I’ve wanted to tell the story of my mother’s beloved friend Chitra for a long time. But I’ve been dissatisfied by my own skill as a poet in telling it (still am). However on my last visit to my mother before she passed, I read out the poem to her (previous longer version), and she - being my mother - encouraged me to tell it.
Chitra and my mother grew up as neighbors in 1950’s Haridwar. My mother arrived in Haridwar at age 5, when her widowed mother fled Peshawar to escape the violence of India’s 1947 Partition. A relocation meant to last briefly “until things calm down”, turned into a permanent loss of home and homeland. My mother’s mother with only a 5th grade education and life-altering trauma raised her children alone, sending them all - including two daughters - to college.
In contrast Chitra, despite her substantial home and family, was marked second class by her own Dadi. Tragically, Chitra’s step-mother lived as a veritable outcast for not having borne sons. Chitra’s mother barely escaped this fate by delivering sons after Chitra’s birth. At 16, Chitra was taken off the family books by marriage, my mother went off to college and the friends lost touch until…
Sometimes my mother in redolent mood would talk of her childhood friend
Chitra - a portrait of fortune’s contradictions - who came to live next door
The left and right halves of a large haveli, two families came to occupy
Neighbors in adjoining homes, two girls in parallel lives
As my mother would tell it, Chitra had not one but two mothers!
Step-mother cast aside for her daughter-producing womb,
while Chitra’s mother escaped narrowly offering two sons
after Chitra, to Dadi who ruled the roost
Determined Dadi set Chitra’s price in her family’s full view,
Hai Chitra! This useless mouth will need a dowry to depart
Get her ready, mold her, set her up for marriage!
The baby girl’s debts mounted before she learned to walk
Not because Chitra was young - but a girl. An abomination!
Dadi rued the day Chitra was born! Cursing Chitra’s fate,
It’s her mother’s rotten kismet, the crone sat beating her chest
Even with two sons before, Dadi’s grievance was barely assuaged
Dadi even locked precious fruit inside her mothy cupboard
The key on a chain around her neck thickened with goiter
Daily she gave out every morsel carefully computed, deserved
Every brother scored an apple, while Chitra drew only a quarter!
Fair exchange for the dowry being collected in Chitra’s name
One she would have willingly traded for a simple recognition
Perhaps a morsel of dignity, a few rights, or maybe a whole apple
A rudimentary family membership or even a basic education?
Every day my mother went to school, Chitra pined from the window above
Girls laughing, crying from petty annoyances, every burdensome rule!
She begged my mother for her books, her lessons in reading, math and more
What do they teach in Science? Social studies? What’s it like to walk to school?
Watching with an archer's keenness her brothers with vigilant tutors
Chitra sat listening, shelling peas, sewing buttons, darning clothes
My mother took on book smuggling telling no one of Chitra’s voracity
So Chitra the autodidact could satiate her hunger to know
Life went on as exacted. Chitra, 16, married off to the Best Available Deal
Thankful the groom’s family wasn’t covetous for a dowry of ruinous volume
My mother sent off to study for her intermediate in another town
They heard of each other from families; their lives’ divergence only grew
One score and more went by, another quirk crossed their paths
By then Chitra holding no anger had assumed the calm of a saint
Accepting a life of remnant pieces, shaping shards that came her way
Life’s irony gave her only a daughter. No one dared ask her fate?
More years went by; one day I heard my mother rue Chitra’s too soon passing
from a roguish ear infection! Ear infection? Freak infection, it was claimed
took Chitra who didn't ask for more, never complained
The bug traveled - unchecked like Dadi - to obliterate that unsung brain!
I had so many questions and so much fury for this woman I never met…
Did she die of neglect? Or did Chitra do it to herself?
Did her family simply ignore her malady before it was too late?
Did her husband just tell her to use ear drops and be patient with the ache?
Or by then was she simply imprinted with her own second class fate?
Chitra - Indian/Hindu name for a girl; it means portrait or picture
Haveli - A traditional mansion, manor house, in the Indian subcontinent, usually one with historical and architectural significance
Dadi - Hindi word for paternal grandmother, often the matriarch
Kismet - Hindi/Urdu word for fate, luck, fortune
Intermediate - Term used for Grades 11, 12 i.e., between school and college, in those times
Whenever my mother talked about Chitra it left me angry, yet flummoxed by two questions: how much talent, ability, contribution, spiritual and material wealth is lost to the world when we concede such double-standards in the name of family, values, safety, honor, peace, respect, tradition, purity, what-else-you-got? and, why do women do this to the girls they ought to be shielding? I sometimes wonder if we hunt the enemy out there but maybe she lies right here within us?
An exciting announcement from EnActe Arts!
EnActe Arts - Bay Area’s leading theatre company telling south asian stories - is running their ReEnacte Series and on Aug 1st-8th, they’ll be bringing back the plays I wrote for the WEFT Showcase (women enacte for themselves). The shows are all ONLINE. Hope you will join to watch.
You can/will be able to sign up for these on-demand shows here!
Painful but still a reality!!
Sobering truth in many parts of India in those days and probably, sadly, still found in areas where a girl is not respected for her intelligence, curiosity to learn or treated as an equal to a male child. Tragic tale and one that leaves you with many questions about Chitra. Can relate to your anger and frustration and thoughts on the possibilities of what could have happened to her. Eloquently penned.