The summers of my childhood were long, hot and boring. The main distractions were playing cards, gazing at the stars at night, and occasionally, eating Blue Bell ice cream. When relatives visited, therefore, I was overjoyed. But my mother, Aai, was irritated because of the extra mouths she would have to feed.
The relatives she liked the least were from a branch of my father’s family. Whenever my cousin, Ratan, a tall, muscular teenage girl, and her brother, Jayanta, a lanky, diffident boy, visited, Aai suspected them of helping themselves to loose change. Just to refute her, I became extra-chummy with the visitors, and in turn, Ratan styled my hair with French braids and Jayanta showed me shadow puppets. He was thought to be retarded, probably because he was partially deaf, but to me he was the most amusing of my cousins.
I was eight that summer, when, as their visit came to an end, Ratan asked me to come and stay with them. I got terribly excited. Aai begged me not to go, but I paid her no attention.
My cousins’ house was a two story wada in the old city, with a center courtyard and a well, surrounded by cow-dung-plastered rooms. Numerous uncles and aunts inhabited the residence, and as I played hide and seek with a dozen children, I felt elated. Ratan and Jayanta’s mother, Aunt Gangu, was a slight woman with a pale face and a wan smile. It was hard to associate her with the picture in our family album, in which, nine months pregnant, she sat in a swing wearing flower necklaces, flower bracelets, flower tiaras, and a flower waistband, for the baby shower ritual. Now she was a widow whose beauty had long faded. Ratan pointed out a garlanded picture in the main veranda, whispering, “That was our Baba,” and I gazed into the sad eyes of a handsome young man with a flock of dark hair, recalling stories I had heard of GanguAtya’s beauty, which had earned her a husband from a joint family with property and assets.
I sat on the floor in a row of children to eat dinner that night, and when GanguAtya asked if I was allowed to eat Dalda—the Indian version of margarine, I did not tell her that Aai had long banned such substances from our house, boasting instead of my hardy digestion.
The next morning, the mood in the wada changed. I do no not know how it all started, but Gangu’s brother-in-law, my cousins’ uncle, seemed very angry with Jayanta. All I could gather was that the man did not want the three of them in his house. I watched from behind a pillar as the man shouted at my cousins. Red-faced, his uncle grabbed Jayanta by the neck and began to beat him fiercely. Ratan intervened and was soon being mauled like prey in the jungle. GanguAtya tried to protect her children even though her frail physique was no match for the man’s strength, and was viciously beaten and dragged across the floor.
When the man’s rage had subsided, GanguAtya rose, and clutching her bloody ear, exclaimed, “My earring!” It turned out her pearl stud had torn through her earlobe. Then the three of them sat on the floor entwined, sheltering one another from further assault. I ran out the veranda and into the courtyard. I had to get out of here, I knew, but I had no idea how to do this. The image of my aunt’s torn earlobe was fixed in front of my eyes and would remain there for the rest of my childhood. It was my fault, I knew; I had disobeyed Aai, the one person who loved me, and now I had brought calamity on everyone.
Then a miracle happened. Who did I see but DinooKaka, Dada’s younger brother, entering the gate at that very moment? He talked with GanguAtya; then he put me on the handlebar of his bicycle and rode away, my long hair fluttering in the wind. If my uncle had noticed the bloody ear, the bruised bodies, the teary eyes, he gave no hint of it.
When we got home, I felt I was entering a place I had never visited before. Everything seemed alien; my parents and their mannerisms were forced and false; I could not meet their eyes. The house seemed devoid of any charm. The thought of recounting the events of that morning never even occurred to me; in our family, we possessed no vocabulary to talk of such things.
For years afterwards, I remembered Aai’s words, spoken in a moment of idle candor, “That boy got deaf because of the beatings he received on his ears!” For years afterwards, I wondered if Dada knew all along what was happening in that house. I wondered if Aai had suspected, which was why she had sent DinooKaka to fetch me first thing in the morning. I wondered why DinooKaka had not told Dada what he had seen.
Decades later, during one of my visits to India, I alluded to what I had witnessed in that wada all those years ago. But Dada dismissed my allegations, changing the subject. I wondered if he was the same father who had espoused women’s emancipation all my life, telling me stories of the maltreatment of widows.
GanguAtya died of cancer at a young age; I was convinced she died of slow torture. She had entrusted all of her savings to her brother, who, it turned out, spent it on his own family.
When time came to marry Ratan off, there was no money left for her dowry or wedding expenses. So Dada organized a family council and urged each cousin to contribute, saying, “We owe at least that much to Gangu.” Years later Ratan, too, died of cancer. Did she die of a broken heart, I wondered.
One day in 2008, during one of my India visits, I ran into Jayanta in the Burdi market. “When did you come?” he asked, as relatives always did. He had a wife, a family, and a job, he said. He dutifully showed up at my door a few days later, sitting in the front room and drinking tea. There was so much I wanted to say to him. I wanted to tell him I was sorry that I had never told anyone about what I had witnessed in that wada all those years ago. I wanted to say that I was outraged at the men in our family who had stood by as Gangu had slowly decayed. I wanted to tell him of my helplessness in not helping any of them. I wanted to say that if Gangu had lived today, she would have had a job and financial independence and their lives would have been so very different.
But most of all, I wanted to hold his hand. I wanted to embrace him. I wanted to say that I loved him. I wanted to ask for his forgiveness. But we Maharashtrians do not express our emotions; nor do we speak of the things that matter to us the most. So I stayed quiet and did not utter a word.
Sarita Sarvate (www.saritasarvate.com) has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.