A woman finds redemption and revenge through food.
She was 17-years-old with a baby on the way. Patiently waiting for her turn at the village homoeopath’s clinic. She tried to make small talk with Gulab, who was nursing a head wound that she said was caused by a terrible fall. Chirmi knew they were lies because she had heard the fights Gulab had with her husband replete with the banging of pots and pans.
“Token no. 11” the compounder shouted. It was Chirmi’s turn. “I feel nauseous and uncomfortable. Sometimes it feels like my heart will jump out of my body, it beats so fast. I can’t seem to keep food down. I just want to vomit all the time. The pain in my back is terrible,” she told the doctor. “Take these medicines and drops thrice a day. You will feel better. Be prepared as you will deliver any day. Maybe the next 10 days or 2 weeks,” the homoeopath said.
The village didn’t have a doctor or a hospital and everybody relied on the homoeopath whose tiny clinic was always awash with visitors. Chirmi had no choice but to see him. That’s all she could afford with the money her husband gave her. Rajni, her husband, was pushing 30 and had a weak left arm. If anybody saw him for the first time, they would see a medium built man who looked like a wrestler but on closer inspection, a thin and dysfunctional left arm, with barely any muscle on it. He was a dark brown colour compared to Chirmi’s wheatish skin. He would load gunny sacks of vegetables, cement and grains into trucks during the day, and drink with his friends at night.
When her widowed mother decided to wed off Chirmi to Rajni, she had hoped for a better future for her daughter. A life of happiness and few children. On the first night of their marriage, Rajni turned Chirmi around on the bed, held both her pubescent hands with his one strong arm and lifted her red lehenga to fuck her from behind. When Chirmi screamed in pain, he pushed her head harder into the bed to drown out the noise. When he was done, he just turned away and went to sleep, snoring away in a few minutes. Chirmi had no idea how love was made, she assumed this is what love was.
Sitting on the porch of her tin hut on the outskirts of the village, she was faced with a conundrum. Her belly was swollen and her feet even more so. “I have never seen this child’s father’s face when he fucks me at night,” she told herself. She wondered what she had done to deserve this life but would quickly forget it when the sunset and the kitchen beckoned.
There was magic in her hands when she cooked food. Her mother had worked in the papad and bhujiya factory and would bring some samples home. She would bring some material and teach Chirmi as well. “You never know, this might come of use someday,” her mother would tell her.
Once Rajni’s friend came over for dinner and licked his fingers clean. “Bhabhi! I want to kiss your hands! I have never eaten something this tasty in my life,” he told her. She let out a small giggle but also wondered how could a simple onion and bhindi dish have such an effect. Rajni darted his eyes at her in anger and she took that as an instruction to shut up. That night, Rajni faced her while fucking her and decorated her face with slaps. “You want to laugh in the company of other men? You want them to kiss your hands? You want them to come over and fuck you in my absence? You bitch!” he would slap her again. It would ring in her ears for a few days till it died down.
A month had passed and she didn’t get her period. She would feel like vomiting every morning and would get chills and fevers at night. She thought she had caught a bug and tried home remedies to relieve her symptoms. A few more months passed waiting to feel better until one day she mustered the courage to tell Rajni she was feeling sick. He gave her some money to see the village doctor and he confirmed her pregnancy. A ball dropped inside Chirmi’s stomach as she now had to worry about another life besides her own.
Rajni was surprisingly well behaved these 9 months. He didn’t want to harm the baby in any way if it turned out to be a son. He didn’t want his child to be handicapped like him. Chirmi prayed for a son vehemently and desperately. “Hey Bhagwan, please give me a son so this violence stops. I just want a peaceful life and a healthy bonny baby. Please have mercy on me,” she would say.
She didn’t remember when exactly her water broke. She had been feeling upset over unfinished tasks. She wanted a small wooden crib for the baby but Rajni wasn’t listening. He shouted at her, “I don’t have the money!” She got contractions and pain washed over her like a flood from hell. She thought she was going to die as the water kept gushing down her legs. She told Rajni it was time and the baby was coming, and to fetch the midwife.
She laboured for 36 hours with no signs of the baby coming out. When dawn broke and the very first rays of the sun appeared, the midwife saw a head of hair from Chirmi’s vulva. She asked her to push a little more and pressed down on her upper abdomen. She quickly pulled out the little ball of flesh covered in white milky goop and blood. “It’s a boy!” she screamed.
She cut the umbilical cord with scissors and cleaned the boy with warm water. He kept screaming in agony, trying to push more air inside his lungs. She placed him on top of Chirmi’s chest and his cries became soft sobs till he finally stopped and breathed easily. He quickly took to the exposed nipple and started suckling. The midwife said she had never seen a child latch so quickly and effortlessly before. That made Chirmi a little proud and accomplished. Feeding this infant was a source of joy and peace for her. For three years, Chirmi breastfed him and would have continued if other female relatives wouldn’t have advised her against it. They filled Rajni’s ears about Bhanu becoming a mama’s boy and not allowing another child to be born.
Rajni never hit Bhanu. For Chirmi, it would have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. She found great strength in being a mother and she felt fearless. She even mustered the courage to tell him off to keep his hands away from Bhanu or she will leave him. She was like a little bird who wanted to protect her nestling. For 10 years, Bhanu slept between his mother and father. Those 10 years felt like they were sent straight from heaven to build Chirmi’s courage. Needless to say, Rajni and Chirmi didn’t conceive another child. She had never known peace like this and she loved doting on Bhanu. She would pick wild berries from trees for him, she would steal mangoes from a landlord’s orchard for him, and she would even skimp on Rajni’s money to buy hard flavoured candies. She would make papad and bhujiyas for him, which he gobbled up with drool collecting on his upper vest.
But when the wheel goes up, it also comes down. It was a normal Thursday afternoon which would spell doom for Chirmi’s family. While he was loading one of the brick-and-mortar trucks, another truck lost control of the wheels and smashed into Rajni. The bricks fell on him ending his life on the spot. Onlookers took him to the homoeopath but he was declared dead. Chirmi and Bhanu were stricken with grief. Chirmi now had to support herself and now an 18-year-old Bhanu but she never finished her education. She didn’t know any tailoring work either.
Many unknown faces showed up demanding the money Rajni had borrowed and Chirmi had no recollection or proof that he owed them money. The constant threats and abuse were becoming too much and she didn’t know how to repay them. She went to the village Mahila Mandal to ask for a job but all they needed was someone to prepare snacks. And her mother’s knowledge came of use here. She took the job but it paid her a meagre two and a half thousand rupees. How would she repay the 15,000 rupees that Rajni had borrowed?
She worked day and night making the dough for the papad and bhujiyas, rolling them with her pin and drying them in the sun. She learned how to make mouth fresheners with different fruits and herbs. The taste of these snacks became popular and the Mahila Mandal started seeing more and more demands. Chirmi demanded more pay as she knew it was the taste of her hands that was bringing in the cash but the Mandal, being an NGO, couldn’t find the budget to pay her. They did bring in more helpers and increased her by 500 rupees but it wasn’t enough. One of her helpers was Gulab herself.
One day the Zamindar came to the Mandal to see Chirmi. “Isn’t it you who stole mangoes from my orchard? And now you’re selling these aam papads here? Have you no shame? Come to my haveli in the evening. We have debts to clear,” his voice echoed. Chirmi was too stunned to speak but she knew she had to go as his word was final. What was a poor low caste woman to do when the village zamindar himself had to come to beckon her?
The Haveli was eery. It was at the north end of the circular village. Miles away from the huts at the outskirts of the south end where Chirmi stayed. The Mandal was at the centre so Chirmi made her way to the haveli after her evening shift ended. It was built from red sandstone and white marble with paintings of men with thick moustaches at the entrance and outer façade. A double door made of silver with pointed hooks welcomed Chirmi. When the guards opened it, she was let into a square verandah where the zamindar was resting on his brass charpoy, smoking from a pipe.
“What do you think you owe me for stealing the mangoes?” he asked her in a loud baritone. The window panes and chandeliers shook from his voice. So did Chirmi. “Come here!” he ordered. Chirmi walked closer to the zamindar. He pulled out some of the mango papads she had made and ate them in front of her. “They’re really good,” he smirked. “I hear you trying to clear Rajni’s debt. I can take it all away. I will send Bhanu to the best college. But you have to repay me. Become my mistress and cook for me,” he told her.
Chirmi was disgusted. “What is the debt I owe you? I will clear it in due time. But I do not accept your offer,” she said. The zamindar’s anger and rage bubbled up. He stood up and crumbled the aam papad in his hands and forced it inside Chirmi’s mouth. “Shut up!” he said and tore off all her clothes and kicked her out of the Haveli. Chirmi had to return to her tin hut on the outskirts of the south end of the village. That would mean that the entire village would see her naked. It felt like death. All Chirmi had was her honour and if Bhanu saw her like that, what would happen? She decided to take the longer route and travel only the outer circle which was littered with bushes, shrubs and vast empty land.
By the time she reached her tin hut, she was covered in cuts and bruises. Some of the skin on her feet had scraped off and was bleeding, but she was glad she made her way with her honour intact. Bhanu, who was pretending to be asleep saw her coming in naked and quickly averted his eyes. He was ashamed and felt this heat in his chest. He felt like smashing a wall with his bare fists.
Chirmi nursed her wounds as dawn broke and didn’t go back to the Mandal. The zamindar had announced that Chirmi was a characterless woman and had to be socially boycotted. She was being cornered and pushed against a wall. But it was her love for Bhanu that kept her sane. Bhanu was confused with this new reality and uncomfortable when men and women would stare at him. A few men would come and ask him if Chirmi needed any help around the house and when could they come. That night Bhanu let his mother know how disgusted he was with her. “My mother is a characterless woman. I hate what you have done. I hate you. You have ruined my life. Why did you have to be so dirty and disgusting? How am I going to focus on my future now? How am I going to save face? All my dreams are shattered because of you,” he screamed. It had become unbearable for him to live with her anymore.
It broke Chirmi’s heart into a million pieces. The thorns that had pierced her feet were not as painful as the thorns coming from Bhanu’s mouth. He packed his bags and left the village against her wishes. She protested, wailed and cried her lungs out but Bhanu couldn’t bear the sight of his mother. She was a villain in this story and he had to look out for himself.
Chirmi never felt so empty. There was a void in her heart that couldn’t be filled. She sat in the hut, not eating, drinking…just blankly staring at the ceiling for days on end. She had lost everything she held dear. There was a deep sadness in her bones that would make itself known when she twisted her body. She hurt everywhere. She cursed the gods for taking away everything she cherished. Gulab would sometimes drop in to check up on her and she heard the story of what happened. She brought Chirmi’s remaining wages from the Mandal and some snacks that she had made earlier.
Chirmi opened each packet and tasted her goods. First all the papads, then bhujiyas, then all the mouth fresheners. In a day, she ate as much as three people would over a week. She tried to push her feelings down with food but it all tasted bittersweet. Every morsel on her tongue was like a spark of fire. She made herself sick by eating and her stomach grew upset. She would excrete watery stool for three days before she felt relief. Then something shifted in Chirmi.
She took the money that Gulab gave her and vanished. Her tin hut was empty, besides all the polythene wrappings that previously were stuffed with her snacks. A year later Gulab received a letter with a train ticket and 10,000 rupees.
It must seem odd that I am writing to you now. I might as well be a ghost from the past. There hasn’t been a single day I haven’t thought about you. Ever since we saw each other at the homoeopath’s clinic. Remember how fat I was? Brings me a smile and also some tears, as I lost everything the day I lost Bhanu to rumours.
I had never known pleasure besides being a mother. Until the day you brought me my remaining wages and snacks, I wouldn’t have known I have the power to change my destiny. I had never tasted my snacks the way they tasted that day. After crying and shitting for days, I didn’t die even though I so badly wanted to. God didn’t stop my heart from beating. So, I took matters into my own hands to make my fortune. I wouldn’t let these men control my story anymore.
I am sending you a ticket to leave your rotten husband and join me in my business here in the city. I joined another Mahila Mandal here but it was bigger, better and gave me better wages. I learned the intricacies and started my own business because I know that God gave me special hands. I am a businesswoman now and I call my company Chirmi’s snacks. I make 50,000 rupees after paying off the groceries and overheads. I have rented a small accommodation near a butchers shop but I live my life my way.
I am sending you money to pay off the remainder of Rajni’s debts. I had already cleared some dues but don’t you dare disclose where I am. Tell them you found the money in the ground below my tin hut. I am not sending you my home address. I will see you at the station if you choose to join me. If I don’t see you this is the last you will hear from me.
My life is not over. Neither is yours. There’s not a single man in the last year that has laid his hands on me in this city. I feel so safe here. I feel like I have wings and I could fly forever. I want you to experience this too. You’re the closest thing I have left next to family now. I am once again requesting you to come here and taste freedom yourself.
With lots of love,
Another package arrived at the Zamindar’s Haveli. It was two carton boxes filled with 4 dozen mangoes without a return address. There was an odd-looking parcel wrapped in a torn cloth piece sitting atop the carton boxes. When the zamindar opened it, a bloody and dried piece of meat fell out. It looked like a bull’s penis. There was a letter attached to the parcel addressed to the Zamindar.
“These are more mangoes than I ever stole from you. If you come looking for me, the next parcel will have your organ.”