Once I Was a Tomboy
Chapter 1 – A Little Tomboy
It’s a sultry day in April. Trees have blossomed, mangoes have ripened and animals have started mating. I am traveling on a temporary village road on my black Royal Enfield bullet. Passers-by gape at me with awe; the sight of a woman riding a motorcycle is still something of a novelty to people in remote interiors. But then, my whole life has been an awe-inspiring one, right from being a nobody to a prominent woman photographer. And my success would have been impossible without the help of my partner, Neha.
I was born in a village in Haryana with golden mustard fields, a picturesque school and loads of pastoral animals. My family and I lived in a makeshift mud house. We were a rather large family of 7, comprising of my parents and 5 siblings. Of the seven siblings, 3 of us were girls, while two were boys. I was the youngest in the family.
Our family was a highly patriarchal one where men were given all the importance and women were treated like dirt. My mother worked at home and in the fields the entire day, but my father took all the decisions in the family. My mother apparently didn’t have the right to question him, or so, I gathered.
My brothers were treated differently than us, daughters. They were sent to private English medium schools, given much better clothes and nutritious foods like milk and eggs. My sisters and myself went to a government schools, managed with 2 sets of clothes and survived on dry roti (Indian bread) and dals (lentils). If we got lucky, we were served a piece of vegetable or fruit.
I often wished to taste milk and eggs and asked my mom to give them to me. Before my mom could react, my father would lift himself from his charpai (Indian cot) and give me the whack of my life.
“How dare you?”, he would bellow beating me, “That stuff is for your brothers, Mukesh and Pawan”.
I got scolded and whacked so often, that I wondered why my parents and other adults in the village worshipped me and other little girls on Kanya Pujan. “Kanya Pujan” literally means “worshipping the virgin” and is performed during the festival of Navratri. Little girls decked in fine clothes and marigold flowers are worshipped as a representation of powerful Goddess Durga. Our feet are washed and worshipped and we are given delicacies to eat for that one day. From the next day onwards, the adults go back to neglecting us and pampering their sons.
I was a tough girl, hence managed to be happy in spite of the lack of love. I went to school happily and hung out with my “gang of boys” after classes. The gang of boys comprised of Mohit, Aditya, Rahul, Vivek and myself. I was a girl who wore frocks, but I was a tomboy who considered myself “one of the boys”. I liked hanging out with the boys as they engaged in active play.
Each of the boys had a different personality. Mohit was a tough young hooligan who made plans; while the obedient Aditya executing them perfectly. Rahul was the one who made all the jokes; while Vivek was gentle, kind and caring. And I was the leader who always told the others what to do!
Together, the boys and I climbed trees, made dens, dam streams and messed about in the mud. More often than not, we played Gilli Danda, a game played with two wooden sticks—the longer one is called danda and the shorter, gili. A player uses danda to hit the gilli (just like hitting the ball), and when the gilli rises in the air, the player must strike it with the danda.
My father often scolded and thrashed me for playing with boys. He asked me to behave like a “little lady” and learn to help my mother in the kitchen. However, I would sneak out often and go and join my gang of boys. Vivek would notice my slightly hang-dog expression and would ask me what’s wrong. I put on a brave face in front of the world, but didn’t mind confiding my woes in Vivek. Vivek would listen to me patiently and offer soothing words of commiseration. Knowing how I was deprived, he would often bring me a glass of milk or butter-milk or a few boiled eggs. Thus fortified, I could go back to leading “gang of boys” with renewed gusto!
One day when I was 11 years old, I climbed on a tree with the intention of plucking guavas. I was about 12 feet from the ground when the branch I grabbed hold of gave away. I fell on the ground face down with a resounding thud. A sharp stone bruised my right knee.
I was in pain. The gang of boys looked at me, stultified. I saw pain and empathy reflected in Vivek’s kind grey eyes. He brought his water bottle from his school bag and washed my wound clean. He tore off a sleeve of his shirt and tied it around my bruised knee.
Mohit, Rahul and Aditya got restless and went away to play without me and Vivek. I eyed daggers in their direction.
“How dare they start playing without us”, I spat viciously.
Vivek laughed indulgently. “You know, what”, he said, “You look pretty cute when you are angry”.
I felt my cheeks burning due to embarrassment. I suddenly felt shy. The feeling infuriated me more.
“Shut up, Vivek”, I said, “otherwise I will bash you to pulp”.
“Okay, my Phoolan Devi (famous female Indian dacoit)”, said Vivek laughingly, “I’ll give you compliments after I marry you”.
“Marry me?”, I cried incredulously.
“Yes, dear Aabha”, said Vivek, “I love you. You are so adorable! I will marry you when both of us grow up”.
I felt annoyance and anger brim within me. I hated the idea of marriage and all that.
“You are crazy”, I hissed, ‘I will never marry…you or anyone else. I will grow up to be a lawyer, policewoman or something and will live all by myself!”
“But Aabha”, Vivek practically looked woebegone, “who will look after you?”
“I can look after myself”, I said pulling myself to my feet, “Now come on, let’s play”.
When I was 15 years old, I got my period. My days of freedom came to a sudden halt. I was forced to discard my frocks and wear the more demure salwaar kameez (Indian ladies’ dress comprising of a long shirt, loose trousers and a modest shawl). Going out and meeting boys after school was now strictly out of the question. Thankfully, my parents continued to allow me to attend school.
I missed my gang of boys. Vivek often invited me to play cricket with him and the rest of the boys. I would often feel tempted to join them, but declined politely. One day, I seized an opportunity to play. My brothers who were passing through the cricket field saw and yelled at me. The dragged me back home and beat me with their belts.
“How dare you, you slut!” my brother Pawan spat “You are no longer a child”.
“I’ll gouge your eyes out the next time I catch you playing with the guys!”, Mukesh threatened.
That night, Vivek came to my window to enquire about my welfare. He was remorseful to hear I had been beaten black and blue.
“I am so sorry, Aabha”, he said with tears in his eyes, “I should never have coaxed you to play with us”.
“Oh, come on, Vivek”, I said, “You couldn’t have known what would happen”
“Still, I am sorry”.
I was sorry to see the regretful look in Vivek’s eyes. It was obvious that my friend was in love with me. However, I loved Vivek only as a friend, a very fond friend. Also, I was scared that either my father or brothers would overhear us. I told Vivek that.
“Ok, in that case I’ll leave”, he replied dolefully, “However, I want you to know that you are always in my thoughts. Speaking to you regularly is so difficult. If I contact you in school, there is a chance of someone telling your brothers. As we discovered today, the cricket field isn’t safe either. No area in this village can miss the hawkish eyes of your brothers. It’s such a shame. I really miss you”.
“I miss you; too”, I said “I miss my old self”.
“Oh, Aabha, I hope we are able to get away from all these restrictions”, said Vivek.
“Don’t speak rubbish”, I said, “You know that’s impossible”.
“Nothing is impossible”, murmured Vivek, “but since it is difficult to meet you frequently now, give me something that will remind me of you”.
“Here you are”, I said taking off my stainless steel finger ring and giving it to Vivek, “Now for God’s sake please go”.
Vivek took the ring and left reluctantly.