The Red Veil
The Red Veil13 mins 472 13 mins 472
She had been looking at her red veil for hours now. Only the place had changed. She started looking at it when she was at home, then when she was at the wedding hall and now finally when she reached her husband’s home. The veil was bright red in colour and decorated with glistening beads. A golden shimmery mane stitched at the edge made it look more like a bridal veil. It was uncomfortably placed on her head but it flowed well to cover her face and shoulders. The veil worked as a façade to conceal the apprehension on her face during the entire wedding. She could feel the heaviness of the sindoor on her forehead. She knew it was not the maang tikka. The deliberately stitched blouse and lehenga graced her lean body beautifully. She could smell the fragrance of the flowers that adorned her long-braided hair. Her hands were painted adeptly with henna in delicate floral patterns. Her oversized, red bangles clustered close to her elbows and annoyed her soft hands. She was sitting attentively on a large bed. She hugged her folded knees slackly. The warm glass of milk stood cozily next to the bed lamp. The room was fairly large and ornamented with red roses. Although on the ground floor, the big window in the room welcomed some cold breeze. The ladies were singing melodiously outside, but for her, it was sheer dissonance. It was not all these things that were making Meera uncomfortable. It was the wedding she had just had.
Meera heard some footsteps close in. Her heart skipped a beat. She knew it was her husband Kumar. She tightly held to her lehenga, as if she would grasp her friend’s hand. But as the footsteps got louder, they surpassed her room and then faded away. She heaved a sigh of relief. It was not that she disliked her husband Kumar. It’s just that she had never met him. That’s how it happened in her small village in India. Many of her friends didn’t even get to see how their husbands looked till the first night. She had however pulled his picture out of her father’s diary when he was sleeping and got a glimpse. It had not stayed with her. She had even tried looking at him from the veil but she could not.
She reminisced how her friend Amba had once mentioned to her, “Meera, I am the eldest so I will have to marry. It’s just that I don’t really know what marriage is.”
Meera did not know what marriage is either. No one had ever told her. All her life, she had seen her mother only cooking and taking care of the entire family. Her mother’s day would start with them and end with them. She would just obey their father acquiescently and did everything he asked her to do. She could not recall her having any friends, pouring her heart out or even seeing her face for a long time without a veil. She knew that after marriage she would have to do the same thing. Her four elder sisters and her friends did the same thing. Everyone else she had seen married did the same thing. Except for the doctor who had come to give them the free Hepatitis injections, the volunteers from the NGO, the sales girls from the nearby big villages and of course some of the actresses from the few Hindi movies and TV serials that she saw. She didn’t know why the movies she saw showed women in everything that men did in the village. She recollected how once for Diwali they had started playing a movie that showed how a village girl followed her dreams. All the families had created such a hue and cry that they had to stop the movie half way. But her brother, Gopal, who lived in Mumbai had told her many anecdotes of the houses where he worked. He had told her that women there had a lot of freedom than the ones in the villages. She even knew that the married women there would behave contrarily, but she didn’t know why. The folk songs of the women praising the bridegroom got gaudier. She shut her ears tightly. Her neck was stiff looking down only towards her stomach the whole day. She gently rolled it to release the pain. She spotted the dal she had dropped on her lehenga as she essayed to eat with her veil on.
It was not that Meera never wanted to marry. It was just that she did not want to stop going to school for it.
Her mother used to always tell her, “Good daughters never say no to their parents.” She had never said no. She had never said no to help her mother with the house chores. She would go to school but also help her mother for anything and everything. She would never say no when she was asked to clean and cook during her sisters’ weddings and child births. She would burn the midnight oil to study as she never found time in the day. She loved to work with colours, threads and beads. When she created embroidery patterns on a piece of cloth, her work was touted across the nearby villages. Her parents often sold them for some extra money. Meera would also frequent her father’s scrap shop to read the rarely found English newspapers and magazines. There too, she had never said no to help her father to do the calculations or assist him with the organizing.
Meera was a topper in school as well. The boy who had stood second had once jested with her, “I will pay you to come second. Anyways after a year or two you will get married!” She had slapped him and ran away. She was fortunate that no one had seen them and he was too embarrassed to tell anyone about it. That was the only time she had missed going to school for two days.
She had never said no even to her marriage. She just wanted to complete school and marry. She wanted to read more books. She wanted to learn more. Gopal had once told her that she can be a librarian. The job was to just sit and look after books. She didn’t know such a thing existed. She had spoken to her mother about it. Her brother stopped visiting her after that. She knew her parents were responsible for it. But what could her parents do. They were just following what others around them did. They only had a handful left after marrying off all their daughters. The gold chain that she now wore, the dainty gold earrings and a few clothes is all the dowry that they had given. She had once told her father that she will take care of all of them if he lets her study and marry late. He had laughed it off thinking it’s a joke. She had given a weak smile to hide her tear.
Kumar’s family was slightly affluent but completely traditional. She knew she could not complete schooling after marriage. She had tried that for her friend, Rajni. She would run after school to her home that was thirty minutes away to share the days school work and notes. It all went well for a month till one day when they were caught and it all ended. Her red veil, again, very calmly took in her tears.
Meera heard a thud on the door. She looked through her veil but no one entered. She probably thought it’s the window and ignored. The ladies continued singing. She looked at the time and realized that although her thoughts were racing in all directions, time was passing slowly. It had just been forty minutes that she had entered. There was a long way to go. She got up and pulled her doll from her cloth bag and hugged her. She then took out her history notebook and hugged it. As she flipped its pages, a warm tear fell on the full marks that she had achieved. A visiting card fell off from it. It was of the teacher from the NGO, Meera. She remembered how she was in total awe of her when she had visited her school. She looked like an actress herself with a clear, dusky complexion. She wore a Jaipuri cotton sari with elephant motifs on it. Her ears and neck were embellished with heavy silver jewellery. It complimented her heavily done up hazelnut eyes. She had taught the school kids on respecting their families and also on some basic civil rights. She and her team had also given all the kids many clothes and stationery. As she spoke, Meera had sketched her portrait. After her class, Meera had handed over her the sketch. She was overwhelmed.
As they walked out of the corridor, Meera started asking her questions.
“Are you married?”
Meera said, “No, not yet!”
Meera had immediately asked, “But Teacher, you look as if you have finished school.”
“Of course, I have. But I am not ready to marry.”
Meera had said,” Neither were my friends, but they got married!”
“Your friends from school? But they will not even be 18. It is illegal to marry before that! Don’t you know?” Meera spoke as her eyebrows raised with her voice.
Meera inoffensively said, “18! No, I don’t. Who was supposed to tell us this? Is it going to be taught to us in school? None of the fairy tale books told me that. Neither the TV. Nor did my parents tell me this. I try to read the English papers once a month. It does not mention this as well. Is there a Bollywood song on it?”
You could see the shudder on the face of Meera. The girl was right. Although many things were being done for women she conjectured if all of them knew about it? How many were actually informing the uneducated or the still being educated on their rights? There is so much being communicated to women through books, short stories, print and digital media. But what about the ones who don’t have access or have limited access to it? She knew there are so many who donate, but are there any who actually tell these girls their liberties? Do they know what privileges they are entitled to from the government? She herself would go to many small villages but had she or her organization ever followed up on what was being done after that? Child marriage is only one thing that this girl in front of her was unaware of. She knew there were many more things that the countless rural Indian women needed to know. Her mouth went dry. As a tear rolled down her cheek, it brought down some kajal from her eyes.
Meera innocently continued, “Oh Teacher. Is it like how the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer? Will it be that the women in the towns and metros are getting more liberal while we still drown ourselves with more veils?”
Meera hugged the little girl. She didn’t know if it was because of a realization that had dawned on her or if she just didn’t understand what Meera had just said.
She had sympathetically said, “Life is an exam where the syllabus is unknown and question papers are not set. If you ever come across a difficult question don’t hesitate to call me.” She left after handing over her visiting card to Meera.
But Meera had done exactly that. The teacher’s words would always resonate in her mind. When life threw her a question on what she could do if she didn’t want to marry, she had remembered her. She had called the teacher myriad times and even left messages. From the phone booth, from her friend’s phone and even from Gopal’s phone. But the phone was always switched off. She had sketched herself helping other girls achieve what they want in life as a gigantic silhouette of Meera overlooked her. If not help, she had decided to ensure that they don’t get married when they were in school. But the veracity of the situation remained that when she really wanted an answer, the teacher was not there. She thought the teacher would be her fairy Godmother but she was nowhere to be seen. Now she just thought that she was like all the others who came for a while and then left. Meera knew she was in an absolute cul-de-sac. As the window blew in some breeze, the red veil smothered her.
Meera was stranded. She had knocked on all doors. She wanted to run away long back, but she had thought about her parents. She knew she could earn with her work but what if she couldn’t. Even now she just wanted to run away from that room. But she wondered to what and where. Now that she was married she knew her parents will never take her back. She had not even seen the world beyond a few close villages. The nearest villagers also knew Kumar and his family. What would she eat and how would she earn? Will the gold ornaments she had help her settle down in her new life? She was only about to enter the ninth grade. She had many questions but no answers.
In her heart, Meera was ready to run away. But physically everything was tying her down. She wished if she could just see clearly on which path to choose, but from the past six hours all she was doing was looking at her red veil.
It was now a good one hour but Kumar had not entered the room. She just wished he never entered. The ladies had stopped singing. She sat there with the veil still on her face. It was now blinding her. She was so engrossed in saving her school that she had not really thought about this night. When Chakori visited her last summer, Meera had asked her if the stork had visited her. Chakori had let out some giggles. She had told Meera that whatever her husband does to her in bed she should accept it. Meera had frowned. She never liked it even when her elder sister stole her blanket in the bed.
When she was leaving for her husband’s home her mother had reiterated the same thing. “Whatever you do, don’t stop him! You are now owned by your husband. Whatever he asks you to do, you have to do it. If he tries removing your clothes, let him do it. If he touches you here, here or here don’t nudge him.” She had said this after placing her hand on Meera’s bosom, then her derrière and finally underneath her skirt. “If you are feeling ashamed, just close your eyes. If you keep him happy, you will be happy.”
She had not realized it then. But the thought now made her vomit. She got a weird feeling in the stomach and ran towards the bathroom door. When she finished, she started crying. But she instantly gathered herself. She washed her face and went and stood next to the window to get some fresh air. She decided that if she hears the footsteps, she will run back to the bed.
The fresh air made her feel better. The veil was still on her face, but the air kissed her through it. The window overlooked the street in front of the house. She saw some flamboyantly clad women entering and exiting from the main door. As she was about to turn away she saw a woman not dressed as the others. She, unlike the others, kept looking at her window. She wore a Jaipuri cotton sari with elephant motifs. Meera completely lifted her red veil. They both exchanged smiles.
After an hour, Kumar was ushered to the room by his drunk friends. He knew it was going to be his best night ever. Meera was one of the most beautiful girls that everyone in the village adored. He had already fantasized about Meera. He had not asked for dowry, so that they would not ask his age. He walked in and in his inebriated state slowly latched the door. The aroma of the roses uplifted his mood. The window was now fully open. Meera’s bag was missing. The mangalsutra he had just worn around her neck lay on the bed. Her ripped, red veil lay next to it.