can anybody’s life really be so miserable that they can jump into a filthy river and kill themselves? Who could be suffering more than me? How?

Ashraf had just this noon decided to quit his job as a cop. A police Home Guard, to be precise. 17 years. What do I live for? he’d ask himself. For money, of which there is so little? Every time he accepted a bribe, thrashed a man, lied to his boss, or shouted at his wife and kids, he felt less of a human. He had a sense of duty, but more than that, he had a hatred of criminals, of people who hurt others just like that. But did that suffice? Does he have to go on all his life this way, getting abused by his seniors, thrashing petty criminals to make them confess to crimes they did and did not commit, and going home empty-handed every day to meet the prying eyes of his 8-year-old daughter?

He had been speaking to his cousin in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. This was a decent fellow who cared for him and had offered to get him a job there, a clerical job in a private firm, of course. Maybe this would help him become a better person, as he had been promising himself. It wasn’t easy for him. God-fearing though he was, he couldn’t refuse bribes because, otherwise, how would he buy his wife a new salwar for the wedding of the daughter of Phuppuma (aunt)? Compassionate though he was, he had a bad temper, so bad that he once thrashed a teenage boy to unconsciousness because he did a ‘stoppie’ on his bike midway on a busy main road, leaving a biker behind him with bleeding tyre marks on his face. When he first started hitting the boy, the crowd that had gathered egged him on. “Hit him. Hit the loafer,” they shouted. But, in a while, they realised that Ashraf wasn’t your average cop. He wouldn’t stop hitting after three smacks. He went on splintering the boy’s bones, paying no attention to the crowd now pleading for him to stop. The Inspector just informed him later, without a compliment or reprimand, that the boy took more than three weeks to recover.

His face now the colour of edible tomatoes, his hands slightly shaking from rage, he crossed the road to meet the lady, who didn’t look much different from his own wife when she’d go out. The lady was studying her wrist watch but was crying too hard to be able to tell time.

“No time is good enough to kill yourself. Have you no fear of Allah?”

The lady looked shocked. But, in a moment, the lady stepped a little closer to him, as if she was waiting for him all this while to come rescue her.

“The men,” she shrieked, as if in horror, and Ashraf made a weird face. The men?

“The men are teasing me… They are asking me to come with them on their bikes… Please help me… Please wait here till my husband comes back… He went to get petrol,” she screamed for Ashraf to hear from behind her veil, and pointed towards a fuel bunk half a kilometre or so away.

“Ey, tcchh, come na, come, I’ll take you anywhere you need to go,” Ashraf heard a man call out to her from behind her, and he moved into the man’s line of vision.

The man, sitting leisurely on his bike, was horrified – the lady was wearing such a large, flowing burka that he didn’t see she was hiding a cop in front of her. He pressed the clutch, shifted the gear, and saw the cop swiftly snatch the key away from the ignition of his bike.

In this city hot and cold

In this city hot and cold,

live many a young and old;

some doomed to everlasting misery,

yet some do strike gold.

I see some houses crumbling,

their dwellers have no choice;

yet passing these houses by are,

cars costing a house and twice.

And so, in this city, lovers abound,

some of them even in love;

yet there are hearts as hard as

can smother to death a dove.

Here live dogs birthed in colder terrains,

their masters do them adore;

and yet eat cows garbage,

their stomachs swollen and sore.

Natives do love the smell of this city,

and yet no end to migration from here;

Tourists too come to probe this city,

yet some do flee in fear.

Here live ardent believers in God,

yet in their houses rebel;

their loving sons and daughters who,

they believe were taught so well.

Here live the high and the mighty,

who make the law a trade;

and also languish in prison those,

whose crimes still lie in wait.

Why wonder what it is,

this city so hot and at once so cold;

here live so many stories,

some new and yet many so old.

The case for speaking out

There are two kinds of people, of course. The funny thing about the ‘two-kind’ theory is that it applies to every situation. Let’s take my situation now: a man in his 20’s raised in a deeply religious, ultra-conservative culture, coming to terms with a completely new way of life — atheism. What does one do in such a situation? Two kinds of people. I forget the particulars, but I learnt of someone who kept praying because he didn’t have the heart to tell his mother that he has lost belief in God. So, he lied. He pretended. So, should I?

When you choose to do that, I believe, you are taking the easy way out in the name of moral values. ‘I cannot hurt the people I love’ is, to me, a mask to hide the real sentiment: ‘I do not have the courage to speak out’. How will I, the person worries, how will I explain to my loved ones what I went through, what I have learnt, what I have realised, what has changed in me? That I am not the same person anymore and yet have not changed entirely? That I love you all the same but that I cannot accept your ideas, your beliefs anymore? That I now disbelieve in everything you stand for? That you can never agree with what I endorse now?

The other kind of person does this. Calls the spade a spade, even though he used to carry the spade around in his upper pocket earlier. And this isn’t easy either. One, you have to deal with the hurt you thus cause to your loved ones. The friends you lose. The loves you let go. I forget the details again here, but I also read about a young Muslim wife who asked for divorce from her now-atheist husband, because she couldn’t understand him or accept his beliefs now, even though the two had married out of love when they were both believers. This isn’t the easy route to take, this speaking out way of dealing with your changed conscience. In conservative societies such as ours, then, there is also the added pressure of keeping shut, lest the gun- or knife-wielding mobs find you and silence yet another voice.

What do you do?

I believe you cannot make a conscious choice in this matter. ‘Here now, let me weigh the pros and cons, measure the weight of the ethics involved, and then decide whether to hide my atheism from my family and friends or not.’ As much as we would like to think that it should be this simple, it is not. Far from that, in fact. You do what you are impelled to do. By your own nature, your innate character, your temperament, personality, call it what you like. In a sticky situation like this, you do what you ‘feel’ is right. This ‘feeling’ is independent of logic. It is indifferent to the world’s ideas of right and wrong. It is like the urge to eat — it is not a conscious choice; your body tells you that you must eat now. Similarly, your mind, heart, gut feeling, whatsoever it is that drives your decisions, tells you that you must do this. To some people, their inner voice tells them to carry on behaving as if nothing has changed. To others, it demands an open conversation. ‘Why not tell them what you feel? Why hide under the blankets of hypocrisy? Why behave as if you are not disturbed by their faith and their ardent practice of it?’

Why?

I choose to speak out for the larger good, I told somebody who laughed it off. Perfectly understandable, this scoffing. What larger good? You’re not going to change the world, now, are you? You’re not as pretentious as to believe that you can make a difference? But, the man who speaks out derives his satisfaction from the hope that he is making sense to a few, somewhere, somehow, and thus, by sharing his new beliefs and by being transparent about the demise of his faith in the religion he was raised in, he contributes, in some small way, to the cause of helping those who are still pretending. Those who are afraid of speaking out. Those who feel abnormal upon losing their faith. Feel dejected by their families, friends and loved ones because they stopped going to the mosque, temple or church. It is a holding of hand, in a world large but connected. A world in which one hand stretching out has the potential to change, in small moments of shared learning, the whole world. All great changes have come about because a small minority of people chose to speak out even when the large majority chose to remain silent. It is this potential to affect change for which those speaking out get threatened and, sometimes, killed.

I have been told recently, of course by somebody I love dearly, that it’s almost acceptable for me to disbelieve but not to speak about it. That if I live as an atheist, I have, in Islam, a chance of salvation. Slim, but some chance. If I speak out though, I qualify for the grand, ultimate punishment of being sent to the gallows. That it is okay, even right and necessary, to kill me (and anybody else) because I am speaking out. The justification given by Islam, or by those who practice it and seek counsel from several scholars of great learning, is that a man like me, who speaks out, is polluting the society. ‘What if everybody starts to think like you, then? It is hence necessary, after giving the benefit of warning, to put to death the man who speaks out against Islam.’

It is for this reason that I choose to speak out, and will continue to do so.

Modi

The Prime Minister, his promises, and his unpromising silence

There is a tug-of-war on the internet. Cheerleaders of the nationalist right wing parties are still cheering their leadership. Naysayers, or the liberal-minded, who never got along with the ruling dispensation, are pointing out how the BJP at the Centre is failing in keeping the very promises that helped it acquire a sweeping majority in the Parliament. And, among the many ongoing arguments between the supporters of the two contradicting ideologies, perhaps the loudest is that of nationalism. The BJP has espoused, openly, a hyper, chest-thumping form of nationalism. While the press is largely silent on these matters, Twitter serves as a bank for anybody interested in pulling out the salvos the BJP leaders used to fire at the Congress-led UPA government at every step it failed to make the nation proud. The matter of ‘teaching Pakistan a lesson’ was among the hottest ones, prior to the 2014 general elections. Tweets from 2013 show Mr Narendra Modi and other BJP leaders such as Amit Shah mocking the previous government for not retaliating to Pakistan’s cross-border aggression. Perhaps as a way of showing that Pakistan is not afraid of Modi’s India, the neighbour has become ever-more hostile and aggressive, going to the extent of mutilating bodies of Indian soldiers time and again.

The answer by the Centre that the Army is capable of retaliation and will do whatever is required whenever it deems fit, is the very argument the BJP leaders used to scoff at, when they were in opposition. Now, as they control the levers of State dynamics, they seem to have become just as cautious as their predecessors in the Parliament, if not more. The only difference is that the ones leading the nation today are louder than the Manmohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi leadership of the decade gone by. That, however, does not make up for the losses India is being subjected to, at the hands of other countries and of economic realities such as the increasing price of the dollar, the growing influence of China on world market, Trump’s shrewd give-and-take-equally campaign, and the failure of the education sector in adapting to new tech-driven markets.

There is also the matter of Afghanistan. Mr Modi has, for the most part, shook hands and exchanged pleasantries with world leaders, and he is prolific in his foreign diplomatic tours. How has that translated into policy-making? Are we any clearer on how to deal with Pakistan’s dirty cross-border tricks or Taliban’s growing resurgence in Afghanistan? What are we doing to ensure that India does not become isolated in its own territory of land and sea, keeping in mind the Silk Road project that promises great bonding between China and Pakistan, and the growing tensions in the South China Sea? What is our policy on Arunanchal Pradesh and Tibet anyway? How are we going to end the impasse that China insists on benefiting from?

The same kind of probing applies to Kashmir. Revocation of Article 370, which gives some autonomy to the State of Jammu and Kashmir, was one of the main agendas that BJP leaders such as Amit Shah and Narendra Modi used for canvassing. This May, the BJP completes three years in power at the Centre. Apart from flexing its muscles and growing in its influence across the country, how has the BJP kept its promises? The crisis in Kashmir is deepening, and Mr Modi hasn’t made his stand on the State clear even after J&K Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti met him and gave him clear directions on what is required to bring back some stability up there. The Prime Minister has remained as silent as the one he used to habitually mock at. When, and how, will we better the life in Kashmir?

Keeping aside all political inclinations and ideological inclinations, we must, as citizens of a democratic nation, demand clarity on State policies. It is time for Mr Modi and his government to come out with real policies that have the potential to change the country for good. We have had enough of feel-good statements made by those in the corridors of power. The BJP must prove to its voters and haters that it is much better than the ailing Congress party. After all, it is in their agenda to make India Congress-free.

If we must go to war with Pakistan, as was suggested by the BJP’s loud political campaign for the 2014 general election, let us do it, then. What is the wait and the silence about? If we are to weed out terrorism and join the global fight against it, let us start with helping Afghanistan deal with its Taliban malaise — both Afghanistan and the US have asked India to take action here. What about Hafiz Saeed? How far has justice been done in the 26/11 attack case? Also, how many home-grown terror suspects have we detained and charged?

Mr Modi has also promised the world that India will go solar — any progress there? Why not? Trump has now openly called out India along with China for contributing nothing to the global fight against climate change — is that unfair? If we have contributed nothing, somebody or the other was bound to shame us. Policy changes in the US and Australia already have made it tougher for Indians to migrate to these Western nations. And this after Mr Modi jovially shared pleasantries with their leaders. The writing on the wall, in the context of world economy, is glaring — nothing is more important than the interests of one’s own country. More and more countries will follow suit and change policies, affecting adversely the developing and under-developed nations. Are we — taking ‘we’ as collective for a nation led by the democratically-elected BJP — up for fighting the change? Or are we just going to grin and make more promises?

 

 

The Mussalmaan and his self-otherisation

Right, so Triple Talaq is set to become a crime in India, finally, which means it is time for us Muslims to talk about some uncomfortable truths yet again. I refer to myself as a Muslim just as well because of the simple reason that my name is Mohammed Sharjeel Ahmed and not Gautama The Buddha. For those who think only Muslim clerics should talk about the Muslim community: Why waste your time on my timeline?

Now, there is, of course, a whole lot of Islamophobia on the rise, just as the spread of Islam is gaining ground round the world, and so is Islamic terrorism, which is terrorism fuelled by jihadist ideologies and done in the name of Islam. As educated and non-radical Muslims then, or, if I may be so audacious, as ‘normal’ Muslims, what is the primary societal challenge we are facing today? Respecting your every right to fully and non-violently disagree with me, here’s what I think is the biggest challenge facing us Muslims: a certain pernicious and pervasive tendency to otherise ourselves.

Muslims around the world cannot be taken as one unit. The common event of a wedding ceremony differs greatly from Muslims in Hyderabad to Muslims in Bengaluru, forget about Saudi Arabia and California then. In that context, hence, I am talking about Muslims in India only, as our life as a minority community in a partitioned country is unique to ourselves only. It is apt to rage when, as Muslims, we are otherised by others, which is to say when we are made to feel like we don’t belong to the country by those who feel they do.

Discrimination of Muslims is present in India, although it is not as commonplace or vicious as many clerics and political leaders of the community try to make us believe it is. I’ll give a personal example here: It is December 2014, I am working, for the first time in my life, as a professional. I wake up to go to work, and see a dozen news notifications on my phone; a school in Pakistan, where children of army men study, was attacked by Taliban. 140 children die, according to initial reports. I am stunned. I feel nauseous. It is sick, unbelievable, even though I am well aware of how low Taliban can stoop; it is unbelievably sick. I shake my head all the way to my workplace, and I am late — everybody is there already. As soon as I reach though, I am greeted by glum stares. One good friend of mine then growls, “Did you see what happened? How can they do something like that?” I stand there for half a minute, unable to grasp what it is exactly that I am expected of here. Apologise for Taliban? Cry for Pakistan? Or say: We Muslims are like that, don’t worry about it! I was unable to believe this immediate otherisation of myself by my friends, but I was indeed put in the spotlight, with everybody (not many people in the desk, just a few, but me being the only Muslim there) waiting for me to comment on the attack. Why was I expected to comment on it? I was sickened by the news just as anybody else was, why then would I be able to say anything more or better or worse about the situation that anybody else could? Because I am a Muslim? Does that give me inside knowledge of what goes on in Taliban or Pakistan’s army schools and their security lapses? Why was I expected to ‘talk about it’? It sickened me, but I chose to not make an issue of it. I just nodded, said I saw the news, and turned away from them. A sensible senior of mine then made light of the situation by chiding the questioner as to how he expected me to miss such a development; it is all over the news, of course Sharjeel would have seen it too, what kind of a question is that, yaar, etc. It was wise of him to do that, as it made everybody chuckle and get back to work from expectedly staring at me, and I felt grateful for him in the moment, but there should never have been any need for his good sense in the first place.

Now, though, to the other side. The self-Muslimisation/otherisation of our community. Same office. We are working but also playing a certain India vs Pakistan cricket match on mobile phones. We are all, of course, rooting for India. Along comes a young man, technical support consultant from some agency, regular sight, and goes about fixing the computers, and then joins us in watching the match only to bluntly cheer for Pakistan. I stare at him in horror and shock, my sensible senior suppresses a laugh, and the young, bearded, namaz-cap wearing IT technician is completely oblivious. He keeps cheering for team Pakistan, and my senior then signals me to just keep my calm. He asks the fellow, how come you support Pakistan and not India, buddy? Simply, and confidently, the bugger answers: Because Pakistan has Shahid Afridi! I love Shahid Afridi! After he leaves, my good (Hindu, religious) senior takes me to a side and cajoles me; don’t worry about him, he is just a kid, he comes from a poor background, some young boys get brainwashed like that, he will mature with age, he doesn’t understand, he will come to understand, I have many Muslim friends and none of them are like that, he just needs better friends, etc, etc.

Why?

Why does any of this have to happen?

But it does. And a lot more happens. I see young, educated, professional Muslim men and women refusing to eat sweet regularly offered in offices after a pooja. I want to shout at them: It is just laddu, man, come on! And, at the very least, if you will not eat the sweet, at the very bloody least, don’t cringe at it, and stop staring at the office boy in horror, as if he has offered you a glass full of gaumutra. There will certainly be resistance to the Triple Talaq verdict. There is already the hopelessly stupid reluctance to sing Vande Mataram, with MIM leaders coming to fistfights with BJP and Shiv Sena leaders in Maharashtra over it. There will always be plenty of ways to otherise ourselves. Do we really have to? Are you sure, absolutely sure, that singing Vande Mataram, or, for that matter, dancing in the streets chanting Bharat Maata ki Jai, will inevitably make you food for eternal hell fire? Do you really, really have to use words such as Meem and Kaaf to derogatorily differentiate between Mussalmaan and Kaafir, believer and non-believer? Is it an absolute must for you to tell your friend: ‘I am happy for your marriage, brother, but please make her a Muslim quickly’. Is it?

The Muslim in India has a challenging choice to make: be extremely orthodox in your religious practice, to the point of alienating yourself from your society, or be a simply moderate practicing Muslim who is as Indian as anybody else. Those preferring the first, conservative way are making politics easier for the right-wing Hindutva bigots, who believe that Muslims have no rightful place in this country, and are bent on proving it. Let’s not help them prove it.

Two thousand rupees

They sat staring at the dull, empty, cream-coloured wall of their living room, the fan listless, the humidity stinking. The couple knew there was no other alternative. The power had been cut, even though the watchman had promised to protect their dignity and the bill collector had agreed to show up at their door before barging into the electric metre room, but the power had been cut anyway. Nobody could help, except the Aunt. Their dread held their words back, so they sat staring at the wall. Another whole month of taunts, many more sniggers at family dinners. There would again be the rotten pity of ‘caring’ relatives. Oh, the pity!

Husband had been looking for a better job for five months now — it seemed that the market was tighter than clothes one size too short. It seemed, to both Husband and Wife, that this is how their life will go on, always. And that single thought kept them up at nights, so late up that they would almost always see the first blush of the sky before quickly turning in their bed and forcing sleep. As horrible as their today was, the terrifying prospect of today being every coming day made them feel small. Husband had lost confidence; Wife, smile. It is not that Husband wasn’t employed – engineer that he was, there was always some job open for him, in most all fields of work, except, of course, engineering. He first worked at a bank, a government bank, but only as a clerk. The pay was some Rs 12,000, barely enough to pay for his own expenses, but he had to get married too, lest the love of his life is married off by her hurried parents to an engineer 10 years older than him. And so, they married, with both families unhappy about the marriage, but both agreeing nevertheless, parents and relatives offering help of all kinds but never providing any anyway. It was fine initially, since they didn’t need help. But seven months into the job, Husband came home to announce that he had resigned from his job — he had been selected at a small firm for an engineer’s job, a job which would pay him less than the bank, but, “the boss promised to give a 50 per cent hike for good performance, after six months of probation period”.

Wife was furious. Of course, she was furious. She didn’t know that Husband was butt of most all jokes at his workplace — an engineer working as a clerk is never given the luxury of self-respect. She didn’t know he shed a tear or two when she wasn’t watching. Why wouldn’t she be furious? To her, it was disruption. Poor people can’t afford to get poorer — compromise is the extravagance of the rich. “How would we live off just Rs 9,000?”. She screamed and cried; he yelled too, which was all fine. They had yelled and cried many times earlier; nothing new for people who struggle to pay their bills. What was new here was the sinking feeling she was left with, made deeper by the finality of his decision. Until the job change, they had managed to keep their affairs to themselves — they had no need to share their accounts with anybody else. Second month into the new job, when the first reduced pay slipped out of their hands as soon as they grabbed it, they had no alternative but to ask. New office, who would lend money? Parents upset, who has the shamelessness to ask parents help when they had warned several times that there’s nowhere to go but family? It would be a humiliating defeat to ask them for monetary help now, wouldn’t it? And so, there was Aunt, who had told them about the apartment above hers that was emptying at the time of their marriage —cheap rent. This aunt was related to them through Husband’s father, close in relation but Husband had never been close to her. She was of help, this Aunt. She taught Wife so many dishes to cook, gave her so many of her sparsely used clothes that wouldn’t fit her now — high quality stuff that the couple couldn’t dream of buying for themselves. No, that is untrue. They did dream big. Or, at least Husband still did. She had given up her dreams, shed them like old, favourite clothes, slowly, daily, but gradually, after her marriage. Aunt would tell Wife that this is how she would have to live the rest of her life and that she should get used to it. Aunt would throw so many taunts at Wife. But, as much as Wife cried and cribbed about it all to Husband, she still did go back to Aunt’s house every time Aunt called, because, well, Aunt was of help. Plus, she was the only relative in touch with them — all others met them only on festivals or at wedding parties. Also, Wife didn’t hate Aunt. Wife just hated her taunts, her uncouth way of telling everybody she knew about everything she does, which included ‘helping the kids’. This would lead to every relative asking them: ‘Oh, Hi! You look lovely; is this the saree your Aunt gave you?’ But then, as much as that hurt, Wife was okay, since, of course, Aunt did give her the saree. So she likes to help and tell, so what? She does help, right? And then, it happened. She went to ask, after much deliberation with Husband and much reluctance pulling at her stomach, the money from Aunt. Two thousand rupees. Aunt was appalled, and made it clear that she was. Aunt scolded Wife, chided her so much. What were you thinking? How could you both just get married without being independent? What if I wasn’t there? What after I die? Whom will you ‘beg’ for money? Who will help you? The most incisive of all comments Aunt made came just when she banged the wad of 20 hundred-rupee notes into Wife’s hand: “This is why one shouldn’t spread one’s legs wider than the quilt. You both don’t know how to stay within your limits. You live as if you are rich people. When will you accept that you are not?”

That day, after waiting with bated breath, a wait that felt like the one you have outside a hospital emergency room, Husband saw a ghastly, torturous sight when he opened the door: Wife was standing outside the door of their home, as if unsure whether to come in or not, face half-washed with tears, choking, making small, throaty sounds on short, equal intervals, (hunh, hunh, hunh) and staring indignantly at him. She had her lips pursed, a wad of notes in her hand. She banged the bunch into his hands, pushed him aside, and, running into their bedroom, locked the door.

***

And so, they sat staring at the wall, terrified by the spectre that awaited them. They had to go through this again now, just when they thought it wasn’t needed anymore. Just last month, they had returned her the money, as soon as Husband’s salary was cashed. It was a stupid thing to do, they later realised. If they weren’t able to make it through a month in Rs 9,000, how did they expect to go through one with just Rs 7,000? But since they had borrowed, it had helped buy groceries that would last a couple of months, and so they hoped they will just scrape through, albeit with their egos scratched deep.

They did go through the month on just Rs 7,000, but the next month, this month, fate came calling with its sinister plans, as it eventually always does. Husband fell sick, and Wife wouldn’t agree on home remedies. She insisted that it wouldn’t cost much to see a doctor, it may just be a simple case of diarrhea, and she took him to the cheapest private hospital in the vicinity, even though she wasn’t herself sure about the costs. It turned out to be food poisoning, severe, and costed nearly two thousand rupees. They knew, while Husband was admitted in the clinic, given glucose drips for weakness, that they’d have to borrow from Aunt again, but they did not tell each other anything then. They had carried cash, so they stayed for five hours in the clinic, bought the medicines, paid, and came home for Husband to have more rest. A week passed, Husband recovered, and now the sight of only a few hundred-rupee notes left in the drawer left them numb and dumb.

“How can you be so sure he hasn’t eaten outside? Don’t trust your husband blindly, do you understand? I am your Aunt. You are a kid. I know how men are. Do you think if you Husband had Chicken Biryani with colleagues at work he will come home and tell you?” Aunt went on and on, as Wife tried desperately to hold her tears back and push wide a fake smile.

As Wife was going through the most humiliating moments of her life, Husband was having his most excruciating wait yet. This was his biggest interview, and he had gone through all six rounds of it, and hadn’t told Wife a thing. The office was a world in its own — it had private gardens, fountains, a canteen larger than a shopping mall food zone, indoor games and spacious smoking zones. He was mesmerised, but the glamour also intimidated him. As he sat waiting for the answer, the final word, he recalled the last interview, with the Vice-President of HR. He had asked him to be absolutely honest — I won’t judge you, just be yourself, he had said. Funny, Husband thought, why would you hold an interview if not to judge me? But he didn’t say it, of course, he just nodded. In fact, he said little. Largely, he dodged tough questions with a warm smile and a sophisticated nod of his head, even though his hands were shaking under the table.

“Tell me the worst thing you’ve ever done…”

It was a toughie. Should he? He decided against it.

“Umm… I usually never do this, but I once got into an argument and it lead to a fistfight. Road rage — the auto driver was just being a jerk, he cut my bike off, I fell on the road. It was just a one-off incident and I still regret hitting him. Never happened again, this was more than three years ago,” lied Husband, confidently.

“Ah, well! Auto drivers can be jerks. That’s not too bad. But, you don’t otherwise usually lose your temper, right?”

Now awaiting his verdict, Husband regretted relating even that incident to the VP. What if he is not convinced it was a one-time thing? What if he takes me as just another young man with a quick fuse? And he sat cursing himself, his eyes closed, lips pressed in anguish, regret and fear.

“Hi there, Congratulations!” said a pleasant female voice, and in twenty minutes, he called work to say he’s not coming back from ‘lunch break’. Some emergency, he told them, see you tomorrow, and rushed home.

Wife saw a shaking, grinning Husband after a long, long time. At first, it filled her with rage. This bugger is happy to see I have got the cash from Aunt? I’ll make him go fetch it next time! But, as she kept staring, she noticed there’s something on his mind, something sweet trying to escape from those quivering lips.

***

Aunt was taken aback by the ring of the bell. Who would it be, this time of the day? That girl came, took money, left. Maid came and left. Nobody dares to come over without asking first. Who rings the bell? If it is the neighbour’s annoying kids again, ringing the bell and running away just for fun, they’re going to have a hard time dealing with me, she said to herself, as she opened the door expecting to see nobody.

What she saw was her ‘kid’, the Wife, her nephew’s wife, the girl she just told her sisters about, the girl who had the shameless gall to ask for money yet again. But, Wife was standing there with the same bunch of notes in her hand, as if offering the money to her, hands held out. More disturbingly, Wife was smiling. There was a glow on her face, a glint of mischief or victory in her eyes — Aunt couldn’t tell which. They stood there looking at each other for a moment, Aunt studying Wife, Wife letting Aunt do all her guesswork.

“What is it?” asked Aunt impatiently.

“We don’t need it anymore. Husband got a new job. It starts next week,” Wife said in a rush, her voice small but sounding excited.

“What?” Aunt shouted, disturbed, angry, shocked or just plain defiant — Wife couldn’t tell.

“Yes. It’s an engineer’s job. I didn’t know either; he kept the interviews secret. His work skills at the current job apparently helped him land this one. He’ll be responsible for maintenance of computer networks. They will pay him Rs 18,000 for the first six months and Rs 26,000 from the seventh month. It’s Bank of America.”

“What?” shrieked Aunt, this time louder, and Wife grinned wider.