SHE/ DECCAN HERALD
A chance encounter
One balmy evening by the waterside, Sheila Kumar meets a young woman from another world altogether.
Kerala’s backwaters sparkled before us, washed golden in the gloaming. The river was running swift here, at Valiyaparamaba to the far north of the State. Some distance ahead lay my destination, an island hemmed thickly in with palm groves. There was a motley crowd waiting at the jetty for the half-hourly ferry. Clad in jeans, camera slung around my neck, jhola hanging from one shoulder, I clearly stood out as an outsider but the looks thrown my way were curious, not hostile.
I’d noticed her a while ago. She was clad in a burqa which had delicate embroidery at hem and cuff, the veil thrown back to expose a singularly sweet face. She was young and surrounded by a gaggle of children; I counted three girls of varying height and age, a baby tucked on her hip, besides. Every time I caught her eye, she’d smile and I’d smile back.
Soon she decided this exchange of smiles was not enough. Sauntering over, she asked if I understood Malayalam. Her delight was evident when I said I was indeed from Kerala. After which began a rapid-fire interrogation.
Her name was Khadija, she was all of 19 years old, her husband worked in a ‘Gulf’ nation and yes, the four children were hers. I kept my face carefully expressionless but Khadija saw something there. “What to do,” she said, shrugging in resigned fashion, “three turned out to be girls. I had to keep trying till I got a boy.” Was the baby on her hip a boy, I asked, almost in trepidation. “Yes,” she beamed. “Now I will try to have two more boys,” she added. “I am young and I have the health for it.” This time, I was successful in keeping a deadpan expression.
Khadija stayed with her mother-in-law who, she said, now treated her well since she had broken the jinx and delivered a baby boy. A couple of years ago, she had accompanied her husband abroad for a while, but city life had alarmed her. “I am happy here among the palms, by the waters,” she smiled. The known calmed her, the unknown alarmed her, that much was evident.
Khadija was fascinated by my presence there that evening. She kept asking why my man wasn’t with me, once she’d affirmed that I was married. She asked her questions with all the simple directness of one who knew nothing about privacy or indeed, the invasion thereof. Why did I need to go out and earn a living, was my husband not earning enough? The idea that women would need to work, to fulfill some inner desire, was so alien to her.
Journalists were an unknown breed to her, but writers she knew, especially Kamala Soraiya, the Hindu-turned-Muslim poet. Writers write from their homes, she told me, and the subtext was only too clear. Why was I leaving my children at home to write about Kerala’s trees and rivers, she asked. How come my mother-in-law permitted such doings? Never had I felt so inadequately unequal to the exchange, I who dealt in words.
All too soon, the ferry arrived and we climbed aboard. Conversation on the boat was impossible due to the press of people and the attendant noise. Khadija and her kids got down at the isle, waving enthusiastically. And disappeared from my life. That night, back at the hotel, I read a magazine article on the ‘Emancipation of the Indian woman’ (capitals theirs), with particular irony… Khadija’s face kept blurring the newsprint. Sometimes, I marvel at the lines between us and them, between she and I.