March 2011, Jaipur
Neha Gupta was having a moment of reckoning. Alone in her room, the laughter and chatter of family and friends gathered for her wedding outside came through the closed door. She had requested everyone to give her a few minutes of privacy, and they had obliged with plenty of leg-pulling and sexual innuendos. The bridal sari and jewelry weighed as heavily on her slim body as the weight of age-old customs and traditions on her soul.
18 years old and about to be married. The air hostess training manuals on her dresser mocked her. No one, not even her identical twin sister, Riddhima, had heard her pleas. As she choked back the bile rising in her throat, her eye fell on the one-rupee coin next to her purse. Why not let fate decide what she should do?
She picked it up. Heads- she ran away. Tails- she got married.
She tossed the coin.
Present Day, New Jersey
Riddhima stared at the two pink lines on the pregnancy test. Positive! A shiver passed through her body. In her 8 years of marriage to Rajeev this was her third pregnancy. She dropped the test in the public restroom’s trash can. Rajeev was waiting for her outside and she had to stay composed. He wasn’t aware of her taking the test. She had to figure out a plan first.
She washed her hands and was about to step outside when a woman with bright pink hair came into the restroom. To her surprise, the woman addressed her by name, thrusting a package at her, “Riddhima, please take this and open only when you are alone. It’s important.” She instinctively accepted the package and the woman hurried back out.
Who was this woman and how did she know her name? She felt nervous about the package in her hand. What if the woman was a drug dealer or a criminal? But her curiosity was piqued, and she opened the package. It contained a note and a small phone. She placed the items in her handbag and stepped outside.
“You took long in there,” Rajeev remarked.
“Sorry, I am having an upset stomach,” she lied.
“Must have been those pakoras you ate yesterday. Do you need any medicine?” he asked.
“No, am good. Already feeling better now.”
She wished he could be this kind, caring person all the time. Alcohol had turned him into a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ character. They walked to the Metro station to catch the train to go back home. Both the station and the train were crowded. The two unoccupied seats they managed to find were at two ends of the compartment.
“Go and sit before someone else claims the seat. And don’t fall asleep and miss our stop!” Rajeev barked at her over the din of voices. She nodded and hurried away to the seat. She needed to think.
March 2011, Jaipur
“Neha is gone?” her father was shocked.
“Papa, she left a note that she was sorry about leaving. She didn’t want to get married,” Riddhima answered in a tremulous voice.
“Were you aware of her plan?”
“No, I didn’t. I swear Papa. I would’ve told you otherwise.”
Her mother sobbed, “What do we do now? The baraat is already here.”
“Riddhima,” her father said, “your sister has put us in a difficult position. The honour of our family is at stake. Please take your sister’s place. I will talk to the Sethis. You will make a better daughter-in-law than Neha anyway.”
Riddhima stared at her parents. Her mother spoke up, “Sweetheart, I know this is asking a lot from you. Unfortunately, the truth is that because of Neha’s actions no one else will be willing to marry their son to you. Getting married to Rajeev can save both you and your family.”
Their vulnerability was her weakness. She nodded her agreement. The Sethis though were not easily convinced. They threatened to take back the wedding procession. Sunil groveled with them, including promising an increased dowry consisting of a furnished apartment in Delhi (where the Sethis lived), a luxury cruise for the whole family, and a second car. Greed satisfied, the Sethis let the marriage proceed.
At the time of her bidaai, the ritual of saying good-bye to her maternal family, her father hugged her and whispered into her ear, “Thank you for saving our face dear. Your sister is dead to all of us. Never speak of her again. The Sethis are your family now. They will take care of you.”
She nodded and got into the car with Rajeev, her husband who was 12 years her senior. She was numb.
A week earlier, JFK International Airport, New York
Neha leaned back against the headrest, watching the taxi weave through the New York traffic. As a flight attendant with Singapore Airlines, she traveled the world. New York though had a special place in her heart. The city was alive, with its own spirit. It reminded her of her trainee days in Mumbai, the city that had helped her accomplish her dreams.
This time the visit was personal. She wasn’t leaving till her goal was accomplished. Her cellphone buzzed.
“You already here?” It was Veera’s text message.
“Yup, in the taxi heading towards your apartment now,” she texted back.
“K, c u soon.”
Veera Sahani was her roommate from Mumbai. A financial analyst, Veera now worked for JP Morgan Chase in New York. With her vivacious personality, pink hair, and “don’t mess with me” attitude, Veera was a force to reckon with. Underneath it all was a kind, gentle soul who cared deeply about people.
Veera had spotted Riddhima at one of the Metro stations a year ago. Mistaking her to be Neha, she had sent Neha an angry text message for not contacting her about being in New York. This had started the whole plan of trying to reconnect with her twin.
She had attempted to contact Riddhima, after fleeing to Mumbai, but Riddhima’s number had changed. She had then reached out to her mother and found out about Riddhima getting married in her place. Her mother told her to never contact either her parents or Riddhima again. That conversation had been eight years ago.
Eight years of not knowing what had become of Riddhima. Hopefully, her marriage was a happy one. She clung to that thought to assuage her conscience.
The taxi pulled to a stop outside Veera’s high-rise apartment building, right in the middle of Manhattan. Veera was waiting for her on the building steps, a huge smile on her face. The two friends hugged each other for a long moment, and Neha could feel some of her tiredness already slipping away. Veera had made dinner at home, consisting of all her favourite dishes. As they ate, they talked, and Veera updated her on everything that she had found out about Riddhima.
“I hired a private investigator,” Veera said. “Riddhima is here on the H4 dependent visa, and there are indications that her husband is being abusive towards her. She doesn’t seem to have any close friends or other family members here. Her husband keeps a careful watch over her. Anywhere she goes, he goes with her.”
Neha’s heart sank, “I have to get in touch with her. This is my fault.”
Veera patted her arm comfortingly. “Neha don’t worry. We will figure out how to contact her and help her. You rest easy tonight.”
September 2011, Delhi
Dr. Batra’s clinic was crowded. Her mother-in-law looked cross as usual. They were getting Riddhima’s blood test results from last week. Dr. Batra had said that they were routine tests. Though only 11 weeks pregnant, she already felt connected to her child. Secretly, she hoped it was a baby girl though she knew that the family was praying for a boy.
Her name was called. Dr. Batra looked at Mummyji, “it’s a girl.”
A sex determination test done without her knowledge. Mummyji declared, “we will get rid of it.”
“No!” the protest slipped out unconsciously.
Mummyji glared at her. “A girl child is useless. Who is going to feed and clothe her? Your father?”
Her head reeled. “I need to speak with Rajeev.”
“It’s not a big deal,” Dr. Batra interjected. “Abortion is very common and safe. It’s not even a child yet. Think of it more as a cluster of cells.”
Riddhima’s protective maternal instincts kicked in. “Might be just some cells for you doctor, but it is my child and I am not killing her.”
Mummyji was angry. “Be respectful to the doctor! Rajeev knows about this and is in support of it.”
Mummyji was right. No amount of pleading with Rajeev worked. Her parents were equally unsupportive. Her father reproached her, “they are your in-laws Riddhima, and have every right to do what they are doing.”
“But Papa, this is wrong. We read about it in newspapers. Killing a child just for being a girl? How can you support this?”
“The bigger deal you make of this, the harder your life becomes. Not everyone is as broad-minded as us. Just go along with them quietly. We should be grateful that they took you in despite what your sister did.”
She was outnumbered. Her in-laws were powerful and had connections within the justice system. A legal approach would also not work. Feeling helpless, she went through with the abortion. It took a toll on her mentally and physically and she was sent to her parents’ house to recover.
Her mother tried to console her, “Wipe your tears dear. Unfortunately, as women we must bear this. Think of it as your baby girl escaping this fate.”
Fate made her be born in this family. Fate forced marriage on her. Fate destined her to have an abortion. She hated Fate.
July 2014, New Jersey
Riddhima was relieved when Rajeev told her about the transfer to New Jersey and about them moving there. Since the abortion, there was a new tension in their marriage which both avoided addressing. But, the pressure from her in-laws to have a kid, or more specifically a male heir was mounting. She knew that Rajeev felt it too. New Jersey seemed to offer a new lease on life, despite the small apartment and being far away from everyone they knew.
The initial months were blissful. Rajeev seemed happier too, away from the influence of his parents and societal expectations. A comfortable routine developed, and she found herself putting the trauma of the abortion behind her. She got pregnant again and Rajeev dutifully accompanied her to all the medical appointments.
When the doctor asked them whether they would like to know the sex of their baby, Riddhima hesitated. Rajeev though wanted to know. “It’s a girl,” the doctor announced smiling. Rajeev smiled too, but she noticed the shift. He wasn’t happy. He bought a bottle of Jack Daniels’ whiskey on the way back home. “Just celebrating our baby girl,” he told her. The decline started since then.
The drinking became regular. The physical abuse started soon afterward. He was always apologetic about her bruises the next morning. One night, in his drunk state, he kicked her in the stomach resulting in the miscarriage. The neighbours called the cops hearing her shrieks of agony. She was rushed to the hospital and the social workers there encouraged her to press charges. But, she did not.
She thought that this incident would change him. It did but not in the way that she expected. He refused to give up the alcohol and over time, the apologies stopped. He took away her passport and other documents. She was truly trapped.
Present Day, New Jersey
After dropping her at home, Rajeev went to a friend’s place. All alone, she opened the package. Tears sprang to her eyes as she recognized the handwriting in the note.
“Riddhima, please don’t tear this note before reading it. I am here in New York for the next few weeks visiting a friend and want to meet you. I am aware of your situation. My number is pre-programmed into the phone. Please use it to call me.”
Neha answered on the first ring. Any bitterness and anger slipped away the minute Riddhima heard her voice. The emotions flowed freely for the next hour. They had so much to catch up on! She shared the news of her pregnancy with Neha. “I have to save this baby. I will not survive if something happens to this one too.”
“You need to leave him Riddhima. Even if it is a boy, Rajeev is dangerous.”
Riddhima sighed. “It’s easy for you to say that Neha. You have always been the bold one. I have no college degree or work experience. Rajeev even has my passport and immigration documents. How am I supposed to support this baby on my own?”
“Nonsense! It takes courage to survive everything that you have. Tell me- is he going to be away the whole night? I can come over to your place right now.”
She hesitated for a second, but the need to see her sister was overwhelming.
“Yes, come over.”
One hour later, New Jersey
Riddhima hugged her sister tightly never wanting to let her go. It had been too long!
“Leave now with me,” Neha pleaded with her. “Veera is waiting in the car outside.”
“I can’t. It’s not that simple.”
Neha removed a one-rupee coin from her handbag. “Fine, let fate decide for you then. Heads- you stay. Tails- you leave.”
Something clicked in her memories and Riddhima stared at her. “Is this how you decided to run away? I remember seeing a one-rupee coin on your dressing table that day.”
Neha looked sheepish.
“Neha, seriously? You changed our lives because of a coin toss?”
“Yes, I tossed a coin that day, but it wasn’t what you think. In my mind, Heads was supposed to be that I run away and Tails that I get married. Though the result was Tails, I realized that I determined my fate. I wasn’t ready to get married. For months prior to that day I desperately tried to convince Papa to let me move to Mumbai for the air hostess training. Why do you think they arranged my marriage so early? I genuinely hadn’t thought that they would force you to take my place. That had been naïveté on my part. I hadn’t intended to hurt you or anyone else.”
Riddhima pulled her back into a hug. “Honestly, we all have been victims of patriarchy Neha. You, me, our parents, and even Rajeev. You were the only one who dared to break away from customs that hold us back. I am glad that you achieved your dreams.”
“And so will you. You can change your situation. I am here to support you sister. We can go back to India together and you can live with me. I will help with the baby.”
The front door opened. Rajeev was back early. He walked in unsteadily, bleary-eyed, clearly drunk. He stopped short when he saw them.
“What are you doing here?” he spat at Neha.
Riddhima stepped between them. “Rajeev, I am leaving you,” she announced as steadily as she could. “Please hand me my passport and other documents.”
He guffawed. “Oho, now that twin sister is here, we are suddenly all brave is it?” He moved to strike her, but Neha was ready. She hit him with her handbag, and he stumbled to the ground.
“How dare you?” he screamed.
“Enough!” Riddhima yelled. “Neha, call the police.”
Rajeev stared at her in shock.
“You have no idea what you are doing. My family will hunt you down,” he raged.
“Let them,” she hurled back. “Life with you is no better than death anyway. I am pregnant again and this baby, I am protecting at all costs.”
“Veera’s called the cops,” Neha announced.
As if on cue, there was a knock on the door with a voice announcing, “NJPD, open the door please.”
“Time’s up Rajeev. Good-bye and good riddance to you,” Riddhima stated with a finality in her voice.
Riddhima watched Khushi, her 4-year old daughter, being chased by Neha around the park. She concentrated on studying for the Social Psychology exam. She was back in college, studying Psychology. Neha helped her with Khushi. Surprisingly, their parents had accepted their situation. She was divorced from Rajeev now; he hadn’t even tried to contest it. She had complete custody of their daughter and was finally at peace!
Pakoras- an Indian fried snack
Baraat- the wedding procession from the groom’s side
Photo By: Daiga Ellaby
This is an entry from team viibrant quillers of ArttrA-3 – A Game of Writers, co-sponsored by Diners Club International.
Check out the event guidelines here: https://writers.artoonsinn.com/arttra-3-guide-artoonsinn/
Follow Room8 for more updates of the event: https://www.facebook.com/groups/WritersAndReadersRoom/