Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.
It was dark and the woman hurried to her home. The wind was biting and the sky looked as if it was about to snow any moment. Not many people were about; in fact the woman saw only one fellow who sailed past on a cycle. The woman pulled her shawl tighter to her body, shivering.
“Snow in October! It’s unheard of!” she muttered to herself as the first flakes started falling down.
Suddenly there came the sound of firecrackers. Diwali crackers.
“To think of playing about with crackers in this cold!” she exclaimed again to herself.
To think that her three children did not have a single sweater in the cold season and people were spending money on fire crackers whose smoke would stay in street and pollute her children’s home and surroundings. To think that people were making merry while her children were starving.
“And on Diwali too!” she cried bitterly, and concluded her melancholy thoughts.
She reached home to find her children huddled under the one tattered blanket that sufficed for the whole family including her drunkard husband who wasn’t at home then. Probably still drinking away in the ‘festive’ season.
The eldest child, her daughter was holding the blanket around the younger kids; another daughter and a son. The younger ones were both looking out of the window at the fireworks show in the sky, with a hidden longing that could be seen only by their mother. They had since long learnt to not voice their desires because even their young eyes could see the pain of their mother when she had to refuse them. But try as they might, they could not control their eyes which still looked about hungrily at everything that they wanted but couldn’t have.
“Boom boom!” the youngest daughter shouted suddenly in glee, as another round of fireworks went off.
“Father’s not home yet,” the eldest said.
“I don’t think he will be home any time soon. We might as well start the dinner,” the woman replied wearily.
The woman had vowed to herself that whatever happened, she would at least provide her children a feast for the festival. She was working day and night doing the Diwali cleaning at people’s places during the day and cooking at the roadside eatery every evening for half the salary as the men got for cooking.
She asked for advances from people who were kind enough to trust her. This Diwali, her children were going to enjoy a delicious feast and get decent gifts and new clothes. Her youngest daughter was going to get her “boom boom”s. And her husband was not going to spoil anything.
“Tomorrow you will come with me to the market to buy vegetables for the Diwali dinner,” she told the eldest.
At that moment the husband staggered at the door and fell down near the foot of the bed, in a state of drunken stupor. The woman said nothing but started serving the meal to the kids.
The husband got up somehow and settled on the mat near the stove.
“Give me money,” he told his wife.
She replied that she did not have any. Such lies had become common for her as her husband was fond of gambling. Her children’s education was important to her, and she saved as much as she could. She hid the money from her husband, giving it to her sister for safe-keeping, and depositing it in the bank, out of her husband’s reach.
The husband now slapped her and accused her of lying.
“What did you do with Diwali bonus?!” he shouted.
The woman told him that it was spent in the household expenses. Of course he did not believe her. He has seen her working extra time.
“Don’t you try to hide the money from me!” he bellowed.
He started rummaging about the utensils to find the money. He was aware that his wife sometimes kept the money in one of the big boxes used to keep the flour.
“No, no!” the woman pleaded as he threw the flour box down. The flour spread on the floor and with it came a small plastic bag, the woman’s Diwali savings.
The husband slapped her again and stomped out of the house with the money, and his wife screaming at him about the kids and Diwali and education.
She stopped following him after realising that it was of no use. Then she went inside to see the eldest daughter putting the flour back in the box, trying to get rid of the small stones and dirt mixed with the flour. They both cleaned up the mess without saying a word to each other. The younger children were also as meek as mice after their father’s outburst. They hadn’t got used to it even though they saw it frequently enough.
The woman looked at her first born with grave eyes now. Her fifteen-year-old daughter was soon to be married to a thirty-three year old man with a disfigured leg. The marriage was to happen because the woman’s husband had taken a ‘loan’ from the family. The woman had been against it. But of course, it didn’t matter.
She had considered running away with her children but then where could she go? She did not have enough money to establish herself anywhere else. Her savings were too meagre. She had let go of all her belongings because of her husband’s doings. Only once did she put her foot down. That was when he wanted to stop the eldest daughter from going to school because he drank down the school fees. The woman had begged her sister for the money then. She could not let her daughter go down the same fate as her. However, a worse fate was now looming up.
The woman herself had been married off at the age of sixteen. Her husband was unemployed at that time too, and they lived off his elder brother’s earnings. The brother’s wife gave birth to a son, and now, the brother had no more money to give to them. So, they shifted to another house, bought on the woman’s small dowry and her elder sister’s loan. Ten whole years had been spent in repaying that loan. The husband stayed unemployed even then and she soon began to worry about how to pay for basic necessities. The hunger caused her husband to get irritated even more, and he beat her regularly to vent off. She took up the work of the domestic help, hoping that it would be temporary, and that the husband would soon get a job. But he soon saw the benefits of letting his wife work and splurging her money on alcohol and gambling. It had been seventeen years now, and she was still a housemaid.
She regretted having kids sometimes, because she could not provide enough for them. She spent several nights cursing herself and crying because of being unable to satisfy their hunger. Then she promised herself that she would try harder. Then she tried. Then she broke down with overwork. And then she cursed herself again.
Still, she somehow managed to save enough to send her children to school. But on many days, it was either the groceries or the husband’s alcohol. There were many fights; she was abused to the hilt but what was to be done? Life had to go on, and she went with it. She endured the harassment, the poverty, the drama of everyday life. She even tried to find amusement in it.
But as happens in many such cases, when life tries you too much, a bursting point is finally reached. With this woman, it reached today, when her attempt to provide a little enjoyment to her kids was spoilt. It was to be a farewell from her to her eldest daughter before she got trapped in the same life of marriage as her mother. It was a feast for her son who had never tasted anything but boiled rice and half-cooked rotis; a gift of firecrackers and light to her youngest daughter. And it was spoilt.
The woman shrieked in misery and cursed her husband loudly. The eldest watched in shock as her mother screamed and thrashed about the room hysterically. In all her fifteen years of life, she had never seen her mother lose control like this. She was badly shaken. The other two were also scared out of their wits.
It went on for half an hour, an hour, two hours. The woman was now sobbing loudly sitting on the corner of the bed. The husband returned then, after losing all the money to his gambling mates. They did not look at each other. They did not say anything. The husband slurred at the woman, switched off the light, and fell on the bed.
The children had fallen asleep by then too. The woman was sitting alone by the window, still weeping. Suddenly, there was a huge commotion outside. A Diwali rocket had fallen in the empty shed near the houses of the cluster. People started shouting and running outside. The eldest woke up in the noise. She grabbed her brother while the woman grabbed the youngest daughter, and rushed outside. The husband was still passed out drunk.
The fire spread to the hay roof of their house immediately, and an explosion took place. It was the gas cylinder. The fire engulfed the entire house before anybody could grasp what had happened. The fire brigade reached the spot soon after two more houses had been burnt.
The woman held her children close as they watched their house being doused. She knew that she was now a widow. It was odd; she felt nothing but pity for the man she had lived with for seventeen years.
“Boom boom!” the youngest whispered to her mother suddenly, pointing at the flames.
The woman looked at her. The youngest smiled at her nervously, still afraid of her mother’s breakdown.
“Boom boom…” she whispered back.
The sky was reddening. The woman sighed. It was a new morning.