Sinkholes of the heart | Why is a woman’s worth decided by her ability to do certain things?

Why must a woman be many things before she’s given the title of being a ‘good woman’?

Updated - December 16, 2022 04:24 pm IST

Published - December 16, 2022 09:23 am IST

“It is hard work being a woman and I say work because being a woman means working. Your worth is always decided by your ability to do certain things.”

“It is hard work being a woman and I say work because being a woman means working. Your worth is always decided by your ability to do certain things.” | Photo Credit: Illustration by Priya Sebastian

“Have you heard about the cow who kept losing her calves?” Phuphee asked.

“No,” I said. “What happened to her?”

“She would fall pregnant, but each time at around six or seven months she would lose her babies. Her womb would refuse to stay shut and they would slip out. This happened five times. The sixth time, she carried her pregnancy to term and gave birth to a calf who survived and thrived. Many years later, when she died, the owner slaughtered her for meat as they usually did when the livestock got old or was of no use. When they opened her up, he noticed that her heart had holes in it. This just meant it couldn’t be consumed. He took it out and inspected it closely. He found there were five holes in her heart.”

“One for each calf she lost,” I whispered.

“Yes,” she said.

“What did the owner do?” I asked, hoping that he would have buried the poor cow.

“He didn’t bury her,” said Phuphee. “I know that’s what you would like to hear. The owner was of a humble financial background and meat was hard to come by. They slaughtered her and ate the meat. But that’s not why I told you this story. The reason I am telling you is because something happened here today, and I want you to learn something from it. You saw what happened at Hafeeza’s mehndi?” I nodded.

Hafeeza was a young woman who lived in the village. She was getting married the next day. We had just come back from her house where there had been a small function for her mehndi. We had finished having dinner where hot rice was served with tchervaen (organ meat cooked in a rich onion gravy with spices). The mehndi waali had come and after making false promises to all the other girls that she would apply henna to their hands too, she started working on the bride.

When mehndi was being applied to Hafeeza’s hands, another young woman from the village had come in. Her name was Farhana. She had been married a few years now, but had been unable to have any children. As time passed, the reasons for her inability to have a baby changed from day to day. Some would say that she had been cursed by a previous lover whose heart she had broken to marry her husband who was financially better off. Others would say it was because she secretly practised the black arts and now God was punishing her. The ugly accused her of being too beautiful and not doing enough to hide her beauty. The reasons for her infertility changed depending on who was telling the story, but the blame, which was always laid at her door, never changed its direction.

When she walked down the street, women would often turn around and pretend to be busy so they wouldn’t have to exchange pleasantries with her. She was, after all, cursed. So, when she turned up at the mehndi, it caused quite a stir. The bride and her mother looked stunned.

She has no shame, muttered the mother under her breath.

We all tried not to make eye contact with Farhana. We hoped she wouldn’t come and sit with us. It would be embarrassing and if the rumours were anything to go by, none of us wanted to be associated with her. She may have been naïve enough to wander into a wedding that no one had invited her to, but she wasn’t stupid enough to not notice how everyone went quiet and cold as soon as she walked in. She stood there for a fraction of a second scanning the room and then, as if remembering something she had left at home, turned around and left. Even after she had left, we all sat silent, unable to will ourselves to go back to the festive mood. It was only after the silence had scared the children and they started crying, that we managed to resume the singing and dancing.

I had noticed Phuphee follow Farhana out of the door and come back alone a little while later. She was silent all the way home. At home, she took off her black keep (the top part of a Kashmiri burka) and went into the kitchen. She sat down by her favourite spot next to the daan (mud stove) and smoked two cigarettes in complete silence. When she finished smoking, she told me the story about the cow who kept losing her calves.

“It is hard work being a woman and I say work because being a woman means working. Your worth is always decided by your ability to do certain things. A woman must be many things before the title of being a ‘good woman’ is conferred upon her and that title is always awarded posthumously. Perhaps you are too young to understand this right now, but maybe it is better to start with this part of your education earlier. When the cow kept losing her calves, everyone thought it couldn’t affect her too much because she is an animal. But her pain and grief had changed the entire geography of her heart and the only way that ever came to light was when they cut her open. What do you think we would see if we were to cut Farhana open? How many holes do you think we would find? I want you to think about that cow the next time you see Farhana. I want you to think about that cow every time you see anyone say anything that diminishes another woman.”

She was right, I didn’t quite grasp what she was trying to tell me at the time, but a time would come, when I would feel the full force of every single word she had said that day. One day the holes appeared in the heart of a very dear friend. Later, I would learn about a close aunt. Years later, one appeared in my heart, followed by another the following year and then another and another, until I stopped counting.

Saba Mahjoor, a Kashmiri living in England, spends her scant free time contemplating life’s vagaries.

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