FEATURED WRITER : Like a Phoenix, She rose By Maithri Arunkumar

Sketch by Aditi Nadig 

Swarna looked at the raging flames and felt her anger melt. She stood there, shoulder slumped, weary from the burden she had been carrying for years. As the flames rose higher, her shoulder straightened as if, the fire was taking away her burdens. She was dressed in the customary plain white saree and blouse, the sindhoor wiped off of her forehead and her neck bare without the mangalsutra that she'd worn for 5 years. She was a widow now but not a tear rolled down her cheek. They thought she hadn't come to terms with it yet, you know, because grieving for the dead takes time. They touched her shoulder and shared their condolences.

"Tch tch, heart attack at such a young age! Very sad"

"It is all so sudden, I hope you can cope dear"

"He was such a good man, maybe that's why God took him away so soon"


"Sagar was a wonderful man, May his soul rest in peace"

"He may be gone, but he will always live in our hearts"

"Stay strong Swarna, it's the only way to heal" 

She didn't respond to any of that. They wouldn't understand anyway. How could they, when all they  saw was a young wonderful man's life being reduced to ashes? The man she knew was different. His death was symbolic to her in more ways than one. She had insisted on going to the crematorium though women aren't allowed there. She wanted to be there to make sure he's really gone. There was no way he could come back now. She stayed back after everyone had left. She sat on the mud and saw the flame die out and ashes scatter everywhere. Her eyes were fixed on some splinters that had fallen away from the pyre and still had the spark of fire in them. She saw them go from red to black and then grey. Grey. Much like how her life was before this.

It wasn't always grey though. She remembered how she had met Sagar, then, her senior at college. He had looked like a Greek God on stage auditioning for the role of Brutus for the play on "Julius Caesar". She couldn't take her eyes off his chiseled face, the black mop of hair on his head shining under the spotlight. She was there to try for the role of Cleopatra. He had smiled at her from the stage and she found herself melting into the chair. It was the first time she had a crush on someone, and she already fantasized having babies with him. A year later they were chosen as the "King" and "Queen" during their college fest's couple contest. That was the day he had proposed to her. She laughed now recalling how he didn't have a ring so he proposed with his crown instead. Her fantasy was going to come true. Almost.

They married as soon as she finished her degree and he had settled into his father's family business. They had had the most extravagant destination wedding at Udaipur away from Delhi's hustle and bustle. It was a lavish affair with flowers strewn everywhere, the lawns decorated just as she had imagined, and the mantap was placed such that you could see the sun set while holding each other's hand. Dressed in a peach and mint green lehenga by Sabyasachi, her hazel eyes sparkled more than the diamond and emerald choker she wore as she took the saath pheras with the love of her life. She felt like the luckiest girl in the world. 

Her luck was short lived. The abuse began a few days after they became man and wife. It started with a slap when she scolded him for drinking too much one night. He lost a huge business deal a week later and the drinking and hitting soon became a routine. She would refuse to sleep with him and get beaten for that too. He would apologize profusely and make up with expensive gifts the following day. She hadn't imagined there was an evil side to her Prince Charming. He seemed to have two opposing personalities. One was that of a hard working gentleman who was devoted to his family and the other who thought of his wife as a mere object he could thrash every time he felt like it. Swarna would go to sleep some nights in pain, physically aching and mentally exhausted and some nights she just lay awake scared for her life, waiting for the crack of dawn. Days went by cold and distant. She would keep herself busy doing household chores though they had plenty of help at home. She would cook different dishes everyday and feel happy when her mother-in-law praised her culinary skills. She tried her best to hide her bruises and scars behind make-up. She felt chained and helpless. Laila, their labrador, was her only source of comfort and solace.

Coming from a family of theatre artists, she was married into a one of better status and wealth than hers and he never failed to remind her of that. He would often taunt her that, if not for him, she would stand nowhere in this world. She could not think of making a career out of her degree in computer science because what was the need for her to earn when they already had plenty, he would say and everyone else in the family would nod in accordance.

His parents were caring and loving, she had a luxurious bungalow to live in , exotic food and designer clothes, a tonne of money that she could spend however she wished to, and Laila was her best friend. 

"What more could you want? This life is much better than anything you have dreamed of!", he would point out. 

She bore the physical abuse with grit and continued to play the part of a wife whose husband was treating her like a queen. She was a good actor and she could smile through tears. She did it so as to not bring shame into her family by being the woman who left her husband. That would be looked down upon even in the 21st century in a city like Delhi. Her life soon went from greens and pinks to a sordid grey except for the red marks on her back or the purple bruises on her knees and elbows. For five years, he was her master and a belt, his weapon. Until, one night, she decided enough was enough.

It was her 28th birthday and she had received the best gift she could ever ask for. Two pink lines on the tester! The thought of becoming a mother kept her energy high all day and she danced with glee with her mother-in-law and Laila. When Sagar came home that night, drunk again, she told him the good news in a fervour of excitement. She received a slap in return and he took out his belt to beat her. He had lost half the business his father had carefully built that day and instead of acknowledging that he's a poor businessman, he blamed her for the loss. She begged him to stop since she was carrying his child in her womb. 

He slurred, his breath reeking of whiskey, "I'd rather not have a child with you at all, you worthless woman!" 

He lifted the belt again but passed out on the floor. Her love for him was overtaken by disgust, rage and such loathing that she picked up a pillow and smothered him till she couldn't hear him breathe anymore. 

Swarna shuddered and was jolted back to the present when the undertaker's assistant, a boy in his early twenties, told her it was time to close the gates so she'd have to leave. The sky was turning a twilight orange  and she took one last look at the burnt remains. She stood up and brushed the mud and ashes off her white saree. She touched her belly and whispered , "I am glad you will never see your father."  

She was a widow now, but one that wouldn't have to spin a tale about her black eye or a bruised neck. She was a widow but one that will be a mother soon. She walked away from him, not looking back, shoulders straight, head held high, all burdens left behind. 

She thought of the Phoenix. She imagined herself rise, wings spread out, from the flames, from the ashes. Ironically, it was his body that had burned. 


About the Writer

Maithri loves looking into people's eyes and while that's her day job, she has been running behind a tiny human for a year now and she loves being a mom. Writing is something she has enjoyed doing since she was a child and it has been her way of "me-time", whether it's a journal entry, a poem, research, or a story. This piece was written as Maithri’s  final assignment for a six-week Creative Fiction writing workshop.    


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