"What is UGLY, NANI?"
It was a beautiful August day. I was watching the "aurora borealis", the northern lights I had listed as one of the first five in my famous "BLUE bucket list" as I wondered when I would be back home, in India. I missed my country.
“I don’t like it here, though I chose this country as my own after my son chose my daughter-in -law from this beautiful place. It is as beautiful as I had imagined, maybe a little more............... but it still did not feel like HOME!”
The self deprecating thoughts crossed my mind. And maybe I looked really sad.
“Nani, I’m back”, with that my 5 year old granddaughter Storm, climbs up and sits on my lap.
She looks up at me and says, “ Why are you sad ?”,
I answer “ what makes you think I’m sad?”,
Storm says, “you look sad”,
I stick out my tongue and wiggle my eyebrows at her and say, “ Do I look sad now?”, and then I tickle her really ticklish spots.
Through her erupting giggles, she manages to say, “No!” “So tell me, what did you learn at school today?” I neatly side track her perturbing question.
“Huh, my teacher taught us new words: pretty, beautiful, ugly, plain and, for the next class, she asked me to find out what “ugly” meant, what does it mean nani?”
And just like that, that simple question from the mouth of a 5 year old took me wandering down memory lane to my dreams as a new bride, my nightmares as an UGLY wife and the first taste of freedom at the age of 45 years as a soon-to-be-divorcee. I shook away the tears that threatened to spill over as I looked out in the distance.
I don’t know where to begin, as a lifetime of memories crowd my mind and then even before I realised it, I was back home.........
It was a cold morning on November 7th, 1997 in Ahmedabad, India. I was tired of meeting prospective grooms and either finding them lacking or falling short of their expectations. I sneaked a look from behind the curtains, I am not sure if it was him I saw or someone else, but he looked pretty darn handsome to me. And the biodata said he shared his birthday with me....2nd October 1968, three years older to me.
Shaili and Priya, my cousins storm into the room, giggling and whispering, “Di, He is very handsome and so soft spoken. I think this time he is the right guy.” I roll my eyes at that thinking of all the experiences I have had, till so far, meeting some 100 odd prospective bride grooms. Mom shouts, “Priya!, Take Sahil bhai to your cousin, and stay with her.” Shaili, my younger cousin, jumps up at the opportunity and giggling, pushes me inside her room. Still giggling she says, “Dad was saying that he is an Anaesthetist, a MD ”. She sighs “You are so lucky, handsome and rich, what we all dream about,” I retort “Well, what can I say, it’s all karma darling”. ( Later I could not forget this playfully made remark to my cousin and wished I had never said it.)
I catch the pillow Shaili throws at me and laughing, drop down on the recliner as she continues to tease me, but I don’t mind. As I throw the pillow back at her, it lands squarely on Sahil’s face as he enters the room with Priya. For a first meeting, that itself was memorable.
He promised there would be no dowry demands, (that was the main fear I and other girls my age faced in the 1990s when dowry deamnds and dowry deaths were so rampant.)he promised to always love me, and he promised...... almost everything that I asked him for. It sounded, suspiciously, too good to be true. But I was naive and my eyes were filled with dreams.
My world as a child had been sweet, innocent, and complete. Being the first grandchild, I got everything I demanded from my parents and relatives as I was the apple of their eye. I was good at singing, dancing, debates and inter school competitions. I was allowed to have an opinion about everything in life, as home and school was a flourishing environment. Friends and family used to seek me out for advice, fun, decision making, outings. In college, I was confident, fair and a reasonably beautiful girl. I could talk smartly and intelligently. I guess, my parents brought me up well, ( this was unfortunately the era in which women were taught to be empowered but men were not taught to live with such empowered women) I however, missed absorbing one big important moral in today’s world... and that was to be street smart.
Before I could get a chance to be street smart, I was married to Shobhan, the man I met through a match maker. We shared a birthday; I so wanted our wedding to also be on 2nd October. But his family were in a real hurry. They didn’t want another broken engagement for Shobhan in all probability, and I should have smelt a rat then itself, but I was in love with the idea of love and through that rosy haze, I saw no warning of the forthcoming nightmare in my life.
The wedding was scheduled for 16th of May 1998.
I decided I would be happier in a joint family but, there being the younger daughter-in-law, I had to only serve, listen and obey. I felt trapped and my freedom caged in the dark dungeon of tradition and hypocrisy. Suddenly, a very sharp, liberated and educated mind was put to use just in the kitchen doing basic cooking. I had many questions without any answers. Tradition wipes away your identity and commands you to live the life of prisoner? How is it that tradition is so partial to men and they are never frowned upon for coming home late or drinking or not providing for their wife? ......................................I ceased to think.
Soon, there were indirect dowry demands while I was left to fend for my own existence. If I earned money, there was food on the table. His responsibility was only to pay the electricity bills.
And then just like parched earth gets drenched in fresh rain, I realized I was expecting a baby and the overwhelming fragrance of petrichor filled my being. I remember when Dheer was born, I felt alive again as if, life had a new meaning for me. “I am a mother!” I felt. His little hands, his sweet, innocent face, his soft body made me feel very proud to have him in my life. Not to mention, I was young, and capable of earning a lot. I decided to act on this inspiration and give him a life and home he deserved. I started working like a dog, when he was just 6 months old to ensure his bright future.
“I am his mother, I brought him into this world...I am responsible for him”, I thought to myself. I ensured that the dark shadows of parental fights would never be seen by my young angel. I guess this thinking does not extend to all fathers who are equally responsible for a child that comes into the world by the union of two and not just out of the womb of one!
But, sometimes, the very thing you never wish for in life...happens. After years of endurance, my silence was tested and the lava from my mountain of patience, erupted to destroy our home and everything on the way. There was so much of pain, hurt, anger and deprivation in that lava that it left nothing on its way.
By now, everyone in the entire district had heard of my news. People were showering me with their advice, albeit unsolicited one’s, about how to make sure that my marriage ended well for my two children. ( In a desperate attempt to save my 17 year old marriage or perhaps the 17 golden years of my life that I had invested in this maarriage, I had allowed the birth of a second child, a girl child after my son turned 10)
The word "ugly had flashed in my mind a day before the wedding, when I looked into the mirror. I generally avoided looking into it, as much as possible because well, that’s another place where self loathing and singular disregard for one’s uniqueness, clouds one’s thoughts and appreciation for everything else takes a back seat, but still, I looked, just to wonder, as to how I got to be so lucky. I had seen a 19 years old me, kind of pretty but not Rekha pretty. His gorgeous face on the other hand, came to my mind and looking at my reflection, I think that maybe, I was just born lucky. Bollywood painted romance it was, but not the kind you wished came real for you. I was married and brought into my in-laws house. The first night spent there made me realise that I was in for a very rude awakening.
The whole family focussed only on money, were hungry for it and were disappointed that my family did not give them enough. After that, everytime we fought, every single hour of every single day, it was purely for money that I was not putting on the tan\ble that was our unfortunate marriage. They were blind to what I was getting. I survived the marriage, I survived life, and I think it’s only because of my child, Dheer, who came into my life like a saviour. Sahil too changed a little, after that, but only for our son! (male child??) I was not sure that a monster like him was capable of actually loving another human being, but the atmosphere at home and its perception changed and was more bearable. He still didn’t understand me; we still fought, like animals, every single day.
I used to look in the mirror and see a different type of UGLY, then and it was not just the scars and bruises, which I hid from Dheer and the world, but also the UGLY soul I had decided to conjoin with and the resultant UGLY soul I had become.
I think Dheer already knew that I was an unhappy soul, because some times as a kid, he would often take my hand and say,
“Ma, I will take you away, just wait for some time”, and I would joke, “where will my raja beta take me?”, and his reply would bring tears to my eyes, he would say, “I’ll take you home, Ma,...... my home.”
I could not stand his face any more because it reminded me of the futility of all the things that I had been glad for and dreaming of at the tender age of 19. I sometimes wished that I had said no to that marriage, but how was I supposed to know that behind those perfectly god like symmetrical features was a soul so UGLY that you wished you never came near to it. I was asked to wait patiently, that one of these days, he will understand me, that he would change, and to this day, I am still waiting.
On 16th May 2018, 3 years after the separation and bitter court fight, still months, maybe years away from the final decree of divorce, I still remember the day as if it was only yesterday. I was browsing through Facebook and stalking random strangers and realized that Shobhan had been engaged to a 25 year old for a week, now and I had had no clue!
" Not yet divorced and already engaged to a 25 year old????? He is almost 50, what is he thinking for god’s sakes!? I remember crying through the entire night and the weekend that followed – feeling absolutely lost, angry, betrayed, yet not sure what to do…….
“Have to learn to be tough”, I said to myself. That afternoon I was randomly scrolling through Pinterest and came across a pin that said, “If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to change your life, run a marathon”. I was so desperate for things in life to change that without thinking clearly, I enrolled myself to run a full marathon of 21 kms. Even as it hit me, to make things worse, I began publicizing it to everyone I knew. Everyone laughed at my crazy idea and some warned, “It’s not as easy as you think!”
After looking at a zillion training plans online, I finally picked one that suited me and decided to train at the Mahalaxmi racecourse. The first few weeks were light and it felt great with the walk /run method. My first long run was a full 1km and I hated it, hated the entire 1km.
One month later, I pondered, “It’s been a month of running now and I’m still not able to run the whole round of 2.2km, how hard could it be?”
And then I began the tiresome round of the race course. By 1.6km I thought, “That’s it, I can’t go any further”. Since it is an open ground you can see the billboards and street lights at the other end. So I picked a street light and told myself, “All I have to do is run till that lamp.” With my eyes locked on that lamp I continued one foot in front of another. My lungs burned and my legs felt like lead. My eyes were blurry and I could hear my heart beat in my ears, but all I knew was that I had to reach that lamp. Suddenly, nothing mattered, all the noise that went on in my mind had stopped. The pain in different parts of my body was forgotten. The feeling of grass brush against my ankles didn’t annoy. The scent of the sea breeze coupled with horseshit didn’t bother me. Everything went quiet. It felt like time had frozen and all that mattered was getting to that street lamp. And I finally did get there! It felt great as I began jumping around, inviting awkward stares.
But that peace, that quiet, that stillness had got to me. I wanted it again. I remember a history chapter back in school on Baji Prabhu’s fight against the Moghuls as he blocked the mountain pass so that Shivaji could reach the fort (Panhala, was it?) safely. As he fought hundreds of them singlehandedly, I bet all he had in his mind was the same focus I had in mine. “Don’t let the Moghuls pass.” As weeks passed, my runs got longer (and my shorts got shorter). I began running 10, 15, 19 and finally 21kms, every week a new distance. I cried as I ran up the hills and fell flat on my face as I ran down. I got up and ran again. I sprinted, jogged and walked. My calves got stronger and I got leaner. My eyes got blurry, my lungs burned, now even my teeth hurt. But I ran and every time I ran the world ceased to exist.
Come 17th Jan and there I was at the start line, I ran (actually crawled). Fellow runners motivated each other to move ahead. Everytime I stopped to walk or get some water someone always came by saying “Come on don’t stop”, I had a sudden feeling of belonging; a part of a big family. Yes I finished my race and it felt great.
Honestly, I don’t really remember much of the feeling I had when I finished the race than what I had when I ran it. I continued running. I ran another race, then another and then I gate crashed a race. The focus, discipline, peace and calmness running has brought to me is how it changed my life. The serenity that came with running made me feel like Buddha in a state of Zen. As I ran the only sounds I heard were my foot striking the ground and my heart beat every time I drew in a breath. I had created my own little rhythm. I ran faster and then I ran slower and then faster again, dancing to the sound of my own music!
I saw him in the crowd at the Thane Hiranandani Half; him and his newly wedded wife (did she even know that without a divorce, her marriage to him was not legal and he was merely using her for his physical or monetary need???)cheering for someone. That could’ve have been me next to him, cheering; never knowing what it would feel like to be alive. Never knowing so much peace and quiet; never finding my rhythm. and he looked so UGLY! So I thank him for being the jerk he was, without which I would have never known what it is like to RUN!
"Nani!, what does it mean?”, I look down at Storm’s pretty face and looking at her I only hope that she never learns the true meaning of that word, that all she ever learns is that meaning in the dictionary; and not the one that life will in all probability teach her. I hope she gets spared, just this once. “Nani?” I look outside the window and answer,” I don’t know, my child, all I know, is that it’s all within.”
I wonder why men have an option to be responsible? Why they are taught and they learn that a woman is just supposed to cook and serve them meals while she is capable of running a house and a country, if need be? Why they do not realise the damage they do to so many people and their lives, with this wrong attitude? Today, if approached by men who show light of love there is chaos in my thoughts as I keep on thinking of what to do in my given situation, to stay... calm and composed?
Every action and decision is crucial and life changing. I have few thoughts for this situation, which sum up my emotions. I am like a mirage, a traveler wandering in the sands of time, trying to leave my past behind. The sun blazes at times & is not so very kind but i hunt for my oasis as my skin weathers in the hot sun and my features look UGLY??? I search everywhere, but, I cannot seem to find my oasis though I feel there is water a little ahead of vision. I keep wondering if this oasis will be filled with pure water that I desire, a fountain of youth to dispel my UGLY and the ugliness in my soul. So, I gathered this traveler within me, and made my blue bucket list and set out on this lonely dessert . Amidst all chaos I find my peace and BEAUTY with my travels so far away from home but the UGLY is not at home, it just resides in my soul....and I just have to let go.….if i do UGLY is not at home..... ITS TIME TO GO BACK HOME!