A Wife's Duty
A young bride comes to terms with her marital duties
“Don’t let any man touch you! When you sit, make sure your thighs are pressed together and your skirt is pulled over your knees. Don't talk too loudly. Don’t laugh too loudly! Don’t play with boys. Be safe! Remember, you are a girl.”
The voices of your mother, your grandmother, and your numerous aunts weave in and out of each other, the echoes slowly fading away into the back of your mind where they reside, coming and going like the gentle waves on a sandy beach. You hear the sound of a door opening.
Husband is home.
You lay motionless on the straw mat as he walks up the stairs as quietly as possible. Even after nine months, he thinks he won't disturb you if he steps softly enough. But every night, the scratch-scratch of his plastic slippers on the rough concrete stairs wakes you. You listen to him silently change into his night clothes and then feel the straw mat and thin blanket shift beneath you as he settles himself down to sleep. He doesn’t lie close. The heat in the room is too heavy and warm.
When you reposition the pillow under your head and roll yourself onto your back, your stomach protrudes like a little mountain. You run your hands along your belly, feeling, hoping, yearning to reach out to the wonder growing within, willing it to be a boy.
Outside the open window, beyond the metal bars and the dirty mosquito net, the night is a deep, endless, chirping blue. There isn’t a cloud in the sky. There rarely ever is.
Soft strains of joyous music flow invisibly through the window and to your ears. Wedding music. You close your eyes.
Though you despise them, at least the voices keep you company, breaking the pain, and filling the lonely silence. They return now, filling your head with chatter as they accompany you through your wedding memories once more.
“Marriages are between families, not between people. You will learn to love him. If you do your duty and take care of him, things will work out for the better. Remember that.”
He was the oldest son of a colleague of your third uncle twice removed. At 28, he had passed out of college as a lawyer and was looking for a job. That’s how the matchmaker priest described him to you and your mother as you stood in the bustling, noisy, dusty, hot market square.
“A lot of potential,” the priest said, a hand on his big jiggling gut. His eyes scanned you once, then twice, top to bottom, slowly. Suddenly uncomfortable, you slid a little closer to your mother.
“Yes,” the priest finally proclaimed, “they’ll make a good pair. He comes from a respectable family too, that’s a plus.”
A few days later, on your 17th birthday, you were shown a studio picture of him. In it, he looked comically serious. Thick eyebrows, over a wide nose, over a thick mustache, perched over rather wide lips, over a squared 0ff goatee. His mop of black hair was slicked back with oil and combed, each strand arranged carefully.
“He has a wide forehead. That’s a good sign,” one of your aunts said.
That afternoon as you were changing into the clothing your family had gifted you for your birthday, your mother entered the room and softly closed the door behind her. You pulled the fabric up with both fists, clutching it to cover your chest. Your mother ignored the motion as she sat on the bed, a hand smoothing the silken fabric of your new saree.
“What do you think?” she said, “shall we arrange this for you?”
Without pausing for thought, you said what you'd been taught to say. “If you think it best, mother.”
The day your future husband's family visited, you sat in the bedroom, waiting. The whole house had been bursting with anticipation. Sisters and cousins, aunts and nieces, running upstairs and downstairs, brandishing brooms, chasing dust bunnies out of hiding, polishing the already polished floor four times over.
In the meantime, you had bathed and dressed, your hair combed and braided, all amid the continuous trickle of advice.
“Don’t lift your eyes. Don’t look directly at anyone. Don’t say anything. And for heaven's sake, don’t drop the tray!”
When your aunt came to secure a strand of woven, sweet-smelling, white blossoming jasmine into your hair, you turned to look at yourself in the mirror. You were wearing a yellow saree, the cloth folded with precision, stiff yet flowing. Majestic. This must be how princesses felt.
The older women in your family looked you over and proclaimed you a work of art. Then, they left you to sit in the bedroom and wait until you were called. In time, your mother came to fetch you. With a hushed “alright, ready?” she took your hand and led you to the living room, where everyone was.
Some were seated on the old, squeaky sofa, some on the wooden bench along the stairs, and the younger members of both families crowded on the floor. The overhead fan rotated in a pathetic attempt to redistribute the hot air. Everyone was sticky.
As you entered the room, you pressed the palms of your hands together and lifted them in the familiar salaam, giving each person a fleeting peek, never making eye contact. Everyone greeted you back, voices flitting around the room like butterflies in spring.
Your future mother-in-law heaved herself off the sofa and waddled over to you. She cracked her knuckles against your head to prevent evil spirits from turning you ugly, patted you on the cheek, called you a good girl, then shuffled back to her squeaky seat, commenting loudly on your fairness.
Your cousin brought a tray from the kitchen, silver tumblers filled to the brim with warm milk tea.
“Always fill the cup to the brim. You don’t want your family to die young, do you?”
You walked around the room, bowing from the waist down as you offered all the elders a cup of coffee. The edges of your saree flowed behind you, skirting the tiles as you carefully avoided stepping on the impatient children. They would all be getting their milk and Mary biscuits in a moment.
Once everyone was served without mishaps, the older relatives and your future husband sipped their coffee and talked. You sat a little apart from them, surrounded by your cousins and sisters. You placed your hands in your lap, signifying obedience, kept yourself from fidgeting, signifying calm, and maintained your down-turned gaze, signifying purity.
You could still see him out of the corner of your eye. He looked as he had in the picture. Serious. He did not seem to want to be there. Perhaps it was as much his idea as it was yours. When he caught you looking at him, he quickly turned away, pretending not to have seen, and you did the same, your heart racing and your cheeks glowing.
After a formal, leisurely lunch, you got your first long look at your future husband when you said your goodbyes. He pretended not to be interested. Maybe he wasn’t. You wouldn't have noticed the difference, even if you tried.
Things were planned, and time passed in a frenzied blur. The next time you saw him was during the engagement ceremony on the morning of your wedding day.
During the week prior, you couldn’t even hear yourself think over the fish market din. Relatives were in and out of the house, bringing news or sweets or gifts or food or more people. More relatives and their relatives and their relatives' relatives. Cousins and uncles and aunts and grandparents. People you saw all the time and people you hadn't even met and probably won’t see again in a long time.
Everyone was decked out in bright colors, each woman trying to outdo her neighbor as they collectively bustled about, getting in the way of everyone and everything, gabbing about old and new gossip.
The wedding itself was over in a blink, so fast that you don’t remember much of it. The officiating priest chanted and spoke about the role of a husband and a wife, at least you think he did. Like a choreographed dancer, you went through the motions you had been shown. You smiled timidly for the cameraman, bowed to the guests, and coyly accepted the tali, the chain around your neck that will forever bind you to this man you would learn to call husband.
The reception celebration was loud, pompous, and colorful. Wedding music blared from overhead speakers drowning out the voices of people trying to have conversations. The people, in turn, spoke louder. Little lights lit up the halls, and the hallways were lined with artificial banana trees. The air was filled with the wonderful smell of biryani and sweets and rosewater.
At some point, before you left for the night, your aunts and married cousins took you into another room to help you out of your elaborate wedding attire and into a more comfortable saree. As they plucked the hairpins out of your hair, removed the veil, and loosened the heavy saree, they told you about your duties as a wife.
“Be sure that he is never hungry. A man with a belly is a well-cared-for man. We don’t want to see him thin!”
It was what you had heard before, but you listened carefully anyway, or you might have missed what they said next.
“When he comes to you at night, let him. That is also a part of your duty, to keep your husband happy in all ways.”
You didn’t quite know what they meant, but while your mind tried to solve the puzzle, your body ached from exhaustion. A taxi covered in jasmine and red roses and the standard “Just Married” placard drove you both to your room, a new addition to the roof of your husband's home. The sleeping mats on the floor were already laid out for you, the covers sprinkled with fragrant flower petals.
As you tiredly took in the room, your husband called to you. He had already pried himself out of the uncomfortable suit and was working on the last buttons of his shirt. You must have frozen and stared.
He gave you a wry smile, then helped you out of your saree. You tried to cling to some cloth as you struggled to keep your dignity. “Don’t let any man touch you,” rang in your ears. You were a good girl. You had been raised that way, and you'd followed every instruction. Were the rules different for husbands? "When he comes to you at night, let him."
Was this your duty?
You felt what came next from a distance. Tears streamed down your cheeks, leaving hot, salty trails as indescribable pain burned you raw. Shortly after he was done, he rolled off you, turned on his side, and fell asleep. You lay awake, unable to move, unable to fathom the meaning of a wife’s duty.
Your palms still absentmindedly massage your swollen and full belly. Your hips ache against the hard ground. You remember the weeks after your first night as a wife. They had been much the same. And then, as suddenly as it had all started, it stopped. You waited for him to come to you again. But he didn’t.
Your mother-in-law did not mistreat you the way many mother-in-law horror stories would have it. Instead, she took you under her wing like she did her own daughters. She was delighted at your pregnancy, hoping you might produce an heir for the family.
As you grew rounder, the soles of your feet cracked painfully in the dry heat. Mother-in-law prepared a cooling, healing ointment and made you sit for long hours.
“Your feet have to heal,” she said. “You’ll be busy when the baby comes.”
When your husband left early in the morning, you cleaned the house, cooked lunch, did the laundry, and ran errands. He usually didn’t come home until much later, sometimes after you were asleep. You didn’t ask him why he was always away. Work, probably. But it was not your place to ask.
One Tuesday morning about four months ago, after he had left, you went to the market to buy some brinjal and chili powder for that day’s dinner. It was your husband’s favorite vegetable, and you enjoyed preparing it for him even though you didn’t like brinjal. That is when you saw him.
You didn’t recognize him at first. But it had to be him. He was walking into a restaurant in the same khaki pants you had ironed for him that morning. He wore the same striped, light blue shirt you'd watched him button up. With the same sun-bleached patch near the left hem.
You didn’t recognize him at first because of the grin that split his face, bubbling laughter, and a lady with her arm draped lightly over his.
It was just a glimpse, and then the tinted glass doors swung shut.
You forgot to pick up the chili powder, and the brinjal were mostly rotten. When your mother-in-law saw you stumble through the door, your face swollen, your eyes red, she mistook the emotion for a sudden surge of hormones and told you to go upstairs and rest.
You lay on the mat that afternoon, the image of your laughing husband in your mind, your failure as a wife settling around you and suffocating you with shame.
When your husband came home late that night, you sat awake in your bedroom. Perhaps you were waiting for an explanation or an excuse, or even a reprimand, a request to be better. But none of that came. He gently helped you into a nightgown and let you settle down before going to sleep.
Over the next few weeks, you became confused and listless. The family accepted the changes in you and put them down as a difficult pregnancy. Nobody asked, and you didn’t offer an explanation, afraid that you might disgrace your family.
Your husband grew even more serious. You saw him less and less. He would leave before you were fully awake and return when you were already in bed.
You cried, made friends with the crickets, listened to the cooing of the turtledoves and the chirping of the lovebirds. You watched little chipmunks chase each other up and down walls and followed the wet trails of house lizards. Whenever you saw crows, you would count them the way you used to when you were still a child, “One is for luck, two is for sadness, three is for happiness…”
A tear escapes beneath your squeezed eyelids. You open your eyes and stare at the hypnotizing, rapidly rattling overhead fan. Suddenly, pain such as you have never experienced rips you apart, and you cry out.
Your startled husband runs to wake his mother. Phone calls are made, you're taken to the hospital, and you spend the next few hours fading in and out of pain, the noises, and the voices around you.
“Breathe! Focus! Push,” they say.
When you hear your baby cry, your heart leaps within you. The midwife leans over you with a wide smile.
“Congratulations! You have a perfect little daughter."
About the Creator
R. J. Rani
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Original narrative & well developed characters
Niche topic & fresh perspectives
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Zero grammar & spelling mistakes
Expert insights and opinions
Arguments were carefully researched and presented
Such an intimate, heart-wrenching piece. Broke my heart!
Wow. A beautiful and sad tale that pulls at the heart. You did a really good job making me feel how she feels. Thanks for sharing
Beautiful writing and stunning art. More please!