Game of Equals

Suhasini, stood in the center of the room, absorbing the applause and the cheer that was directed towards her. She was 10, and by now used to this act showered towards her, by not only her relatives, distant family members but even friends of her parents. Every time she did a recital, sang, performed a dance, disclosed her marks, she was lauded. Not only that, but her mere presence in the room was also enough for people to appreciate her, for her mannerisms and behavior.

Each time she found herself in the middle of this basking glory, she usually stole a smile looking at her mother, but more so keenly observed the reaction of her cousins. Suhasini was aware of being the eldest of the lot and that each were asked to be like her, none more than her younger sister. Suhasini enjoyed being the ‘example’ for others, so much so that she would tell her sister, “Choti, I am elder to you. Why don’t you do as I say.”

Choti, on the other hand despised this feeling. She had a grudge that everyone liked ‘Didi’, and no one liked her.  Didi, Choti and the parents, often found themselves in the room, where constantly Choti was asked to look up to Suhasini. Regarding how Suhasini, would dress up, behave, study, took interest in arts, and the list was endless. In all these arguments, Didi never raised a voice against or for Choti, she just kept a keen ear on the adjectives used about her and at the end sympathized with her sister. Sympathy, because that made enact being ‘elder’ towards her sister. Suhasini would say, “They are saying it for your own good. Do not feel bad. If you need anything, I am always there for you! 

The act of being the ‘eldest’ among the youngest was not restricted towards her sister. She exercised this right to be the leader of the pack. Be the one to distribute work to other siblings during festivals, suggest them what to wear, decided on which game to play and be the final voice to resolve any disputes. Suhasini, had imbibed all the quality of being the elder, without questioning it.   

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“ The act of being the ‘eldest’ among the youngest was not restricted towards her sister. She exercised this right to be the leader of the pack.

But soon questions started to appear in Suhasini’s mind, as she reached her teens. The questions arose by the ‘limitations’ that were being imposed on her. Impositions because Suhasini was a ‘she’ and not a ‘he’. “Why cannot I be out late, if my friends can stay out late?” The answer she got each time for her queries, unanimously, was a universal one – “Boys can, girls cannot”, “Because you are a girl”, “Girls should be more careful”, “Girls need to protect themselves” and generic statements that reminded her every time of her gender. Without ever supported by a rationale.

The questions did not stop, the answers did not change. Suhasini was no more the ‘eldest’ of the lot, but now merely a ‘girl’. This even changed her equations within the family. Her cousin brothers who were barely few years younger, now gained supremacy. They were given tasks to be performed, had opinions that were heard and started calling the shots. While Suhasini, Choti and the rest of their kind were now ‘safeguarded’ and remined primarily indoors. Whether either of the ‘kind’ - the one doing the task and the ones being safeguarded preferred what they did – none asked, but Suhasini, fumed. At times she would turn towards Choti and say, “How is this fair? Just because we are girls, we have restrictions, and these guys can do what they feel! This cannot be right. Why don’t you say something?”  Choti continued to remain young and just listened.

Her angst was not limited within her household. It percolated into her circle of friends where often they found themselves in ‘groups’ – the ‘girl gang’ and the ‘boy troop’. While each interacted amicably, there was a growing unrest within the ‘girls’ gang’ about the visible balance tilt. Suhasini may not have been the leader of this gang, but the apparent ‘injustice’ prompted her to find answer to one question – “If they can, why can’t we?” and for the first time in her life found herself towards the question rather than being the ‘answer’.

This inclination did not leave Suhasini, even though she now entered her adolescence sharing space with her husband. By this time, the unanswered questions had pretty much settled into defining and sharing of tasks. Suhasini (the woman) would look after the house, while her husband (the man) would ‘do the hard work’ outside. Why ‘hard work’ was never a ‘household’ term bothered Suhasini. But what bothered her more than the distribution was her participation in making decisions.

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“ Her angst was not limited within her household. It percolated into her circle of friends where often they found themselves in ‘groups’ – the ‘girl gang’ and the ‘boy troop' 

At work, she felt that only ‘the men’ make decisions while the ‘women are not asked’. While that was true in most cases, most times it was a leftover thought of her teenage upbringing. Though Suhasini worked as much, or like the others in the office, there were tendencies that made her belief that Suhasini was first seen as a ‘woman’ than an employee. And why would she not! The first question she was ever asked in an interview was “What are you plans for marriage? And will you have to leave office if you get married?

Though Suhasini did get married and continued to work, the question never left her. She was now in the state where she was made of unanswered questions and of questions, she did not feel like answering. But it was not just the workplace where her decisions did not materialize, it was even at home. Though the word husband and wife are always taken in unison, its gap and hierarchy became evident to Suhasini.  It was the husband who had the final say or the say that mattered. Although Suhasini, the wife participated actively, she found herself unheard in front of family members. The balance of family now appeared different than what she experiences in her youth.

But it was the idea of family that gave Suhasini her stance back, when from husband and wife, the couple turned into father and mother. Once this equation set in, Suhasini, now found some answers by her side. “I am the mother of the child; I know what is best for him”; “The child needs the mother more than the father”; “He is my child” became statements that she used at her disposal. While there was no denying, that Suhasini, the mother, did so much for the little child, but for now she used ‘mother’ more to her advantage than as a feeling. After years of being girl, woman, and wife, Suhasini now exercised her right, this time to downplay the others – father, grandfather, grandmother, uncle - and all those relations that the birth of a child had given way to.  The balance of bearing the question to having the answer now tilted.

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“ Though Suhasini did get married and continued to work, the question never left her. She was now in the state where she was made of unanswered questions and of questions, she did not feel like answering.

The tilt gave her somewhat a new footing. Members of the family now recognized her, albeit as the ‘mother of the child’ and now she found a way to have the final say for everything related to the little one. She heard the other, but the ‘mother’s’ word was final and to be abided. Suhasini, found this just. No questions prompted, only a reasoning anchored this justness – “I have borne this child in the womb. My right is more!” Suhasini, knew that this exercise may not last too long – it will only diminish as the child grew but she held onto it she felt ‘superior’.

This feeling slowly found a place in her work. Over the years through hard work, Suhasini reached a position where now she ‘almost headed’ office. Just two other people above her – who were mostly invisible in day-to-day affairs. Now she had a cabin to herself, from where she would ring a bell for an ‘employee’ to appear. Make others wait for hours for a discussion, demand respect; express her anger, expel her frustrations and commanded control. It did not matter who was working below – boy or girl, elder or younger, a husband or a wife, a mother, or a father. Only one equation now applied - the office head and the staff.

One such day of directing orders was the customary Republic day celebration within the office premises.  Suhasini had already pre- ordered the rest and stood by the side and monitored. As the preparations reached the final stage, she walked to the center of the field stood by the flag hoisting post and announced, “Everyone gather around”. With her employees encircling her, a wry smile appeared across her face, Suhasini felt important – the centre of attention – a childhood feeling she had nurtured for so long.

But as the two invisibles bosses appeared and walked to the pole, Suhasini left the centre and walked towards the crowd. She did not stand with them – just a few steps ahead. She had to make the ‘hierarchy’ obvious. The ‘invisible men’ hoisted the flag to loud applause and cheer. Suhasini joined in as well. How she wished the applause were for her – but for now it appeared from the back, evaded her, and reached up to the centre of the field. Towards those two people – for Suhasini ‘men’ – who held no less than pseudo identity.

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 " She was now in the absolute middle of the game – the same questions that applied to her were the questions she was looking for as an answer.

Suhasini chuckled and shook her head amidst the applause. In her mind she said, “These men do not have the courtesy to acknowledge what I do daily for the office. All they want is attention.” As soon as the words disappeared from the mind and the applause receded, she heard a large chuckle from behind. The chuckle bearing the same wavelength as hers. Almost repeating the same words as Suhasini felt. It came from those people who were lost in the crowd – the ones who had made all the groundwork arrangements, since morning for today’s grand occasion. Those who were as much daily in office as Suhasini – just lower down the order and unseen. Suhasini turned around saw them standing a little away from the general crowd. She looked into their eyes and just ignored them.

Suhasini from ‘eldest’ to ‘girl’, from ‘woman’ to ‘mother’, from ‘employee’ to almost ‘boss’ now had reached that stage in this very game of life where she knew which questions to ignore but always kept a note on whom to question.  She was now in the absolute middle of the game – the same questions that applied to her were the questions she was looking for as an answer.

Story Idea: Vijaya Balvalli

Illustrations by PULP Crew: Inspired and adapted from Santhal art