SHORTCHANGING FEMINISM by Nidadavolu Malathi

“You held me tight in your strong arms.”

Sita was sitting in the living room holding the 8-page letter Gayatri wrote to Sita’s husband Sitapati. The letter left a bad taste in her mouth. Her face turned pale. Sitapati has been acting strange for a few days now. Sita noticed that much. All of a sudden, for no obvious reason, he became an ideal husband. He started doing chores, rearranging the furniture, washing dishes, folding clothes and was eager to take children for a ride. But the children were not little anymore. They are grown up. So they’d say, “Thanks, dad!” and take off on their bikes.

Sita threw down the letter. No need to read this to the end, she told herself. Her eyes wandered around the room and came back to the same pages again.

“That one-day… after 23 years…”

“You said you’d take me to…”

“Your secret letter…”

“The thing you’ve forgotten in our bathroom…”

Sita was burning inside. She wanted to stomp on those papers. But she couldn’t. After all the paper is Goddess Saraswati !  Was he going to all this trouble just to cover up his games with Gayatri? At first, she was surprised at her husband’s sudden interest in the household chores. But then she convinced herself that he has changed much the same way she had. Now she was beginning to see the clear light of the day. Sitapati had gone to India as a visiting professor and returned home, after six months, a whole new Sitapati! He was not the same person she had spent the last 17 years with.

One day he made coffee by the time she woke up. “What is this? It almost looks like you have learned quite a few things there. What did you do there, teach or learn?” she said teasingly.

“Well, we all learn at some point, right?” he replied facetiously.

Sita’s eyes fell on the letter again. “The thing you’ve forgotten in our bathroom.” What could that be? What is it that a man would take off, leave in the bathroom and forget it? It’s got to be his wristwatch or lungi.  Of course nobody walks around without his lungi on. That has got to be his wristwatch. She remembered that Sitapati told her that his watch broke while he was in India.

She bent down and picked up the papers. What should she do now? Casually hand them over to him saying, ‘Here, these are yours?’ Hide them? Burn them? Even as she continued to brood, she tore them up, unwittingly. “The world is not going to fall apart if he doesn’t see this one letter,” she told herself.

“You have been cooking for 17 years without a break. I will cook for you today. Tell me. What would you like to eat?” Sitapati walked in boisterously only to find Sita was not in the room. He was a little puzzled. Rani and Bobby were not home. He found Sita in the bedroom.

“Lying down at this hour? Are you okay?” he approached her and felt her forehead to see if she was running temperature.

She pushed away his hand. “Who is Gayatri?”

“Just a friend from childhood days.” He sounded casual.

“Friendly enough for hugs and kisses?”

“Who kissed?”

The argument went on for about a half hour. Then Sita gave up. Not because she believed him, but she was no match for him in debates. Sitapati however was content. In his mind, he did not do anything wrong. Gayatri poured her heart out in the letter. He felt bad for her and so he put his arm around her shoulder just to comfort her. What else could he do? That was the way he has always been, ever since he was a kid. Any time somebody was hurt his heart cried for that person. That was one thing he could never nderstand–what is wrong if one person embraces another? It certainly did not mean that he had broken his vows to his wife anymore than it broke Gayatri’s vows to her husband. Certainly there is no reason for raising hullabaloo about it.

Sita thought there would be no more secrets after her confrontation. She was wrong. That night she heard him take a phone-call from India. She expected him to tell her about it the next day. It did not happen. Once again she was confused. Why would one make a phone call from half way across the world in the middle of the night if it were not an emergency? She decided to let go of it.

Next day Sitapati brought mail from the mailbox, slipped one letter into his pocket and handed the rest of the mail to Sita. “I can wait,” he said with a touch of sarcasm. Sita felt firecrackers explode in her head. There is a Telugu proverb, a woman good at flirting is good at lying too. She wondered why this proverb was stated in reference to women only. That day Sitapati vacuumed the rooms with renewed vigor. He bought presents for the children on some lame excuse. He even took Sita to a movie. Sita also was acting as if nothing happened The pain in her
stomach lingered on.

The following day Sitapati left for a conference in Philadelphia. That afternoon a telegram came in the mail. “The boy got admission in our college,” it said. That was also from the same Gayatri. This started getting very annoying for Sita. Somebody’s boy was admitted in some college? Does that call for a telegram? Or, is it possible that the boy is not “somebody’s boy”? Sita felt sick in her stomach again. Her husband apparently was hiding something from her. What was it? And why? At this point she was certain of only one thing–she could not rest until she knew the whole truth. Maybe that was needed to understand him, maybe for her own satisfaction. She had to know the whole truth and nothing but truth. There was no point in asking him, either. In the past 15 days he never gave her straight answers. He was beating around the bush smoothly, kindly, arrogantly, snootily, angrily… He was shutting her up every which way but did not come clean.

A few months back, Sita told her husband, “Listen. I don’t trust your words and I don’t want to discuss this matter with others either. That is why I am asking you straight.”

Sitapati did his usual routine. “I hate lying,” he said. “It hurts to think that you don’t believe me,” he said. “What about my reputation,” he said. “Hell with it,” Sita told herself.

Something occurred to Sita. She got up with a jolt and went to the basement and looked around. It did not take even 5 minutes. There were letters, pictures of two women, and a phone number scribbled on a piece of paper. Sita threw herself down in a chair with the letters in her hand. The letters were written by not one woman, not two but three women.

“My husband is not in town. I am holding a new sari…”

“I wish I could come there and live with you…”

“Next time you come, you must stay only with me…”

“Loneliness, depression…”

“Forget your analytical skills. You’re the king of experience for sure.”

“I want to put my arms around your neck.”

“I want to nibble your earlobes.”

Sita threw down the letters furiously. Then she picked them up again and looked at the dates. Some of them had been received here and some while he was in India. Thoughts started hovering in her head like bumblebees. A small smile came onto her lips. So many women in America argued with her that Indian women are oppressed. These letters vouch for the complete freedom Indian women have achieved. The question is what are the women doing with that freedom? These photos and letters didn’t look like it was just about friendship. It did not look like a matter of simple sobbing and comforting. “King of experience,” it says. What experience? Did the experience precede or follow his critique? Did she offer experience in exchange for his critique? Or, is it the other way round? Not bad. Not bad at all. Next time he goes to India, he might as well announce, “Consult Sitapati for experiential critique!”

She looked at the photos again. One of them seemed to be very young. That could be Sobha. Had he married earlier, he could have that age daughter. Sita felt sick. She was disgusted. God, tell me what to do? I want to do something desperate. But what? Take the car for a ride and hit a tree? Kill somebody—him, the children, those women, whom? Whom could I kill? How about confront those women? But then what can I ask? What is there to ask? I should be asking my husband only. What can I say to him? What is this with married women? Why fool around with mothers? What kind of pleasure you get in playing a second husband? Sita felt like there were really no questions she could ask.

Sita closed her eyes for a second. What was the crux of her problem? She was not able to see it herself. Like Major Barbara she stood on a rock she thought eternal; and without a word of warning, it reeled and crumbled under her. She hoped that Sitapati would cherish some values even if he has not believed in our culture or religion. She expected him to show some decency at the very least. Probably that is what was bothering her most. He has been lying to her. But she could not figure out why. What did he hope to accomplish by that? She heard garage door open. Sitapati walked into the room.

“I saw the letters,” Sita said.

“What letters?”

“The ones from your female friends.”

“Not again. I told you that there is nothing going on. Didn’t I?”

“The letters are saying a different story.”

Back to square one.

“They are after me. I am not after them,” he said. “Nothing happened,” he added. “Nothing that you should worry about.” Then he continued to explain. “Something terrible happened in Gayatri’s life that led to depression. I am trying to help her restore her self-esteem.” And he also said that Sobha was a writer and that that’s how the women writers write. Then he asked in all earnestness, “What can I do if they write like that?” Then he assured her that he would tell them to stop writing like that.

Sita did not believe a word he said but kept quiet.

“Stop all those stupid thought. Let’s go out,” Sitapati suggested.

“I am not going anywhere. The children will be back any minute,” Sita said crossly.

“It’s okay. They are not babies. They can take care of themselves.”

Sita went into the next room without saying a word.

* * *
Sitapati was in the basement studying. Sita was in the bedroom. She thought her skull would crack open with frustration why did my life turn like this? I’ve been adjusting to his needs as best as I could. In this god-forsaken country, whom else could I turn to but him? And what is my life like here? My day is nothing but making coffee, fixing breakfast, packing lunch, driving children to school, again bringing them back home, shopping, cleaning, washing dishes, washing clothes, snow blowing in winter, lawn mowing in summer, raking leaves in fall…No. These chores do not tire me out but they sure do take the entire time of each day. Amidst all this, if I find a free minute, I would rather sit doing nothing than get myself busy with something, don’t even feel like write a letter. In this amazing land of affluence, with all the gadgets, if I want a cup of coffee, I have to make myself or forget it. Hell. There are times when I skipped the idea simply because it entails washing three dishes. And then the food. I have to have Indian curries at least once in two days. For the children all the three meals are American style. And then Sitapati. Of course he does not spell it out but he does have his preferences….

Amidst all this Sita could neither account for her time nor could she say that she has plenty of free time. It is catch 22 for her. Sitapati does not follow any traditions except the one that includes having guests without a break. His complaint is Sita is not living up to his idea of a traditional wife. Is that the reason that he is running after other women? Sita felt totally debilitated. A weak smile came on her face. God knows whether Sitapati reinstated self-esteem in Gayatri or not, but right now her own self-esteem hit the bottom. She felt like crying but couldn’t. She wanted to talk to somebody. But with whom? Till now she always was listening to others but never took her problems to them. She started remembering all those friends, one by one. No. There is no use. It is not going to happen. It is not like back home. Here you cannot go to somebody’s home anytime as you please.  “We have plans,” they’d say. “We didn’t expect you,” they’d say. “Please call next time,” they’d say.

How about a movie, Sita wondered. Her body refused to move. She turned the T.V. on. Some soap. A wife sees a photo of another woman in her husband’s pocket. Sita laughed. No matter where she goes, the story is the same. She was about to turn it off and then again changed her mind. She wanted to see what happens in the story. She knows life is not like movies but then there is some consolation. The TV wife started drinking to forget her problems. What if I start drinking? But the problem in drinking is you need to drink until you forget everything. Then you don’t know whether you found a solution or not. Probably I would frighten the children. She recalled the proverb, “Plan on making a pundit and end up with a monkey.”

Sita felt like she was losing her mind. She wanted to do something drastic but was not sure what it was. She picked up the phone and called her friend Kamakshi.

“Hello!”

“It’s me.”

“Oh. How are you? What is new?”

“Nothing. What is for lunch?”

She heard a small laugh. “Stuffed eggplant. Want to come?”

“Are you kidding? You’d better be careful. I might show up.”

“I am not kidding. Come on.”

“Okay. Be there in ten minutes,” Sita said and hung up.

* * *
“I can’t live in that house.”

Kamakshi stared at her and said softly, “Want some coffee?”

Sita nodded and started telling her story.

“Did you ask him?”

“I did. I also told him that I wanted to keep it between him and me, not take it to others. He mouthed some nonsense, as usual. You know his rhetoric. It sounds okay for the moment. And then some letter or some note appears making it only too obvious that they have him wrapped around their little finger.”

Kamakshi didn’t know what to say. As far as she knew, both the husband and wife were reasonable people, both know right from wrong.

“The more I think about it, the clearer it is getting. It is not just that one question—whether he slept with one woman or not. In the past ten years, he has always been so wrapped up in the lives of others—their problems, their worries, their tears, their health, their children’s education, their marriages. That is his life. And now it has gotten down to hugs, kisses and lies. Then why should I worry about our traditional values? His ‘saving women program’ has reached the peak.” Sita stopped.

“Like Veeresalingam?”  Kamakshi said partly in jest, trying to clear the air.

“Yeah,” Sita replied, and then with a weak smile, added, “No. Actually there is a difference. Veeresalingam tried to save the vidhava women   by arranging remarriage for them. Here this man is messing around with housewives, making their husbands vedhava.”

Kamakshi couldn’t resist a laugh. Sita stayed there for another 15 minutes and left. She said a few more comforting words and told her not to act in haste.

* * *
Sita felt a little lighter but the pain did not go away. Her heart was numb. There were several occasions when she participated in debates about the situation of women in India. Not only with other Americans but also with Sitapati. She argued that in Andhra Pradesh men always supported women.

Sitapati did not agree with her.

“Veeresalingam arranged marriages only for young widows for fear that they would seduce men. Even women’s education he promoted was about making women dutiful housewives.” His arguments in regard to Chalam  were also on the same lines. He said Chalam advocated sexual freedom for women only to ingratiate men. What an irony? Now one woman complains that her husband was ill-treating her and another woman claims that her husband allows her total freedom—and they both ended up in his bed! Wow! Sita felt like hitting her head against the wall.

That night after one more round of wrestling, each of them said ‘go to hell,’ and then they both split. He went into the basement and she went into the bedroom. Sita wanted to believe her husband’s words. He never acted like a total jerk in the past 17 years. Besides, if he really wanted to fool around, aren’t there plenty of opportunities here? Why did he wait this long? Why so far away? What kind of secrecy is this? Such a joke! What should she think? Is he too smart or too stupid? Or did he think she is stupid?

***

One week went by. Sita went into the basement for some book. A letter slipped out of the book and fell on the floor. The letter was addressed to Gayatri. Sita was taken aback. This is the third time it happened like this. She recalled a couple of lines Rani wrote when she was 9 years old: “Believe me they say, trust me they say, and when I trust them, everything goes wrong.” A smart observation for a nine-year old! What is this? At a time she was trying to convince herself, she found four more letters—two of them from the two women, and the other two from Sitapati to them. Sita felt dizzy. She threw herself in the chair. Even the dumbest of the dumb would know when they see these letters that Sitapati has been bluffing all along.

“I want to hug you.”
“I want to kiss you.”
“I want to go to Khajuraho  with you.”
“I am surprised that you know so much about birthmarks.”
“Now the room is vacant. This time there won’t be any problem. No problem with the children.”
“Bring me size 34 bra. Bring me gold. Bring me nylon saris. Bring me camera.”

Sita stopped for a minute as if to make sense of all this. And then she continued to read again. The letter that shot through her heart was the one written by Sitapati to Sobha. You have a right to hug me. You have a right to kiss me. You have a right to go to Khajuraho with me.

Sita choked with anger. She came upstairs, holding the letters in her hand. She sat down slowly in the couch. The snow outside was bright white like a heap of salt. Sitapati said in his letter you have a right to hug me and kiss me. Sita wondered, “So what are my rights? Snow blowing, lawn mowing, washing clothes and dishes? Is that it?” She recalled her words to Sitapati during one of their arguments, “If you think I will stay here for the sake of your reputation while you mess around with others, you are wrong. Don’t count on it.”

It is clear now. She decided that she couldn’t stay in that house anymore, not a minute longer. She decided to leave. Then she felt the burden off her chest. For the first time in several days she felt hungry. She got up and started cooking. You are the only one who understood me. This time I may not stay long. The lines from the letters were pestering her like hungry dogs. Suddenly she remembered the letters she wrote to her husband in the first few weeks of her marriage. She knows where they were kept. She quickly went there and pulled them out. She started reading them.

“Here also the sky is blue and the weather is cool.”
“With the new status I attained after walking the seven steps  with you…”
“When I asked you ‘what do you want’ and you responded ‘you just come’…”
“Each person has so many layers of personalities. If you had seen me in my office…”
“Waiting for the day when I can walk with a friend in the woods and whisper solitude is sweet…”

She felt totally exhausted. For the first time, tears sprang to her eyes. Sita did not get the life companion she was looking for. And he? Only he should know. She kept racking her brains. What happened in 17 years? Why? He did not hit her. He did not use obnoxious language. On the other hand, he repeatedly told her that she could do whatever she wanted. But, by the time she understood that, she also realized that his job and avocations stood in her way to do whatever she wanted to do. Six years passed by. In the freedom Sitapati allowed her, there were a lot of built in responsibilities—money management, part-time job, children’s needs, guests’ needs, household chores. … He kept telling her “you do such a great job” and left everything to her. And he got used to spending time with his friends.

Sita tried to understand from his perspective. He says, I leave home at 7:00 in the morning and return at 6:00 in the evening. During that period I struggle to keep the job, work for promotions, try to prove my value, to please everybody, it is almost like prostituting myself. After a long day, what is wrong if I want my wife to welcome me with a smiling face? What is wrong if I ask about the children? If I have to observe formalities with my wife also, why marry at all? In America wives buy shirts for their husbands. You would not buy clothes for me. I love beauty in nature. Even from childhood days. But if I say ‘you are beautiful’ you are annoyed…

Sita took a deep breath. That is his argument. Maybe there is some truth to it. But she was annoyed that he did not take into account all the chores she does. He complains that she is not acting like an American wife. But he does not do half the things the American husbands do. In fact look what he is doing—fooling around with 2 or 3 women? Even that shows that his dream girl is a composite picture, a collage. During one of their arguments some three years back, Sita said, “If that is your idea of a wife, you might as well look elsewhere.”

He said, “If you think I would go to another woman, obviously you don’t know anything about me.”

That was three years back. Now…?

That’s life, I guess. Days and months go by without we noticing it. People change without announcement. Their thoughts and opinions change unconsciously.

Ding, ding, ding… Fire alarm went off. Sita rushed into the kitchen. The curry got burnt, turned into charcoal and started heavy smoke. She turned off the range, and went into the bedroom. She stooped to pull out the suitcase from underneath the bed. The tali  in her neck from under her sari folds jingled, like cowbells. Yes, like cowbells they made noise. Sitapati has changed. His values have changed. Today he is giving a new definition to the word marriage. Sita removed tali from her neck and threw it in the suitcase. She heard garage door open. Sitapati walked in. He did not find Sita in the living room. Went in to the bedroom looking for her. “What now?” he said looking at her.

“I am moving out,” Sita said, busy packing her suitcase.

Sitapati laughed. “What happened now?” He moved closer and touched her hair gently.

She pushed away his hand.  “Don’t touch me, never again,” she said and added, “I have warned you. I am not
going to live as one of your sluts.”

“What?” Sitapati said, surprised.

Sita continued as if she was narrating somebody else’s story, “I never called anybody a slut. Today it came out
very naturally. I don’t know how.”

“Wow! Have you become a militant feminist or what, all of a sudden?”

“No. I did not become anything. I am and have always been the same. Great pundits like you read volumes of literature, deliver soapbox lectures, and produce more literature. And then there are women like Sobha and Gayatri that keep blabbering about sympathy and empathy like the wrestlers in a rut. They need to be saved and you are there to save them. You all need each other. I am one of the million, very ordinary Sitas who do not belong in either category. I spend my days, weeks and months like a bullock-cart on a country road, enjoying the peace and quiet while you rush to save the world with your pedantic brain waves and heated debates. But then I am not any less of a person just because you don’t think so. Didn’t you hear the proverb–the turtles slither and the deer hop. That’s their nature. Each person has her own lifestyle,” Sita said unemotionally. Then she added, looking straight into his face, “Isn’t it ironical that you lecture about female voices, hear female voices across five continents but not the one that is talking to you directly and under your own roof?”

***
(The Telugu original, nijaniki feminijaaniki madhya was published in Andhra Prabha weekly in September 1987. Eventually it was published in several magazines and anthologies.  –Malathi.

Translated by the author and published on thulika.net, December 2002.