Suchitra wore red to the cremation. She buttoned up a crimson blouse and outlined her lips in carmine, defiant with joy at her uncle’s passing. She went dressed like the fire that would finally claim what was left of him, reveling in his death. To no one’s surprise the funeral was small. Baal was not popular by any means. He had no hobbies beyond TV-watching, and barely drank any alcohol, so the friendships made at the local watering hole did not include him. A couple coworkers from the factory came. A handful of family was there too, dressed in traditional white kurtas and head scarfs, huddling a fair distance from the burning pyre, as thick black smoke pushed upward through the midday heat. The wood crackled loudly, pelting glowing pieces as it broke. People stared at the woman in red, no doubt whispering about her disrespectful funeral attire. But after all her years of silence over what her uncle had done, this was her only semblance of retribution, and she found satisfaction in their gossip.
She was raised to care a lot about what people say. This obsession with appearances was a cultural plague. People from Chatoo Village tended to stay close to home, and everyone knew everyone. Children lived with their parents until they were married, and then their parents lived with them until they died. On a loop, this was their lifestyle. But not for Suchitra. Her mother died giving birth to her. Her father was a fish out of water with this squirming infant, who cried incessant searching shrieks for mother’s milk he could not provide. Her cries stirred a madness in him. A cocktail of grief and regret drove him once to almost drown her in the kitchen sink when she would not stop screaming. He was not meant to parent alone, he thought. Fatherhood was an accompaniment to mothering, and without a woman to care for the child in tender ways, who would jump to quell the baby’s every gurgle, he was just a man with a motherless child. He felt no connection to Suchitra without his wife there, so he gave her to his sister when the baby was just over a week old, and then disappeared into the city. Maya and her husband Baal had to accept that the child was their responsibility now, and did their best to scrub the stain of her brother’s scandal out of the scornful village chatter.
When the pyre flames subsided, ash blew across the ground in swirls. Maya waded in the smoke drenched air saying last thank-yous and goodbyes to Baal’s former coworkers. A few family members were heading to her house. One cousin stood impatiently in the parking lot, leaned against his dusty Toyota Corolla, waiting for Maya to ride with them. The old woman wished the day could just end right then and there. She had dragged herself through a torturous eulogy, where Baal’s boss, the closest person he had to a friend of any kind, spoke superficial things about the deceased like how punctual he was at the factory. The pundit repeated the same old passages about reincarnation and the cycle of life. The day was more dull than it was depressing she thought. Baal went out with a deserved lack-luster celebration, for his punishable existence. His quietness was not humility, nor was it introversion. No, Baal was not a shy person. In fact, he was too brave. He was too bold and pushed himself in places he was not welcome. He kept to himself to evade suspicion, playing up the idea that if he were out of sight, he would be out of mind.
Suchitra was sitting in the concrete gazebo that families could rent for fancier funerals than this was. She sat on the floor of it, with her legs hanging off the edge swinging. Her floral skirt was hiked up above her knees, bunched together and tucked between her thighs. It had been over thirty years since Baal first raped her, but she could still smell the musk of his wet neck, and remember the bristle of his moustache on her cheek. She could still hear him too, those gruff exhalations when he finished himself on her belly. The mornings after, he acted like he did not even notice her presence. He would not look up from his newspaper when she entered the kitchen. He barely spoke to her at all for her entire life. It was only when he crept into her bed at night that she ever saw him exert any emotion at all. Baal was a brick wall of a person. Unaffectionate, unambitious and unexpectedly this child’s rapist. On this gazebo floor she sat fidgety, sucking on the last inch of a cigarette, contemplating if she would go to the house out of respect for Maya. Just then, her aunt spotted her and made her way over.
“Will you come by after?”
“I can come if you want.” Suchitra replied curtly, flicking the cigarette into a drain, avoiding eye contact.
“Yeah. Come nah. When everybody leaves, I have something to give you.” Maya turned around before Suchitra could protest, and headed towards the Corolla.
Suchitra only stepped into the yard when she saw the last guest drive away. She scrutinized the house. It was stuck in time, virtually unchanged since she had moved out on her wedding day. Older coats of aqua green paint peeped out from under flaked ones. Even the lone mango tree in the front yard had not grown any taller. Wrapped around a post which held up the garage, still hung the rusted chain that used to tie the family’s mongrel who ran away and was never replaced.
Suchitra was married off to a boy that Maya and the pundit chose for her. They were both young, but his parents were quite religious, and they were looking to have him settle down with a nice Hindu girl from the village, who could help out around their house. Maya slept in Suchitra’s bed for six years before this, protecting her from Baal’s intrusion, but she knew that the only way to guarantee the girl’s safety was to get her out of that house completely. When Suchitra was about eleven, Maya woke up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and noticed Baal was not beside her in the bed. She went looking for him. He was not in the living room, nor was he in the kitchen. But his car was in the garage so he had to be home. Her mouth filled with water at the depraved thoughts that her gut churned. Suchitra’s door was shut, but Maya did not have to open it to confirm that Baal was in there. She pressed her ear to it and could hear him breathing heavily and grunting like he used to when he climbed on top of her. She knew the sickening sound well. Even when she heard the girl cry “Please, I don’t want to”, followed by the backhand of a slap, she did not go in. She was too embarrassed and afraid of what the next steps would be. What would people say about them when they found out? She tearfully crept back into her bed where she lay on her side, wide awake contemplating the right thing to do. Baal slipped in beside her after only a few minutes, smelling like sweat and semen and contentedly fell right asleep. From then, his frequent midnight disappearances no longer went unnoticed since Maya could not rest soundly anymore. Within the week he had snuck out three times! To ensure there would be no more of these, Maya made excuses to sleep next to Suchitra. She would say that either Baal was snoring too much, or it was too hot in their room. Finally, when her diabetes was confirmed by the doctor, she said it was because she needed to be closer to the toilet at night. Baal never questioned her.
“You told me to come for something.” Suchitra said impatiently. She had decided the moment that she walked through the front door that she actually did not want to be in that house.
“This wouldn’t take long,” Maya assured her, sensing her discomfort. She gestured to the plastic covered couch, holding a little black book. They both sat on opposite sides of the living room, facing one another. Maya slid her thumb along the ends of the book’s pages, searching for a particular spot. “Here it is.”
“What is this?” Suchitra grimaced, as she unfolded a check that was wedged between the book’s gilded paper.
“Your uncle wanted me to give this to you,” she lied, “ like an inheritance.”
The truth was, that while he was fading away at the hospital, Baal and Maya were working on his will together. When she asked him about leaving something to Suchitra, he sucked his teeth sharply and coughed, “She is not my child. What does she have to do with this?”
The check was for twenty thousand dollars. It was all of Baal’s savings, and he had intended it only for his wife. Suchitra’s face contorted into a tighter scowl, gripping the check shakily as she tried to find the word for what she was feeling. Many feelings can only be released when you have the words to describe them, and this was one of those experiences that lacked its own vocabulary. Until you name it, you are trapped. She stared at the check, her chest flashing hot and cold. She was facing a specter. She had seldom been in his presence since the day she left home. She thought there was an unspoken understanding between them, that she would never have to bear him again in any way.
When she was able to speak again she said, “I don’t want it.”
Maya’s guilt was ringing in her ears. She had never told Suchitra that she knew what Baal had done. The confession stuck in her throat several times, washed back down with the guilt of not confronting Baal herself. She never gave Suchitra the chance to unburden this secret. Instead she made the load bigger and heavier for them both by keeping it to herself. She continued to be a servile wife to this manipulative man, while the faultless child felt tormented and alone. She scorned herself for her cowardice, knowing the money was a weak attempt at any absolution.
“If it’s me you are worried about, don’t be. I am good. He was saving that for you, long time."
“Just take it. Please.”
Suchitra studied Maya, and recognized the same nameless emotion she herself was feeling-- An ambivalence towards a thing you both desperately need, and furiously loathe. Every wrinkle around the old woman’s eyes deepened, framing a face imprisoned in remorse. She oozed a distinct empathy that one could only have if they related. Or if they understood.
“You knew.” Suchitra whispered, rising to her feet.
Maya’s voice cracked so no words could spill smoothly. Instead of speaking, all she could do was exhale a long throated wail of admission.
“I’m so sorry --” she sputtered eventually, intimidated by the magnitude of Suchitra now standing over her, the afternoon light glowing through her blood red clothing. Maya hid her face in humiliating sobs.
"You are even worse than he was." Suchitra sneered, and with one firm swipe of her thumb, ignited her cigarette lighter. She kissed the check to a tall yellow flame. The darkening paper curled, engulfed in fire, just as Suchitra threw it into her aunt’s lap.