Returning from my evening walk, I spot her with her signature flowers, walking towards a car at the traffic signal. Where did the promise of my tube roses go, I wonder. With that thought I call out to her, and on the divider lovingly pull her ears. "Didi (an address for an elder sister) I am so sorry. Will get them tomorrow, but now can I pull your ears too please..."
This banter is quite usual between her and me, two strangers who meet at the same traffic signal; everytime that I walk past or drive by. A bright wide smile, lustrous black hair and a bunch of colourful flowers in her hands; she tells me small anecdotes each time and her smile transfers to me.
Last week as I sat in the car, waiting for the traffic signal to turn green, she knocked on the window. She never asks me to buy flowers and nor was that her desire then. She wanted to show me how her daughter was growing up. Shireen; she pointed out, with a mother's heart swollen with pride. Somewhere I sensed the pleasure was burdened with pain. Before I could ask what was bothering her my way was clear. The cars behind honking, I had no choice but to drive away. After I parked, I thought of going back to verify my suspicion but feared being interfering, and so buried my inkling....
"Of course you can pull my ears", and I bent my head towards her.
She gently pulled one and said, "didi this is probably the last time you will see me. Post Diwali (the festival of lights coming up in 10 days) I am going away to the village".
"For how many days?"
"Maybe I will never come back!"
"Oh sure, and I was born yesterday! You have been here forever! So when will you return and when will my tube roses come?"
"No didi, I am serious. I have never shared what I am about to, with you. Do you recollect, a few months ago, I had asked if you knew of anyone looking for domestic help? Well I have been asking multiple women and have been unable to find a job. The reason I was asking is because I want to get away from my husband; I need physical distance between us. He does not earn, drinks and then comes home to beat me up. I have legally divorced him but he wants us to remarry. How can I, when he does not respect me or support me? He comes even now, on the pretext of meeting Shireen and verbally abuses me. I am scared that one day he will hit our daughter. That I won't be able to tolerate. And so I want to go away."
My brain is processing this very slowly. I am not hearing this right or maybe my instinct last week was right.
"Didi I tried very hard to find a job but because of a two year old, no one will employ me as domestic help. I have no other skills and it's so expensive to live in Mumbai and send her to school."
Puzzled I stare at her. No solution comes to mind. She looks tired but not sad. She looks gentle and yet determined. She looks helpless but still is persuasive.
"So I am thinking of going away and renting a small room in Ahmedabad. There I can find a place for Rs 500 monthly rent, sell vegetables and get my daughter to study. Only if I could get Rs 5000 for the deposit I can manage all else."
My feet are glued to the ground and are not moving when suddenly her sister appears.
"Yes didi he verbally abuses us too. She is better off with some distance from him. Maybe with no way to get to her he will mellow down. But she has no money. we have no money. Who knows..."
"He has tracked me down when I moved away from here to a shelter. If I could get a job as domestic help, the fear of the employer would keep him away. He abuses the cops too. So not able to find a job, I have to leave. There is no option left. Promise me you will come to meet me before Diwali..."
"Of course I will..."
I make my promise, stroke her arm, pull her sister's cheeks and my feet start to drag me home.
My head is spinning. On the day that most women in the neighbourhood are fasting and praying for the long lives of their husbands, this one is struggling to find a way away from the one she has divorced. The irony of life!
I wrote, just last week, that to empower women we must allow them to live a life of their choice. But if she lives the choice she is being forced to make, will that truly empower her? I said, just last week, that emboldening girls will give them their rights. If she uses her confidence to move away from a place that is her home, will that be righteous? In this context it is not choice or confidence that she needs. She needs financial independence and some societal support...
I hope we can all educate our children and I hope we can all be respectful of one another. If not, then maybe some amount of affirmative action will always be needed. If not, then we will always remain weary of the other gender, and the us vs them saga will linger on.