Read time: 14 mins

In fetters, Silent and Lonely

by Rebecca Mathai
23 May 2022

Winter this year has been a rainy one. However, not on this Wednesday which is dull and smoggy as winter days normally are in Delhi but dry, or so it looked at first. We are out shopping for an ensemble for a friend’s daughter’s wedding; our list is almost done, except for the bangles and the parandi to braid the bride’s hair with multi-coloured silken tassels. The braid is all the rage this season in US Indian weddings, according to her—who issues these orders on WhatsApp. She wants it all for her daughter’s wedding, which she wants to hold at the earliest but only after travel to the US opens and her mother can transport herself and all that she desires from India for the wedding.

We hear a rumble of voices as we cross the busy road, and as we draw closer to the market, we see individual bodies separating from the smoggy blur of people and yellow police barricades.

A wailing woman shouts ‘Saalo,’ at the policemen, her orange paan-stained teeth gnashing. ‘This is what I have done, here, for 31 years; this mehendi fed my family. Thousands of brides got married with the mehendi I applied on their hands. And now when I am 53, you will evict me, kamino!’

Three other women pull her back by her frail arms, and one clamps her mouth.

A young man in jeans ducks under the ropes of the police cordon and emerges out of the crowd, saying, ‘Fauziya has gone mad. If she left quietly, there would be nothing for the TV crews to yaw about the whole week: that the temple has a Muslim hawking, that it has been desecrated. As if this street is hers to hawk. Pagli buddhi!’

The wailing woman doesn’t look old or crazy, as this jean-clad man insinuates. Her face smoulders with a raging despondency that marks her as separate from the rest of the dense mass of wailing hawkers being evicted from the temple premises on court orders—she stands out like a lone tusker against the backdrop of a forest fire.

‘Go, Fauziya, go; leave the country!’ a man jeers from between the row of red chunnis with gold trimmings that hang at the mouth of his shop.

Devaki touches my arm lightly, signalling that we must leave. We go back the way we had come, waiting to cross the road, when a lean, tall man walks towards us, smiling, and asks, ‘Haddi, is it you?’ I recognize Tony instantly. I am no longer the bony tomboy that earned me that moniker in my childhood, but his use of it magically lightens our sombre mood. His attention immediately shifts to Devaki, of course. They have a history that neither seems to have forgotten as they chat easily, lost in each other. Only the sudden showers bring them back to earth and to the reality of our world where access to personal freedom is at best tenuous and at risk of being snipped at a whim at the first insinuation of it being offensive to the sensibilities of an easily offended, pigeon-holed society.

Back in high school, Tony and I had bonded over a daily dose of book cricket while waiting for our red-and-green school bus. A hardcover notebook was our bat, and a crumpled paper bound tight with rubber bands made a fine ball. We were in Grade 10, the seniormost in that group which gave us, at least in our own estimation, an aura of authority.

Tony played bongo drums and, with his brother, constituted the orchestra for the small puritanical Pentecostal community of which his father was the pastor. At school, he stood out among the gawky teenagers, being so musically gifted and possessed of an easy charm accentuated by the puff he made of his hair (gel was unheard of in those days) in the style of a popular Bollywood hero, Dev Anand.

I basked in his friendship until one morning when his team thrashed mine in the book cricket match, and with no other weapon to get even, I flung my notebook-bat on the ground and screamed at him, ‘I don’t even like Dev Anand. That buffoon!’

I wanted to say more, to tell him that when my sister and I passed by his window on our way to the market, I would holler ‘Hallelujah!’ with my arms held high, and my sister would explode in laughter, clutching her sides at my grotesque imitation of Pentecostal worship. Or how she imitated his father’s sombre face, lengthened with piety, eyes rolled up to reveal only the whites.

But for now, making fun of Dev Anand was injury enough to his ego. He went cold on me, and that was the last time we ever played book cricket.

Love would come to thaw the frost. Tony fell in love with Devaki, who was my best friend at that time, and having no one else with whom to share his ecstasy—or was it a strategic move to mend bridges with me?—he came to our home one afternoon and invited me out for a walk. I remember leaning on his cycle while he broke my heart with his love story (not because I loved him but because I wanted to be the chosen one). I was sad but at the same time relieved to be able to wind my limp fingers once again around the familiar ropes of our friendship.

Love wasn’t easy in a world that strictly enforced its limits. Within a few weeks, her parents had gotten wind of the fledgling romance, and Devaki, ever dutiful, severed all ties with Tony.

Back then, family represented all that held us teens back in a cloistered world. Friends, on the other hand, stood for loyalty to our lofty dreams. Popular cinema also cemented this belief. It might not have occurred to me that my friendship with Tony would last only for the time we were at school, but even so, despite our closeness, I knew that should it end, it wouldn’t leave a devastating hole in my life. Not so with my ‘gang’ of girlfriends though; I just couldn’t have imagined a life without them.

Such innocence wouldn’t even last the summer we graduated from high school. One of us married soon after school, and the others from our class followed not much later, each settling into marriages arranged by their families that were within their religion and caste. Only one of us escaped to the US for education, something she kept secret until the tickets were booked. We internalised the need for secrecy in a deeply suspicious society and in the face of intense competition. Tony took a completely divergent path, going on to become an evangelist and shifting to the US, although only for ten years, as I would come to know later. As for me, I got a coveted job and married a boy my father found for me from within our own parish.

As young girls, we hadn’t ever imagined that we would someday slip into the roles our mothers embodied. We had despised our mothers’ lack of agency, their easy submission to familial roles. That was not for us. Education, marriage and work, we were confident, would take us away from the city we grew up together in to build new forms of kinship in new places—a far more liberating life. Or so it seemed at first. How were we to know that a mere change in geography wouldn’t shed what resided inside us? Young women like me found that we were already encircled—retro-fitted—within the fetters of societal mores essential to protect the fragile patriarchal order.

My girlfriends and I did reconnect occasionally, but mostly with our husbands, to ‘hang out’ in bars, now that we had money and had begun to drink. This external sheen that we were always keen to exhibit allowed us to pretend that we hadn’t, after all, slipped into the moulds of our mothers. Though it didn’t take long for the sheen to become a calcified armour behind which we hid our fears of a life which was, quite simply, beyond our understanding. This was a fetter we had put on ourselves, keen as we were to meet the societal expectations of holding the family and marriage together and at the same time being beyond reproach.

One evening, this time alone with seven girls, one girl, her eyes shining behind thick glasses, said, ‘Can you imagine something so limp between their legs can grow so big? Magic, no?’ I was shocked, though I did manage to giggle. But I also noticed a barely perceptible shudder flit across one of the girls, the last of us to marry, and I wondered if sex had turned into a nightmare for her.

We couldn’t fling open such windows of opportunity for intimacy, for the camaraderie that stems from the sharing of deep confidences; we felt this lack deep in our bones.

Though to be fair, not all women, it seemed, felt this way. The successful women in my professional world were those who had aced the lie that the things that held back real women didn’t touch them. That world demanded networking and transactional relationships—an arid land where friendships couldn’t sprout. As for me, at work and at home, loneliness hung low and oppressive, until it became a part of my reality.

The loneliness was in part because my marriage couldn’t survive the pressures of my job. As for my schoolfriends, we continued to meet intermittently. On one occasion, we even went on a holiday. Those moments of togetherness felt like a homage to the past with no relevance to the present. The awkwardness with my failed marriage was evident. Should I step out for a moment, say for a phone call, I would return to a table which had suddenly turned quiet. During that holiday, we spoke of others, not of ourselves. The feverish assertions of how unchanged we had remained over the years of separation couldn’t hide our fears at the strangers we had actually become.

Tony too cropped up in the conversation, and I shut my eyes and threw my arms in the air, my voice quivering as I shouted ‘Hallelujah,’ just like I had done in my childhood. Without cruelty, childhood friendships would, it seemed, lose their unique character. I was so glad to be back home after that holiday. When we waved our last goodbyes, I realised that the joy of moving in and out of these old friendship groups was in part because I had learnt to stand outside of them. The walk back home, in the direction and the cadence that I chose, would be alone. The desire to belong felt almost as strong as the yearning to own one’s life. Freedom comes at a cost, I felt, and cannot be enjoyed without the attendant loneliness, a cost I was ready to pay.

For a long time, we didn’t meet, wrapped up as we were in our demanding and messy lives. The frequency of phone calls dropped too. And then social media entered our lives, and we got an opportunity to retrieve our lost connections. Unlike Facebook earlier, WhatsApp groups dangled a bait of friendship using a wider net that spread beyond my intimate circle, all neatly segregated into groups bound by a common history—school, college or workplace. Each appeared to offer a perfect place to find connection with the real world, a safe space where I could lurk at will and be stimulated by the curated lives we were putting out for our collective gaze and envy.

Among the groups I joined was a WhatsApp group of my schoolfriends. It was a throwback to name-calling and cruel banter which was the only way we could reconnect and reassure ourselves of our deep connection. We could look back and laugh at our past selves, ridiculous and embarrassing, without feeling compromised. And of all the groups I was part of, this was the only one where a deeply religious Hindu, who never missed an annual pilgrimage to Sabarimala, could acknowledge that the first thing that he looked forward to after the pilgrimage was meat fry.

Tony was one of the last to join the group. A few weeks after he joined, he sent me a private message with a photograph. It was an old photo of the two of us in our old neighbourhood, standing proudly beside our new cycles. With Tony, lean and tall with a sharp, angular jaw but no facial hair, looking straight at the camera and smiling, I am in a frock that is too short for me, my hair a mop of messy curls, my hands clutching the cycle handlebar, clearly uncomfortable at being photographed.

We used WhatsApp to ask each other familiar questions about our families, and after that routine was exhausted, we had nothing to say to each other. He had returned from the US a few years back and was now living in Delhi. I could sense that his loneliness was also in part due to his being a Christian evangelist in a world in which religious conversion had morphed into an arsenal of mistrust. We did not discuss the rumour that funding for his organisation had dried up. I frequented Delhi often for work, yet we did not make overtures to meet, each one waiting for the other to make the first offer.

The euphoria and novelty of WhatsApp bonding did not last long as the interactions of our larger circle soon began to reveal how self-limiting a WhatsApp group is, even a seemingly intimate one like ours. I realised that a WhatsApp community dangles a promise of an intimacy that, by its very form, it cannot provide. Counter to our expectations, conversations in WhatsApp groups were fraught with the risk of isolation. Non-verbal cues, which soften the blow of words in real conversations, are not available on WhatsApp, and emojis reduce responses to banality. Silence in a face-to-face conversation fosters a comforting, unhurried cadence in which the participants are allowed space for reflection. In the WhatsApp world, the two blue ticks on the right side of the message are the ominous symbol of exclusion: a signal that your message has been received, read but not found fit for response by the other members of the group.

Our WhatsApp conversations became particularly fraught in the backdrop of a million mutinies that raged in the society. When the dog whistles outside began to find receptive echo chambers in the WhatsApp groups, we could do nothing but watch helplessly as our circle of friendship began to come apart, divided into trenches of extreme positions. Protocols of silencing developed organically. Old coots in their fifties, schooled in a culture of obedience, understood the implicit demands of a single truth and of silence.

When Aryan Khan, son of Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan, was arrested on outrageous claims of being a part of an international drug conspiracy, our WhatsApp group ignored the news like we had learnt to do. Then someone made a jibe, and he was told to watch out, again in jest: ‘Hasn’t Aryan Khan’s case taught you anything at all?’ Uncharacteristically, some of my classmates began to share their horror at the case.

The pushback came soon: ‘Finally, now the officers aren’t afraid to act. It proves to us all that no one is above law.’

Another rushed to her support: ‘Yes, this has nothing to do with him or his superstar father being a Muslim. Really, must we do this every time?’

And I repeated what was an embarrassingly trite line, ‘We can shut our eyes until one day they come for us.’

‘Haddi, you totally need to calm down. And who is “us?”’ she asked. ‘My kids don’t take drugs. Do yours?’

Thus ended our pointless discussion. The apologies came in later and in private chats.

Back in the old days, friends like Tony and I could fight and hurt each other over a game of book cricket and get back to our game after the fight. In the triumphalist WhatsApp groups, that was no longer possible, the group working like the world outside which, as Olivia Laing said, was a ‘centrifugal force, separating the elements, policing division.’

The discussions on the WhatsApp groups also seemed to me a far cry from those childhood days when Tony and I marched through the streets of my old colony, drawn into election propaganda with other kids in the neighbourhood by the lure of a few coins and without a care for whom we were rallying. Chanting as we marched the streets, right arms in  clenched fists, raised in unison,Jan Sangh ko vote do, beedi peena chod do, beedi main tambakoo hain, saree duniya dakoo hain’a catchy, meaningless slogan, ‘Vote for Jan Sangh, quit smoking beedi, beedi has tambaku, and the world is overrun by dacoits.’

Back then, we were united as we rebelled; we stood outside and in defiance of the order; now we had become suspects in each other’s eyes. Those who knew us best were to be feared the most.

In her story Lake Like a Mirror, Ho Sok Fong explores self-censoring in Malay society: ‘Things hidden underwater should not be exposed to air. Their eyes were as guarded as nutshells, their expressions like caves.’ It turns out that the Malay word for facial expression literally means ‘surface of water.’ Fong notes that in reality, a rippled surface said more about the wind outside. Self-censoring demands a state of hypervigilance, which is also the exhausting space that the lonely occupy. A self-censored society is a ghost city of tired, lonely, sorrowful people.

The Delhi that I have now returned to looks familiar and yet menacing under its skin. ‘Go, Fauziya, go’ rings in my ear. Besides images of evictions and rubble, relationships that were once intimate and glowing with warmth now seem like searchlights which identify and target those who aren’t with us.

Yet, this very city can throw open its arms, when least expected, to draw you into its fold. When a dog, not completely attuned to street life, crosses the road, having smelled with its canine sense your need for a cuddle as strong as its own, it peels a layer off your loneliness. When a flycatcher, a shy bird, looks up at the sound of your feet as you tiptoe but continues to drink water from the puddle unaffected, you feel accepted as a part of the landscape. That moment when you catch someone looking at you and you smile. Or when two of you look at a sunset unfolding behind a leafless tree, the branches of the tree turning into dark fingers pointing to a sky which now wears streaks of pinkish orange, and after a while, you part ways only to turn back and wave. A chance intimacy with a stranger built on a shared wonder at a sunset feels tangible and multi-sensory and reassures you that you are seen and acknowledged, providing instant gratification.

And yet, these fleeting intimacies are by no means substitutes for real friendships based on a free expression of the shared understanding of our own selves and of the world. Human need is far more complex.

After the aborted shopping expedition this morning, I step out into the street outside my home and watch it acquire its familiar composition. Vendors call for attention as I amble with my shopping bag. They know me. Not my name or the work I do, but more tangible details like the vegetables I buy which invite haggling just to start a conversation or light banter. Apples are in season. When I approach the hawker, he produces apples from under the wet jute bag that lies carelessly on the thela. ‘Dripping sweet, these apples; I kept them just for you.’ A little lie, so blatant that I truly believe him.

If loneliness, as Olivia Laing says, is a city, its antidote also lies in the city. Or so it seems to me this evening.

About the Author

Rebecca Mathai

Rebecca Mathai is a civil servant based in Delhi. She is currently editing a novel, the concept of which was a winning entry in the iWrite contest at JLF 2020. Her story has appeared in The Bombay Literary Magazine and another is being anthologized by the Written Circle.