Everything was burning around me including my house, mother, father, and siblings. The tandav* dancing waves of the yellow-orange fire were engulfing everything and everyone, in its way. I was running to escape it but the fire was coming close to me, extending her long hands. Oh, my back is burning…my skin is charring…I can’t take this heat…
Oh, again the same dream!
Amrita woke up from this dream, sweating…. panting. Almost five years now, but still, she was not able to forget that fateful day when her mother had committed suicide by burning herself, why?- she didn’t know. She was ten then. Now a teenager and soon would be going to a junior college.
But will my father’s wife let me go? For her I am the ‘dead burden’ of the family, that’s why she always calls me ‘Mui’*… or “this girl” in front of outsiders but never calls me by my name! Will she spend money on this ‘burden’? Maybe she will if I do not sit with Papa and talk about Mummy when he comes for his weekly off. She says, their son, my half brother needs Papa more.
After Amrita’s mother’s death, her father had remarried a divorcee with a son, who was five years older than Amrita. Amrita was ‘burden’ for her stepmother, ‘poor motherless child’ for neighbors and a ‘virgin girl’ for her stepbrother.
Water is cold today, let me finish my shower quickly. But I don’t understand why my body is changing, why have other girls started to wear a bra? Should I also start to wear, but from where will I get? Whom to ask? …Mummy, where are you? Why did you leave me here…oh…who’s there… peeping from ventilator!
Amrita grabbed the towel and covered herself.
Amrita started going to a government college. Either because of the fear of society or pity, her stepmother allowed her to continue her study. Amrita didn’t have many friends there. Girls of the college thought that she was weird because she did not have a boyfriend, spoke less and liked to spend time alone in the library. Hence she got some more tags – ‘Weird’ and ‘Chashmish’*.
I think Uday likes me. He is not like others; I believe he doesn’t think I’m weird! Sometimes he smiles at me also. I also like him. I feel shy when he looks at me. Something happens, some strange feeling, but I don’t understand…is it love? Should I ask someone, but whom?
It was the English class. The teacher was explaining the poem ‘What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up’ by Stanley Cooper. She asked the same question to the whole class. The answers she got were- doctor, engineer, pilot, architect, actor… Amrita was quiet in the class, the teacher observed that and asked her,
“Ms.Parikh, what do you want to be?”
Amrita didn’t say anything. The teacher repeated the question. Amrita looked down. The teacher asked the question again, everyone was looking at Amrita. She noticed Uday was also looking at her, eagerly waiting for the answer. She adjusted her spectacles and said,
“I want to be a…a…a… ‘Amrita. Everyone started laughing.
“But you’re ‘Amrita’, Ms.Parikh, aren’t you? Tell me…
Yes…yes… I’m Amrita, but no one addresses me as ‘Amrita’. Either I am ‘Mui’ or ‘poor girl’ or Chashmish’ or ‘Weird’ or Ms.Parikh…
“Where are you going Ms.Pari…a…a… Amritaaaa..?”
Amrita’s body was shaking, tears were flowing, feet were running, she wanted to flee somewhere where she could be Amrita.
I want to do something, I have to do… I am Amrita… Amrita has to be something that people can recognize, I can’t let Amrita die before she lives…
Five years later:
After Amrita’s father’s death, her stepmother wanted to get her married off but Amrita wanted to work to prove herself and to get her identity. She didn’t want to be confined in the four walls of the house, but an incident changed her mind.
That day her stepbrother entered her bedroom and tried to molest her. She was saved by her stepmother but she slapped and blamed Amrita for this.
Mother…where are you? I don’t want to live, please call me there with you. I can’t live in this house anymore.
Amrita was sitting in the park, it was getting dark, but she didn’t want to go home. She wanted to end her life but she didn’t have that courage.
“Beta, why are you sitting here, it’s getting dark, go home.”
Her neighbour Mehta Uncle was there.
“What happened? Are you alright? Your mother said something?”
Amrita found solace in his voice. She started to sob.
“Don’t worry, everything will be alright, I am there for you, tell me, what happened?”
He patted her head, Amrita, now getting more emotional, found a shoulder to cry on, and started crying.
…but what’s this! Why Uncle’s consoling touch now feels different? Why is his hand moving from my back to down?
She started running back towards her house and locked herself in her room. After that day she confined herself in the room only, and when emotions became uncontrollable, other than tears, only words on paper, were her only comfort. She started to put her emotions in the form of poetry. There were ‘Mother’, ‘Nameless’, ‘A Loner’, ‘First Love’…, and under every poem, she proudly wrote ‘Amrita’.
When her stepmother found a match for her, she immediately said yes as she wanted to be free from this house.
“Bahu*, get ready, the name changing ceremony will start soon, it’s the tradition of our family.”
Name changing! Whose name will get changed? I hope not mine. This is my home, where I can finally be ‘Amrita’.
Aniket, her husband carved ‘Nikita’ in the pile of rice. Everyone clapped for a good choice of name.
Nobody asked me before changing my name? My mother chose this name because ‘Amrita Pritam” was her favourite writer, and they took away the name given by her! Why should I change my name? Because the priest was saying the new name ‘Nikita’ will bring prosperity to the house? But why not ‘Amrita’? Both names are of the same person only!
Amrita’s struggle for recognition and identity was still on and again she found the same medium to pour her emotions and search for her identity. She started to pour her feelings in her creations- ‘Fire’,‘Pain’,‘Me’, ‘The Woman’, ‘The Search’, ‘Dreams’, ‘Golden Cage’… and at the end of every poem, she proudly wrote ‘Amrita’.
Nikita became busy in her life with home, husband, daughter and two more names- Mrs.Aniket and Gudiya’s mother. ‘Amrita’ was living only in her poetry. Everything seemed perfect from outside. People considered her very lucky- a queen of a happy kingdom. Nobody was aware of Amrita’s continuous search for ‘me’.
Who is he? He looks so familiar!
Uday? …yes…yes…Uday…but how can he be here? Someone told me that he has settled in the USA! Oh, he is also looking at me!
“Hey, Chashmish…oh…sorry…Amrita Parikh? Right?”
“Yes, how come you are here in this city?”
“I live here with my family, but when did you return from the States? Where is your family, where are you staying here?” she interrogated.
“Hey…hey…take a break…let’s sit somewhere and I’ll tell you everything.”
“Ummm …my daughter will come from school, I have to complete my shopping before rushing home.”
“Okay then invite me for dinner, we will catch up. Give me your address, I will come to your house in the evening.”
“Uday, can you come tomorrow evening so that you can meet my husband as he is out of town today.”
“Tomorrow is not possible, I have to catch my flight tomorrow evening.”
Amrita hesitated for a few seconds but she gave her address to Uday.
“See you in the evening, Chasmish…err…Amrita.”
The doorbell rung. Uday was at the door with a flower bouquet in his hand.
“Who is Nikita?” he asked, pointing his finger towards the nameplate – ‘Aniket & Nikita’
“It’s me. After my marriage, my name has changed.”
“And where is ‘Amrita’? You had told the English teacher that you want to be ‘Amrita’!”
Uday asked looking sharply at her.
“ ‘Amrita’ is no more. Come in please.” she said.
They chatted, had dinner and later played word games with Gudiya and didn’t realize that it was already half past one in the night.
“Uncle please stay here, go tomorrow. Mummy, tell Uncle to stay na.” Gudiya requested.
Amrita thought for a second then she also said,
“Uday, Noida is not safe at night and you are new here, please stay here, you can sleep in the guest room.”
“Okay I don’t mind but can I have a coffee please?”
While making coffee, Amrita thought about informing Aniket about Uday’s stay.
Should I inform Aniket? But he is returning tomorrow, and then I’ll tell. But what about Uday’s stay tonight? Will he mind? No…no…Aniket will understand, he is an educated man and Gudiya is also there with me! And this house is mine too, I can decide as per the situation, can’t I? Yes, I can.”
But sometimes things are not always what they seem.
“Why didn’t you inform me before inviting your friend and that also for night stay?” Aniket asked angrily.
“Aniket, this is my house also and I did what I think was the right in the moment. How can I allow him to go late at night in an unfamiliar city?”
“You don’t know these men, why did he come when he was aware that I was not there?” Aniket argued.
“Aniket, please try to understand, he is my friend. I know him from college. He is a good man, working with an MNC in the USA and isn’t this house mine too? Can’t I invite my friend?”
“Your house? Do you call this ‘your house’? I inherited this house. You are only on the nameplate.”
Amrita couldn’t believe what she heard. She had earned nothing in exchange for losing her name which was her identity.
“You crossed the line Nikita and impured the sanctity of our marriage.” Aniket said and left the room.
Three years later:
“It is my honour to welcome Ms. Amrita, who was awarded the Saraswati Samman for her work ‘The Search’ – a collection of poems. We request her to inaugurate the Hindi version – ‘Talaash’*, and unveil the first copy.”
At home that night…
Amrita was watching Gudiya, who was busy posting her mother’s pictures with the ‘Talaash’ in her hand on social media.
“See Mummy, only five minutes and so many likes, Papa also loved it and see what he commented!”
Amrita read the comment –
“Congratulations, you truly deserve this, I am proud of you.”
She stared at the red heart, Aniket had put at the end of the comment and her thoughts took her back to the day when she decided to leave the house to live on her own. She did this as she felt that she had lost ‘Nikita’, “You are only on the nameplate”, these six words were echoing in her ears continuously. Now she did not want to lose ‘Amrita”, who was living in a dark corner of her existence.
But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
She remembered these lines by Maya Angelou. She said to herself,
“Not anymore, enough…I want to sing, I want to fly and not be in the cage anymore, I will bring ‘Amrita’ back, I won’t let her die.”
The ping of her mobile brought her back to the present. Uday had messaged, “Congratulations, Amrita. Next week I am coming to Delhi for the conference, be ready to give me a party.”
Tandav – Vigorous dance of Shiva
Mui – ‘Dead like’ in Gujarati language
Chashmish – Person who wears spectacles
Bahu – Daughter-in-law
Talaash – Search
This is an entry for the event #BreakFree, ArtoonsInn’s signature Short Story Writing event, #ArTales-16.
Check out event guidelines here: https://artoonsinn.com/break-free-artales-16-open-event/
Check out Geeta’s space here: https://artoonsinn.com/author/geeta-jeena/
Photo by Nikhita S