Why women have cracked feet
Warning: This story contains references to death and sexual violence
To say that life came to a stop would be an understatement. Full stops are after all meant for the ones who do not question the temporality of the present, but Moromi did. When she first heard about the lockdown she was still typing. Thak thak thak on her keyboard and the occasional sip of tea were the only sounds that wafted through her home at that moment. She typed – thak, thak, thak – frantically. She did not stop.
As she continued writing, a news notification appeared on the bottom right of her laptop screen. “A 14-day period lockdown is imposed in India”, it read. She had been expecting the lockdown for some time now, given the rise of COVID cases in Guwahati. She stopped typing and looked up from her laptop, momentarily plunging into deep contemplation. Not big on weekend social outings, she would often find reasons and ways to be at home, but something would always come up. She wondered when was the last time she stayed completely indoors or at home or any other place for days on end? At this point the idea of a lockdown was not so repulsive even if it meant having to give up time on her own unfinished thesis and sharing a cramped flat with her two children and husband.
She then rose from her desk and walked towards her balcony. Moromi noticed that the sun was about to set. Before setting it took on a very distinctive crimson-red hue. Moromi was reminded of the blood-red foot that used to adorn her mother Rupohi’s forehead, replicating the blazing red-hued setting sun over the Jiadhal river in her hometown of Dhemaji. Rupohi crossed the river daily in a wobbly little boat to teach in the government middle school situated on the other bank of the river. During the monsoon season the mighty Jiadhal overflowed and threatened to swallow the boat but somehow Rupohi triumphed each time and the small boat always helped her to reach her destination.
The eldest buwari, daughter-in-law, of an Assamese upper-caste household, Rupohi woke up before dawn and could leave for work only after finishing all her household responsibilities.
Despite all her family obligations, she always found time to dress impeccably.
Little Moromi often wondered at her mother’s ability to don her mekhela so immaculately within a few minutes. She would delicately bring the pleats of her mekhela together and tuck them at her waist and then drape the muga sador diagonally across her chest, the remaining asol falling gracefully over her shoulders. The long braid, the red foot on her forehead, along with the cloth bag hanging on her shoulders, completed her look. Even though as a child Moromi often gasped at the beauty of it all, she could not help but notice that there was something mechanical about how her mother dressed for work, as if, like a puppet, someone pulled the strings of her hand.
But childhood was now a distant past for Moromi, adulthood an uncomfortable present which gradually unravelled before her. Moromi was knocked out of her daze when the doorbell rang. She was greeted at the door by Samina Bai, who had been working in their home for the past three years.
Samina Bai said sharply, “Baideo apuni sir ahi puwar agot aru ihot keita xui uthar agot thak thak kori xex kori louk” [sister, you should finish doing thak thak on the keyboard before sir returns home and the kids wake up].”
Moromi understood the gravity of her advice, nodded, and returned to her tiny workspace: a makeshift table tucked in between two humongous wardrobes.
While Moromi desperately tried to churn out some words on the blank page, Samina Bai came in to mop the floor. As she knelt on the ground to mop, Moromi noticed the cracks in her feet, like an upside-down picture of the penetrating roots helping a huge tree to stand upright and distribute shade. Moromi thought they also resembled cracks in the earth caused by drought or earthquakes.
Suddenly she was reminded of the cracks in her mother’s feet. While at home, Rupohi’s cracked feet would often peep meekly from under her mekhela whenever she would try to retrieve the tetelir asar dobba, a container containing sweet tamarind pickle, from the top shelf, that she had painstakingly made and preserved. Moromi often wondered why her mother’s feet were cracked.
Maybe after taking care of her children and aged in laws and after having to feed her extended kin and then rushing off to her school, she never had the time to apply foot cream, Moromi reasoned to herself. Or maybe it was because her mother never wore sandals inside their home. She remembered how her mother used to walk barefoot on the cool and soothing mud courtyard, alone, before all the other members of her family woke up. As if walking on the cool mud courtyard gave her the energy to endure a long day filled with endless work. Rupohi would then rush off to the kitchen to prepare breakfast and quietly go about fulfilling her responsibilities as an upper-caste daughter in law.
Even though her mother revolted against conventional standards of beauty by not wearing sandals or by not taking care of her feet, she did not wish the same for her daughter. Perhaps she knew how unforgiving and ruthless upper-caste patriarchy could be. Her daughter would not be spared. She had to get married after all!
Rupohi often advised her, “Bhori duta bhalkoi rakhibi, suwalir bhori Lokhkhi hoi” [take good care of your feet, they bring good fortune].
Young Assamese girls like Moromi, who grew up in middle-class upper-caste families, were supposed to have well-pedicured, flawless feet. Having smooth and rosy feet for women was also a way of confirming their allegiance to upper-caste ideals of feminine beauty. Men were expected to have calluses in their feet, as sturdy, strong and rough feet were a sign of hard labour and potent masculinity. Samina Bai caught Moromi staring at her feet, and she could gauge exactly what was going on in Moromi’s mind.
As if delivering a sermon on her life which she knew so well, she said: “Baideo dintu eghoror pora ighorot kaam korute bhori phati jai. Ghorot goi gaa dhui bhaat olop khai xui jao, aru eku koribo mon nejai. Thanda kali ahile bhori aru phatibo” [Sister, throughout the day I work in so many homes that there is barely any time to take care of my feet. I don’t feel like doing anything else. After returning home I just take a bath, eat some rice, and then go to sleep. They will crack even more in the winter].
* * *
Samina Bai hailed from Kharupetia in Darrang district of Assam. She swore that her mother and grandmother, and all her foremothers, hailed from Assam. Little Samina was born in Nellie, a small town in Morigaon district of Assam. Both her father and uncle lived in separate huts in the same courtyard. While growing up in the 80s, she remembered that her parents and relatives lived in the perpetual fear of being seen as bahiragoto, outsiders.
However, it was the year 1983 that Samina Bai would never forget. On the morning of the 18th of February 1983, a young Samina was woken up by a shrill cry of alarm coming from her father who shouted, “eikhan thekei pola sob kichu rakhi pola”[ “Run, run, leave everything and run!].
While running frantically, he still held on to his sharp dao, which he used to clean away the weeds in their small backyard garden that threatened to overwhelm the budding rose saplings that he had planted with so much love. Samina still sleepy, was swept off her cot by her mother who had already tied her infant brother to her back, reluctantly ready to flee for dear life.
As they came outside their hut, they saw that men, eyes red with revenge and machetes in their hands were coming at them from all directions. Two of the men forcefully entered the home of Samina’s uncle. As her uncle tried to get hold of his pregnant wife, Samina’s aunt, his throat was slit by one of the men. Samina’s aunt was dragged by her ankles from her bedroom and was raped by both men in turns. Traumatized, Samina only remembered the sight of the silver anklets that adorned her aunt’s lifeless ankles glistening in the light of the blazing sun.
Samina and her family somehow survived and crossed the river by boat. Her father decided to take his family to Kharupetia. Their traumatic past continued to haunt them even in Kharupetia.
On a spring afternoon, Samina’s younger brother Abdul came home crying. As her mother and Samina tried to console an inconsolable Abdul, he complained that his friends derided him repeatedly, calling him Miya and asked him to leave their group. Initially, Samina did not understand how one came to be perceived as Miya. Was it the way Abdul looked, the way he spoke Axomiya (Assamese) or his clothes, she wondered.
Samina continued grappling with these questions until one day while walking back home from her school, a few young boys taunted and shouted out at her, “Oi Miyani Bangladeshor loi ghuri jaa, jor pora ahiso ghuri jaa” [You Miyani, go back to Bangladesh, go back to where you come back from].
Samina ran home without stopping for a breath. She ran as fast as her feet would carry her. This is when she understood that Miyani became a part of her porisoy, identity, perhaps without her choice.
For a young Samina, it became quite clear that regardless of how hard she tried, she would never belong here. No matter how many legal citizenship documents she produced, she will always be bahiragot or a miyani. Samina often felt an anger burning inside her when someone called her miyani. Why did she have to suffer being seen as an outsider when she was born and brought up in Assam? What threat did she pose to the citizenship status of those who claimed to be genuine citizens of Assam?
* * *
After Samina married Kamruddin, who specialized in woodwork, she moved to Guwahati and started looking for work. It was in Guwahati that Samina became Samina Bai and met Moromi. Unbeknownst to one another they became parts of each other’s lives.
Samina Bai stood upright, trying to straighten her spine.
“Baideo Ahmed or jonmor pisot, Kamruddin e muk eri gusi gol. NRC t naam bhorti koribo moi Kharupetialoi okole mur lora suwali k loi jabo loga hol. Bohut kosto hol. Mur naam aru Axomiya kotha kuwar dhoronor karone, manuhe muk Bangladeshi buli bhabe. Moi kenekoi kom je mur nani r jonmo u Axomot hoise? Eiburor pisot moi pahori jau je moi u ejoni maiki manuh. Mur phota bhori duta tu dekhisei. Iman kaamor pisot moi eku koribo nuwaru aru”. [“Sister, Kamruddin left after Ahmed was born. Even to register for NRC (National Register of Citizens) I had to go to Kharupetia myself and carry my four children along with me. The journey was so difficult. Because of my name and the way in which I speak Assamese, peopleassume I am Bangladeshi! How do I make them believe that even my own grandmother was born in Assam? After all this, sometimes I forget that I am a woman too, my cracked feet are evidence of this. Most of the time I am too exhausted to even do anything about it].
“Phota bhori aru NRC rokhibo lagibo” [“Cracked feet and citizenship can wait!”] she said and waved her hands in the air to show that she did not care anymore.
Moromi was unprepared for this response from Samina Bai. She thought how Samina Bai’s cracked feet resembled Rupohi’s cracked feet. Her feet also resembled parched deserts, thirsting for a single drop of water.
Moromi listened to Samina Bai, she did not respond. Like a frustrated audience leaving a cinema hall having watched a disheartening movie, Samina Bai finished her remaining tasks quietly. She clearly expected Moromi to say something. But Moromi was preoccupied by the images of her mother’s cracked feet and that of Samina’s cracked feet which seemed to merge into each other, only to diverge again and then converge again. All the religious, linguistic and class differences between the two women seemed to dissipate. All that remained were the haunting images of cracked feet. The cracks were all too obvious, too loud. They were screaming out at her.
Samina Bai’s voice sucked her back into her problematic existence.
Samina Bai said, “Baideo aha kalir pora kamot ahibo nuwarim kiba lagile mur lora r phone ot phone koribo” [I will not be able to come to work from tomorrow onwards. If you need me urgently then call my son’s phone]. Moromi nodded quietly, a sharp pain throbbing inside her.
“Bhalkoi thakibi, bhitorot thakibi, kiba lagile phone koribi” [Stay well, stay indoors, if you need anything call me, Moromi told Samina Bai as she handed her a cup of tea before she left].
Samina Bai then replied:“Baideo apunar kaam badhibo etiya, sir aru ihot keita ghorot thakibo nohoi. Apunaru bhori phatibo etiya. Etiya thak thak sage besi koribo nuwaribo” [Ma’am, you will have more work now, sir and the children will also be at home. Your feet will also crack now]
* * *
After Samina Bai left, Moromi came back to her table. Samina Bai’s words kept echoing in her mind.
She did not like revisiting her past. It was both too familiar and too starkly distant to find any comfort in it. But if the 18th of February was the day that had left an indelible mark on Samina Bai’s conscience, for Moromi it was the 15th of August 2004 which she could never forget.
That day Rupohi had left early in the morning to help her students practice O mur apunar dex, the state song of Assam, which was to be sung in the Independence Day celebrations at the Dhemaji College ground. Eleven-year-old Moromi slept soundly at home. A bomb planted near the gate of the college ground exploded as young children, their mothers and their teachers began entering the premises of the college for the Independence Day procession. Chaos erupted in Dhemaji. A group demanding Swadhin Axom (Independent Assam) had warned the people of Dhemaji not to celebrate India’s Independence Day. It eventually claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Rupohi’s charred remains were brought home that evening. Her body was placed in the same cold mud-smeared courtyard over which she used to walked barefoot. Young Moromi hid behind her aunt who forbade her from looking at her mother’s dead body. However, somehow ducking between her elders’ legs she managed to catch a last glimpse of her mother. Rupohi’s red foot and long braided hair were burnt beyond recognition but her cracked feet peeping out of the white cover remained unburnt. The cracks on Rupohi’s cold feet seemed unfazed, indomitable even in death, as if the blazing fire had been scared to scorch them. A sight Moromi would never forget.
After her death, an adult Moromi took Rupohi’s advice of taking care of her feet to heart, not because she wanted delicate feet but because she wanted Pranjjol to love her. They met at university in Guwahati. She remembered when, in the middle of her wedding festivities, she had taken out time to visit the parlour in Guwahati to get a pedicure.
While in university, she took special care to make sure that her feet were well-moisturized and rose-pink so that they would look good in her gladiator sandals, especially when she went out on dates with her then-boyfriend and now-husband, Pranjjol. In her Guwahati flat she always wore house slippers and applied foot cream every night, mechanically, almost like a robot. Moromi now wondered if Pranjjol would have resented it if she had cracked feet. She would never know, would she?
She thought of the countless TV ads for foot creams, featuring a sad woman who experienced a total life transformation and started brimming with insane amounts of self-confidence when she applied the cream to her feet. The cream promised to miraculously heal the cracks in her feet in just two weeks. The world was literally at her feet!
Samina Bai’s and Rupohi’s feet kept meandering through her mind like a river taking her own sweet time to reach her destination. Her mother scurrying around their home and working, clad in a cotton mekhela, barefoot. Samina Bai squatting on the floor and mopping, barefoot. She saw herself too, but she did not see her feet naked. They were encased in comfortable slippers and meticulously pedicured. She wondered why her feet did not appear naked and cracked in her own mind.
By 6pm Pranjjol had returned. He would be staying at home for a couple of weeks. His office already had a couple of COVID cases. As Pranjjol rang the doorbell, she was jolted out of her wistful contemplation again. She was relieved yet she could not help feeling a sense of loss.
She stopped working on her thesis. She had been able to work on it only because Samina Bai took care of the household chores. She did not realize that the children had woken up from their evening nap and were now running wild in the house. Too much thinking about cracked feet she told herself. She needed to stop now.
Later that night when she was about to repeat her late-night ritual of applying foot cream, Moromi saw a few small cracks on her feet. Perhaps Samina Bai was right. Had she seen them before? No, she did not remember. Maybe today she was looking too closely. Again, she would never know.
As she picked up her foot cream to rub on her ankles, she felt anger and rage building up inside her. A kind of anger that was gradually going to engulf and destroy everything around it. Any small sliver of happiness and hopefulness that took shape inside her was now overwhelmed by this dense cloud of anger.
With a spontaneous stroke of her hand, she wiped clean all the cosmetic products on her dressing table. They fell on the floor in a neat heap. She threw away the foot cream that she was clutching in her other hand forcefully and it hit the mirror and broke it into shards. Pranjjol rushed into the room and looked at her in bewilderment, but she was too occupied to notice his presence.
Slowly, Moromi’s face turned bright red, the anguish subsided, and tears flowed from her eyes. This time things became clearer. She became resolute.
This time she stopped her ritual and let her feet crack.
Moromi looked at her own feet and saw the cracked roots becoming deeper, more visible, more formidable.
She now walked, barefoot, alongside Rupohi and Samina Bai, the cracks in her feet evidence of their strength.
Shivangi Kaushik is a researcher and hails from Guwahati. She reads, writes and listens to music in her free time. Shivangi was born and brought up in Guwahati and is fond of Xal (Sal trees).