You wipe the sweat off your brow and adjust the damp shirt that clings to your body. The other labourers have taken their shirts off to seek respite from the sweltering sun. Yet another day ends, and they invite you to drink with them.
“Muthu, join us!” they plead.
You politely decline, stating that you want to get back home soon. While heading off, you hear them gossip. They speculate that your wife ran away with her lover, leaving your daughter behind. You don’t react. You have conditioned yourself to be indifferent. It has rendered you dead from within. To live, one has to die a little first. Who knows this better than you?
You reach home, and your daughter’s eyes brighten up. Your tiredness melts away. The comforting aroma of hot rice porridge welcomes you.
“Appa!” she exclaims joyfully.
You aren’t her Appa, yet you insist that she is to call you that. How else can you convince others of your deception? While you settle down to eat, you vow fiercely to yourself. You will protect her for as long as there is breath in your lungs.
Your daughter is a married woman now. You wish her all the happiness in this world. Everyone praises you for conducting the wedding well. Seeing her as a radiant bride reminds you of the time you were one yourself; twenty-five years ago, to be precise.
You are Muthulakshmi back then. You marry at nineteen, only to be widowed at twenty, with a newborn and dire poverty for company. The men who extend sympathy in the light of the day, demand favours in the darkness of the night.
You go to the temple clutching your child, sobbing your heart out. You cut your long lustrous locks and offer them to God. Sporting short hair and your husband’s clothes, you run away with your child. No one bothers to look at you twice. Like a snake shedding its skin, you become Muthu, leaving Lakshmi behind.
You start life afresh, doing every single odd job that comes your way. Most of the time you are exhausted. There are days when you carry heavy loads, even while bleeding. Beneath your exterior lies a woman, a mother, who refuses to crumble. For your daughter’s sake, you trudge on, never giving up. Twenty-five long years of living a borrowed life. Until now.
You are free now. You still can’t fathom what that means. You admire your red wedding saree in the almirah, caressing it with trembling fingers. It reeks of naphtha balls, and memories from a different lifetime. You glance pensively at the mirror. There is a story behind each crease on your forehead and each callus on your palm.
Who will you choose? Muthu or Lakshmi?
You look around the house you built, brick by brick. The life you built, brick by brick. And then you decide-you will stay Muthu forever.
After living fearlessly, there is no way you are going back.