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They called you the ‘problem child’ while you were still in my womb.
‘You’re carrying a girl, I just know it,’ my ma-in-law sighed, glaring at my distended stomach, her lips disappearing in disapproval. ‘A problem child, already causing you to be ill. You’re falling behind in your chores,’ she grumbled, her few remaining teeth clicking with ire.
‘Problem child,’ her cronies, the other village matrons echoed, as they chewed paan and gossip under the mango trees. ‘Definitely a girl, and big with it,’ they twittered, their gleeful malice drowning out the birdsong. ‘No grandson for you,’ they told my ma-in-law, who emitted a put-upon groan. ‘Instead, a problem child.’
‘Don’t pay them any heed,’ I whispered to you later that night as your father, snored beside me on the mat, while on the other side of the one-room hut, two arm-lengths and one sari-curtain-divider away, his parents slept.
‘You are my golden child.’ I murmured in the susurrating dark, fragranced by night jasmine, punctuated by the drone of crickets, the whirr of mosquitoes, the rustle of nocturnal animals and the howl of neighbourhood dogs.
Under my palm, in the waters of my womb, you danced assent.
‘Problem child,’ they cursed in dismay when you were born. ‘Dark as foreboding and ugly with it. No hope for this one.’
‘My golden child,’ I crooned when we were alone, marvelling at your bronzed radiance, your exquisite perfection.
‘Problem child,’ they said when, as a toddler, you scratched away at the pastes they applied to whiten your skin. It was the exact shade of cinnamon spiced coffee which I thought beautiful but they deemed too dusky for a girl, declaring that it would scare away prospective suitors in the future if something was not done to lighten it.
‘Problem child,’ they said when you ate food from your father’s plate, refusing to wait for your own meagre serving of leftovers, after he, as man, had been served first, the best and choicest morsels.
‘Problem child,’ they said when, in response to their sighs of: ‘With that dark colouring and chubby body, it will be near impossible to find you a suitable husband; you better go on a diet and apply skin lightening pastes’, you retorted, eyes flashing, ‘I will not as I don’t want to get married, ever.’
I thought you looked stunning, fiery eyes glowing in a face bright with defiance and I told you so later, when we were alone, my golden child.
‘Problem child,’ they said when you vehemently vetoed their order, disguised as advice, that you give up your school learning to take up housekeeping and sewing classes.
‘No man wants an over-educated wife,’ they snapped, angered by your disobedience. ‘You’re a handful as it is. Hai, we dread to think what ideas more studying will put into your already swollen head!’
‘I don’t want to get married,’ you reiterated even though you knew they’d never take you seriously, as they just couldn’t fathom any woman desiring a future that didn’t include a husband and children.
‘Problem child.’ They called to your retreating back as you flounced away.
‘Do what you want to, go where your heart leads you, my golden child,’ I told you later, when we were alone.
‘Problem child,’ they cursed when you left the village to pursue your dreams of higher studies, to realise your ambition of making something of yourself instead of slotting into the too-small life of drudgery and servitude to a censorious husband and in-laws that they deemed right for you. They were shocked that you could want more, you of the dark skin and imperfect body, you mere woman. How dare you entertain ideas above your station, wish for more than your lot? ‘You will come to no good. Problem child.’
I was never a problem child. I did what was expected of me, married the man three times my age that they chose for me, and here I am still, doing their bidding, never a problem, never standing up to them, either on your behalf or mine, only cheering you on in secret, always dutiful, incredibly unhappy and unfulfilled.
‘Golden child,’ they exulted when you returned to the village a success story, the first woman CEO of a world-renowned multinational company.
‘Golden child,’ they sang as they thrust their ‘eligible’ sons at you; your complexion, your body, your many degrees from the best universities, no longer a problem but, all of a sudden, just right for their precious offspring.
You looked over them, at me, your face softening as you smiled, your eyes shining with love. And in that moment, they finally saw what I had always known: how beautiful you were, how truly golden.
You took me away from that village and my constrained, tiny life there, my golden child. You afforded me the golden future I had never dared dream of for myself, but had always envisioned, hoped and prayed for, for you.