Faltu: Meaningless. Without a purpose. Without any promise. Imposed upon. Unwanted. Something that can be got rid of easily. Useless.
Thwackk! The blow was unexpected. Swift. Unnecessary. The blue and white carpet, with its odd, congested geometric pattern, rises up to meet me. I realize with a pang! that they are not flowers. They are just straight lines that criss-cross each other. Why didn’t I notice this before? Why did I think they were flowers? I am suddenly mortified, and then I am flying across the room. My body is a hot spring and a cold glacier melting into each other. The searing pain of contact. Black. Blue. Purple. Nights and days that cross each other off. The pain comes and goes. It travels up. Unravels down. A shimmering wave. A recurring nightmare. I smell the fear. Taste the blood. Crouching nights. Mindlessly long days. A never-ending doodle. Unread letters. Unwritten notes. Dreamless sleep. Unlived memories. Tabula rasa. Run. Keep running.
“Faltu, come here!” shrieked the plump old lady with a slight limp in her walk and white hair gathered neatly in a snaking thin plait. Her voice was shrill with annoyance.
“Grandma, I am here.”
A sweet, angelic little girl bounded towards the old woman. Her glossy ponytail was singing in the air. Lisps and milky breath. Faltu is the youngest of three sisters. She lives with her parents and a disgruntled grandmother in a highrise apartment in New Delhi. Her grandmother craves a grandson. Instead, she got served with three granddaughters. Before Faltu was conceived, grandma had taken Faltu’s mother to enough astrologers and priests, making her wait to be blessed in incense-filled rooms of self-styled godman’s and in temples. The smoke gagged her, but she kept quiet. After Faltu was conceived, the astrologer, the priests, and the voodoo man had all promised her grandmother that she’d be a boy child. Grandma had spent thousands of rupees in prayers and divine protections to ensure the third child would be a boy. But alas! A chubby little girl cried into this world. Neither her father nor her grandmother came to see her in the hospital. Her mother cried. Cursed her destiny. Cursed Faltu. And then her mother’s parents gifted her father a plush car. And Faltu went home.
But grandma still wants a grandson. Faltu irritated her. Her nonstop chatter irritated her. She was the death of her dreams.
“Did you know Mrs. Singh calls her granddaughter Faltu?”
“No! Really? But why?”
“Arre, you don’t know? She is exasperated with all of them. Faltu is her third granddaughter. Even after all that rituals and prayers. You know they also did a test? It is illegal, but they were cheated. The test had told them it was a boy. That is why she is so angry. She is desperate for a grandson.”
“And you can’t blame her, can you? I mean three daughters. Think of the dowry they will have to amass. Oh my god, I pity them.”
That night I woke up to a furious and insistent beating on my main door. I rub the sleep from my eye and hobble to the door. It’s a dishevelled-looking woman. Scared and confused.
“Please come! He is going to kill us all.”
“Please come now!”
She turns back and walks away, furious. She looks familiar, so I gather she is a neighbour and follow her, disoriented, to their house on the other end of the street, expecting murderers, robbers, and rapists. Instead, I find the old lady from the park trying to rein in a man who was shouting and gesticulating at a woman who stood there expressionless. An old couple—her parents— possibly stood nearby. It was her mother who had called me.
“I want you to sign these papers right now,” the man hollered at her. “You lying, cheating woman. Get out of the house with your fat arse and three daughters right now.”
She had bribed the radiologist to change her ultrasound report. She didn’t want to abort another child. She didn’t want to abort Faltu. I peered at the woman. I am shocked.
It was Anita.
A few years back, I had moved to a different city for a year. It was a small town, around fifty kilometers from here. I stayed in a low-rise apartment complex amongst mostly middle-class people who liked to be in and out of each other’s homes all the time. It was very different from the huge and impersonal apartment complex I live in now, where neighbors are strangers. Sometimes, they exchange plastic smiles. Not exactly knowing why or who they smiled at.
The day I was supposed to reach the town, I was late. I missed my train and caught a later one, which deposited me in the town much later than I had planned. As I was grappling to open the front door of the small apartment I was renting, I heard a gentle voice behind me.
“You need to turn it the other way?”
“Ah. Thank you.”
I beamed at the young girl of around 21 or 22.
“I am Anita. Your neighbor. Do you want any help?”
I didn’t. But I didn’t say that. Instead, I invited her in. In that strange town, I suddenly felt the need of a connection.
Once inside, I was gobsmacked at the condition of the apartment. The broker did say it was a new apartment, didn’t he? It didn’t look very new to me, with the cobwebs and grime and filth. I called the broker. He whined that he was planning to get it cleaned but wasn’t expecting me tonight, which is true. I did tell him I was coming the day after. I slap myself in my mind. I put my phone away and look up. Anita was gone.
I flopped down on my suitcase. Dejected. I didn’t have cleaning supplies, so that had to wait till the next morning. And I had to sleep in this horror house for at least 8 hours! I wanted to sob loudly. Throw a tantrum. Stomp out of the house. Go off to sleep then and there.
“Here you go.”
It was Anita, back with two cups of steaming tea.
I wanted to fall at her feet and cry happy tears. I took a sip of the strong, milky, sugary tea and looked at Anita.
Anita had a round, moonish face and slightly limp but long hair that reached her waist in an oily, nice-girl plait. She was overweight for her age and looked a little older than the 22 years she told me she was. She was dressed in a simple blue salwaar kameez and a pair of beaded sandals. She was very fair. Her face, despite the heaviness around the jowls, was sweet as a flower. I liked her immediately. We sat sipping tea too companionably for almost-strangers.
“I like what you are wearing – so stylish!” she said.
I was dressed in a pair of palazzo and a t-shirt with a scarf around my neck. I considered it simple traveling attire. But I gathered that in a small town, it might seem a bit foreign.
I smile at her. Pleased. Vanity!
“Do you study?” I asked
“Yes, I am in the second year of my MBA program.”
“Wow! That’s impressive.”
“Not really. There is nothing else to do. And as soon as my father fixes my marriage, he won’t even let me finish my studies,” she says, looking downwards.
“You don’t want to marry?”
“I want to go to the city and work in an office. I want to wear fashionable clothes like you and swing my hair and walk into work every day. I want to travel alone. I want to see the world—” She trails off. Her face is crimson, and I feel even more like a stranger.
Apart from the tea, she had also brought cleaning supplies and helped me quickly clean the apartment so I could get a good night’s sleep.
I stayed in that town for around a year. During that time, I met Anita on and off. But I saw her enough. I connected dots enough. Her story is the story of millions of young girls in this country who don’t have the luxury to dream. Learning early to stay invisible. Be a part of the furniture. To exist. Never live.
“Finally! FINALLY!” Mr. Patel was beaming from ear to ear.
It wouldn’t be wrong to say that he was in seventh heaven. After 3 years of constant search, he had finally found a groom for his daughter. As he dangled the plastic bags containing the sweet boxes that he will be distributing among the neighbors, he made a quick calculation of the cost of the wedding. It had to be grand, of course. Anita is his only daughter.Uff! I told her not to enroll in that MBA program. Such a waste of money. I had a feeling we will find a good match soon enough, he thought to himself.
“Congratulations. I hear your daughter’s marriage has been fixed?” His neighbor asks as Mr. Patel beams.
A woman in weird clothes. Loose pants and scarf and t-shirt. He forgets her name.
“Thank you. It is such a relief, I cannot express it in words. Have a sweet?”
“Is the wedding be next year?”
“No, no. As soon as possible. The groom’s side is very eager.”
“Will she continue with her studies post marriage?”
“Well, once she is married, she is their responsibility; I have no say. If they want, she will continue, but what’s the need? You know it’s the greatest day in a father’s life to see his daughter married and well-settled in life. You know how much difficulty we had fixing a good marriage for our daughter. We have been trying to get her a good match since she was 18!”
“Don’t you want her to finish her education?”
“Arre, she is educated enough. She can speaki English and can accompany her husband to parties and all. Apart from that, what good is education in the kitchen? Let her make some nice hot rotis for her husband and keep her mother in law happy and all will be well.”
I leave the town in a day or two, so I don’t get to attend Anita’s marriage. I’m not unhappy about it. After all, I never did learn to celebrate the death of dreams. Anita follows me to the station. Teary. Scared. I don’t know what to say. I did try talking to her father. It came to nothing. I was feeling guilty. Somehow responsible for all that is unfolding. I was feeling trapped. I couldn’t wait to leave. I am awkward. Embarrassed. I said a hurried goodbye and flee. As the train moved away from the station and her moon face diminished from view, I suddenly realized that I never took her phone number or her email address. Neither did I leave behind my details with her. I had learned to live life in full stops. Carrying forward has never come easy to me. I tell myself she will be okay. I always tell myself that. I believe that everyone is always okay.
But are they?
I gaze outside, unwilling to think more. But the trees, the flag posts, the swallows in a line on electric wires, the pooping babies by the railway tracks, the wild yellow flowers, the ponds and the streams, the clattering railway bridges, and the cows grazing in the fields mock me. They mock me in a way I don’t understand. There’s something stuck in my throat. There’s a suspended pain in my heart. I don’t know what to make of it all. I close my eyes and fall asleep.
We wait out the rest of that night in my apartment. The children are fitful. Disturbed. We ply them with pizza and fizzy drinks. Anita’s parents sit with stony faces. I don’t know what to do. I stare out of the balcony at some ugly concrete structures.
It’s Anita, with two mugs of tea. Her moon face has shrunk. There are dark circles under her eyes. I feel guilty.
“I have been living here for almost a year now, but we never met!”
“I hardly ever went out, Didi. I was not allowed.”
“Did you never protest? Ask for help?”
“From your parents, the police—” I trail off.
“My parents?” A hollow, scary sound comes out of her. She laughs.
“The day my father came home laden with boxes of sweets and wearing his ‘Ah! Finally’ smile, something in me died. The father who had skimped on buying books or on pocket money will now spend thousands and lakhs planning a grand wedding for me.”
“Why did you agree to the marriage?” I ask.
“I was in my late twenties. I might have been a school and college topper, but I am not fair. I am not a ‘good looking’ girl. I am also not tall or thin. I am also not enough subservient. I refused to learn to roll a chapati. I now realize what a fool I was! What good will an MBA degree be in the kitchen? So, the groom my father found me was a school dropout. But he could take me off his hands.”
“So what if they had to bribe him and his family with a luxury car and an expensive honeymoon abroad? They have been saving for just this ever since I was born, right? Because marriage is the only future they foresaw for me. But alas! The expensive gifts didn’t stop the shoving around that started after I gave birth to my first daughter. They couldn’t cover up the bruises under my eyes or my broken nose, which, they pretend not to see every time I visit them.”
“Why didn’t you go to the police?”
I immediately feel foolish. I just saw them advising her parents to settle and not wash their dirty linen in public. But Anita ignores me. I am not there for her anymore. She is standing on the balcony, staring out at the huge universe, looking for but not finding a place for herself. She looks so alone. She is talking to herself. I am just the catalyst.
“It’s my parents who taught me that despite my degrees, if I can’t roll out a round chapatti in the kitchen and serve it hot to my unkind, undeserving husband every night, I will be an abject failure. It is because of them that I am today a humiliated, tortured, and broken woman. I know I am unloved, unnecessary, and unwanted. I know I am Faltu. Just the way my daughters are. You know my mother in law calls my youngest daughter Faltu?” She looks at me. “Oh! You know?!”
I nod. Embarrassed. Defeated.
Anita lives with her parents now, and with her three daughters. I want to speak to her, share a part of me, help her heal. But I don’t know how to complete someone with incompleteness. One morning a few months later, as I am sipping my first cup of tea in the balcony, she calls me. We talk for awhile, mostly in silences. I know what she wants to hear. But I don’t tell her anything. I don’t tell her of the sounds of happiness and music that floats to my house from my neighbor’s. Or of the impending nuptials. Or of the ugly flower decorations.
Instead, I tell her the tale of a broken and abused woman. A woman who forced the universe to make her a place. I tell her the tale of a woman in a palazzo pant, t-shirt, and a scarf.
Author’s Note: “Faltu” is a story that is very close to my heart. It is a commentary on gender injustice in India and how women are still struggling for their rightful place in society. It is a slice of reality that the Indian society has still a long way to go to ensure a safer and equal world for their daughters.