It was a Sunday afternoon in June. The streets were barren and only the occasional kid was spotted running after a goat, in the scratchy lanes that housed Pankhudi’s ancestral home.
Pankhudi stared as she slapped the older boy who tried to pinch her butt.
“Come back, Pankhudi! Don’t mess with them,” said Rahida, as she tugged at Pankhudi’s arm, her nails digging red moons on Pankhudi’s soft arms. Pankhudi kept staring at the boy until the school bell rang and teachers shuffled out of their classes and noticed the commotion.
“What is going on here?” asked Smita Miss.
“Nothing, madam! We’re leaving,” said Rahida, while the boys left the corridor.
Rahida held Pankhudi’s arm, scooting off to class.
Twelve years later, Pankhudi was working as an investigative journalist at a local newspaper. She was also pursuing a PhD in Sociology on gender-based crimes in third world countries.
“Beta, it’s time you thought about marriage. We can’t manage good matches for you forever,” said her mother, fanning her while she ate. “Age and beauty might be nothing for your generation but people still look for beautiful girls for their sons. Haven’t you seen the classifieds?”
She shook her head with a blank look.
“Of course, you haven’t! Your prince is waiting for you to accept his invitation, isn’t it?” said Ma.
She nodded, her mouth filled with chapatti and gourd sabzi.
“Meanwhile, your mother rots her head thinking of what to put out on a mortgage for your wedding!” Ma stifled a rising sob.
Pankhudi laid her head back in pretend exasperation while taking her empty plate to the sink.
“Pankhudi, we have somehow managed to keep you safe without your father for so long. But how much can two women do? Your mother is also ageing, beta. I thought that photographer in your office could be good, but you said no!” said Dadi.
“Who, Mohit? Dadi, he has a girlfriend. Please!”
“Whatever! All these travels you do for work haven’t got you a good boy either. What’s the use?”
Pankhudi laughed hard at the inadvertent joke, finally finding her breath and saying, “Point!”
“Maa-ji, there’s no point telling her!” Ma told Dadi.
“Go to sleep,” Pankhudi yawned and quietly retired to her room.
Ma and Dadi looked at each other and exhaled.
“God! Who puts a 50s ring tone on an android phone?” said Pankhudi, picking up her mother’s cell phone from the kitchen table top.
“I do,” said her Ma, snatching her phone away and taking the call, “Hullo!
Arey, how are you?
No, we haven’t (sneaking a peek at Pankhudi)
Not at all
Hmmm (moving away to the TV room)
Where did you say they are from?
Sounds good! You know best. Speak to them but don’t promise.
I’ll call you.”
Ma put the phone down and went about like nothing had happened.
“Who was it?” asked Dadi.
“Sarla ji!” said Ma.
“Is it about…”
“The same she mentioned before?”
“What did she say?”
“She’ll tell me later.”
Pankhudi came out of the kitchen, licking her fingers off the homemade pickle, crunching her eyebrows into an investigative frown. “What’s with the code language?”
“Nothing. It’s just adult talk!” said Ma.
Pankhudi sniggered. “Ma, I’m 26!”
“So what? It’s adult, adult talk!”
“You mean porn?”
“Shut up! Oh god, this girl says anything!”
“Some lame marriage proposal, I guess. Tell Sarlaji that I am gay. That should shut her up!” said Pankhudi and drove her TVS Scooty off to work.
“Another threat mail!” said Pankhudi to Mohit, on her way out of office.
“Dude, your stories must be stirring the right people up. But be careful!”
“Hey, won’t it be fun if we publish these threats too?” she said, as she walked away.
“Hahaha!” laughed Mohit, and said, “No, but seriously, keep a gun or something!”
Pankhudi flexed her biceps from the office door and bade goodbye to Mohit.
It was late evening when she left her office. Two lanes before she reached home, a wedding band stopped her, belting out robust item songs. Pankhudi manoeuvred her bike through a smaller lane, to avoid the wedding traffic. It was dark and dank and smelled of dead rats and piss. She realised that she should have taken a more public road, when she came across a group of young boys, huddled over one of them showing something on a cellphone. She shut the visor of her helmet and tried to slide past them, when one of them deliberately brushed his hand over chest, clutching her right breast, as she passed by. Shocked and dazed by what just happened, she stopped her bike a few steps ahead.
“Oh, she needs more, Bhai! She needs more!” yelled the boys.
Pankhudi turned around and looked at the boys, as they catcalled and steadily walked towards her. Disgusted, she tightened her grip on the bike handle and said, “I’ll get you for this. I’ll get you arrested, you rascals.”
“Oye, oye, oye! What did the bitch say?”
Before the boys could cover the distance between them, Pankhudi drove her bike out of the lane as fast as she could and sped off home. She was breathing between painful gaps. The soreness of her clutched breast was gone but she could still feel the touch of the hand.
I have been molested. Oh my god! I just got molested.
As realisation dawned upon her, tears stained her cheeks inside the stuffy helmet. Her warm tears and stuttered breath fogged her helmet visor as she reached home. She got down from her bike and vomited on the lawn. Her mother opened the door to let her in when she noticed her daughter throwing up.
“What’s wrong, Pannu? What happened?” Ma panicked.
Thunder crackled in the skies as Ma tried to shake Pankhudi off her silence. Then she noticed her tears. “Did someone do something?”
Pankhudi dropped onto her mother’s shoulder, crying and shaking vigorously.
“What is it? What is wrong?” asked Dadi from the threshold, holding the door crack for support.
“Nothing, she just saw a dead body,” answered Ma.
A fortnight passed by, but Ma had stopped Pankhudi from lodging a FIR or even going to the office. “We’re regular people. Police stations, FIRs and all that will only tarnish our image, Pannu!” she said.
“So you’ll let me get violated but not lodge a complaint?” Pankhudi replied.
“You don’t understand, Pannu!”
“If not me, I can at least ask Mohit to do it for me!”
“What? You cannot tell your colleagues about this!”
“Ma!” Pankhudi was exasperated.
“All I am saying is that you should just forget the episode like it was a nightmare.”
“But I don’t want to forget. I want to get them punished.”
“Stop it. Stop it, Pannu! You cannot go to the police station and you cannot go back to work,” said Ma, her eyes fixed on Pankhudi’s.
“Ma, I cannot stop living my…”
“No, I will not have my daughter molested again. I have spoken to Sarla ji. You will meet the guy and if you like him, you will marry him.”
“Ma, please… Dadi! What is wrong with Ma?” Dadi promptly left the room.
“I said IF you like him. I’m still giving you a choice. So, don’t make a scene,” said Ma.
“And if you don’t, you will go and stay with your uncle and extended relatives. They have a lot more people there. They can ensure better safety.”
“Oh my god! You’ve lost your mind.”
“No, you have. Can’t you see what you just went through? What we all went through? Do you think if someone comes to know this, they will marry you? Do you think I can ever show my face to Sarla ji who keeps harping about you in front of everyone?”
“What? Show your face…what?”
“Enough, Pankhudi! I have had enough of you having your way. You will agree to what I say or I’ll understand that you want me and Dadi to die!”
Ma stomped out of the kitchen leaving Pankhudi perplexed on the kitchen stool.
It was raining the whole afternoon when Pankhudi went to the office to tender her resignation. Much to her chagrin, her mother insisted that the neighbourhood Cable TV provider, accompany her to office in their van and pick her up on the way back.
As Pankhudi reached the office, she saw Mohit waiting for her at her desk. He whispered, “Boss wants to meet you.”
“What? Did you tell him already?” she replied in hushed tones.
“M-o-h-i-t!” she whispered, angrily.
She tapped at the Editor’s door. “Sir, may I come in?”
“Sir…” She looked at him quizzically, as he gestured her to the seat. “Thank you.”
“Pankhudi, you have been doing well. I was even planning to put an assistant under you by winter and let you head your own department. Now, I hear that you want to quit because your mother is unwell. I don’t know if it is true. I assume it is. There’s just one thing I can tell you. Don’t give up. Just think about it. That’s all I have to say.”
Pankhudi fell silent for some time. Her editor hadn’t said so many words to her at one go, ever. True, a crime beat pertaining to women was a new section in the newspaper. She had been keeping it active and earning positive feedback, consistently. With experience, she could try bigger newspaper houses. Really, why was she giving up? Because she was molested or because her mother was insecure? Why was she killing her dream?
Startled, she said, “Yes sir.”
“Give me some time to think. I will let you know.”
She took an auto-rickshaw home. As she paid her fare, she heard laughter from their living room.
“Sarla ji, Pankhudi is a very independent girl,” Ma was saying.
“Sure, sure! Men want intelligent wives these days. Hahahaha!” laughed Sarla.
Pankhudi opened the door and entered.
“Pannu, this is Sarla ji,” said Ma.
Pankhudi folded her hands and sat next to the woman, as she was measured up. Sarla continued, “See, the boy is an aircraft engineer in London. Very nice family! My neighbours have known him since he peed in his pants, hahaha!”
“Aunty! I don’t want to marry,” said Pankhudi.
Silence. “Huh?” Sarla smiled, amused by the probable mistake.
“I have just been promoted. I cannot give up my job and go to London. Thank you for everything, but you have to forgive us for wasting your time.”
“What is all this? I wasn’t told she is not interested. Look,” Sarla spoke directly to Ma, “if you think…”
“No, she didn’t think,” interrupted Pankhudi, “She thought I will resign today and come back to agree to your proposal. But she was wrong. I will not give up a promising job, to appease her insecurity, aunty. She must believe me.”
“Look,” said Sarla, getting up to leave, “these are respectable people I am talking about. They will not like this kind of behaviour.”
“Look Sarla ji,” said Pankhudi, gesturing Ma not to interrupt, “you have been hassled. Sorry for that. But please keep your respectable people looking for other prospects. I am happy where I am.”
“You need to learn how to behave, young lady!”
“You and I don’t know each other. So, please save your advice. I will behave as I deem proper. Thank you.”
Sarla gave Ma a disgruntled look and strutted away in anger.
“Pankhudi…,” Ma started to reason, as she closed the door.
“I am taking Krav Maga lessons from tomorrow. There’s a class near my office. That should teach me how to deal with hooligans. As for marriage, I am waiting for someone looking for a Princess Charming. Until I find him, I will not marry. Is that sorted?”
Ma and Dadi exchanged confused looks, as Pankhudi opened her hair bun and walked away.
This story was published under the name “And Pankhudi decided to fly”. But I kept the original here because I like it better. 🙂