Winter 1998, Volume 15.1
I Am Free
Lalita Gandbhir has published short stories and poems in many journals and anthologies in the United States, Canada and India. She has also published four Marathi short story collections.
"I really must work Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I cannot go to Ohio with you. I asked everyone. No one wants to exchange Thanksgiving week-end." Shama stirred vegetables and tried to explain.
Vinay, her husband, banged his fist on the table and said, "You ruined our plans."
Shama said, "Remember, we did not want to hire a sitter and the hospital pays me more for nights and week-ends, so we decided that I should work odd hours."
Radha, Shama's mother-in-law, said, "I didn't know a sitter's an issue in this home. Your children are here every night and every week-end. You have a free sitter for your children, me."
Vinay turned to his mother and said, "I feed and put Amee and Lulu to bed when Shama's not home. Don't complain, Mother."
Radha said, "You are never home Vinay. I am old now. You can't expect me to watch two active children. Who will mind Amee and Lulu in Ohio if their mother will not join us? You like to sit and talk with the men in the living room when we visit Juhi. I will end up with your kids."
Shama said, "I can keep the children with me. Mara's sitter will take them."
Vinay said aloud, "Sure she will! Just how much will she charge?"
Shama did not answer. She noticed Lulu, her five year old son, in his pajamas was peeking into the kitchen from the hallway.
Radha answered, "Mara's sitter charged one hundred dollars last year. Vinay, listen to me, leave your kids with their mother. If you decide to take them along, you will have to mind them. I want to enjoy my visit."
Vinay clenched his fists. Shama's hands started to shake. Somehow she managed to serve the food to her mother-in-law, father-in-law and Vinay. She would eat later, for the small dining table for two that Vinay had bought when he rented the apartment could barely accommodate three adults. Shama had started the custom of serving others first when her in-laws arrived. She had continued the practice. Vinay would not buy a bigger table. Anyway, Shama preferred to eat by herself.
Lulu had inched himself into the kitchen corner. He cowered and sucked his thumb. Shama wanted to pat his head, but did not for fear of drawing Vinay's attention to Lulu's presence. Lulu's apprehensive eyes darted after his mother as she moved around the dining table.
Watching Lulu, Shama momentarily felt anger rising in her chest. A glance of annoyance from her husband crushed her courage to express her feelings. She swallowed harsh words with difficulty.
Sounds of spoons clashing with the pots and dishes periodically stabbed the gloomy silence in the kitchen. Shama started to clear the table.
Finally Radha asked, "So Vinay, what have you decided?"
Vinay said, "I don't have the money for a babysitter." He then turned to Shama, "We will have to heat the apartment just for you for four days."
Shama answered, "You don't need to. You can turn the heat off. I will stay at Mara's."
Vinay banged a glass on the table and said, "Stay away from her boyfriends."
Radha said, "Stop your banging Vinay. This table is rickety. You will break it."
Shama knew Vinay did not approve of her friend Mara, her co-worker and single mother of two young children, who had attended medical technology school with Shama. Vinay did not allow Shama to visit Mara unless his family financially profited from the visit.
Radha asked Shama, "Where are my pills?"
Shama took two pills from a bottle and set them beside a glass of water on the table.
Radha said, "If Shama does not come along, Juhi will have to cook for all of us."
Shama tried not to think of the many meals she had cooked for her own family and Juhi's, her sister-in-law's, family by herself.
Vinay ignored Radha's comment. Radha picked up her pills, a glass of water and left the room. Vinay's father followed her. Shama heard the television and knew that her father-in-law and mother-in-law were in the living room. Vinay had not moved yet. He sat in his chair rubbing his forehead. Shama held her breath.
All of a sudden, Vinay stood up and, staring at Shama, said, "You ruined my plans."
Lulu screamed, "No!", and from the kitchen corner rushed to his mother and hugged her.
Vinay yelled, "Get out of the kitchen you mama's boy." He tried to drag Lulu away, but Lulu hugged Shama harder.
Shama screamed, "Leave him alone," and tried to pick him up. Vinay slapped Shama and said, "To Hell with both of you," and walked out of the kitchen.
The sound of Vinay's stomping feet softened when he stepped into the carpeted living room and Shama relaxed. She picked up sobbing Lulu and went into the children's bedroom. Lulu said, "When I grow older I will punch Daddy."
Shama kissed him and said, "You helped me today, Darling. Daddy slapped me only once." She laid Lulu down on his bed and started to pat him.
Lulu said, "Ma, I don't want to go with Daddy to Aunt Juhi's. I want to stay with you."
Shama said, "You can play with Rohit."
Lulu smiled. He liked to play with his cousin Rohit. He even liked his Aunt Juhi, who bought him toys and candy.
He asked, "Can I bring my truck?"
Shama said, "Yes, the small one. Now sleep or else you will wake up Amee."
The next morning Shama woke up at 5:00 a.m. She had to cook a meal before she went to work. Her in-laws had to have a freshly cooked meal every afternoon for they disliked refrigerated food. This morning was easy for Shama. She did not need to wake up Lulu to get him ready for school or face Vinay. He slept for he was not working today.
Shama cooked dal, vegetables and made roti. Her mother-in-law preferred to cook the rice herself at lunch time. Shama then bathed, packed a small suitcase, kissed her sleeping children, set the table for breakfast and got into the car to drive to work.
She glanced in the rear view mirror. Her cheek hurt when she smiled, but it was not bruised. Shama was thankful that her face showed no evidence of the abuse. She would not have to fend off Mara's probing questions.
She started to drive and a heavy load lifted off her mind. She was free for four days. She would miss Lulu and Amee; however, she was happy to be alone for she needed time to think.
Last week, at Mara's insistence, Shama had seen a marriage counsellor. The visit had forced her to confront issues she did not want to think about.
Her carefree childhood, first year at college in India interrupted for an arranged marriage to Vinay, trip to the United States and a few happy years after her arrival in the new country seemed like a distant dream now.
Shama considered herself lucky for she had managed to learn to drive and complete a lab technician course immediately after her arrival. At that time, Vinay allowed her to work only because she found a job in a woman's hospital.
Shama's problems started when Vinay decided to open an Indian restaurant with his friends from the community. The group dreamed of "making it big" in the United States. Vinay had promised Shama then, "We will have a hard time for a few years, but then we will be rich. I will buy you a big house. You can stay home with our kids and visit your family in India every year."
Vinay started to work twelve hours a day at the restaurant and poured his own money into the business.
After Lulu's birth, Shama wanted to stay home with the baby. However, Vinay decided that Shama should work to support the family. He invited his parents from India to live with him for he did not wish to pay the sitter.
Radha arrived expecting to lead a luxurious life in America with a subservient daughter-in-law to wait on her and cook. She found herself in a small cramped three bedroom apartment in a two family house. The prospect of babysitting while her daughter-in-law worked upset Radha. She said, "I have worked hard all my life, Vinay. At this time I want to rest. I don't wish to raise another child."
Vinay promised, "You will rest as soon as I make enough money. Shama will work week-ends and nights. I will help when Shama is not home."
Radha believed her son and was helpful in the beginning. Years passed, Amee arrived, yet nothing changed. Then Vinay's father suffered a heart attack and could not help Radha care for Lulu and Amee. Radha lost her patience.
Shama faced the drudgery of housework including cooking two full meals a day, child care and a night shift at the hospital. Radha would be often annoyed because Vinay was not home and Shama went to work. When Shama had to leave Radha would say, "I don't want to serve the food and watch your baby. Don't go to work now. Wait until your husband is home."
Shama would plead, "I must go. The hospital will fire me if I am late."
Radha would say, "I wish I lived in India."
Vinay and Shama's social life ended for lack of time and energy. Vinay's father's health deteriorated. The need to nurse him, child care and housework strained both women.
Radha complained every day. Shama bore the brunt of her husband's frustrations. Ashamed of the physical abuse that she suffered, Shama tried to hide her bruises with make-up, but her co-workers and especially Mara, her best friend, noticed. She lectured Shama, "A woman must not live with a man who hits her."
Shama said, "A boy needs a father."
Mara said, "Shama, your husband is never around. He hits you, takes your hard earned money for his business schemes and forces you to slave day and night."
Shama said, "A divorce will shame our family and ruin our name. No one will marry my daughter."
Mara said, "So divorce has a stigma yet abusing a wife is acceptable in your culture. You don't live in India. You live in the United States now. Divorce will make no difference to your daughter."
Shama said, "I also have a younger unmarried sister in India. I must think of her."
Mara said, "Forget the family. Learn to value yourself Shama."
The marriage counsellor had told Shama, "You must be honest with me if you want me to help you."
Shama smiled and said, "I will try."
The counsellor asked, "Does your husband love you?"
Shama stammered and said, "I think he did for a few years after our marriage. Now… I don't know." She tried to hold back tears.
The counsellor asked, "Does he love your children?"
Shama said, "I am not sure. He must."
The counsellor asked, "Does he play with them?"
Shama said, "In India fathers don't play with kids."
The counsellor said, "Bring your husband to see me."
Shama laughed and said, "Impossible. He won't come."
The counsellor asked, "Does he hit you?"
Shama averted the counsellor's gaze and said, "Yes."
The counsellor said, "You must not stay in an abusive relationship. Some day he may seriously hurt you."
Shama mumbled, "I need a husband for my children. In India children belong to the father's family. My son needs his father."
The counsellor said, "Your son does not need a father who abuses his mother, Shama. Don't you think India is changing like the rest of the world?"
Shama tried to see the distant future and said, "I hope so."
The counsellor handed Shama a list of phone numbers she could call if she wished to and said, "I can only help. You must make up your mind, Shama."
Shama parked her car in the hospital parking lot and entered the laboratory from a side entrance. Mara walked in after her. Punching the clock Mara said, "Good morning Shama. You look happy today."
Shama, relieved that Mara did not scrutinize her face, told Mara, "I will be free for four days. My family is going away to my sister-in-law's. I will have time to think. I plan to stay with you, if you don't mind."
Mara said, "If your family's absence makes you feel free and happy, something is seriously wrong."
At coffee break Shama telephoned home. Vinay answered. She said, "Vinay, please remember to buckle Amee and Lulu in their seats."
Vinay said, "I will. Don't forget they are my kids too."
Shama said, "Have a good time. Help your sister cook."
Shama worked all day and helped the evening shift for a few hours. She went to Mara's after dinner in the hospital cafeteria and slept peacefully.
She worked the day shift on Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, and helped the evening shift for a few hours again. She politely declined an invitation from Mara's family for dinner and spent the evening at Mara's apartment pondering the future.
Mara arrived late that evening carrying her sleepy three year old. She whispered, "So what have you decided Shama?"
Shama said, "I can't break up my kids' home. Children need their father and other relatives too. I will try to talk to Vinay next week. He can be loving. He once was."
Shama said, "I just want him to stop hitting me. That's all I ask."
Mara said, "You are very demanding."
The next morning Shama was cross-matching blood when the hospital operator paged her.
Juhi was on the line. She asked, "Is that you Shama?"
Shama said, "Yes." A long pause followed. Shama asked, "What's wrong Juhi?"
Juhi said, "I have bad news for you. Vinay had a car accident last night. The ambulance rushed Lulu and Amee to the hospital, but they did not make it. Shama, your husband is all right. You can have more kids. Shama…Shama…."
Shama stood still, the receiver in her hand unable to cry or utter a word. Someone noticed her, talked to Juhi and dragged Shama to the Emergency Room.
Mara and her mother stayed with Shama all night forcing tranquilizers that Doctor Smith, the Emergency Room doctor, had prescribed every four hours.
Shama wept, periodic medicine pills dulling her anguish temporarily. Incoherent, she repeated, "He was going to punch his Daddy."
"Oh, my poor poor Amee."
Sunday night Mara was trying to force Shama to drink some soup. The phone rang. Vinay was calling. He said, "Mara, send my wife home."
Mara said, "She is in no condition to go home right now. Doctor Smith prescribed tranquilizers for her. She has starved since she heard the news and she looks awful."
Vinay said, "I will be over."
Mara said, "Don't… please not tonight."
Vinay said, "I am coming," and hung up the phone.
The doorbell rang. Mara opened the door. She told Vinay, "Shama says she will be home tomorrow morning."
Vinay said, "She must come home today. Who will do the housework? We have to plan a funeral."
Mara said, "She says she does not wish to see you now."
She tried to close the door, but Vinay pushed it open, walked in and said, "I want to talk to her."
He started toward the bedroom. He did not need to go far, for Shama emerged in Mara's red nightgown, her curly black hair framing her red swollen eyes and face.
Vinay stepped forward and said, "I am taking you home."
Shama laughed aloud.
Mara said, "She's gone mad. Please, leave now. I will call the doctor."
Shama said, "No! I am not mad. My kids are dead and I am free!"
She screamed at Vinay. "Go away. I don't want to see you ever again. Your filthy hands will never touch me. Go away."
Speechless, Vinay stared at his wife and stepped back.
Shama screamed again, "Go away. You killed my kids. I know you didn't buckle them. You never did." She then picked up shoes lining the hallway one by one and started to throw them at her husband, yelling, "I am free, I am free."