Short Story |
Amrita Pritam (Translated from Punjabi by Raj Gill)
Angoori was the new bride of the old servant of my neighbour's neighbour's neighbour. Every bride is new, for that matter; but she was new in a different way: the second wife of her husband who could not be called new because he had already drunk once at the conjugal well. As such, the prerogatives of being new went to Angoori only. This realization was further accentuated when one considered the five years that passed before they could consummate their union
About six years ago Prabhati had gone home to cremate his first wife. When this was done, Angoori's father approached him and took his wet towel, wringing it dry, a symbolic gesture of wiping away the tears of grief that had wet the towel. There never was a man, though, who cried enough to wet a yard-and-a-half of calico. It had got wet only after Prabhati's bath. The simple act of drying the tear-stained towel on the part of a person with a nubile daughter was as much as to say, 'I give you my daughter to take the place of the one who died. Don't cry anymore. I've even dried your wet towel'.
This is how Angoori married Prabhati. However, their union was postponed for five years, for two reasons: her tender age, and her mother's paralytic attack. When, at last, Prabhati was invited to take his bride away, it seemed he would not be able to, for his employer was reluctant to feed another mouth from his kitchen. But when Prabhati told him that his new wife could keep her own house, the employer agreed.
At first, Angoori kept purdah from both men and women. But the veil soon started to shrink until it covered only her hair, as was becoming to an orthodox Hindu woman. She was a delight to both ear and eye. A laughter in the tinkling of her hundred ankle-bells, and a thousand bells in her laughter.
'What are you wearing, Angoori?'
'An anklet. Isn't it pretty?'
'And what's on your toe?'
'And on your arm?'
'What do they call what's on your forehead?'
'They call it aliband.'
'Nothing on your waist today, Angoori?'
'It's too heavy. Tomorrow I'll wear it. Today, no necklace either. See! The clasp is broken. Tomorrow I'll go to the city to get a new clasp... and buy a nose-pin. I had a big nose-ring. But my mother-in-law kept it.'
Angoori was very proud of her silver jewellery, elated by the mere touch of her trinkets. Everything she did seemed to set them off to maximum effect.
The weather became hot with the turn of the season. Angoori too must have felt it in her hut where she passed a good part of the day, for now she stayed out more. There were a few huge neem trees in front of my house; underneath them an old well that nobody used except an occasional construction worker. The spilt water made several puddles, keeping the atmosphere around the well cool. She often sat near the well to relax.
'What are you reading, bibi?' Angoori asked me one day when I sat under a neem tree reading.
'Want to read it?'
'I don't know reading.'
'Want to learn?'
'Why not? What's wrong with it?'
'It's a sin for women to read!'
'And what about men?'
'For them, it's not a sin'.
'Who told you this nonsense?
''I just know it.'
'I read. I must be sinning.'
'For city women, it's no sin. It is for village women.'
We both laughed at this remark. She had not learned to question all that she was told to believe. I thought that if she found peace in her convictions, who was I to question them?
Her body redeemed her dark complexion, an intense sense of ecstasy always radiating from it, a resilient sweetness. They say a woman's body is like a lump of dough, some women have the looseness of under-kneaded dough while others have the clinging plasticity of leavened dough. Rarely does a woman have a body that can be equated to rightly-kneaded dough, a baker's pride. Angoori's body belonged to this category, her rippling muscles impregnated with the metallic resilience of a coiled spring. I felt her face, arms, breasts, legs with my eyes and experienced a profound languor. I thought of Prabhati : old, short, loose-jawed, a man whose stature and angularity would be the death of Euclid. Suddenly a funny idea struck me: Angoori was the dough covered by Prabhati. He was her napkin, not her taster. I felt a laugh welling up inside me, but I checked it for fear that Angoori would sense what I was laughing about. I asked her how marriages are arranged where she came from.
'A girl, when she's five or six, adores someone's feet. He is the husband.'
'How does she know it?'
'Her father takes money and flowers and puts them at his feet.'
'That's the father adoring, not the girl.'
'He does it for the girl. So it's the girl herself.'
'But the girl has never seen him before!'
'Yes, girls don't see.'
'Not a single girl ever sees her future husband!'
'No...,' she hesitated. After a long, pensive pause, she added, 'Those in love..... they see them.'
'Do girls in your village have love-affairs?'
'Those in love, they don't sin?' I remembered her observation regarding education for women.
'They don't. See, what happens is that a man makes the girl eat the weed and then she starts loving him.'
'The wild one.'
'Doesn't the girl know that she has been given the weed?'
'No, he gives it to her in a paan. After that, nothing satisfies her but to be with him, her man. I know. I've seen it with my own eyes.'
'Whom did you see?'
'A friend; she was older than me.'
'And what happened?'
'She went crazy. Ran away with him to the city.'
'How do you know it was because of the weed?'
'What else could it be? Why would she leave her parents. He brought her many things from the city: clothes, trinkets, sweets.'
'Where does this weed come in?'
'In the sweets : otherwise how could she love him?'
'Love can come in other ways. No other way here?'
'No other way. What her parents hated was that she was that way.'
'Have you seen the weed?'
'No, they bring it from a far country. My mother warned me not to take paan or sweets from anyone. Men put the weed in them.'
'You were very wise. How come your friend ate it?'
'To make herself suffer,' she said sternly. The next moment her face clouded, perhaps in remembering her friend. 'Crazy. She went crazy, the poor thing,' she said sadly. 'Never combed her hair, singing all night....'
'What did she sing?’
'I don't know. They all sing when they eat the weed. Cry too.'
The conversation was becoming a little too much to take, so I retired.
I found her sitting under the neem tree one day in a profoundly abstracted mood. Usually one could hear Angoori coming to the well; her ankle-bells would announce her approach. They were silent that day.
'What's the matter, Angoori?'
She gave me a blank look and then, recovering a little, said, 'Teach me reading, bibi.'
'What has happened?'
'Teach me to write my name.'
'Why do you want to write? To write letters? To whom?'
She did not answer, but was once again lost in her thoughts.
'Won't you be sinning?' I asked, trying to draw her out of her mood. She would not respond. I went in for an afternoon nap. When I came out again in the evening, she was still there singing sadly to herself. When she heard me approaching, she turned around and stopped abruptly. She sat with hunched shoulders because of the chill in the evening breeze.
'You sing well, Angoori'. I watched her great effort to turn back the tears and spread a pale smile across her lips.
'I don't know singing'.
'But you do, Angoori!'
'This was the ...'
'The song your friend used to sing.' I completed the sentence for her.
'I heard it from her.'
'Sing it for me.'
She started to recite the words. 'Oh, it's just about the time of year for change. Four months winter, four months summer, four months rain!....'
'Not like that. Sing it for me,' I asked. She wouldn't, but continued with the words :
Four months of winter reign in my heart;
My heart shivers, O my love.
Four months of summer, wind shimmers in the sun.
Four months come the rains; clouds tremble in the sky.
'Angoori!' I said loudly. She looked as if in a trance, as if she had eaten the weed. I felt like shaking her by the shoulders. Instead, I took her by the shoulders and asked if she had been eating regularly. She had not; she cooked for herself only, since Prabhati ate at his master's. 'Did you cook today?' I asked.
'Did you have tea in the morning?'
'Tea? No milk today.'
'Why no milk today?'
'I didn't get any. Ram Tara......'
'Fetches the milk for you?' I added. She nodded.
Ram Tara was the night-watchman. Before Angoori married Prabhati, Ram Tara used to get a cup of tea at our place at the end of his watch before retiring on his cot near the well. After Angoori's arrival, he made his tea at Prabhati's. He, Angoori and Prabhati would all have tea together sitting around the fire. Three days ago Ram Tara went to his village for a visit.
'You haven't had tea for three days?' I asked. She nodded again. 'And you haven't eaten, I suppose?' She did not speak. Apparently, if she had been eating, it was as good as not eating at all.
I remembered Ram Tara : good-looking, quick-limbed, full of jokes. He had a way of talking with smiles trembling faintly at the corner of his lips.
'Could it be weed?'
Tears flowed down her face in two rivulets, gathering into two tiny puddles at the corners of her mouth.
'Curse on me!' she started in a voice trembling with tears, 'I never took sweets from him... not a betel even.... but tea ...' She could not finish. Her words were drowned in a fast stream of tears.
Amrita Pritam is a leading writer in Punjabi and Hindi. A number of her works have been translated into English, including her autobiographical works Black Rose and Revenue Stamp.