A Wooden Smile

By Shubhangi

Munni kept playing with the tap water until Malti came running into the bathroom, closed the tap, and smacked Munni on the back of her head. “As if we have a well full of water, you spoiled brat!Malti yelled and pinched her daughter’s ear. “Now gargle your mouth and hurry up.Munni made a little grunt and frowned at her mother. “Go and get ready,” Malti said as she wiped her thirteen-year daughter’s face with the end of her saree. Before Munni could ask why she had to be getting ready, Malti had already rushed out of their little, dilapidated, untended bathroom.

From where she stood, the little girl could see her mother straighten out one of her not-yet-tattered Kurtis and pajamas. Munni watched as Malti struggled to find a suitable dupatta to go with the outfit until she found one that had not gone colourless or wasn’t oil-stained.

“Are you going somewhere?Munni asked as she walked near to her mother. Malti sighed and continued to straighten the kurti which would not straighten at all. “Maa, are you going somewhere?” she persisted. Her mother ignored and measured the clothes on Munni, clicking her tongue upon seeing how loose the pajama was. “Maaaa,” Munni nagged and Malti cut her off. “Not me,” she replied sternly,”you –”

“Me?” Munni interrupted, excited. “Are we going to the park? Oh – you are taking me to that town fair, aren’t you? Okay, so I will get ice cream, um… a cotton candy, and yes, a doll, and…,” she paused. “Oh, but it will cost us a lot of money, won’t it, maa? Then maybe I will just get a doll. This one is jaded anyway.”Munni coiled the one-eyed doll’s hair around her thumb.

“A doll, eh?” Malti laughed a bit then. “You are thirteen years of age now. It’s time to act like a woman, hmm?” 

Munni could not understand her mother’s implication, so she just shrugged and braided one-half of her hair, while Malti did the other half. Then she took a bath, got dressed in oversized clothes without questioning why she was wearing her mother’s clothes all of a sudden instead of her frocks, and sat on her tiny, red, plastic chair.

Sitting on her red chair, Munni looked in the mirror and patted some talcum on her face, rubbed kohl under the eyes, and tied ribbons to her braids. She did not yet know where she was going or if she was really even going somewhere. Still, she had seen her mother do these things to herself every evening, when she wore her red sarees and lots of bangles to go and stand on the road outside with several other women who lived nearby, calling and talking to the men who passed by them. Along with the accessories, she also used to wear a big, wooden smile, which Munni had noticed, got bigger in front of these men. Looking at her from the window, Munni was always mesmerised by her mother’s beauty. Maybe that’s the reason a man or two was always by her side when she returned home every night.

Putting on some pink tint on her chapped lips, Munni rested her palms on her lap, looking at her mother cracking her knuckles in visible worry. Outside, the noise of a jeep was heard. She knew it was Gopal dada. But it was not the 1st of next month yet, why had he come then? “Maa, why has Gopal da…” before Munni could finish asking, Malti spoke, “Only come out when I ask you to, okay? And sit with your head down. Don’t play with your braids as you do. And hide that hideous doll you always play with. Be a woman now, will you?”And then she rushed out, wearing the same big, wooden smile.

Munni peeped through the curtain and saw her mother standing near the main gate, her hands folded in a habitual namaste, the kind she had come to know one used to beg and not to greet. Munni tried to get a glimpse of her face, but Malti’s head was covered with her saree.

“Is she ready?” Munni heard Gopal dada say. A strange feeling tugged at her wits. “Run,” a voice whispered inside her head.

Run! Run! Run!

“Munni?” Malti called for her just then. Startled for a bit, Munni went out anyway. Gopal dada was there. Also, another man. Munni did not know this other man. She looked at her mother and saw her eyes glistening. It took her a second to realise she was crying. “Maa,” Munni said faintly, tugging at Malti’s saree. Malti said nothing, just turned her head away.

Munni looked at Gopal dada. He was whispering something in the man’s ear. Then the man gave Munni a look up and down and walked inside the house as if it was his own. Malti put a hand on her grown-up daughter’s shoulder, without having the courage to meet her eyes, and pushed her gently toward their home.

Munni looked at her mother’s eyes shedding silent tears, the grip of her hand firm like a tree holding onto its dear leaves in the wild winds of autumn.“Eh, let her go already!”Gopal dada pushed Malti’s hand away, and a choked, silenced, burdened sob escaped from the mother’s lips.

Munni began to walk towards the cave of her childhood, unknowing that it would soon become the cage of her womanhood. But she did touch her braids, her face, her chest, her stomach — to lock a memory of her body as if she knew something was about to change about it. Reaching the doorstep, she consumed a huge breath, as if trying to store the old air around her in the helpless palate of her mouth. She looked back at her mother, who collapsed on the ground, wailing soundlessly. Munni felt an uncomfortable tremble in her legs, but she didn’t run. She knew she couldn’t. So, she just closed her eyes, exhaled the air she had previously stored inside her mouth, and mimicked her mother’s wooden smile. Then she walked inside.


Shubhangi is pursuing her Master’s degree in English literature from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Passionate about reading and writing, her poems have been published in publications such as The Indian Review and The Indian Periodical


Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

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