Shanta stood at the gate, baby on her hip and watched as her seven year old son accompanied his friend, down the road to the school gate. She squinted against the sun, cheek bruised, eye red and swollen, finely arched eyebrow cut, shushing and rocking her 9 month old baby. She needed to get back indoors, the chores waited. There was breakfast to be made for him when he woke up. He had the 11 to 7 shift, his clothes needed laying out, his shoes polishing and his lunch cooked.
Mano, the scrawny elderly neighbour with the pinched face and censoring eyes watched Shanta watch her son leave. Her companion, Meenu continued her invective about Shanta, “that useless good-for-nothing woman, waste that she is. It is no wonder that her husband puts her in her place!” Mano nodded her agreement and agreed that the “neighbourhood had gone to the dogs.” They heard the night’s raised voices, mirror breaking, slaps and screams which were soon muted.
Invariably Shanta’s spine stiffened, she heard every word.. Chin raised, she proceeded to walk to her door, slipped in and turned the lock. Oh she knew all right what they thought of her. It mattered not one whit. Once a radiant bride beaming with love and hope, she too had dreams for her future. Over time, her eyes dimmed, smile became rarer as the vicious words were hurled whilst the hands slashed at her. Desperately, she considered escape but stopped entertaining that thought when her world opened again with windows of renewed hope, she was expecting. A son, he thought, a son with strong morals and a loving heart. The verbal abuse did not cease although the beating stopped. An orphan, there was “no mother’s house” to go to complete the customary after birth Hindu rituals. Tall with a quiet slender grace, a small bump denoted her pregnancy. Her long hair, usually restricted to a plait, fell to her waist. Fine boned, clear of complexion, high breasted, she drew stares. Post-delivery, Shanta returned to their double bedroomed “council” flat, one of 16 in a long line of standard cream walls, green roofs and higgledy piggledy fences. Rousing playtime in her treasured garden, her escape, with her son, brought out the hidden laughter. It was mellifluous music to the ears.
Too many neighbours, too many prying eyes and loose tongues of bored wives to fan the flames of jealousy that raged in her husband. One day, she did make it out. After much planning, on a visit to the “clinic”, with her son, she escaped. The Clinic Sister was noncommittal, she’d seen too many Shanta’s in her day. Still, she contacted the social workers. A representative surprised Shanta at the clinic. With shivering courage, she made her statements at the local precinct and was returned home against her will, by a solemn officer. Her husband was livid, there was a court order which the social worker helped procure, a “protection order” it said. There was much ado about it in the neighbourbood. Apparently, Shanta “had some nerve, thinking she was above others.”
Yet again, Shanta was forced to remain. She stayed, she tolerated it and screamed her silence into the pillows. Marital rape resulted in a daughter, a precious bundle of curly hair, rosy eyes and plump innocence. Shanta lived for her children but her spirit cringed and buffeted against the barrage abuse.
Oh, the neighbours were quick to share judgement and negativity. If only, they spread love and kindness, if only to her children, the innocents, Shanta would be inclined to overlook the barbed comments. She could tolerate anything, it was the shuddering hurt in her sensitive son’s soft brown eyes that she could not bear.
“One day,” she avowed, “one day would be my day” as she bided her time. Her time would come, the shadows would be removed.