by Geethanjali Harikumar
Finally, the time had come for the vidai (farewell). It was time for Rasiya to leave her home of twenty years and to head to a new one where everything would be a novelty; even the smell of the earth and the rustle of the leaves. She no longer belonged to her father’s home, where she had learned to crawl, walk, read and write.
Rasiya heard someone calling out to the women in the house, asking them to bring the bride out. She saw Abdul, who had become her husband about a couple of hours back patiently waiting for her at the threshold. All the women in the family came and hugged her one after another. Every time the heavy bosomed aunts squeezed her tiny body, the sequins on her lehenga (a voluminous skirt, often a part of bridal gear) pricked her soft skin. The pink and orange lehenga was so special to her since it was bought by her brother, especially from Delhi.
She was taken out by a crowd of women. She looked for her mother among the sea of unfamiliar faces. Finally, she spotted her mother, her Ammi, standing behind someone, as if she was not a part of this ceremony. Her eyes were welled up with tears and Rasiya rushed towards her. Ammi hugged her and kissed her forehead, and both of them broke into tears. Someone said, they ought to leave before midnight.
Her sister-in- law took her hand and led her towards the waiting groom. Her brother and father stood next to the groom and his party. Though her father was smiling, she noticed the shine of tears in his eyes. Yes, he was upset about his little girl leaving them. But at the same time it eased him to know that she was leaving for good. She was going to be safe in her new home where she would no longer have to wake up to the sound of firing or have soldiers banging the front door in the middle of the night. She would no longer need anyone to accompany her when she stepped out of the house, even if it was to the adjacent street.
The groom, who was no longer the groom but her husband, had a family restaurant in a town away from the border. The restaurant was founded by his grandfather back in the 30’s as a tiny tea-shop. Years later, as the town started to get filled with tourists, his father grew it and now it was one of the most sought-after eateries in town. Abdul lived with his parents in their family house, a mere stone’s throw from their restaurant. And now, Rasiya would live the rest of her life in that home, helping her husband with his business and her mother-in-law in running the house.
Her entire family walked her to the mini bus used to transport the groom’s family and friends. She felt a heaviness inside her as she stepped out of the courtyard. Suddenly she felt someone take her right hand and squeeze it. When she turned, she saw it was her husband. He smiled at her, a smile that erased all her worries just like that. Until then she hadn’t noticed that she was walking right beside her husband, as her mind was preoccupied with a million other thoughts.
As they reached the bus she went towards her family and hugged them for one last time. Her brother helped her into the bus and it was then that she remembered her suitcase. It had been taken care of, whispered her sister-in-law from behind.
In the bus Rasiya wished to sit with her husband, to talk to him and get to know him before they started to live as husband and wife.
They had spoken only a couple of times before.
The first time was when he came to see her with his family. He’d asked her name and she replied shyly.
The second was at a mutual family friend’s wedding.
“How are you Rasiya ji ?” he had asked.
She smiled in reply.
When she got inside the bus, she made herself comfortable on a seat by a window and waved goodbye to her family and friends. She could see pride in his father’s eyes as he had married off his only daughter into a good family. Just as Abdul was about to sit next to her, his mother, her mother-in-law, intervened. She told Abdul’s sister, Noor, to sit beside the bride. Rasiya could sense the disappointment on Abdul’s face. Noor was five months pregnant. Abdul sat in the row ahead on the opposite side so that he could glimpse her when he turned to his left.
As the bus descended the hairpin road, Noor said she was feeling nauseous. They couldn’t find a plastic bag in the bus. The driver pulled over the bus. Noor’s husband helped her out. After halting for five minutes, they resumed the journey.
Soon, everyone started to fall asleep and the bus was filled with the noise made by snoring passengers. Noor also fell asleep, leaning on Rasiya’s shoulder. She could smell vomit in Noor’s breath and the stench kept her from falling asleep. She looked towards Abdul’s seat, it was quiet and she assumed that he too had fallen asleep. Her window was slightly open and icy wind gushed inside. She tried to close it, but the window would not budge an inch. As she kept trying, a strong hand came out of nowhere and and closed the window with ease. She turned and saw Abdul grinning at her. As he went back to his seat, she blushed in the dark.
Half-an-hour into the journey, Rasiya felt her eyelids droop. She tried to stay awake but somewhere on the mountains, she fell fast asleep. In her dream, she was in her wedding dress and lost in the woods while she searched for someone. She saw logs of wood hanging from a tree at a distance. As she went towards it, she realized that it was not wood but corpses. Dead bodies of her mother, father and brother were hanging down from a pine tree. She started to scream but there was no sound. Instead, heaps of snow poured out of her mouth.
When she woke up from sleep, she was sweating despite the cold. The bus was still quiet except for the sounds of sleep. She looked outside the window trying to see if she was familiar with the place. But it was pitch dark outside. She felt the bus slow down and suddenly stop. She saw the driver open his window to talk to someone outside.
“Does Noor want to throw up again?” asked Abdul’s uncle from the rear. But Noor was sound asleep next to Rasiya.
The driver continued conversing with the person standing outside. People started stirring out of their slumber. Abdul’s cousin got up from his seat and went to check on the driver. He came back and told everyone that they had been stopped by soldiers from the paramilitary Border Security Force. A curfew has been declared, he said. He took the curfew passes which they had already obtained from the local administration and went towards the driver. He returned minutes later and said that they were free to go.
As the driver was about to start the vehicle, the men outside opened fire on the bus using a machine gun. It took a couple of seconds for the wedding troupe to realise what was happening as most of them were still half-asleep. Someone called out to everyone to duck for cover.
Rasiya dragged Noor down and both of them took cover between the seats. The snoring was replaced with the cries of men and women. The bullets incessantly hit the bus with reverberating thuds. Glass shards fell on Rasiya’s head, some of it pierced her scalp. Some were hit by bullets and screamed in pain. She searched for her husband. But in the darkness she could only see some undulating figures.
The firing went on incessantly for fifteen minutes. Soon the inside of the bus started to smell of blood. Rasiya felt dampness on the ground. She touched the spot and found a pool of blood next to her. Beside her, Noor whimpered, hugging her knees. Slowly, the firing ceased. Only the wailing of the people and the silence of stained snow could be heard.
Abdul’s cousin who had sat next to him was hit by a bullet on his arm. Blood oozed out of his arm profusely. Abdul stirred in his place and tried to get up. Suddenly the door of the bus was flung open and men in uniform barged into the bus. They flashed their torch all over the bus. Everyone sat quietly in their places without stirring.
“Looks like they’re returning from a wedding,”one of the uniformed men said.
They walked through the aisle flashing light on the frightened and wounded ones.
Suddenly, one of them caught Rasiya’s hand and dragged her out. As she was being yanked out of the bus, she cried out loudly for help. Abdul got up and ran behind her, but he was hit hard on the head by the stock of the rifle. Another man carried Noor out. She begged him to leave her alone and told that she was pregnant, but he did not listen to her pleas.
The men left with Rasiya and Noor, locking the door of the bus behind them. Abdul banged on the door in vain calling out for help in the middle of the night. The wails of the two girls pierced the cries of the people in the bus. Abdul’s mother silently wept at the rear — looking out of the bus into the dark night.
Neither the valley nor the mountains were brave enough to tell the world what had happened. No political parties spoke about the incident; no government promised the family a compensation. All the attention it got was in the newspaper — a single column in the left hand corner of the fifth page spoke of the bus accident on the hills at midnight — killing five people including the bride and the groom’s sister.
The readers hardly noticed.
*Adding a ‘ji’ behind a name is a respectful way of addressing someone
Geethanjali Harikumar is an assistant director in Malayalam movies, writer and subtitler. Her poetry, Vignettes from Kashmir, has been recognized by Delhi Poetry Slam and published in Wing Word Poetry Prize 2018.
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