A Storyby Shaily Menon
Ma said she married Da against her family’s wishes. Ma’s skin was fair and her cheeks were red. She said it was because her people came from the northern mountains. She said Da’s skin was dark because his people were from the coastal south, a strange land of paddy fields and coconut trees. Ma’s family did not think such a marriage would work.
Ma came to live with him in the city far away from anyplace she had known. She said it was the second time she was uprooted from the place she called home. The first time was when her family had to flee her mountain home after the partition of India, when the killing mobs came. The second time was when she moved with Da to the city of Bombay, made from islands in the sea, where they spoke a language that was neither Ma’s nor Da’s. She said they have arrived in the middle of where each of them had originated, but to her family it is as if she has traveled to another continent. She said she has tried very hard to make this place her home.
Six years after me, my baby sister was born, and Ma was sad. She cried a lot. Earlier, she cried when the baby who would have been my brother died, and then when my sister Maya came, she cried again. She wondered what she’d done in a previous life to be cursed. She’d longed for a son but had only daughters.
Da said where he came from to have daughters was a celebration. Ma sobbed harder. She said, “Why am I not surprised? We are a hardy people. We celebrate our sons. The rice your people eat with such relish? We wouldn’t feed it to our cattle.”
She sounded angry, as if celebrating daughters and feeding rice to cattle were bad things. I didn’t know why hardy people couldn’t celebrate the birth of daughters. I reminded myself to look up hardy in Da’s big dictionary. Maybe then I would understand.
I wondered why it was important to Ma what kind of food the cattle ate. I thought of saying that on my way home from school I saw a cow chewing newspaper from a trash heap on the street, but somehow I knew that would anger Ma. It would remind her how much she hated the city. I turned to see what Da would say.
He unfolded the newspaper, opening it wide and rustling the pages until they fell into place. A news item caught his attention and he raised his eyebrows. “Oh!” he said. “Peace talks have failed? Now they are sure to declare war. East and West Pakistan are fighting each other, and we are trapped in the middle.”
Ma wiped her tears on the edge of her sari. She said, “The newspaper can tell you nothing of the sorrow of such wars. Go on and hide behind it. So what if I have girls? I will make them strong like sons.” She looked hard at me when she said that.