“A hundred and twenty three rupees Madam.”
Almost weeping with gratefulness at not having been assaulted, Rajani depleted her meager resources by pressing 150 rupees in his hand. “Thank you Bhaiyyaji.”
Rajani looked around ISBT with a sense of relief. Never had she been happier to see such a crowded place bustling with activity.
Feeling safer, braver and calmer, Rajani asked around and purchased an ordinary bus ticket to Chandigarh for rupees 333. If she hadn’t been so generous with the auto driver perhaps she could have afforded the deluxe bus ticket for Rs. 545. But she didn’t care. She felt victorious. She was going home on her own steam. She didn’t need anyone or anyone’s permission. She was educated, capable and independent.
Spying a phone booth she dialed their home number.
“Papa!” Rajani burst into tears upon hearing her father’s voice.
“Rani! Where are you? We have been frantic with worry.”
“Y…you know?” She quavered.
“Your father-in-law called up. Beta you shouldn’t have….”
Rajani’s tears dried up. “I shouldn’t have what? What did he tell you Papa?”
“He told me that you were rude to your MIL and you had run out of home in a fit of anger.”
“He’s lying! He threw me out of the house without any money or my phone.”
“Okay okay relax beta. Go back home. I am coming over. We’ll sort this out.”
“There’s nothing to sort Papa. I am not going back there ever again. I am at the ISBT and I have bought a ticket to Chandigarh. The bus leaves in half and hour.”
“ISBT? At this time of the night?” Suryakant was shocked. “No. No. You stay there. We’ll come over.”
“No Papa. I am coming. I can’t wait here until you come.” Flush with her newfound wings of independence, she disconnected the phone.
A bottle of water, two packets of chips and a chocolate – Rajani was set for the journey. Despite being squeezed into the corner by a fat lady sharing her seat holding a smelly squalling baby Rajani felt euphoric. She had escaped. She was free. She would be the mistress of her own life with no masters or mistresses to kowtow to. Her heart gave a twinge – Harsha. Just when she was beginning to know him, understand him…
But…but she couldn’t, wouldn’t go back there. Nothing would induce her to go back there.
It was time to wipe the slate clean and start afresh. Which she would – divorce was no longer a bad word. This was the twenty-first century and people got divorced everyday. And she could have her marriage annulled. If she could bring herself to discuss that aspect. This time she would, she vowed to herself. You won’t discuss with anybody will you? You wouldn’t make me a laughing stock would you? She faltered. She couldn’t betray Harsha could she? Well she would think about that later. She would focus on and enjoy her freedom for now.
As dawn broke over the horizon, the bus rolled through increasingly familiar landscapes and landmarks. Rajani could barely restrain herself from jumping up and down in excitement. She was home! She had made it on her own. The journey from the bus station would be a cakewalk. She had enough money to hire an auto.
Getting down from the bus, Rajani looked around. “Papa!” Both Suryakant and Abhi were there to receive her.
“Are you okay beta?” He scanned her face worriedly.
She gave a brilliant smile. “Never better Papa, never better. Oh Papa I feel so free I could dance.” Exuberant and euphoric after successfully overcoming a crisis, she hugged him and Abhi.
“Okay okay. Let’s go home. Abhi you drive,” he unlocked the car and gave the keys to him, “I have to call your mother and Goelji.”
The bright day dimmed. “Why are you calling him?”
“But of course I have to call them beta. They are worried…”
“Worried!” Rajani spat. “I bet they are. Anybody would be if they lost their unpaid servant.”
“Rani!” Suryakant stared at her. “What are you saying?”
“The truth Papa. They are mean and horrible people Papa. And I am not going back there. Ever again.”
“Let’s go home and discuss this calmly. You must be tired and hungry.”
“There’s nothing to discuss Papa. I am not going back there. Period.” Rajani was adamant.
“Rani!” Nisha enfolded her in arms and seeing her mother’s tears, Rajani’s dam also burst and they cried their hearts out. Until Sameer joined in.
“Oh Sammy darling!” Rajani wiped her face and turned to coo and cuddle her nephew. “Hello Bhabhi.”
“What happened Rani?” Nisha asked. “We all nearly died of a heart attack. Moving alone at night. Why did you have to take such a drastic step?”
“I took a drastic step?” Rajani flared up. “I didn’t do any such thing Mamma. Harsha’s mother had deliberately hidden my DU interview call letter. I was just asking her why she had done such a thing when Papa literally threw me out of the house. With no money. No phone. What was I supposed to do? Beg them to take me in?”
“Where was Harsha?” Asked Suryakant.
“He was still at work.”
“You should have waited for him. Suppose something had happened on the way?” Suryakant said.
“But nothing happened right?” she spread her arms. “I am safe and sound aren’t I?”
“You should have waited for Harsha.” Nisha reiterated.
Rajani was furious. “Why? So that he could take me back to that hellhole? No way. I refuse to go back there again.”
“Rani…” Nisha said in a warning tone
“No!” Rajani jumped up. “I don’t understand why everyone is so keen to absolve them of any guilt and put all the blame on my head? What did I do?” She didn’t realize it but she was screaming, “I followed my father-in-law’s dictates didn’t I? He wanted me to get out of his house and that’s what I did. So…”
“That’s the thing beta.” Suryakant interrupted. “They can’t throw you out of the house. You are married to Harsha. By law you have every right to stay in that house as anybody else…”
“But Papa I don’t like to stay anywhere where I am not wanted or on sufferance. If you told me to get out of here,” Rajani’s voice wobbled, “I would get out of here too.” An emotionally overwrought Rajani buried her face in a cushion and burst into heartrending sobs.
Nisha embraced her. “Nobody is telling you to get out of here Rani. This is your home. But your place is by your husband…”
“Mamma, please don’t force me to go back there again.” Rajani clutched her mother. She waved her hands at Abhi and Ritu who were watching silently. “Because of Bhai and Bhabhi I had to get married but now they are married what is the need for me to stay married? Let me stay here please. Please Mamma. Please Papa!” Rajani was hysterical.
“Okay okay,” Suryakant intervened. “Okay relax beta. Nisha feed her. She must be hungry and tired. We’ll talk later.” He shook his head at his wife.
“Come along beta. Wash up and change. I’ll make breakfast.”
After a bath and wearing an old night suit of hers Rajani felt she was home. She would eat and go to sleep.
“You must be starving. What did you eat for dinner?”
“Chips! Why didn’t you eat…?”
“I was lucky to have some money in one of my pockets.” Rajani shuddered. “Otherwise I don’t know what I would have done.”
“Have another paratha Rani. You look starved.”
“I am starved Mamma. Do you know I have lost 10 kgs?”
“Why? Don’t they give you enough to eat?” Suryakant asked.
“Food is counted and cooked in their house Papa. Not just rotis but veggies too. Two pieces of potatoes for each person. Two tablespoon dal for each person. By the time I finish serving everyone and sit down to eat, if someone has had an extra serving, I have to eat roti with the left over curry minus the veggie. Mamma,” she turned to Nisha, “tell me how much of bhindi do you cook at a time for a meal?”
“Bhindi? Half kilo. Why?” Nisha was puzzled.
“You are four and so are we. But they cook only 250 grams, even if guests land up. Seeing so little food on the table I feel too embarrassed and constrained to serve myself.”
“But you should. You shouldn’t starve yourself…”
Rajani yawned and shrugged. “Oh what does it matter now? I am out of it. And I am off to sleep. Good night.” She tottered away.
“It is very important to know who you are. To make decisions. To show who you are.” Malala Yousafzai