Meera woke up with a jolt of the incessant ringing of the doorbell. She quickly grabbed her shrug and donned it before making a dart for the door. A huge bouquet of exquisite flowers was waiting for her at the doorstep. She was taken aback for a moment but then smiled feebly. She knew who this was from. It was a neatly arranged mixed floral bouquet comprising of all her favourite flowers – red roses, deep lilacs, white lilies and purple orchids. As she gently caressed the flowers and soaked in the heavenly fragrance emanating from them, she found a small note tucked between two roses.
“Happy Anniversary Love. See you soon.”
Exactly 10 years back, Meera and Gaurav had taken their nuptial vows. It was a love marriage which had been solemnized with the blessings of both their families. Few months prior to their wedding, they had completed their MBA course from the same Institute in Ahmedabad and that is when their love had begun to bloom. Just when Meera was about to set out in her caravan of memories, an enthusiastic shriek broke her trance.
7 year old Diya fervently sprinted towards Meera and encompassed her in a warm embrace.
“Happy Anniversary Mummy! Wow did Papa send these flowers? So pretty! Even I have a surprise for you.”
Diya pulled out a handcrafted card which had hearts and glitters at the top, and a sweet message inside for her parents. Meera was not surprised because these gestures by Diya were not atypical, but tears welled up in her eyes as she felt overwhelmed by her daughter’s innocent and unconditional love. After sharing an emotional and heart-warming moment with each other, they proceeded to get on with their morning routine. It was the first day of Diya’s summer vacation so there was no mad rush like the other days. Gaurav was away on a business trip and was expected to arrive by 2 PM. Meera had enough time to bake the surprise cake as planned.
It was 1:30 PM and preparations to welcome Gaurav were on in full swing. Meera stepped out of their apartment into the corridor to clean their shoe rack. Gaurav was quite finicky about cleanliness and loved a spotless home. Just as she began to wipe off the specks of dust that had comfortably settled on the rack, Lakshmi arrived.
“Lakshmi, there you are! You are coming too late on Saturdays. It is 1:30 already. Come on, now get on with your work and try to finish before Gaurav reaches home.”
“Sorry Didi. As you know Murali is at home on Saturday and it becomes very difficult to leave home early. But don’t worry I will finish everything fast. And happy anniversary Didi!”
Lakshmi was Meera’s domestic help who had been working for her since the time Meera was pregnant with Diya. Lakshmi was different from all her previous housemaids. She was a strong and independent woman with a pragmatic approach to life. She wanted to study but was forced into marriage by her widowed mother after her schooling was completed. Her husband was an abusive drunkard who did nothing constructive in life and lived off her hard-earned money. One day, he assaulted her over a petty issue while she was pregnant, and that was the final nail in the coffin for her. Without wallowing in self-pity, a pregnant Lakshmi ran away from the deleterious marriage and swore never to look back. She moved in with her mother and started life afresh. Her mother was not supportive at the beginning but soon came around on witnessing her daughter’s resilience and spirit.
Lakshmi and her mother earned a decent living through household jobs and tailoring work. Lakshmi’s son, Murali, was now 5 years old. They lived in a modest two bedroom apartment in a nearby locality on rent. Over the years, Meera and Diya had built a beautiful relationship with Lakshmi. Diya enjoyed playing with Murali, who would accompany Lakshmi to work occasionally on school holidays. They laughed together and danced together. There was respect, understanding and trust. Was it the quintessential friendship? Meera did not know, but whatever it was, it was not appreciated by Gaurav. He would often chide Meera over her ignorance about where to draw a line with housemaids.
The doorbell rang and Diya jumped out of the sofa to open the door with Meera following her. After the usual cuddles and exchange of pleasantries, Gaurav was ushered in to the dining room by little Diya.
“Surprise!” sang the girls in unison.
Gaurav narrowed his eyes and then threw up his hands in the air.
“A cake? You know am on a strict diet Meera,” muttered a displeased Gaurav.
“Umm…Yes I know, but I thought it is a special occasion so when Diya suggested I bake a cake, I thought you can make an exception for a day,” justified Meera meekly.
“You thought on my behalf? Why do you even think? And Diya is a kid but you could use your brain. Oh! I forgot that you are a brainless fool,” retorted Gaurav in an insulting tone leaving Diya and Meera shell-shocked.
“Gaurav, please! You are miffed just because I baked a cake? It’s our 10th anniversary. Please don’t spoil this occasion at least. And look at Diya, she looks so scared and upset,” pleaded Meera with a choked voice and misty eyes.
Gaurav walked up to Diya and hugged her.
“Sorry sweetheart. Papa cannot eat the cake, but we can certainly cut it together and I will feed you,” said Gaurav softly with an abrupt change in his expressions and demeanour.
Lakshmi was also asked to join during the cake-cutting session and she looked on, as Meera fought her tears to conceal her pain. Diya too appeared flustered as a result of her father’s outburst. After Lakshmi wrapped up her work, she promised Meera that she would be on time for the evening chores. She shot a scornful look at Gaurav before banging the main door behind her.
Gaurav unlocked the suitcase full of gifts that he had brought for Meera and Diya. The afternoon went by in a jiffy and Diya was back to her chirpy self playing with her new toys and trying out her new dresses. But Meera was still struggling to appear nonchalant. The pain of Gaurav’s words which pierced through her like a thousand daggers was excruciating. Diya was exhausted by early evening and retired to her bed for a power nap. Meera too lay down to rest and shut her eyes, less because she was worn-out and more because she wanted to avoid any kind of interaction with Gaurav. All of a sudden, she could feel the strokes of Gaurav’s hands on her back which made her wince. Before she could resist, he was already on her, ripping her clothes apart, thrusting himself upon her and devouring her body.
“Gaurav, please am very tired and not in mood right now,” protested Meera.
But as always, he only came on stronger and harsher on the motionless Meera, who was waiting for this torture to end. At the pinnacle of satisfaction, he moaned and rolled over to her side. He then nuzzled up to Meera and whispered.
“I love you Meera! And I am sorry for today. Wear the dress I got you for our dinner.”
“I love you too,” Meera barely managed to say. His sorry did not mean anything to her anymore.
Lakshmi was punctual in the evening and was scrubbing the utensils. Gaurav was out for getting his car serviced and Diya was down to play with her friends in the kids’ play area located in the apartment complex. Lakshmi wanted to strike a conversation with Meera about Gaurav but was not sure if Meera would appreciate her audacity. After pondering over it for a while, Lakshmi finally opened her mouth with apprehension.
“Didi, why don’t you leave him?”
Meera was stupefied. She had never discussed this aspect of her life with Lakshmi, and this came as a bolt out of the blue.
“What? Leave whom? What are you saying? Lakshmi, just because I talk to you like a friend does not mean you can overstep your boundaries. Please focus only on your work”.
Meera stomped out of the kitchen and plonked herself on her bed. She could not pretend anymore. This was not about one day. This was the truth of her marriage – the overburdening, bitter truth which she was tired of shamming. All her bottled up emotions surged out in a continuous stream of tears. The initial couple of years after marriage had gone by smoothly with Meera perceiving it all with rose- tinted glasses. Gradually, the random abuses being hurled at her for trivial matters increased. As time passed, she started feeling disrespected and controlled in the relationship. She lost touch with her close friends from college because Gaurav felt that it was a waste of time to chat with friends who were not in physical proximity. After Diya’s birth, Meera was too fatigued and consumed to think much about her equation with Gaurav. And then this became the permanent dynamics of their relationship. Once Diya started going to school, Meera began to pursue her passion for dancing but was discouraged by Gaurav. She could not give enough time to her work as Gaurav would blow up at the sight of a messy house which was bound to happen with a child at home. Her journey in the field of dancing came to a screeching halt even before a takeoff, as Meera decided to devote all her time towards their home. However, the cycle of abuse and apology continued. Gaurav would make up for his appalling behaviour by showering Meera with gifts and treating her to lavish dinners and holidays, and every time Meera would give in to his request for forgiveness hoping for a change. On a particularly distressing day, Meera consulted an online counsellor who recommended couple counselling and anger management classes for Gaurav. When Meera attempted to converse with Gaurav about this, his ego was massively bruised and she was ‘shown her place’ in the bed by him.
It was not that Meera herself never thought about walking out. She had mustered up courage to bring this up with her mother once.
“What do you mean by you do not feel respected in the relationship? Who does not have fights after marriage? He loves you and Diya, gets you both lovely gifts and does everything a man of the house should do. What else do you want? And why would you not want to get intimate when he wants it? What is the big deal about it? Do not forget you lead a comfortable life because of him. He does not hit you right? Appreciate what you have got. Don’t get affected by all the women empowerment nonsense. Besides, he was your choice so you should have known better. Stop making a mountain out of a molehill.”
Yes, Gaurav had never hit her, yet her soul felt shattered and battered. Meera concluded from her mother’s advice that probably it was she who needed to look at things from a fresh perspective. But, somehow, no perspective seemed right. The confident and bubbly woman had been overpowered by a subdued and timid stranger whom Meera didn’t identify with. Was there any place for fear in a marriage, she wondered?
Lakshmi tenderly wiped Meera’s tears with the pallu of her saree. She had been privy to the dismal state of her beloved Didi’s marriage, but it was heart-breaking for her to see Meera cry copiously.
“Didi, I am sorry. I did not mean to hurt you. But I meant every word I said. We never talked directly about this but I know that you know I understand everything. Please think about it seriously.”
“Lakshmi, I know you genuinely care for me. But it is really not easy. He is a good father and I am not sure if I should do this to Diya.”
“Good father? Who is a good father Didi? One who loves his child but insults the child’s mother? We tend to demarcate these roles but, these roles in a close knit home are intertwined and cannot be considered separate from each other. Do you think his behaviour with you will not impact Diya? Can’t you see that it already does? Do you think as Diya grows she will be happy to see the strained relationship between her parents? Will Diya learn love and respect in such a toxic environment?”
As Meera gave her a thoughtful look, Lakshmi continued.
“Didi, I know you must be thinking about financial aspects too. You have been dependent on your husband since the time you got pregnant with Diya. But, you are highly educated and have access to so many resources. If someone like me can become financially independent starting from scratch, you can do it without a doubt. You just need to plan properly and make up your mind. I am not saying that you need to take a decision just because I am suggesting you should. But, please think about yourself and Diya. We get so used to our life routine, that we get scared of a big change even if it might be for the better. It requires courage and strength definitely, but I know you are courageous and strong.”
Lakshmi’s words kept ringing in Meera’s ears long after she left. The clouds of confusion in her mind had started to clear, unleashing a new found force within her. With every passing minute, Meera felt clearer and surer about what she wanted to do. It was strangely beautiful how Lakshmi had helped Meera tap into her inner strength which was waiting for that one nudge to come to the forefront. Thanks to Lakshmi, Meera felt empowered and ready to take charge of her life.
Later that night, Meera and Gaurav had a bitter showdown during their anniversary dinner. Meera’s ex-flame from college was in the same restaurant with his family and Gaurav did not appreciate his coming up to their table to greet them. Usually, Meera would just let Gaurav vent out his anger but she had had enough. She retaliated and called him out for his narrow-mindedness. She confessed about how she felt suffocated in the marriage due to his possessive and domineering behavior, which he was never willing to change. Gaurav felt snubbed by Meera’s words and dashed out to his best friend’s abode in his car, leaving Meera and Diya all by themselves in the restaurant. Meera called for an Uber instantaneously. On the way home, she tried her best to comfort a traumatized Diya. At that moment, she longed for a friend to whom she could pour her heart out to. Though she did have friends in her society, there was no one with whom she shared an intimate bond.
The first thing that Meera did after reaching home was tucking away Diya to bed. She then hastily opened her laptop and began gathering all relevant information. She did some research on emotional abuse in a marriage and its legal repercussions. She also jotted down the phone numbers of good divorce lawyers in the city. She drafted an email to inform her father that she wanted him to come over as soon as he could as there was an emergency situation. She sighed and clicked on the ‘send’ button, hoping that her father would be sensitive to her situation and would support her. She decided to call him up as well first thing in the morning. She reviewed her bank accounts and did some financial calculations to formulate her plan of action keeping in mind the monetary aspects. She also dropped a message to the owner of ‘Rhythmic Movers’, a famous dance Institute in the city, who had once approached her to join them as an instructor.
At 6 AM, Meera was all set to embark on a new journey with a suitcase and a treasure box of memories. It wasn’t easy to leave the place that had been her home for so many years. It had taken 10 years for her to decide what the right thing to do was. It had taken 10 years for her to realize that a matrimonial bond is not about binding your partner.
She scribbled a note for Gaurav and slipped it inside the same bouquet that she had received from him in the morning.
“The day that seemed to be my worst anniversary actually turned out to be the happiest one. Because I feel more confident than ever about what I want from life. Thank you for everything. Happy anniversary!”
Meera woke up Diya who was still in a haze. Diya was perplexed about the happenings and Meera assured her and insisted that she have faith in her mother. Meera’s mobile beeped indicating the arrival of the cab driver. She was venturing into the unknown, where another life was beckoning her.
Lakshmi opened the door of her house rubbing her eyes and was flabbergasted to find Meera and Diya in front of her.
“Didi! How come you are here at this hour? All OK?”
“Can I stay here for a few days Lakshmi?”
“But Didi how can you….I mean are you sure?”
Meera walked in amused at the look of bewilderment on Lakshmi’s face. A bright and sunny day had dawned, bringing with it new hopes, new goals, new challenges and a new “Meera”.