Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Coming Home.....

       Nothing has changed, yet everything has changed. The old memories, jolt amongst themselves and disappear in a puff of dust and mist. I push them into the cupboard sitting in the corner of my mind, onto the last shelf and firmly lock the door. I wish I could throw the key into the river running through my mind, but I know time after time, I would want to open it and then would be dismayed to find the key gone. 
  
       The rusted iron gate has lost many of its bars. It swings open with a lot of effort and noise. I step onto the hard baked earth. The garden is overgrown with weeds and wild plants. From betwixt, small nameless flowers peep, greeting my arrival with a vigorous shake of their stalks. Long gone are the jasmine plants and the marigolds, the champakams and the rhodendrons...
       I stand here, looking at the road trundle past the house. A bus gorged with passengers shoving, jostling, talking animatedly, dispenses some of them at the corner and makes its way. Twelve years it has been since I last saw the bus.
       The 4 stairs that lead into the house are broken. The cement peels off like old nail polish. Beneath my feet, one gives way, and I almost fall to the ground. Regaining my balance I look expectantly into the house. My Grandmother’s ghost hovers, benign and smiling. While my Grandfather’s frets at having bought no snacks to give to me. I can see him now, readying to go to the nearby tea-shack, announcing to the world that, his granddaughter has come.
        I step inside the hall and throw open the large, heavy wooden door. Twelve years of being shut down, fettered, unused. The smell of decay and years of shuttered up rooms is perversely pleasing to my nose. I can almost hear the termites gnawing their way through the wood. I take in the smell, the claustrophobic, clamping smell of damp air, termites’ crap and decaying wood, the smell of oil stuck to the lamps, incense long gone but with the dust from it, stuck to the stand. The faded pictures of various deities hang as they did all those years ago. Faded, they are beginning to crumble and disperse. Blues, Blacks, Reds, Green, and Yellows are all now the same color – faded brown. From behind the brown screen, bright colors try to peep out, only to duck behind in thwarted efforts to display their gaiety. The gods look on, smiling, listless. If they had only bothered to bless our family, this house would have been in a better shape. 
       On my left the staircase to the upper storey winds up like a coiling python clutching onto its last breath. I am afraid to climb up, but curiosity gives way and I go up. They seem small now, unlike the giant-sized steps when we were kids. The door boards are long gone; in their places are gaping holes from which the wind whooshes in. The bedstead creaks as I sit on it, the mattress smelling of memories of long ago. The floor is covered with fallen plaster and limestone cakes from the wall. 
       
       I look out of the wooden screen in the verandah, peering at the world outside, desperately trying to push time back to when we were together and happy and carefree.  
       I see the truckload of sand and cement and stones pull up outside. The contractor is here. I meet him at the door. We go through the plans once more. He has already brought the workers. While I search for glasses in the kitchen to pour out some tea from my flask, the men pick their mighty pickaxes, shovels, sledgehammers and demolish the house one brick at a time. 
       I feel a tightening in the chest, I feel I am a part of some crime, a horrible crime. 
       I feel like I am murdering someone. 
       Stabbing, beating, smashing a living thing.
       Until all its bloody entrails come out into my hands.
       Until I smell death. 
       Until mashed to a pulp, it dies with a final shudder…..

Friday, April 30, 2010

Destiny's Catch..

       The sounds of Reverie wake the dogs up from their fitful sleep and make them bark in unison. Inside the Hut, Shauni’s mother applies turmeric to her hands and feet and face. Her relatives gather around her singing songs and beating out sounds from the Dholak. ‘Go away, you ungrateful daughter, the husband’s loins are now more precious to you’, they sing, giggling at naughty jokes made by the old toothless hag, past her expiry date. The mood is upbeat.
       Tea is passed around in the men’s group who sit outside smoking beedis and chewing paan. For once, today the beetle juice is spat in a spittoon placed in the midst. Festoons, gaily colored, hang from every nook and cranny. The strings of light run on the electricity stolen from the transformer 10 mts away, in the field. The men cheer and howl under the influence of the arrack from Butta’s liquor shanty. How many will die can be known only after two days. They make lewd jokes about intercourse, women’s anatomy and their manhood. Pubescent boys try to sneak into the group and hear the ribaldry, only to be spotted and shooed away. The eunuchs dance, swirling their fingers in their mouths in a crude imitation of oral sex, while their ghaghras twirl round and round and round.
       Shauni sits demurely like a Bride-to-be should, with downcast eyes and a shy smile. She is only fourteen, the perfect age for daughters to be yoked off in marriage to middle aged, paunchy men. Shauni is lucky though. Her groom, Dalmu is only twenty eight and unmarried and still virile.

       The firstborn of three sons and two daughters, he had waited until all his siblings were married off. It was a promise he had made to his dying father twelve years ago. Being of the fishermen caste, it was difficult for Dalmu to find proper matches for his sisters, but he finally succeeded in getting a family in the neighboring village and had married them off to two brothers. The Dowry given to the sisters was compensated by the dowries received from his brother’s wives. Now since his responsibilities were over and the mother was getting older, Dalmu agreed to finally get himself a wife. Shauni was beautiful, young and what was more, she was bringing with her a decent dowry. Her father had taken a loan from the money lender at a large interest rate for two years and bought a cycle for Dalmu. This was other than the customary items given by a bride, which included clothes, puja items, vessels etc His mother had already discussed this with Shauni’s family and only when satisfied with the list of items, agreed to the match.
       Tonight seeing his daughter being turned into a bride, Shauni’s father sighs contentedly. It feels as if a heavy burden has been lifted from his shoulders. Luckily he has two sons to go and no more daughters. He knows he is lucky enough to have escaped with only one daughter being born. Otherwise his life would have been spent just paying off their dowries. The blood mixed in his betel juice does not worry him tonight.
       Under the influence of the arrack, the world seems brighter and colorful.

       The wedding takes place the next day morning.
       Accompanied to the beat of dholaks, jhillaks and chham-chhams, the groom leads the procession on a bullock cart. This year’s famine has made the bullock’s rib poke out a little, but it walks chewing on the cud, with very little prodding, oblivious to the noise around it. A make-shift mandap has been erected out of a wooden platform and plastic sheets decorated with flowers. Shauni sits wearing her red wedding sari in the traditional Koli style and gold and imitation jewellery. The cheap gold shine of the jewellery, offset against the fierce red sari and her dark complexion is liked by the women and they murmur amongst themselves’ How beautiful the girl is’. Soon the bride is given away by the father, garlands exchanged and the customary feast ensues. The yard has been layered with cow dung, and spaces are allotted to the groom’s family. A mad dash to catch a place in the seating area’ causes panic among Shauni’s family and they try to placate everyone. Soon the revelers calm down and everyone starts gobbling up the chicken curry, rice, pickles and papads. Behind the hut, women cook more rice, more curry, fry more papads and dole them out in steel buckets to the waiting attendants serving food. Sweets are guarded strictly and given only to the groom and bride and the groom’s immediate family. Others who don’t get the sweets stare at them until even the last bit stuck to the moustache or beard or cheek of the eater is licked away.
       After the food is eaten, and after the cycle and other dowry items are presented to Dalmu’s mother, Shauni is seated on the bullock cart and taken to her husband’s village. In the hot fierce sun, the Nycil powder on her face mixes with the tears and trickles down in white streaks. Her mother weeps copiously while her father looks on with moist eyes. He waits there until the procession merges with the Horizon.

       At her husband’s house, her ‘co-sisters’ and sisters-in-law, at the door apply tikka to her forehead and break a coconut. They pour some alta into a plate and Shauni dips her hands into it and imprints her palm on the wall next to the front door. Her mother in law guides her hand to the space above the palm imprints of the Manhjli bahu and Chhoti bahu. ‘You are my Badi bahu, and above them’ she whispers into Shauni’s ears. She is then made to step into the 'alta' and enter the house, leaving red footsteps behind her. They take her to one of the five rooms in the mud house, and seat her on the embroidered bedspread which smell of mothballs. ‘This room will serve as your bridal chamber tonight’ her youngest sister-in-law tells her. The ‘Muh Dikhai’ ceremony lasts until late evening. Scores of women from the village have come to see her and the Dowry items are laid on the floor. ‘Wah, wah, she will bring luck to you. You can see it in her face. Saakshat Laksmi’ they say when they lift the veil, while her mother-in-law looks on proudly.
       Outside, the men tease Dalmu. His brothers and friends wheedle money out of him and buy liquor. Slowly the visitors start leaving. Not sure of what to do, Shauni stays put in the same room until Malati and Chutki bring her supper. Two rotis, rice, dal and curry. They tell her about the house members, about their habits and general daily schedule. After some time, Dalmu is pushed into the room by his friends and brothers. They cheer him on, while the sisters wink at Shauni and leave.
       The door is bolted from outside and Dalmu turns towards her. He takes off his shirt.

       It has been two months after the wedding. Shauni has synchronized her body and mind to that of her in-laws’. She wakes up at 5, sweeps, mops, washes, cooks. Until the men return home late evening for dinner. Petty squabbles have started, but on the whole her husband’s family is better than most in the village. Maybe the dowry appeased them. Shauni has discovered she is pregnant. Her mother-in-law has had her examined by the Hakim and though his proddings were quite unpleasant (she never understood why he had to slip his fingers inside her to find out if she was pregnant or not), she basks in the new found discovery. Her mother in law makes ‘kheer’ and announces the news to the household. Dalmu catches it just when he is about to leave the house for the day.
       In his excitement he bumps into the door, while a veiled Shauni giggles.
       Today, Dalmu is a little worried, notwithstanding the good news he has heard from his mother. One more addition to the family, means another mouth to feed. He has to venture deeper and farther into the sea for his catch. And then too there is no guarantee that he would be successful.
       ‘Let us split today, Dalmu advises his brothers. ‘But Bhai, we have only two boats!’ the younger brother blurts. He is a little scared of the sea and hence does not go out alone.
       ‘Allright Somu, how long will you be scared, You and Rovai, go in the bigger boat, I will go in the smaller.’
       There is no way; we can catch anything if we search in the same place. Let us meet here before dusk sets in.’ Dalmu gets into the smaller boat and pushes off to the west, while his brothers stay back to drink some tea.
       ‘Be careful, have heard the sea is a little rough that side. There are a lot of whirlpools too..’ The tea vendor shouts.
       ‘Will take care’ Dalmu replies with a wave and shrug.

       The sky is a bit cloudy. Dalmu scans the horizon for signs of rain or storm, and not seeing any, smiles satisfied to himself. His boat glides on the sea, like the pink foam riding the waves. Soon the sea shore disappears into the far distance, and all that he can see is the sea everywhere. Blue and more blue. Dotted Blue and Foamy Blue. Happy Blue and Menacing Blue. The afternoon sun plays hide and seek with the clouds. The breeze turns balmy. Dalmu takes off his shirt to pacify the sweat running like an army of mad horses down his back. At noon, he eats his simple lunch of rice and fish curry. By four he has managed to catch a sizeable number of fish. ‘I should come to this side everyday. Tomorrow all three of us will fish here’, he decides.
       Soon it is time to return. The sun starts packing up and tells the clouds to go away. They disperse reluctantly, making faces. Dalmu turns the boat towards what he assumes is the general direction where the land lies. The boat bobs on the sea like an abandoned cork cap. Like a puppet on a string. The small brass bell on a red ribbon that Dalmu has tied to the oar tinkles merrily. It is Shauni who had made it. ‘This charm will ensure you are never separated from me’ she had breathed into his ear’. For a while Dalmu loses himself in his bride’s thoughts. It is only after a long time, when even with the continuous rowing, Dalmu does not see any sign of a land, that he panics. He rows the boat furiously, coaxing it towards his assumed direction. The minutes pass slowly, Dalmu’s heart now sounds like a booming cannon.
       Then he sees it.
       The whirlpool.
       Like spider webbing, it sucks in all twigs, bogs, cloths, branches, abandoned slippers into its vortex. Dalmu has heard of it from the old Jhoran on one of their drinking nights. But has never seen one. Now he does and he is scared. His boat lurches violently. He tries to pull it back, rowing furiously.
       But it is too late.
       The boat is caught in the whirlpool.
       Dalmu jumps out, praying and screaming to the Gods in the skies. He thinks of his unborn son, his pretty young wife. His mother, father, sisters, brothers and his friends. He prays forgiveness for the sins he has done and tries to bribe the deities he worships. He tries to swim but is caught in the rapid turning hole. Images flashe in his mind. His mother calling out to him as a child. Sitting atop his father’s shoulder’s on the way back from a fair. The vivid yellow of his wedding dhoti. Shauni’s brown eyes. The minutes pass by slowly. Hours have dragged into days, days into months, months into years. For a thousand years, Dalmu’s weightless body turns and twirls with the whirlpool’s movement. The boat is not to the monster’s taste so it is flung out. But Dalmu’s body is, and it disappears into the black pit.
       There is no sign of anything, and the sea is as calm as ever.
       It is late evening when the sun is about to set that the brothers come looking for him. Their shouts go unanswered, though they can see the boat from a distance. It has left the whirlpool behind and is now nearer to the shore. The brothers do not see any fisherman on it and fear the worst. ‘No he must be asleep’ Rovai stammers n a false voice.
       They look around and then into each other’s eyes. They know it is fruitless to stand there and search.
       It is a part of their lives. A missing fisherman is a dead fisherman.
       Somu climbs into the abandoned boat and they start towards the shore, rowing with no expression on their faces.

       Shauni stares at the floor. She has not cried nor asked anything. Ever since the brothers came home she has sat there staring at the floor, unblinking. The women wail around her. Dalmu’s mother beats her chest and tears her hair. In their grief, no one notices their askew veils or saris or blouses revealing skin. Other women from the neighborhood also beat their chests and cry aloud for some time and then proceed to the kitchen to ready the food for the mourners. The men are outside.
       It is just like the wedding day, except now the men are talking about their near-death experiences or recounting somber tales of men who have died in the past. Even the children seem affected as they sit silently and stare at their weeping mothers or grim fathers. Shauni is now ‘officially’ to be made a widow. She hears nothing, sees nothing, except the pattern on the floor. The whole room is a blur. She only feels a throbbing pain in her head, which refuses to go away. The oldest of the women bangs Shauni’s hands against the wall and breaks her bangles. Red angry slashes of blood appear on her wrists. She flinches. The sindoor is wiped off. Vigorously so as not to leave any marks. Her veil is pulled off. The old hag takes the scissors and snips off Shauni’s long tresses. Snip Snip. Hair falls in clumps. Black clumps against brown baked mud. The old hag peers at Shauni’s scalp and spits on the blade. She then wipes it. Satisfied that it is clean, she proceeds to shave Shauni’s head. It is a nice shaped head. Looks better without the hair. Nice and smooth and shiny. Maybe not smooth. Nicks and cuts mar the surface and bear testimony to the old hag’s unsteady hands.
       Black clumps against a green sari, against a yellow blouse, against a white petticoat.
       Black clumps snake their way on a dark brown slender back.
       Now the black clumps lie against a white sari.
       The shaved head is hidden under a tightly tied pallu. Dalmu’s mother runs to her. All this time her grief had overtaken her anger. But now she spits out venom as she half-drags Shauni towards the door ‘He got married to you and you have eaten him up. You have killed my son. Get lost, you whore. What bad luck you brought to me, you shit-eater.’ The women pry her hands away from Shauni’s throat. Her slaps and beatings jolt Shauni out of shock. She rocks back and forth on her feet. Limp against the wall, while her mother in law rains down blows upon blows.
       She sits there feeling only a terrible yearning. That somehow she is responsible for things having gone wrong. For having caused Dalmu’s death. She suffocates under a black cloud of despair. She thinks of the life inside her. The tiny life that Dalmu so wanted to see grow. While the women are busy pacifying and consoling Dalmu’s mother, Shauni walks out into the darkness. The sky has shaken the night out of its cloak. It scatters and settles on the trees, walls, houses gathering up armies of shadows to march against the morning light. Her white clothes make her look like a ghost from afar. She smells the cloying scent of the sea.
       As if hypnotized, she walks, totters, stumbles towards it. She hears the waves flinging angry cuss words against the rocks. She hears them call out to her. She feels the wet sand and then the wet waters first on her feet and then her ankles until she is knee-deep in water. From afar she hears Dalmu call out to her.
       She turns.
       There he is, to her right, his boat sail marking a white triangle against the eternal blackness. ‘Come here, what are you standing there and staring at?’ He asks, just like he did on their wedding night. Shyly, she walks to him.
       But he seems farther and farther away. The water is now upto her waist, but Shauni feels nothing. ‘Wait,’ she calls out to him. But he is too far away to hear. She reaches the boat.
       The water is now inside her head and nose and lungs and mouth. It swishes around her petite body, hissing like a great serpent. Her sari comes undone. It makes a long tail of white in the black sea. ‘Dalmu, take my hand’ she whispers hoarsely just before she steps into the boat.

       It is old Jhoran who fishes out her body.
       Bloated, Black and Swollen grotesquely after four days, the sea has spat it out onto the shore.
       ‘Suicide it is’ the onlookers whisper. ‘No, Murder’ say some. ‘See how black her feet have become!’ points out one, while another cries ’See her skin is peeling off!’ The police are called. ‘Suicide’ they rule and go away. The gatherers disperse.
       As Dalmu’s brothers and Shauni’s father carry the body home, a small brass bell tied onto a red ribbon falls out into the sand unnoticed…

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Quack..

I was on my way to work when I realized the pavement was blocked. There was a tent that had sprung up on it. It was definitely not there the night before, when I was walking home. It looked interesting and curiously pretty. A dirty brown thing in the middle of the pavement that flapped in the breeze when the wind threatened to uproot its pegs. The entrance was another patchwork of myriad fabrics gathered in the course of the owner’s lifetime. A cloth banner hung across two trees like a hammock. It proclaimed the inhabitant had permanent cures for all kinds of diseases, illnesses, sicknesses that could or would plague the world ever. Just when I crossed the entrance, I saw the ‘Doctor’ walk around inside. He was dressed in bright colorful clothes, an orange dhoti, a yellow and red embroidered vest, a green overcoat, all embroidered, mirrored and sequined. His hair was matted and long and adorned with colorful beads. His hands jingled with equally strange amulets, bracelets of aluminum, iron, brass, copper, as were his ankles. If he was actually so knowledgeable, he wouldn’t be walking around carrying this tent on his head. How did he manage to live or eat or pay for anything he required? It can happen only in India – you can put up a tent anywhere and make it your home and stay as long as you want right under the Traffic police, the Regular police, the BBMP; everyone’s noses. As long as you give 20 bucks to the police patrol every night, you can breed, excrete, and dirty the place without anyone batting an eyelid. I wondered how long he would be there. The citizens are much wiser now and taking a more active part in social service. But still I assumed he would be there for some days at least until someone made an issue about it. To my surprise he was gone when I came back that day. What had happened, I wanted to know. Maybe some concerned citizen thought his tent was an eyesore n an inconvenience and got it removed. Or maybe he was a fool for having set up his Quack Practice in the midst of an educated, civilized bunch of folks. But I wonder where he went. I would have definitely liked to see him Practice.

Unanswered Prayers..

       Aai applied the vermilion and sandal paste to her forehead. She beat the coconut on the ground splitting it open. She drank the water and hit it again on the ground. She collected the scattered pieces and put them on the plate. The black stone Idol stared at her with its yellow crude eyes. Someone had placed it there years ago and the women had worshipped it since. They called it Kaali or Durga or Amba. It stood upright leaning against the long deserted anthill in a pool of flowers, old oil and vermillion mixed together by the countless worshippers who came to give their offerings to it. The goddess was supposed to cure infertility, TB, fever, madness, hysteria, impotency, jaundice, poverty, drought and everything else that plagued the village. Aai believed in its power. For every sorrow that befell her, she ran to the Idol and fasted and offered prayers to her, luring it with promises of being offered a coconut everyday or a new sari. It was another matter that she could not keep those promises as often as she made them.

       Long ago when Aai came to the village as a newly wedded bride, she had been ‘introduced’ to the Idol and prayed to it every day since then. She called it ‘Mata’ unlike the other ladies. Strangely she found its presence soothing, and it seemed to give her the stability she never seemed to have in her life.
       She was married off to Dinanath, a widower 15 years her senior and without any children. He was a nice man, if you ignored the daily drinking sessions at night. Dinanath worked as a miner, an occupation that finally killed him with TB, not helped at all by the beedis he smoked one after the other. It was 3 years since he died and Aai often felt lonely. 
       They did have a son 4-5 years after marriage. He had run away from home when he was 10 years old, following a beating by his father over stealing money from the house. Dinanath had tried in vain to search for him, even going to Mumbai many times to look for him. The city of Mumbai had beckoned, seduced and then devoured their only son. They never heard from him since. But when Dinanath died, the news somehow reached this son. He probably felt remorse or pity, either of the two, but it led him to send some money for the rites. He also started to write to Aai twice a year. Aai kept all those letters in her blue rusted trunk under the cot. She often wished he were with her to take care of her in her old age. Not that she was old in the true sense of the word, but her body did start to give out warnings every now and then. She made a little money by working as a servant in the Thakur’s house. Enough to scrape by. And yet not enough to fulfill her promises to the Idol.

       Today as she sighed and turned towards the sea, taking in its salty warm humid smell, she realized it was that time of the year, when she should expect a letter from her son. The realization was accompanied by a small fluttering of her left eyelid, and a queasiness in the pit of her stomach. She gazed out at the sea, at the unruly waves that dashed in vain against the rocks. The sea kept spitting out all the dirt it had been force-fed by the cities along her shores, which, where Aai’s village stood, was strewn with dead fish scales, and stinking shells. The dogs ran free alongside the children, barking and trying to join in the melee. The morning sun glowered down, insisting on burning up the whole world, but then kept getting covered by the clouds. Angrily it peeped out of the white powder puffs. 
       Far below, Aai could see some early boats popping and bouncing on the waves, looking for fish. Fisherwomen came down one after the other and soon the place was a riot of voices, people, colors, smells as the returning fishermen emptied their huge baskets of the freshly caught fish. Aai sat there for a long time, in the shade of some palms. Usually she would just scamper back to her hut. But today for some strange reason, she was drawn to the Sea. She wanted to sit there forever. Until the night cascaded in gentle folds and enveloped her with a blanket of shining stars. 
       But of course she had to go. She couldn’t just sit here. The pots had to be scrubbed, the yard to be swept clean. She slowly got up to her feet and walked away in the general direction of her hut muttering to herself about the chores undone.

       She heard the cycle bell. It was the postman. Expectantly she looked out of the doorway.
       "Is there anything for me?" she asked hopefully. 
       "Yes, finally a letter and a money order, from your son in Bombay"…She took hurried steps to the yard, and applied her thumb to the receipt. Her hand trembled when she took the letter and the money from the postman. 
       "Give the letter, I will read it out to you, your sight is poor", the postman said, sympathy and pity for this lonely woman clouding his eyes. 
       After scanning it briefly, he handed back the letter to her, "Start your celebrations, Aai, your son will be coming to see you along with his wife…uh…it says here, next week Saturday. This letter was sent last week. Today is already Thursday Aai, they will be here day after tomorrow!!!!"
       Aai looked at him, mouth open. "What when did he marry, and I did not even know?" 
       The postman laughed, "Be thankful that he has atleast bothered to come and see you while still alive, and more than that, you should worry about how you will manage to buy things for his arrival". He swung his leg over the cycle and went his way. 
       Aai stood there, gaping. Her mind most certainly would have wandered off, had not Nalini, her young neighbor espied her. 
       "What happened, Aai, what are you doing there in the middle of the yard?? What does the letter say?"
       "Chintu is coming to see me next week. Along with his wife. Can you believe that? He has married and not a word to me at all. I wonder why he even bothers to acknowledge I am alive. I don’t know what she will be like. One of those Bombay girls, jhing bang, chhham chhham types. She will milk him dry. Oh, my poor Chintu.”. 
       “What nonsense” Nalini retorted, “Which son are you talking off? We saw him when he was, what, 8 years old? If he was so concerned about you, he would have taken you to Bombay in style. Be grateful, at least he acknowledges your presence enough to merit you worthy of meeting his wife. Forget all that and get ready to welcome him. Once he is here, then you can ask him to stay back. At least if the daughter in law stays with you, it will be some relief to you, I mean with the household work.” 
       Aai went back to her hut shaking her head.

       The trunk had come as part of her dowry. Blue and rusted and chipped in places, yet sturdy. Inside she rummaged until she found the silk embroidered pouch. The crumpled notes fell out into her lap. Two thousand in all. It was something she had hoarded for her twilight years. A medical emergency, a calamity – anyone of those times, one must be able to tide over. 
       In the hot and humid night, Aai felt the sweat trickle down her back. ‘I must buy a fan for Chintu and his wife, what if they fall sick in this heat?’. She then made a mental list of things to buy. Since it was her daughter-in-law’s first entry into the house, she as the mother-in-law would have to perform some rites to welcome her into the household. What gift should she give? A gold bangle would be nice, one of those solid heavy ones that she had seen Thakurain wear, but of course how could she afford it? Only if she had money to throw around.
       "Tomorrow I must go to the market” Aai said, smiling to herself.

       Aai wore her only nice sari. The cream one with a yellow border. It was the only one which hadn’t faded all over. She went to the Idol and offered it another coconut, this time leaving it there for the other worshippers. She prayed fervently and far longer this time. Prayed for her son to come and stay with him for ever, be her support in her old age, light her funeral pyre. She promised for the umpteenth time, a new sari for the Black Goddess. She then, walked up to the dusty road that called itself a highway and waited for two hours before finally flagging down a rickety old bus. It emerged out of a cloud of dust, and could only be heard, not seen. People hung out of it precariously, their mouths and noses covered in dust. It was a wonder they managed to even stay alive until the end of the journey. Aai shoved and barged her way into the overflowing swarm of men and women inside the stuffed bus and survived the two hour ordeal to the nearest town. 
       The market was alive with all the characteristic sights, smells and sounds of a typical Indian market. Bullock carts were parked haywire, their owners shouting at the top of their voices, calling customers to buy from them. People milled about haggling with the hawkers. The fruits and vegetables on the handcarts threatened to burst open in the sweltering heat. The sun was so intense that Aai reluctantly had to buy a tender coconut, wincing as she paid three rupees to the hawker. The shops were lined up like soldiers at war. Dingy, dark, small but prettily decorated with festoons, colorful hand painted boards, mirrors et all. 
       The sari shops were the brightest. Oranges, Pinks, Yellows, Reds, Greens, Blues all over. Sequinned, beaded, ribboned, embroidered, printed sarees. Fluttering in front of the shops, seducing the women outside with their myriad of designs. Some shops even had crude mannequins fashioned out of cheap plastic, with the saris stuck onto their flat busts. She went into a couple of these dingy shops and looked through dozens of saris, bargaining, whining, pleading, demanding for reduced prices. 
       Finally she liked one that she thought would look nice on all complexions (what if her daughter in law was one of those dark skinned Madrasis?). It was a bottle green synthetic sari with green beads and sequins all over and even came with a blouse piece. The shopkeeper offered her a matching petticoat – all within three hundred rs. and another sari if she paid two hundred extra. Thus Aai was cajoled into buying another sari for herself, It was dark beige with a maroon border that made her look younger, or so the shopkeeper said. She pirouetted, pruned and draped the sari over herself umpteen times until finally the shopkeeper thrust it into a plastic cover and gave it to her with a beaming smile. 
       Aai had never worn something so costly in her entire life, but she was so filled with happiness that she did not mind in the least. She walked out haughtily, waving the plastic cover in everyone’s face, surveying the shops as if she had the money to buy all of them. 
       A jewellery and fancy novelty shopkeeper beckoned her, insisting she have a dekko at his shop before going ahead. It was filled with all kinds of trinkets. Aai admired the gold bangles she had desired all her life. 
       ‘Try them on’, the shopkeeper lured. She liked the metallic sound as the bangles clinked against each other. But of course she couldn’t buy them. Sadly she kept them back on the glass counter. Instead she bought a pair of silver anklets, that were so thin you could hardly make out they were there at all, but atleast it was silver. It set her back by another five hundred rupees. She almost changed her mind and decided to leave, but what would the people say if she gave only a sari to her son’s wife? 
       She clucked her tongue and asked the shopkeeper to pack the anklets.
       In the next 2 hours, Aai bought a secondhand fan, sweetmeats, rice, ghee, vegetables and a whole bunch of slightly ripe bananas. She could ask Nalini to give her a jackfruit and some tapioca. She also bought a mirror, altaa, turmeric, cooking oil, spices, two new plates and bowls and glasses, kokum seeds, Lifebuoy soap, toothpaste, sindoor, Cuticura talcum powder, bindis, glass bangles in green and red (for the daughter in law – without even knowing the size).
       Back to the only bus-stop in the town for a half an hour wait, after which she caught the bus back home. She was completely exhausted but content. At dusk when she reached home, Nalini was waiting in her house to find out what Aai had bought from the market. 
       The two women went though the purchases and amidst their small talk, wondered what Chintu’s wife would look or behave like.

       Saturday dawned crisp and clear. Aai did not know what time Chintu would be home. But she expected him by noon at least, based on the postman’s announcement that all trains left from Bombay in the night and reached here the third day morning. 
       Aai walked all the way to the tubewell in Bhola’s field and made 6 trips to ensure all the buckets, pots, unused pans were filled with water. 
       She arranged the mirror in the inner room of the hut next to the window, so that the light caught the beholder’s face. 
       She asked Nalini’s husband to use his carpentry skills and fashioned a small wooden rack from a felled tree in her backyard. 
       She made some kokum sherbet with the seeds bought in the market and then went to the butcher and bought some mutton. With Nalini’s help she made enough curry for 2 days. Ladling some into a tumbler, she gave it to Nalini, who was delighted beyond words as mutton was a delicacy relished very seldom in that part of the village. Aai spent some time making buttermilk, and taking out the pickled mangoes into a bottle. 
       She then took bath and wore her new sari. She even went so far as to powder her face and shoved a handful into each of her armpits under the blouse. 
       Then she sat on the threshold stringing some jasmine flowers and scanning the road for any signs of a bullock cart bearing her son. 
       The hours passed slowly. The flavored smell of the mutton curry, mixed with the fragrance of the jasmine, wrapped itself around her, pervaded the house, tickled the nostrils of passers-by.
       "What is the celebration about, Aai?" they shouted from the road. 
       "My son is coming to see me. With his wife. After so many years." Aai answered excitedly.
       She sat there squinting in the glare, her sight unfalteringly stuck to the road. At midday, there was still no sign of Chintu. Worry lines furrowed her forehead. 
       Now Aai stammered while answering the enquirers. She drank some of the Kokum sherbet, welcoming the cool trail it left as it reached her stomach. The train may have been delayed, she consoled herself. They will be here in sometime. 
       The birds stopped twittering as they returned to their nests to rest. Children skipped back from their school. The afternoon announced its arrival by making rumbling noises in Aai’s stomach. She ate her food quickly with some curry, worried that Chintu might come home and find his mother eating instead of welcoming him. 
       She went and sat again on the threshold, nodding off from time to time, until some noise jerked her awake, only to nod off again. She woke up to find Nalini shaking her 
       "What happened, Aai? Did they not come yet?" 
       Aai mumbled almost apologetically "Not yet, maybe they will arrive by night. These trains are always late". 
       Without replying, Nalini went to her house and returned with some tea. "Here drink this and let us sit out".
       The postman made his rounds "Today is Saturday, Aai. Has your son arrived?" he asked.’
       "No, not yet, when he comes I will send you a telegram" Aai snapped. 
       Taken aback at her viciousness, the postman mumbled something and went his way. 
       For a long time both women sat outside, not talking to each other, the understanding between them flowing in undercurrents. 
       Day turned to Dusk. 
       The sun spread its fiery red glow over the world, bidding goodbye before it was gobbled up by the Darkness. 
       The two women sat as if etched in stone. 
       The mutton curry gave up on its seduction techniques.
       The jasmine flowers wilted. 
       Nalini got up "I have to leave, Aai. Laadu’s father will be home anytime."
       Aai rose and went in, nodding her head. 
       Unsure, Nalini waited, contemplating if she should go in or just go home. 
       "Aai, do you want me to stay?" she called. 
       Just then Aai came out with a bundle under her arms and a steel bucket with the mutton curry.
       "Here take this, I don’t need it anymore", she said thrusting it into Nalini’s hands.
       "Do not open in front of me, and if you do not want it, throw it all away.’’
       "But, but Aai’ Nalini started to object.
       "Please…". Aai looked at her with eyes that were watering up. 
       Nalini knew better than to say anything at that moment. 
       The undercurrent swirled and grew strong, made its presence a constricting, suffocating haze inside and around the women. 
       Aai patted Nalini on the shoulder, turned around, and went back to her hut, shutting the door to the World. 
       At night while Nalini went home and opened the bundle to find sweetmeats, ghee, a whole bunch of slightly ripe bananas, the jackfruit and tapioca she had given to Aai, a mirror, altaa, turmeric, two new plates and bowls and glasses, Lifebuoy soap, toothpaste, sindoor, Cuticura talcum powder, bindis, glass bangles in green and red; Aai counted out the change left from the two thousand rupees she had taken out that morning, and closed the lid of the trunk with a sigh.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

A New Frock for Pongal..

       Swoosh, Swoosh, Swoosh, Chamakki’s broom swept away the leaves towards the corner of the courtyard. Dry, Crisp leaves that crunched when you stepped on them. Heaps of dry brown leaves piled high against the courtyard wall, harboring caterpillars, beetles, scorpions, ants and other creep crawlies. You couldn’t see them just like that, but when you carefully cleared some leaves with a stick, you could see them scrambling to hide from the prying hands. Chamakki was responsible for this pile becoming higher and bigger, until once a month, she would clear it completely. She would scoop them up into a gunny sack, creepy crawlies and all, and throw them over next to the river. There was already a pile there, which would be burnt off when it became too big. Now as Chamakki swept, the insects sheltering in the corner pile sensed that today was the great cleaning day and therefore to avoid being carried off to the riverside they started their immigration much earlier. Before Chamakki’s broom swept them away into the gunny sack, the insects ran up and down and all over the wall.
       Swarna sat watching all this. 
      
       She sat on her haunches, utterly fascinated with the goings on. She watched her mother’s hips swishing this way and that, bent over the ground, with one hand resting on her back. Why all women swept with one hand resting on their spine, like some supervisor, was something Swarna never understood. She spat out the gooseberry seed she was eating, and gathered the stones with which she was playing jacks. She stood up, yawning and stretching her arms. From across the river, came the strains of temple music. It would be Pongal soon, and Swarna looked forward to the festival. A wrinkle creased her little forehead as she thought about it.. What would she wear? She had only 2 good frocks, the red and the green. And both she had worn for Dussehra and Diwali. Maybe she would have to repeat the red one which she had worn for Dussehra. It was still ‘unfaded’ and as yet not torn. She felt a little sad but knew that her mother could not afford to get a new one. Already she was cribbing about the lack of rice and oil in the household and was waiting for her next month’s salary to buy them. 
       Maybe some miracle would happen and like Cinderella she would also get to turn into a princess. 
       She had heard the story from Deepika, the new girl who had come to stay in the Haveli next to the tea-estate. She especially liked the part where the fairy godmother whirled her magic wand and lo, Cinderella’s clothes changed into golden and red and blue and white and all the colors of the rainbow. She would make Deepika read the part again and again until Deepika would throw down the book in mock anger, and Swarna had to beg her to not stop reading.
       She made her way to the well and washed her hands and feet with the little bar of soap thrown out by Deepika’s mother and which she had picked up eagerly. It still smelt faintly of jasmine or rose, what it was, Swarna was not able to decipher even now. But of course she had had the bit for about one month and obviously it had lost its fragrance, though she did not mind at all. She went inside the hut and ate the dry chapatti that was leftover from yesterday’s supper, along with a piece of onion. She wiped her mouth with the edge of her frock and ran out to play with Deepika.

       The river was filled to the brim and the waters rushed about menacingly. It splattered against the banks and wet the rocks and pebbles on its shores. 
       Deepika was perched on a rock and throwing stones into the river. A little distance away, Roshan and Ezekiel catapulted at imaginary birds in the sky. The four kids played everyday in the afternoon. Ezekiel was the potter's son who stole out from the toddy-reddened eyes of his father when his friends passed by. The two girls decided to play ‘House’ and soon set about collecting ‘twigs’ for the ‘fire’, leaves for food and sticks for spoons. 
       Deepika was the wife today. She clutched the doll in her hand and bent over to river to wash the imaginary clothes in the water. ‘Careful’, Swarna shouted, ‘or you will fall into the river’….Deepika turned around and laughed. 
       That was when Swarna screamed. 
       Deepika’s feet slipped on the moss-covered stone and she tumbled headfirst into the river. By the time Swarna stood up, Deepika’s head could be seen bobbing in the water. Both Roshan and Ezekiel screamed and jumped down from the Big rock and came running to Swarna’s side. 
       What would they do now? 
       Roshan cried out his sister’s name over and over again. Ezekiel sobbed hysterically. Swarna stood rooted to the spot. Her 8 yr old mind worked frantically thinking of a way to get to Deepika. She knew the only thing that would save Deepika was if she got stuck in some weeds by which time, she could swim over and drag her back. She sent off Ezekiel to call someone from the village. She jumped in and swam behind Deepika. As Luck would have it, Deepika was caught in the roots of a mangled tree that grew a little into the river. She swam as fast as her arms could carry her. She reached Deepika and grabbed her little hands, winding them around her back. The terrified girl clutched Swarna, locking her in a fierce padlock. It was difficult for Swarna to swim against the current and that too, with Deepika clinging to her, almost choking her. She swam with all the strength she could muster, chanting the small Prayer, her mother had taught her. She swam for an endlessly long time, until the river seemed to swallow everything in its way. She felt the water against her face, and inside her nostrils and all the way inside her head. And yet she swam relentlessly, pumping her legs, her hands, pushing against the current, fighting the river’s strength.

       Swarna felt her mother’s hands around her. Chamakki was holding onto her and weeping. She hugged her to her bosom and the salty tears streamed down her face to flow onto Swarna’s face. She smiled. She turned her head around to see Deepika lying on the ground, stirring with consciousness and being attended to by her parents. She saw the villagers crowding around them to catch a glimpse of both girls. Swarna hugged her mother back and smiled at her. Her mother continued to cry. ‘Don’t cry, Chamakki, who can overturn God’s decision?, the old crone in a green sari comforted Swarna’s mother. 
       Swarna was puzzled by her mother’s reaction. Why did she not stop crying, now that Swarna was safe? 
       Maybe she was shocked at the danger her little girl had just gone through. Swarna got up and walked over to the sofa where Deepika sat in her mother’s lap. Deepika was looking at where Chamakki sat, on the floor, large tears pooling up in her eyes. 
       Swarna asked her ‘What’s wrong, Deepika, now you are all right. You did not die, so why are you crying?’ 
       Something in Deepika’s eyes unnerved her. 
       Deepika was staring right past her, as if her gaze went through her body, as if she, Swarna was not standing there at all, as if Deepika never saw Swarna standing there! 
       What was wrong with everyone? 
       Swarna turned around and saw that her mother was still sitting, weeping, on the floor and in her arms were her, Swarna’s limp body! 

       But if she was standing here, then who was that, in her mother’s lap? She shrieked, but no one seemed to hear her. 
       She ran to Chamakki, grabbing her hands, touching her face, pulling at her sari. But her hands seemed to be made of air, they did not even cause Chamakki to blink her eyes! It was as if Chamakki had never felt her daughter’s touch. 
       ‘What is the matter with my hands, Aai?’ Swarna cried. 
       She shook her mother, but she sat like a stone, weeping, wailing, and tearing at her hair. Deepika’s mother stood up and went inside the bedroom to return a few minutes later. She held a plastic cover in her hands. She pulled out a peacock blue frock out of it. It had silver sequins all over the front and silver ties at the back. It even came with a matching rubber band and hairband set. It was beautiful and Swarna shrieked in delight. She saw Deepika’s mother put the frock over her body. 
       Not the body that was standing, but the body that was lying in Chamakki’s lap!
       She saw Deepika’s mother put the hairband on her hair and the rubber bands on her pigtails. Oh, how beautiful she looked! It was what she wanted to look like for Pongal. She finally had a new frock. 
       She went and touched the other Swarna, the one in Mother’s lap. 
       She touched the frock and smiling, lay down in Mother’s lap. 
       She was happy now. 
       Chamakki looked down, startled. She felt as if her child had twitched. But no, she was as cold as ice and lifeless, albeit strangely the child felt a little heavier. 
       Chamakki continued to weep and beat her chest.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Valiant Fight

       A light breeze wafted into the room. Salma mumbled in her sleep. She dreamt of something she obviously liked and smiled. How cute she looked! She had had a rough day. The enthusiasm she showed in the beginning on her Daily trips to visit Rajeev was now slowly wearing thin. Though I tried to make up for it by taking her out for her favorite activity – eating out, it is just not enough. I know she is tired. She has had a rough time battling against a lot of things. Rajeev and I fight every time we meet. But I know Rajeev is very very good. It is just that I can’t seem to agree on anything he says. I do not listen to him because it leaves me feeling sad and empty. Though Salma adores him. And he in turn dotes upon her just like a father. Mushtaq has stopped visiting us. He no longer comes here. Ruksana is delighted that he pays attention to her and her daughters now. I no longer interest him, though he did come in last month to claim his nocturnal rights as my husband. I hope I will do something to make him angry, and he frees me in a fit of anger by saying the 3 magic words – talaq, talaq, talaq.

       Today’s visit was a nightmare again. Salma threw up on Rajeev’s carpet and fainted. When I lifted her, the sudden realization that she had lost far too much weight, hit me. I almost dropped her. I do not know why Rajeev keeps saying these things to me. To even think of separating from Salma for two hours is a torture for me. Then how can he expect me to give her up forever? Money is another issue. The Bank already refused my application based on the present loans running. My financial analyst says I am in a mess. But what would they have done in my situation?


       Rajeev proposed to me. I did not know what to answer. I asked him for some time to think about it. I know it will be difficult for me to live with Salma and Rajeev under one roof. I will have to forego either of them. But what scares me is that Rajeev is right about Salma. I will have to accept that she will have to go away from me sometime soon.


       I resigned from my job as a teacher to stay with Salma the whole time. Salma stopped going to school. She threw up a tantrum everyday and I could not afford to see her in tears. She did not want to go to Rajeev’s place anymore. I called Rajeev and he agreed to see us at our home every week. Today would be his second visit. As usual he remarked about Salma and said it was time for her to go. I got wild, I cried, I screamed at him, kicked him, clawed at him. He remained impassive as a stone. He only held me to him. I welcomed his touch. I melted and tears streamed down my face. There we were, standing, like two animals in distress. That’s when Mushtaq walked in. Rajeev started, his mouth forming a smile and not quite smiling. Mushtaq bellowed like a bull. Last I remember was receiving a slap across the face and a kick in the stomach. Then the world, mercifully, went blank.


       I felt a gentle stirring beside me. It was Salma mumbling in her sleep and placing her leg across my stomach. Her thigh was only as thick as my wrist. How frail she had become. I smelt coffee and opened my eyes to find Rajeev besides me. He stroked my hair lovingly. I remembered the evening before. My cheek was swollen red. He thrust a sheaf of papers in front of me. Mushtaq had said the word Talaq’ 3 times in front of his driver and Rajeev and served me the divorce papers. He accused me of infidelity. I had no regret. I was forced to get married to Mushtaq. I would have a tough time battling this out in court, I said to Rajeev. He looked me in the eye and said I already had an option. I nodded. He was right. When Salma was gone, I definitely needed someone to stay with me. I immediately signed the papers and Rajeev to drop it off at my lawyer’s office. I made arrangements to move into Rajeev’s place.

       Obviously his parents did not agree. Hindu-Muslim marriages happened only in Bollywood. They cut him off from the family. It only eased my worries a little. We got married in the Hindu style and I became Mrs. Rajeev Vashisht. Salma wore a red and golden lehenga and pranced about happily, but of course, requiring to be carried every five minutes. She had started losing hair in clumps and fretted about her appearance frequently. But at least the occasion had made her smile in spite of her condition. Two days after the marriage, Rajeev stopped her chemotherapy treatment. Her cancer had advanced to the last stage. She fought like a lioness against the disease but then how much can a five year old keep something as dreadful as cancer at bay? She died with that characteristic smile in place. I was inconsolable for days. But Rajeev saw me through it. We moved to the US where Rajeev had got an offer as Head Surgeon at the Minnesota State Hospital. I missed Salma so much I saw her in every child I met. 
 
       Its been 6 years since she died, but she is still alive in my heart. After all she was my firstborn. We now have a little boy of four. Shaan has the same eyes as Salma’s – blue-grey and starry. 
       And I am pregnant with my second child. I just know it is going to be a girl and I know exactly what I will call her – Salma.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Closed Windows

       I cry, whimper, wail. She looks on without any emotion on her face. I thrash my legs about trying to break free of the ties that bind my hands and feet to the rusty, squeaky bed. To no avail. They are too tight. Bruises cover my wrists and ankles, I wince. I realize the futility of my actions. I lie there defeated. She injects something into my veins at the elbow. I drift into oblivion.


       I wake up a long time later. My lips are cracked, my mouth is parched. I see that the ceiling paint is flaked. The walls are supposed to be white, but are now brown and yellow at the corners and where the floor seams into them. The tiles are small and square shaped with patchwork bits of other tiles on them for design. The joints between the tiles are brown and grubby. I am thirsty but there is a gag on my mouth. It smells of dried saliva, crusty spit. I pass out.


       Hands slap me, Someone splashes water on my face. It is her again. She scowls, shakes me, screams at me. ‘Get up you bitch’. I hear. I open my eyes. I see a man. A fat short man with an protruding belly that matches his protruding lower lip. He stinks of liquor, unwashed armpits and beedis. ‘This is the girl, How Much?’ she asks him. He pulls up my frock, feels my thighs and says’Four’.She shakes her head’. Too less, seven is what I can give you for.’ They bargain for sometime. They go away.
       I wake up. This time it is a bigger room, painted gaudy orange. There is a yellow border all around. Bottle green heavy curtains flap in the breeze. I hear sounds of traffic, people shouting, hawkers selling. To my surprise I am not tied or gagged. I stumble towards the curtain, part them aside and find a barred small window. It opens into a by-lane that looks like an old part of the city. I see dirty stained one storey buildings with similar windows. I smell dirty gutters running down the street. I shout and scream. A girl’s face appears in the window opposite to me. I shout at her, ask her to help me get out. She smiles sadly and closes the window shut. I slump onto the floor.
       The door opens. I turn around. A woman with a gentle motherly face comes in with a covered plate. ‘Where am I, Who are you?. Why am I here?....Questions come pouring out of my mouth. She puts the plate down, places her hands on my shoulders and gently nudges me to sit on the bed. ‘Do not ask anything. It is for your own good’. I am told that you are ‘Laila’, You will be taken care of provided you listen to what the Mistress says. You will get clothes, money, food everything.’ She takes the plate and hands it to me. I push it away violently. It clatters to the floor. Someone screams from the corridor’ What is that?’. I hear feet pattering in the direction of the room. ‘It is the Mistress’, says the woman on my bed. An ugly woman with a big mole on her cheek and warts around her neck appears. She comes directly at me and slaps me across the face. ‘Why, you, little vermin, I am giving this to you for free and you actually have the cheek to throw it away? Well, Sonabai, make sure this worm doesn’t get food until she appreciates its value.’ The woman in my room scampers away to clean the floor. ‘Let me make one thing clear, I have paid a big price to you and I will make sure you are worth it.’ She stomps away. I cry. I sit in the corner with my arms wrapped around my knees. I miss my parents, my brothers, my sisters. I miss playing with them. Even though my father used to beat the hell out of me, I miss him. Even though my mother cursed me and taunted me, I miss her. I miss them in the way only a fifteen year old can. I try to remember how I came to be in this hell. I only remember playing with Babli next to the pond, and the guy who comes to me and gives me a candy. I do not remember anything since.
       I sit for six days in that room. Locked in. Shut in. Hungry. Sleepless. Peering out of the window. Crying myself to sleep, Screaming my lungs out. I am surprised that no one bothers to even ask what I want. People look up at me from the lane below and passy by, shaking their heads. I pass in and out of consciousness. Hazy images of brightly colored sarees, people’s faces remain in my mind. The seventh day, I knock on the door, and agree to doing whatever Mistress wants me to. That night, I get to eat for the first time in ten days. I lunge at the plate, lick it clean. I ask for more, and I get another plate. I am taken to the bathroom to be washed. I get to wear a new silk skirt. I do not like the colors, But I am happy they are clean. I tie golden ribbons in my hair. I try on heels for the first time. Sonabai applies lipstick and rouge and powder. I do not know why I am being made to get ready, But I am afraid to ask. Mistress comes into the room. She applies kajal to my eyes. She seems very pleased and makes me turn this way and that. She takes me to her room. She opens her dresser and takes out a bottle of ittar. She applies it to my neck, wrists and between my legs. ‘Now you are ready, my darling.’ She grins and I see her red tobacco-stained teeth. I dare to ask her why, since she is in such a happy mood. ‘Oh, today is your debut. Hasn’t that old hag told you anything?’ I shake my head in wonder. ‘She throws back her head and laughs. ‘All the more better, All the more better.’ She says and takes me into a room. A red colored bed sheet is draped over the mattress. Jasmine flowers are littered on the bed. Blinds filter out the noise from the street outside. She instructs me to wait on the bed. And walks away locking the door behind her. 
Picture
       I wait. I do not know for what or whom. 


       After some time, a man comes into the room. He has a grizzled beard, gray hair. He stinks of liquor. He locks the door behind him and I hear someone bolting it from outside. I know something is wrong. I run to the corner. He lunges at me, drags me by my hair, and flings me onto the bed. He lies on top of me, and leaves slobbery kisses all over my face, neck. He removes my clothes and lies on top of me, heaving like a great bull, trying to part my thighs. My lungs are crushed under his bulk. I scream out. He seems not to care. I feel a sharp stabbing pain and a trickle of wetness between my legs. I feel something flowing onto the mattress. Like always, my body comes to my rescue and I pass out.
       I wake up to a soreness and a sickening sensation. To the realization that something horrible has happened to me and will continue to happen. I now know why that lady at the window smiled at me. She already knew my lot. She has seen many like me in such rooms. I let my tears flow until I am exhausted.


       Today I will turn twenty two. I do not have anything special to look forward to. It is going to be another night with either no customers or too many customers. I am now allowed to go out wherever I want. Except that Rinku always accompanies us. He-She-It has been with the Mistress since He-She-It was twelve. Thirty Years is a longtime to be in this business. Especially for Eunuchs. But it seems they are the toughest survivors. I like going to the temple. But the priests do not allow us to come inside. So I stand outside and hear the bells ringing. It gives me a sense of Déjà vu. I know I have done this somewhere, maybe when I was a little girl. I try so hard to remember, but my mind remains stubbornly blank.
       I am Mistress’ favorite. I bring in the Moolah with my looks. Being the favorite means I have three to four customers most nights. While the others have only one or none at all. Some of the customers are my Regulars. They share their stories of grief, betrayal, love, revenge all in the two hours they have. Many come just to talk to me. Some have weird fantasies like this old man who wants me to only scream ‘Have Mercy on Me, have Mercy on Me.’ He was thin and frail enough for me to blow him out with a sneeze. Sometimes I get hurt by the Perverts who let out all their frustration on me. But the next night I am ready again. Many of the customers are the Policemen who shoo us away and call us names and arrest us in the day, but come whining to us at night. Mistress’ contacts with them ensure we see as much less Police raids as possible. 


       I no longer miss home. I no longer remember home. My colorful life ensures I have many things to reminiscence or regret about. When I am too exhausted I Drink. When it is too much to bear, I take Drugs. I have a bigger room and an even bigger window with a view of the main street, not the bylane. Of course I spend much time gazing out.
       What is that I hear? 
       Someone screaming? 
       I run to the window. Yes, there is a girl in the window opposite me. 
       Like a monkey in a cage, she peers out, cries out for help. She wants to be free. 
       The Fool! 
       She sees me looking at her. She pleads, stretches out her hands to me. 
       I smile sadly at her. 
       I draw the curtains across and clasp the window shut.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Stolen Berries that leave behind Purple Stains.....

       Black eyes Meet Brown. Through the Green Foliage. Through the thorns of the rose bush. A fair hand adjusts the Veil across the face. Red Lips tremble. Anklets jingle. Bangles clink. Feet patter and I run away. I am scared to be caught sneaking in the orchard eating berries on the sly. The last berry gets stuck midway down my throat, I cough, gasp and run towards my room in the servant’s quarters. I hear the sound of running feet behind me, I hear a voice, male, husky, accented “Wait”. Rough hands catch my arms. Turn me around. Drag the veil off my face. 
“Wait, What’s your name?”. 
“Dhingli”, I whisper.
 
       He is dressed in shorts with a lot of pockets. A white unbuttoned shirt. Rubber sandals. His hair is spiky like a porcupine; I know that he has applied the same thing that Chhote Maalik applies on his hair. They call it ‘Jail’ or ‘Jel’ or something. It makes your hair stiff and stand up in any way you want to. I know because I once applied a little to my hair, when I was cleaning Chhote Maalik’s room, when no-one was looking. I washed it out immediately, as it made my veil stand up like I had grown a cactus on my head. “Dhingli”. 
       He rolls my name in his mouth, Rolls it, Swirls it around like it is one of those orange colored toffees, Maalkin gave me sometimes when it was too old to be eaten and is ready to be thrown out. “Saab, please do not tell Maalkin that I was in the orchard eating berries, Saab, please.” 
       He laughs. His eyes crinkle at the corners when he does so and he ambles off in the general direction of the house, nodding his head.
***
       It is time to make tea. The afternoon siesta shows signs of ending with Maalkin having ‘rustled’ into the kitchen. I had just started working in the house after my mother died of tuberculosis. The Maalkin had taken pity on me and my Mother’s reputation meant that I did not need any recommendation. I tried to live up to her name. But I was curious about all the things I the house and there were a lot of things I had never seen or eaten in all my 18 years. Mother had never taken me to the house where she worked. Hence I was very new. Though it was off-limits to the servants, I occasionally indulged my curiosities once in a while. I especially liked to pluck the ripe berries and mangoes or even a rose, making sure no one ever saw me doing these. I was always careful, except today morning.
***
       4 perfect gleaming white cups. 4 delicate matching saucers. 2 perfect white sugar-cubes. 4 familiar faces. I try not to look at him. But he stares at my face when I serve him tea. I am scared that he will tell everyone what I was doing in the Orchard. I almost hear him saying’ I saw this gal sneaking into the orchard to eat berries’. I imagine the Maalkin’s look of disapproval and anger. 
       But nothing of that sort happens. 
       “Bring some tea into my room at dusk, Dhingli”, he commands. 
       I do not want to go. I must not go. I cannot explain what it is, but I feel goose bumps whenever I am with him. I blush and stutter when he is around. My heart beats fast. 
       I want to scream” No Maalkin, I do not want to go near him again”. 
       But strangely, I am looking forward to it. I cant wait. 
       I feel something new in my body. A Thrill. A kind of Pleasure. 
       Suddenly my eyes fly to his face, and I know that he has read me. 
       He knows exactly what I am thinking. What I am feeling.
***
       I look into the mirror. Chutki didi keeps saying I am very beautiful. So I know why all the men in the Village look at me every time I passed by. I know why Raamlo sighs and dies to talk to me. He will make me his wife someday, he says to me everytime he catches me at the well. When he has enough money to take me to the city, he will marry me, he says. 
       I always laugh in his face. I dream of Sahibs in suits and boots, showing me the sights of Bombay. I fantasize of Sahibs who would buy me necklaces of diamonds bigger than what Maalkin wears.
***
       He is reclining on the sofa, reading a book. I place the tray down. Grass-flavored breeze comes in from the open window. I go to clasp them shut. Outside the birds are returning home, the cows are calling their calves. Dusk falls. The setting sun sets everything afire. He has a beautiful view of the pond and the fields beyond. 
       I stand transfixed, lost until I feel the hand on my shoulder, jolting me awake from my reverie. He is so close to me I can smell him. I smell him underneath that cloying scent he wears. His hand stays at my shoulder; I cannot shake it off. 
       Simply, I turn to him. He brings up my face to look at him. The veil falls away with a tug. I look into his eyes, his ever knowing eyes. I avert my gaze and try to move away. But end up against him. His hand circles my waist. Tighten around me. 
       I know he knows what I am thinking. I feel his stubble on my neck, my face. I try to push him away, yet, I pull him to me. My body awakens. I feel like I never have. 
       Suddenly the window pane bangs. 
       I come to my senses. I run out of the room, my veil trailing behind me, my heart in my mouth. I turn into the storage room, trying to catch my breath. It is wrong, a small voice in my mind says. I tread softly on the stairs and go to the kitchen. Maalkin is supervising the evening’s dinner. No one notices anything amiss. I still tingle with the feelings that reverberate in me, in the places he had touched me. 
       It is wrong, there, that same small voice. My hands tremble. 
       Somehow I survive the Inquisition.
***
       Chhoti Maalkin waves her fat little arms from the window of the car. “Tata,Tata” She waves to me. “Don’t touch anything in the house, until I am back. Sweep the house clean, and make sure the plants are watered. We will be back in 2 days” Chutki didi, who is now the eldest servant in the house, after my mother's death, instructs me. I nod obedience and return to the empty house. 
       Everyone, including him, is gone. Every 3rd month, Maalkin fasts for 3 days and holds a puja in honor of the Family Deity. I miss Chhote Maalik and Chhoti Maalkin. I scrub the house clean and by evening, the garden is swept. I sit on the first storey verandah, overlooking the orchard, when the I hear the sound of a car in front of the gate. Quickly, thinking it might be some visitor, I run to the front yard. 
       It is him!! My heart leaps out and my hands fly to my mouth. He is alone. I hesitate to open the gate. “What happened, Saab? “ He doesn’t reply. Then he says” For God’s sake open the gate, Dhingli. What are you staring at?” I do as told. “I didn’t feel like going”, he justifies.
He goes to his room. ‘Bring dinner up”, he calls out. I go to the kitchen to cook. 
       I feel a strange sign of foreboding. 
       I think it is my foolish heart jumping all over. I think it is because of what happens to me whenever I am with him.
***
       The rain comes unexpectedly. The wind shrieks like a banshee. Palm trees sway like mad women tearing their hair. The lights go out. I light the lanterns in the house and lie on my cot wondering about the small voice, about all those feelings inside my body that surface every time I touch him? “Dhingli". I hear him calling me. I go up to his room to ask what he wants. He is not inside the room. The door to the verandah is open. Rain water tries to seep through the doormat, and fails. Droplets of water ride on the back of the gusts of wind. I see him on the Verandah looking out at the sunset. He is drinking. I see the empty bottles scattered around. I pick them up. He stretches out his hand at me. He trails his palm on my breast. “You are so beautiful”, he mumbles. He smells of alcohol and cigarettes. I say nothing. He holds me to him, “I will take you to America, Will you come with me?” he asks. “Saab, this is wrong. I should not be here. Pls let me go.” I plead. 
       I know now, suddenly, that it is wrong. He holds tighter. He clings to me. I feel the sensations override my conscience. I know this is wrong, yet I fall for it. I let him wrap his arms around me. I let him feel me under my clothes. I swoon, I know this is wrong, n yet I gasp, I whisper his name. I push him off, then cling to him. I shudder and tremble and I call him to me, I tell him to show me what he always wanted to. I tell him to do what he always wanted to. My mind is pulled in two different directions. I no longer wait to judge my actions. I no longer want to. I listen to my Body, my Heart. I let go. He gropes in his drunkenness, enters me, hurts me. I moan, cry out in pain, whimper. He slumps on top of me, his breath rushing into my ears. I am breathless. I push him off. He rolls over, sleeps, snores. I arrange his clothes. I stumble out of the room. I am surprised the feeling is nothing like what I expected. 
       I feel like a balloon that is still hanging a week after the party is over. 
       Like an orange that has been kept in the fruit basket for far too many days. 
Squished, empty. 
       I run out into the rain. I remove my clothes. I let the rainwater wash me. I let the rainwater wash my shame, my guilt away. I cry and the tears mix with my blood, and the rain, and run down into the ground. I cry and the tears mix with my revulsion and disgust. I stand there for an awfully long time. 
       When the rain stops, I go into my room, and sit in the corner and stare until day breaks.
***
       Many, many nights later, I stand outside the servant quarters. “Where have you been?” Chutki didi asks, angry, worried. I walk past her into the room. I sit on the cot, and the run out, nauseous. While I retch, she comes running to me. Patting me on the back. Soothing me. She is making me sit on the cot again, when she looks at my belly and gasps. She shrieks. She throws off my odhani, unties my skirt. She looks at my swollen belly and knows. I look at her and cry. “Who did this to you? Tell me. Who?” She rants curses at me. Tells me to die. Asks with what guts I chose to stay alive. I shake my head, not speaking. She rains blows on me, slaps me across the face, pulls out her hair. She wails, and I sit there silently with tears streaming down my face. The sobs wreck me. She drags me to Maalkin. I do not know what they talk about. 
       I no longer want to know. 
       I go out into the orchard, I see the berries. I run to them, I pluck them and eat them. I shove them into my mouth. I am no longer scared of anyone finding out. The purple juice runs down my mouth. My lips, hands, tongue turn purple. I hear footsteps. I do not turn around. I know that tread. I know who it is. I know who this smell and rough hands belong to. “Dhingli, take this. Do not tell anyone about this. You know no one will believe you, even if you took my name.” 
       I turn to face him. 
       I smile. 
       I take the wad of notes he hands out to me. 
       He looks at my purple mouth, and teeth and tongue and hands. He takes a step back. 
       I shove the berries into my mouth. I shove the notes into my mouth. I chomp on the paper. I know paper has no taste. But mixed with the berries, I cannot know. 
       His face contorts in fear. He retreats, stumbles, falls, picks himself up and turns around to run to the front of the house. 
       I untie the rope-swing that Chhoti-Maalkin plays on. The rope bruises my fingers. I stand on the stone ledge under the mango tree. I throw the rope up and it lands perfectly on a branch. I pull down the rope to tighten the knot on the branch and make a noose. I tug at it to check the strength. It will hold good. 
       I step back and admire my handiwork. 
       I bend down and scrawl a single word on the ground – ‘Maalik’. 
       I put the noose around my neck. I take off my feet from the ledge. 
       I float. 
       I see a Sahib in a suit taking me to America. I see an orchard full of berry bushes. I see a rainy night. I see my mother calling out to me. I see a purple neck bruised by a rope. A purple hand pats my belly trying to soothe the kicking feet inside. 
       It soon hangs limply by the side.
***