Somewhere deep inside inland India, a group of women wearing bright orange, yellow and red coloured sarees gossiped under an early morning summer sun. Dense groves of lush green banana trees stretched for miles around them. Rows and rows of bananas dangled from these trees, like an upside-down crown. Overhead the sky looked like a clean, light-blue canvas with not a single cloud or bird in sight.
These women had skin the colour of charcoal, sharp eyes and loud laughter. With their hair tucked behind their ears and the loose end of their sarees tied around their waist, they sit under the shade of these trees. In their daily lives full of drudgery and routine, this is perhaps the only hour they don’t resent. They share stories about their childhood, spent in their maiden homes, far this village of lush green banana trees, none of which belong to them. Now, they are just women who live in ruins, on the edges of the world, like those extra empty spaces, on the edges of manuscripts, unseen, unheard and unwanted.
‘Who can free a captive bird mourning in his cage?
You must bring your own Freedom, O, Gardner.’
Ghulam Ahmad Mehjoor
“I’ll be back early tomorrow, you don’t need to worry about me,” Syeda tried to sound reassuring. “He will protect us”, she said to Tariq, as she packed the oily turmeric rice in a large steel lunch carrier. She placed the container in an empty plastic cement bag, hoisted it on her head and took Mishaal’s hand in hers. The faithful were reciting their durood in the mosque after Fajr prayers. The golden thread of dawn had just emerged in the skies, and she embarked on this perilous journey to Srinagar.
The scorching heat of the afternoon followed by the sudden downpour had made it difficult for the people to fly kites on the occasion of Raksha Bandhan. But now that the deluge had stopped, the people emerged on their roofs as ants emerged from their castle. The downpour had cooled the evening and cleared the sky and brought some relief to the people. The Trikuta hills and several other hills and mountains that surrounded the plain region betrayed their dominance. As far as one could see from the rooftops, the silhouette of the giant mountains didn’t fail to mark their presence. The beautiful sunset had created an ambient atmosphere of trance. Streaks of pink golden rays ran parallel above the stretched silhouettes of mountains. Everyone was taking in the cold breeze of August evening, conscious of the rhythmic movements of inhalation and exhalation. The various plants and trees surrounding the houses had not dried yet. Drops of water remained present on the leaves as morning dew. Just as a snail glides along the path slowly, the dewdrops on the leaves glided and merged into each other and eventually fell off the leaves into the soil beneath. The aroma of the earth that arose from the merging of aqua and soil stimulated the olfactory pleasures of the beings. The people had started coming to their rooftops from every house. Some people were here to play the sport; some were to help, and others were the spectators.
Two brown sparrows perched on the parapet undisturbed took note of their surroundings, contributing their part as spectators from different species. A purple sunbird perched on a high bough of a tree sang a song to summon his comrades to witness the once-in-a-year moment. The initiation of the event started with loud music on the loudspeakers. Pieces of electrical tape were being cut and wound on the fingers lest these get severed by the ‘pucca dor'(a string of either plastic or cotton covered by powered glass) which they had specially ordered. The people made sure that the triangle of the thread (kite knots) was perfectly aligned and anchored and they rubbed the dorsal side of the kite on their head and looked assertive as if their weapon of choice was ready to hunt others’ down. When the people were immersed in tying the kite knots, a tailor bird referred to as ‘darzi’ by the locals paid a brief visit to the lawns, and gardens of the neighborhood and retreated to its niche stitching leaves to make its nest. The helpers of the kite flyers held the kite from its horizontally opposite corners in their hand hiding their face and traced some steps back making the length of string between them tighten and on the count of three, gave a little push up which was then maneuvered by the kite flyers.
Playing at an agonizing volume, our neighbour’s music-system jarred me from my sleep. I opened my eyes into the direct glare of an angry sun, punishing me for daring to paint all night. Keeping my curse under my breath, I could hear grandmother climbing up to my bedroom on the first floor. My almost bedridden Dada, and Dadi lived on the ground floor. I knew I was about to receive a lecture. She was currently gathering steam, so I muffled my cursing to save my skin from a lashing tongue.
“Arif, are you awake?”
“Yes Grandmother, good morning.”
“The morning is over, come down for lunch. Made your favourite Qeema (minced meat) and Aloo Stuffed Parathas.”
Her heavy-footed gait retreated down the stairs before I followed. She waited for the meal to be over to launch in. As I poured tea from the pot, she said, “Arif, you slept late again? What were you up to, all night?”
I have to dress myself in red today. Sorry Somesh, for being unfaithful to you. I could have fought them all but for our children. They say I must agree to their plan. They are both so grown up now – Jia and Sahil! They advise me on everything as if I am a little child. But marriage? No! No! That cannot be! Everyone tells me that I have been married to Pratik for years. But why do I draw a blank at that? Pratik is nice, familiar, comfortable; we even share the same house! Just the other day I had to chase him out of my room – he was lazing around as if he belonged there! And then there is that wedding album! They carry a hundred of our wedding pictures – happy moments frozen in four by six glossy papers. Such vibrant colours – if only my memory was as sharp as these. But memory fails me. It becomes as fuzzy as a Delhi winter morning, unfocussed, blurred yet somewhere just within reach. Only I have no access to it. By the way, have you ever known anyone who forgets her own wedding? All of them forget that I am a widow, Somesh’s widow. It is not for me to marry. I remember pishi, my father was so protective about her, yet could he save her from a heartbreak? She left eating fish, gave away all her ornaments, wore only white and remained buried under the weight of various rituals and customs. She looked like a ghost biding her time in this world. Wasn’t this the fate of all widows? Wasn’t this what grandfather told her, she being the apple of his eyes? I remember feeling so sad for her. I wanted to find a prince charming to take her away from this repressive world. When I said that to her once, she smiled – a smile of such sadness that my heart shattered into a thousand pieces. I never repeated it to her again. But look at my own children – harping about their own mother’s wedding in which they too claim to have participated! Disgusting, yet I cannot bring myself to be angry with them for a long time. If they are mistaken, it is my duty to lead them to the truth.
No one can claim the name of Pedro nobody is Rosa or Maria all of us are dust or sand all of us are rain under rain. They have spoken to me of Venezuelas of Chiles and Paraguays I know only the skin of the earth and I know it has no name
I call him Dumri. I tie one end of my worn out gamchha to the iron fence of the Gas Office by the footpath and the other end to a municipality dustbin hook to make a swing cot. I place him there. Dumri loves to be pushed in the swing. He bursts into laughter. The passengers of double-decker buses stuck in the traffic give us a curious look. I feel amused. It makes me feel like a queen. I leave him on the makeshift swing to pick up a cigarette butt left by someone on the footpath for one last puff or to halt a hasty passerby for a dime or two. Dumri turns his head to follow every move of mine. He is still a few months short of becoming one, yet he seems to understand everything. Such a smarty-pant!
Our eyes met. His shifted away. I forced him to look at me, and my persistence won. He did. They were blank. No answer to the dreaded question: am I about to depart?
I smiled. He didn’t. It aggravated me.
I looked around the place. The corridors were crowded with young doctors and nurses out of medical school, risking their lives to save us. Two young nurses were competing for my husband’s attention. I couldn’t help feeling jealous. I wanted to scream at the nurses: I’m not gone as yet. Leave my husband alone.
The final act of Rajkumar’s life opened to neither cheers nor applause.
He looked down at the gentle, placid Rapti flowing fifty feet below. It should have been a raging torrent at this time of year, but the river had no sense of occasion. He held the bridge’s railing tight with his left hand, the other inspecting the iron weight tied to his ankle.
He had no choice. All his life, Rajkumar had only wanted to be a jadugar. Unfortunately, he was a very bad one. He could never distract an audience, so his illusions never worked. Tea sets shattered when he pulled tablecloths from under them. His white pigeons defecated liberally into his turban. The rabbits bit him. Card decks flew out of his hand, prrrrrrr-uh! and scattered on the stage.
I am waiting for my father. I glance at the clock. It is not yet time, and he never delays, but I am impatient. As I fidget with my things, I suddenly feel a chill enveloping me. Shivering involuntarily, I glance up sharply. The study door is swinging on its hinges. Sure enough, Dad is ready.
“I’m sorry,” he says with an apologetic smile. “Is it very cold?”
I smile back. I am so glad to see him, I cannot complain. “No matter, Daddy,” I say as I cross over to shut the door still gently creaking in the wind from the open window beyond.
I come back and look at him. He is wearing a faded shirt, and he looks frail and old, but his face shines. Is he in perfect health, or is he so glad to be with me?
“Is this how you want it?” Sameera says. The pain is clear in her eyes, words and face.
“If he refuses, maybe Baba will listen…,” Ayla words fall crippled and deformed from her lips. The lounge falls silent.
It is hard to remember this lounge being this silent. I remember so many green and red blobs of mint-chutney and ketchup had dripped on this coffee table, and we used to wipe them away with our fingers quickly before Sameera came back from the kitchen with the next batch of hot pakoras. But there are no pakoras cooking today, no blobs of chutney either. No laughter or requests for one more cup of chai. Only solid, paralyzing silence.