A short story set in 2023 about the young Kairi, whose life and future are shaped by the social, political, and cultural forces of an imaginary Hindu rashtra.
Kairi woke up with a start. Amma’s hymns and the fragrance of fresh puja flowers wafted into her room. Dawn seemed to have just broken. Kairi felt nervous. Virat’s family was coming that afternoon for lunch. But Kairi knew it was not any usual lunch for guests. The house had been bustling the whole of last week. Every nook and corner had been scrubbed clean. Even the store-room had been re-painted.
Amma had fired their old house help, Ba. Virat’s mother could not stand the sight of a Dalit, let alone allow one to enter one’s home. It caused Amma much grief, but not in the least because Ba had been with them for over a decade. “Who will take out the garbage now? Who will clean the toilets? But Ba had to go. Kairi beta, you have to learn how to run a house now. You will have to manage Virat’s home soon”, Amma lamented.
Kairi was called by Papa one evening into his study. She was told that she would not be going to school anymore and that she should be spending her time not in books, but in learning cooking and exercising. Papa had noticed that Kairi had gained some weight. Kairi kept staring at the floor. One did not speak up to and argue with Papa.
Kairi felt destroyed. School had provided Kairi the only respite from Papa’s oppressive gaze. Now there was nothing to look forward to. She would miss Shaheen dearly. Shaheen was her best friend in school. She was very good at math and unravelled the mysteries of algebra for Kairi. In return, Kairi helped Shaheen learn about the Mahabharata. Shaheen was one among the three Muslim students in school. The rest had either been suspended by the Principal on some pretext or the other or had been enrolled in Madrasas by their parents. Apart from Shaheen, Kairi had a friend in Dhruv. But the teachers did not let boys and girls sit together anymore. A thick curtain- partition always separated them in class.
For many months, Kairi had been eagerly looking forward to one date- 28 July 2023. It was going to be her 16th birthday. And on that fateful day, she had barely woken up, excited, when Amma told her that Virat and she were to get married soon. Kairi had not been surprised. A lot of her friends had been married off lately. The legal marriageable age for girls had been brought down to 16 last year with some new rules from the government. Kairi did not understand most of it and tried to reason with Amma. But Amma was adamant.
“Have you seen girls these days? Short skirts, boyfriends when they are still teens. Baba re, you know Sharma ji’s daughter Sneha, no? I heard that she was raped. It’s all hush-hush, but there are rumours. She had it coming. We are doing it for your safety and well-being beta. God forbid, you get some wild ideas from school and books and go marry some boy from another religion or caste. Your father will kill you.”
Kairi wore a beautiful green sari for the lunch. She had expected to see Virat but he was out of town on a business trip. She sat in her room while the parents finalised the wedding date and preparations. She could hear them talking. The wedding was supposed to be a grand affair. Virat’s father was a well-known businessman and Papa was the local party leader. The guest list was understandably huge. The marriage was to be conducted as per the strictest Hindu rituals and a famous panditji was going to be flown in from Gujarat. The women meanwhile discussed clothes, jewellery, and gifts. Afterwards, every one sat down for lunch. Kairi ate after others were done.
It is Kairi’s wedding tomorrow. Amma is oiling Kairi’s hair and talking to her about her responsibilities towards her in-laws and Virat after the wedding. “You must listen to Virat,” Amma keeps repeating.
“Amma, can I please invite Shaheen for the wedding? There is still time.”
“No!” Amma screams and asks Kairi to go to bed.
Kairi is still in her wedding finery. She is waiting for Virat. She wants to change and go to sleep. But she waits. Virat enters the room and locks the door. He takes one long look at Kairi and switches off the lights. Kairi does not know what hits her in the next few minutes. The only words that ring in her ears through the pain are Amma’s- “You must listen to Virat.”
Featured Image Credit: The World Before Her documentary