That Other life


From the moment she got up in the morning, the headache started. It was now days, perhaps months, since she had realized that her head ached incessantly. At first she tried to ignore it. Then she made do with tablets — Crocin, Aspirin and the like. They gave her temporary relief. The headache always resumed. It was such a nuisance. But taken up as she was by the daily routine, she hadn’t been able to pay much attention to it. Now it had obviously become an acute problem. She realized that it was happening every day and the tablets no longer gave her any relief. What could it be? Apart from this, everything was all right. Nothing worth complaining about.

Observing her face, her husband asked, “The same thing again?” The tone was typical of him. “Yes,” she said, “the same.”

Upon that he said, “Why don’t you see a doctor? Have your eyes examined, or else.…”

Put out at this she said, “I’ve only just had them examined and got new glasses. How could my number have increased so soon?”

He responded, “One can’t be sure, as one’s age increases.…”

It had not escaped her notice that of late he missed no opportunity to draw attention to her age. In the beginning she had tried to laugh it off. “Yes, I’m getting older all right. So are you.” She tried to see how that would work. But it didn’t. Far from taking it lightly he took to harping on her age all the time. Then she realized that what had upset him was her growing disinclination for sex. She had felt that this was natural with women. She had heard it was linked with menopause. She’d even suggested as much to him. But he didn’t accept that or perhaps he didn’t want to accept it. She felt quite offended. Why wouldn’t he believe her?

Then she began to dread the mornings. The same routine, the same round of work and now the headaches. Would it all ever come to an end? There was no alternative but to endure it. How could one escape any of the little jobs that one had to do from the moment one got up?

She spoke about it to a friend in the office. Asked if this kind of thing happened at this age.

The friend said, “It can happen. And that male animal that goes by the name of a husband naturally won’t understand. Why not have one more check-up? Go to a gynaecologist this time.”

She didn’t think it was necessary. But then she found that everyone at home, her son, and her daughter kept picking on her. They complained that she was becoming irritable, was listless all the time. Didn’t give proper answers, replied sharply. At this she really did get angry and said, “Well everything around me is enough to make anyone angry.”

At this they were silent and started gazing at her. Her son hadn’t managed to find a job to his liking. He was highly educated, so she felt that things should work out well for him. But he insisted that it wasn’t his fault. She felt he wasn’t trying hard enough. Since he could sit at home eating and whiling away the time, he just didn’t want to stand on his own feet and make an effort.

At this the boy started an argument. According to him he was really able and unless he got a position in keeping with his ability he couldn’t take any decision. It was evident that her husband supported him. The husband’s complaints were about the daughter. She was involved in a hundred different matters and would never let the family get an inkling of what she was doing and where she was going.

It wasn’t as if she herself approved of her daughter’s doings. She’d have liked it if her daughter had confided in her but the girl had neither the time nor the inclination to do so. She couldn’t care less about anything and had gone completely out of hand.

She knew that all these circumstances were the cause of her headaches. But the situation wasn’t going to improve. And what certainty was there that any particular change in the situation would cause the headaches to stop?

Even then she took her office friend’s advice and paid a visit to the doctor. But after examining her the doctor said that there was nothing wrong, such changes took place at menopause and advised her to take calcium and B-complex.

So the same round continued, only worse. Not only did the headache begin as soon as she got out of bed but continued through the day. At first it kept recurring. But then it was there without a break. Fed up with her constant complaints her husband said, “Why don’t you get your head examined?”

Even her friend said with some concern that she should go to a specialist and have a scan taken. She kept putting it off. But then she felt she must get to the bottom of it and so visited a specialist.

All the reports came in and once again everything turned out to be normal. Her husband said, “There must be some sort of deterioration in your brain which nobody can detect.” She wondered what it could be. Then once when she opened her eyes expecting the headache to start up she suddenly remembered that she had had a dream. A strange complicated dream, which had exhausted, strained, upset her. It was that that had brought on the headache.

As she lay in bed reflecting on this, the headache resumed. As she was lying there, her husband turned over towards her and perhaps because he was awake or perhaps because she was lying so still he placed his hand on her body. Deliberately. It repelled her like an electric shock and she flung his hand off.

Taken aback by her reaction her husband sat up and said angrily, “All right, all right. If you don’t want it, you don’t. For the last six months you’ve been refusing. But is that any reason to fling off my hand with such disgust?”

She herself couldn’t understand why she’d done it. She kept looking at him. But didn’t feel like saying sorry. She felt some revulsion against him, his hand, and his touch. She turned her back towards him.

That was the occasion when she began to notice that she’d been dreaming. Of course she knew people regularly dream. Only they often don’t remember the dreams. Sometimes, they do remember them, though. Good and bad, disconnected, meaningless, sometimes full of meaning. She didn’t know into which category her dream fell. In the beginning she strained to remember. But she couldn’t recall a single detail. Just that she had had a dream.

Then she began to feel that this dream left her drained and troubled, it was a nightmare. Over and above the headache she was left exhausted, tormented.

In spite of all this she didn’t want to tell her husband. To start with, he tended to be displeased with her these days, and besides he was always disinclined to listen to anything incomprehensible. Telling the children was out of the question. Who else would be interested in her dream?

There was of course the friend at the office. But she was reluctant to tell her. She sensed that her friend was getting fed up of listening to her complaints. She seemed to be trying to avoid the subject, diverting the conversation to this and that.

Who else was close to her apart from this friend? She had been a colleague for many years. The others were mostly freshly appointed, or, if they had been there for a long time, were not close. Even the friendship was confined to the office; they rarely met socially. Then it dawned on her that she had been in this friendless state for a long time. She felt bad about it. How had it happened? How enthusiastically she used to make friends in her childhood. It was something very important to her in her school and college days. But once she fell in love, all that mattered was the man. Then marriage, the husband’s people, then children. Everything followed a pattern. All that had absorbed her: Where had it all gone? One could scarcely turn around and make one’s way back.

Then she got into the habit of holding her head and massaging it wherever she was, at home or in the office. Even then nobody made any inquiries. Everybody knew about her headaches. They had become one of those routine matters of daily life, her headaches, meaningless, unavoidable.

She made an effort to locate and bring home a book on the subject of dreams. She had thought she’d find an answer there, but didn’t. There was nothing on the connection between dreams and headaches. She found only one useful suggestion; she should have a pen and paper ready near her pillow and jot down immediately whatever she could recollect. That was the only way to recall one’s dreams. Otherwise they slipped out of the memory at once.

So she kept a pen and paper ready. But even then, all that she could recall was something troublesome, unwelcome, oppressive. No details at all. Her husband mocked at her, ridiculed her efforts. It was evident that he felt not the slightest curiosity concerning her dream. He just said, “Some fad of yours.”

She began to feel that one day she would probably die of headache. Like a hammer the dream would descend on her brain and she’d collapse. What they call a brain haemorrhage and that would be the end of the show.

Actually, because of all this, everything had changed — her strength, her enthusiasm, her capability, her nature itself, and her family were tired of it all. But who weeps for someone who dies every day? She felt that they were just bearing with her somehow.

She opened her eyes, thought for a moment, then suddenly remembered. Then hastily she grabbed her pen and paper. In the process the pen fell to the ground. She got out of bed, searched, picked it up and hurriedly scribbled whatever she thought she remembered. Then she stopped.

She felt a tremendous jolt as she recalled it. Was that what the dream had been like? Somebody on top of her? She couldn’t tell who it was. But somebody burly, heavy. The weight crushed her, so it must be a man and on top of her, her body, so what was he doing? She didn’t want it, it troubled her, tormented her. The meaning was clear — it was a man raping her.

She almost collapsed. Putting pen and paper aside, she lay down again and tears streamed from her eyes. Then she said to herself, “That’s enough, how foolish you are, it was a dream, not real, only a dream.” Then slowly she stopped weeping. She turned and saw that her husband had got out of bed. He must have been in the bathroom. She felt used, stale. Then without thinking she felt her body all over with her hand. How absurd, how could there be anything? Nobody had done anything to her. The thought had come to her mind that her husband might have done something while she slept. But it wasn’t so. Besides, however angry he was with her, would he do something like that? And she wouldn’t even be aware of it? How was that possible?

The headache had started. She lay in bed, her hand pressed to her head. Now she didn’t even want to remember the dream. How monstrous! She wondered why she should have had such a dream. Of rape? Besides, so vivid that on waking she thought it had really happened? And these headaches? She just couldn’t figure anything out.

She could see that matters were deteriorating in her household. Her husband was constantly in a bad mood but she knew this had to do with his insecurity regarding his career. And her son was still without a job in spite of appearing for a couple of interviews and this didn’t seem to worry him. To her daughter’s multifarious activities one more had been added — a love affair. Her husband didn’t approve at all and was threatening to confine her to the house.

She didn’t know how to handle any of this. But now she was beginning to feel that such problems are common, all households face them, they are really quite insignificant. On her remarking that all middle class women and men who marry and have families go through such experiences, they all turned on her and there followed quarrels, recriminations, leading to mutual fault-finding and accusations.

And was there anyone outside the home in whom she could confide? When she brought up the subject, her friend appeared bored. “It’s the same story in every household, isn’t it? How often do you want to talk about this?” This silenced her. She knew it was true. What was so new about it? Besides, her strength was really ebbing. Day after day it was getting more difficult to endure those headaches while getting on with her work, running her household. Then automatically, this was accompanied by inattention, making do, sloppiness, confusion, forgetfulness, slackening, laziness. Her whole life seemed to be breaking up.

Then it occurred to her one evening that she should consult a psychiatrist about the reason for those dreams. She decided to do this and with high hopes but without letting the family know, made inquiries and fixed an appointment with a psychiatrist who had a great reputation.

The doctor asked questions which she answered. She felt relaxed talking freely to this total stranger. Besides, in narrating everything systematically from the beginning, she herself could see it all more clearly, in perspective. She spoke about her life, her husband, her children, their problems, relationships, then the headaches and the dream. She felt no constraint in talking about rape to a male doctor, and he needed to know her problems so that he could find a solution. She realized that.

He asked: “Is the dream exactly the same every night or is the incident itself the same but the details different?”

She thought for a moment. A dull headache was there in the background. She replied, “It’s difficult to say because I can’t tell who the man is, what he’s like. I can’t see his face. I can’t tell at all who he is. I’m just aware of him.”

Then he said with a serious expression, “Has anything like this ever happened to you?”

“No, never.”

“When you were a child? When you were too young to understand? Try and remember. It’s possible that something like this actually happened. It could be buried deep in some corner of your mind. Or perhaps you were afraid of it happening. At your place of work? A family member? An acquaintance?”

She said, “No. Nothing like that has ever happened.” She wanted to lay stress on the dream itself. She wanted to know its meaning and whether it was possible to stop it and how it was connected with her headaches. These were the questions she wanted to ask.

She made three visits to the doctor, each lasting an hour. He said, “I can see only those possibilities. Either, when you were very small, something like this happened to you and your conscious mind pushed it into the unconscious and now it’s resurfacing to trouble you in the form of dreams and headaches. There’s also the other possibility, that a deep fear of this kind of occurrence has taken root in your mind, perhaps because there was a real danger of that kind some time, at some stage in your life. It’s that fear that causes your mind to tell you in the form of a dream that this really happened. It’s a kind of outward manifestation of the fear. The headaches are the result.”

He prescribed some medicines, told her that might slow her down, make her feel depressed or weak but those were side-effects to be expected.

She felt her hopes had been belied. She couldn’t say why but she didn’t feel that slightest faith in the doctor’s explanations. Even though they were quite logical. So she didn’t buy the medicines. She resolved not to take them.

It wasn’t that the dream recurred every day but she still came to dread the onset of sleep. But at least after the day’s exhaustion when sleep came she was free of headaches. That at least was a relief. Even if she didn’t want it, sleep came and with it the dream. A woman violated!

Then she began to make a note of similar incidents. As soon as one opens the daily newspaper one’s eye lights on something of that nature. Not a day passes, without some woman becoming a victim of rape somewhere, in our own country or in some other spot on the earth. Actually the figures were shocking. In some countries every few minutes some woman or the other was raped. From girls of two or five to old women of seventy or eighty. Skin colour, looks, body, shape, education, wealth, whether she had a family or not, diseased or crippled, pregnant or with children, married or unmarried, accompanied by a man or not, nothing, but nothing, made a difference. She was a woman, that was enough. A person with a woman’s body and a man. He could be anybody, a close relative, an acquaintance or a stranger, belonging to one’s own country or community or a member of a conquering army.

Then it became a kind of obsession with her, reading about those things, collecting information and figures. She brought home books on the subject. She contacted women’s organizations and obtained information from them. As if she was writing a thesis. It goes without saying that her children took no interest in this, indeed they knew nothing about it. Her son was occupied in lazing and lolling about, while the daughter’s love affair proceeded at a hectic pace. Her husband could see what she was doing but could make nothing of it. The tension in the household continued, four strangers forced to live together fuming and complaining.

She was surprised that her brain remained intact. In this condition she should have lost her balance altogether, descended into insanity. But in spite of the tension, routine existence continued. Then she realized that it was the same with those countless women. Each of them had been through an experience totally unlike any other. Her body, mind, self-respect had all been violated and she survived only as a victim. Still her life went on.

Some of these women had to suffer further persecution and trials. Their families and society cast them out, they were ill treated, they bore children. One violation led to another, a whole chain of them. Very few of them had a chance of recovery. These few got to their feet again with somebody’s help or support. They put it all behind them and recovered their self-respect.

Revolving all this in her mind she began to feel very close to all these women. She too was one of that large number and she could imagine all that they had to go through. Yet she knew very well that in actuality she had never had to go through it and that she led a so-called sheltered existence. And yet the possibility of it happening to her was very close to her, not only outdoors but indoors, experienced not only in her body but in her mind, her brain, her soul.

She began to feel she should talk to somebody about all this. How would she express it? And if she did, what difference would it make? To her or to the other women? But she had determined that some time or other she must get to the meaning of this dream and there was no alternative but to wait.

Time passed. So many things happened during that period. Her son got a job and went to live far away. But she could see that he had been unwilling to accept that job. As a result there had been an argument and he had threatened that he was leaving home. The daughter’s affair not only continued but there had been a lot of commotion because she had disappeared for some days. Then she returned and announced that that chapter was closed. But a few months later she realized her daughter was pregnant. Then of course there were constant arguments, quarrels, bitterness. By the time it all subsided his sense of futility, hopelessness and rage had driven her husband far from her.

Having gone through all this she noticed that all her family now seemed very distant from her and to her astonishment the headaches had stopped. Over and above that she had no longer had the nightmare. She was dumbfounded when she realized that.

She couldn’t understand the connection. She was reading something but the words didn’t enter her head. For a few seconds her surroundings seemed to move far away and she felt — but felt is too simple a term. Actually it was like a revelation. She was no longer ‘she’, that person who had been leading a routine ordinary existence. She was a totally different woman. The life of that ‘other’ woman had ‘touched’ her in some way and now, however monstrous and terrible it was, it was the truth. There was no way she could cast off the touch of that other life.

Then she stepped out of her own life. Slowly, mentally she became part of a vast, united, truthful collective existence. Now this other life was hers, a life that was truly hers, other, and what was now left to her, unavoidable yet chosen as she now had the freedom to express it.

Translated from Marathi by Shirin Kudchedkar.

 Her writing career began with short stories but she has more recently also written novels. She has a number of short story collections to her credit like Shodh (Search) (1980), Prateeti (Realization) (1989), Khidkya (Windows) (1989), Disha Gharachya (Directions leading from Home) (1991), Olakh (Recognition) (1992), Bhoomika (Roles)( 1994), Valay(Halo) (1995), Pariman (Dimensions) (1996), Prayan(Departure) (1997). Her novels are Sthalantar (Migration) (1994), Avartan (Circling back)(1996), Avkash (Space)(2001). She has won a number of awards like the A.W.Warty Award, the Maharashtra State Award for three separate works, Prateeti, Valay and Sthalantar, the V.S.Khandekar Award for Pariman, the Maharashtra Sahitya Parishad Award for Bhoomika and the Jaywant Dalvi Memorial Award for Sthalantar.

 An eminent feminist critic, was formerly Head, Department of English, SNDT women’s University, Mumbai. director  of the Canadian Studies programme at the SNDT Women’s University,  Mumbai. She was the editor of the Gujarati section of the two volume Women  Writing in India,edited by Susie Tharu and K. Lalita. She has taught English for forty years and is an experienced translator. Has also edited a number of anthologies of poetry and literary criticism.

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Her writing career began with short stories but she has more recently also written novels. She has a number of short story collections to her credit like Shodh (Search) (1980), Prateeti (Realization) (1989), Khidkya (Windows) (1989), Disha Gharachya (Directions leading from Home) (1991), Olakh (Recognition) (1992), Bhoomika (Roles)( 1994), Valay(Halo) (1995), Pariman (Dimensions) (1996), Prayan(Departure) (1997). Her novels are Sthalantar (Migration) (1994), Avartan (Circling back)(1996), Avkash (Space)(2001). She has won a number of awards like the A.W.Warty Award, the Maharashtra State Award for three separate works, Prateeti, Valay and Sthalantar, the V.S.Khandekar Award for Pariman, the Maharashtra Sahitya Parishad Award for Bhoomika and the Jaywant Dalvi Memorial Award for Sthalantar.

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