Short Story 2018 Longlist, Aftab Yusuf Shaikh

Sister-In-Law

I was already minutes late for college and ma was still forcing me to have my breakfast. I, too, was feeling hungry. In fact, I never leave the house in the morning, before having my breakfast.

I liked only coffee in the morning and not other things which were served along. I find it difficult stuffing myself early in the morning. It’s known only to me, how much effort it takes to swallow the delicacies. But I ate them quietly. Not because I was hungry or because of mother’s coaxing. I ate it solely because my dear Bhabhisa had prepared it for me.

Each day, she would get up in the morning, before the sun came out of its hiding. She would prepare breakfast for the whole family so that no one leaves the house without food. Though, it was she, who readied the breakfast, she remained the last person to have her breakfast. She first fed everyone, and then thought of herself.

Bhabhisa means sister-in-law in our culture and that is the relation of which she is to me. She was married to my elder brother, Shamit, four years ago. She was from some unknown village where my mother once went to attend a wedding. She saw Bhabhisa there and that day itself went to her house for asking her hand in marriage.

Her family was poor. Her mother used to work in the fields all day to get a meagre meal twice a day. She had no other income and had to bring up her five daughters with whatever little she earned. She had long lost her husband and since her husband’s death, no relatives of her dared to even recognize her.

Bhabhisa was an orthodox village girl. She wasn’t exposed to life. She never knew the big sophisticated way of life we lived. She was happy to consider my brother as her husband and master. She was ready to devote her whole life, heart, body and soul to her husband.

Her family was very happy with her marriage. Her mother and sisters might have never thought that she would be wedded off to a man from such a high society and caste. Each day of the wedding week was spent in pomp in splendour. Each and every penny spent in the wedding was ours. My mother didn’t let Bhabhisa’s mother buy even a single piece of cloth with her own money. The royal wedding ended with us bringing Bhabhisa to our house. Not just Bhabhisa, we had also brought prosperity, happiness and life to our gloomy house that day.

This was all that happened four years ago. Bhabhisa was married to my brother four years ago and since the last four years, she was dying for his love. Everybody in the family loved her except the one whose love was the most important for her- my brother.

The main thing is that Shamit wanted to have a love marriage but was pressurised to marry the village girl. He was married in an arranged way complete with all the religious rites which he severely hated.

Though at first he didn’t care at all for his wife, Shamit’s behaviour with my Bhabhisa changed a bit when Ma gave him some thoughtful lectures on married life, and the rights and duties of a husband, peppering it all with few good qualities of my father as a husband. Apparently, he had now started loving her. But as usual, he fought with her a lot. He was such an educated man but still fought over petty issues.

Take for example, his battle with her the other day.

‘How dare you to take money from my pocket,’ he roared at her.

‘Ma asked me for money when was going to the doctor. I had no money at hand so I searched your pocket and took whatever I found.’

‘Perhaps this isn’t the first time you took money from my pocket. Who knows from when this is going on?’

‘Oh no! This is the first time I did so. And that too for not my use. ‘Yes. Yes. I understand. You want to show that you have done a big favour for me.’

‘I didn’t say that.’

‘But you mean that. Now I can see what your parents have taught you. Your mother might have advised you to rob your husband’s house.’

‘Why are you now changing tracks to my parents? They worked all day and had no time to preach such rubbish. You always drag them in arguments. You are such an orthodox. You are an idiot.’

‘Aha! I may have become an idiot now. I know you are very learned. I know that your educational qualification is higher than mine. Now as you don’t have anything to say, you have started attempting to prove me inferior.’

I was amazed at this discovery. I didn’t know Bhabhisa had done her Masters. I sat to wonder how her mother might have arranged for her education.

Shamit and his wife’s argument was disturbed due to mother’s interference. She silenced the two. She didn’t have much time to scold Shamit as he immediately left for office. She comforted her daughter-in-law.

‘Don’t take him seriously, my child. You know he is not always like that. In true meaning, he is spending all his yesterday’s anger on you.’

‘Yesterday’s anger? I don’t know nothing of yesterday. I did nothing. What are you talking of, Ma?’

‘You don’t know? Well, how will you know? He told it just to me. He caught a traitor in the company who sold all the future plans of the company to rival firms. The man was very angry with Shamit and he even threatened to kill Shamit in front of the whole staff.’

‘Oh, Ma! Why did you let him go then?’ Bhabhisa became scared.

‘Don’t worry, dear. He will be alright.’

The day went by. Bhabhisa ended all her chores and went for a nap. She was woken from her sleep when someone banged at the main door. Bhabhisa opened the door. It was Shamit. Shamit was covering his face with his hands. Ma too arrived at the scene. Her voice was trembling. She asked, ‘What happened son?’

‘That man, Ma. That traitor threw acid on my face. Quick… bring cold water.’

‘Yes. Yes, my son. Aruni is bringing the water. Don’t worry, you will be alright.’

‘My face is feeling very tight, Ma.’ His face was burning all over. The smoke emanating from his face was suffocating him. ‘I fear this acid will eat up my face.’

My mother was shocked to see her son’s face being swallowed up by acid fumes. Shamit was hurried to the hospital. He received third degree burns on his face.

His features were totally distorted. It became difficult for his own friends to recognize him. Since, his eyelids had shrunken; he wasn’t able to close his eyes. This made it very difficult for him to sleep. Each night, he would lie down in his bed and wait for dawn. He got no sleep. And this caused him terrible pain in the head.

Uncle Khan, my late father’s friend, was planning to file a case against the man who threw acid on my brother’s face. On Monday, when he called the family lawyer to discuss the case, I was there with him too. ‘What did the accused used?’ The lawyer’s’ inquiry started.

‘Sulphuric acid,’ answered Uncle Khan.

‘Oh God. Sulphuric acid can dissolve iron and can bore holes in the wood. I wonder what carnage it may have caused on a human face,’ said Advocate Barot.

‘Yes Barot. It was really destructive. I want a strong case to be filed against that man.’

‘No use I say, Khan. The Indian Penal Code has no specific laws dealing with acid attacks. Several years back, a similar case came before me. A very attractive and educated young woman had acid thrown on her face by her former employee. The acid made a hole on her head, welded one side of her ear lobes and her neck to the shoulders almost dissolved her lips and nose. It had transformed the colour and shape of her face and left her both eyes blind. Though she underwent a surgery, her face remains disfigured.’

‘Terrible! Was her employee caught?’

‘Yes, he was arrested the very next day.’

‘So what punishment did he get?’

‘He remained in prison for five years and then on paying a fine of Rs. 3 Lakhs, for the crime that devastated her life, he is free today.’

‘At least he got the punishment?’

‘What is the use, but? He was punished due to the tremendous pressure from the influential feminists. And by the time the girl got the compensation, her face turned worse and the ignorance and prejudice she faced due to her spoilt face, took her life.’

‘I don’t believe this, Barot.’

‘You have to, Khan. In this case the very much famous long hand of the law proves handicapped.’

‘This is wrong. Why is our country lagging behind others? I am sure there might be some strict rules regarding acid attacks in the progressed European countries.’

‘Leave alone the progressed ones. Even our neighbouring Bangladesh has taken steps towards controlling acid attacks.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes, they have modified the Act of Prevention of Women and Child abuse to ‘Acid Control Act 2002’ and ‘Acid Crime Control Act 2002’.

‘What a pity! Oh my India, what is happening to you?’ Uncle Khan sighed.

‘That is why I am advising you to forget about the case and instead spend the money on surgeries to reform Shamit’s face.’

‘Oh, my! Barot, you are a lawyer and you are saying this.’

‘It’s just an advice, Khan. You can do what you want.’

‘I would work on Shamit’s surgery but I won’t let that freak go so easily who spoiled my son’s face.’

‘As you wish. I will prepare the documents.’

The lawyer’s advice left us shocked. Uncle kept quiet and left for home as he was getting late already.

On the way to my bedroom, I overheard some shrill whispers coming from Shamit’s room.

Shamit would make Bhabhisa sit beside him and admire her beauty. He would just look at her and refrained from saying a single word. But that night, Bhabhisa was caressing his burnt face which I even didn’t like touching. He said things to her which she always wanted to hear.

‘I love you Aruni. Do you love me? Still?’ Shamit held her hands with love.

‘Obviously, Shamit. I now love you even more. What is this ‘still’? I love you, Shamit. I love you more…’ and she broke into tears.

And I walked away wondering at the impossible human heart.

 

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