Pale bronzed drops of water cling to the wall of her back. Leaving them to stain her blouse as they please and to cool her burning skin, Urmila hums a tune to herself. A deranged tune, assembled impromptu, the crests and troughs gathered from unheard songs. Black droplets drip from her hair, brown ones from the vertex of her elbows, pink ones from her lips. Summers in Nawegaon require two baths at least, but Urmila can never say how many she has already taken today. Instinctively submitting herself to the cravings of her body, she organises her day around the needs that it screams out. Sometimes it needs wetness, other times the stickiness that comes only from 30 ml of gold Chandanadi Tel, or perhaps the sound of the incessant plunking of a leaking tap. Anything to mask the absence that engulfs her.
But most often she cries for colour. For the redness of her sindoor and the translucent green of her bangles. The bangles. She could break them now, she knows. The panchayat had once made a woman slip the green circles off her wrists and wrap herself in white since her husband had been missing for over ten years. Ten years is a long enough time to discard the hope of a vanished husband blundering his way home. Like such hopes come with ‘best before’ dates, unfit for consumption beyond the patience of silently fuming mothers-in-law. And Srikant has been gone longer. Twelve? Fourteen? More likely sixteen. Or is it fifteen?
No, she will not abandon colour, and they cannot force her to. Not after the madness that she had felt surfacing the last time. Not after glimpsing the fear on her bent mother-in-law’s face. Since then, she has been shut up in a secluded room at the back of the ancestral bungalow, cut away from the hub of gardening, cooking, milking and pounding that marks the days of the other women. Twice a day, food is brought to her, the only time her door is unlocked. She finds this no reason to complain however, as long as she can have her colours and a small bathing area of her own. Her world has shrunk since he left, and there’s no further damage that a locked door can inflict. At least the water can caress and cool her yearning skin.
Urmila folds her hands over her chest, wearing just her blouse and petticoat; she gave up the bother of a saree once she reached the 47th day of isolation and realised that no one would visit her anyway. She stares at the opposite wall. Measuring 11 by eight feet, this stretch of concrete has served as her canvas all these years. Contrasting sharply with the rest of the room, this wall flames with strokes and colours. From floor to ceiling, it is now fragranced with garlands and mehendi and it sounds the mournful shehnai, interspersed with the bustle of aunts and children. On one side of the floor lie tubs of paint, the cheapest variety, replenished once a month. “It’s worth it if it will shut her up!” she had heard her father-in-law scream when one month the paints hadn’t arrived and she had banged on the door all afternoon.
“It’s almost done,” sighs Urmila, caressing the figures of her parents, scanning their nervous, jubilant smiles. Urmila has coaxed out the entire intricate dance of blue peacocks that had been embroidered on her mother’s pallu, spending eight months on the detail. She has painted three coats of white over her father’s dhoti and then a little mesh of squares over it to bring out the starched effect of the cloth. And that is her cousin there, the one in pink. They had played hopscotch once for five hours at a stretch. And that man in the corner is her mother’s brother, who has never once given her so much as a smile, but unexpectedly gifted her a gold bangle at her wedding.
Her thoughts are interrupted by the sound of flat hard footsteps. Urmila looks at the door. She hears the jingling of keys, then the clink of the key fitting. The lock is opened and the handle scraped against the socket. A flood of light fills the room. A small girl appears with a plate and simply says: “Food.” Without looking at Urmila, she puts the plate on a small teepoy near the door and walks away. The flood drains out. Again the handle scraping, again the clink of the key, the slapping of her heels as she speeds off.
Lunch will not fill her up; Urmila now hungers for her colours. There should be more marigolds, she thinks. How can a wedding have so few marigolds? How will people know what a grand wedding it was? Dipping the paintbrush into the little bottles on the floor, she resumes. Meticulously, one petal at a time, orange buds bloom, interspersed by oh-so-hidden specks of green. A few more flowers in this thali, and many more in that garland, perhaps another one in the hair of the bride.
But no, she can wait. Srikant first. She hasn’t painted his face yet, stopping short each time. She starts to trace it but then stops. Is his jaw really as prominent as that? And does his hair begin so low on his forehead? Isn’t his nose broader? Urmila shuts her eyes and knits her eyebrows, trying to remember. All that flashes before her is a rectangle of brown. How is one to remember a husband whom she did not dare to look at throughout the ceremony? Who ran away to follow his brother barely a week after they were married? Who chose the older brother over the wife? Who chose exile over her? And it has been fourteen years now. Or is it sixteen?
Srikant marched along the periphery of the rubble, unmindful that his shawl had almost slipped off and a chill was settling in. Though it was past 11 o’clock, the drone and drill of construction did not ebb, taking on the form of man-made nocturnal cries. The Burj tower was behind schedule and now the only time the building stood untouched was between 1 am and 5 am. Other times, men working in three shifts, most of them Indian, lifted stones, broke them, operated cranes, wet the walls and scaled the 800-metre-tall structure like four-limbed lizards.
A little distance away, his older brother Purushottam sat in a plastic chair, snuggling closer into his cardigan. Another consignment of labourers had arrived this morning and after checking their papers and supervising the medical tests, Srikant and Purushottam were now overseeing their work. It had been over a decade now since the duo had left behind their soil, and settled in the land of oil drills and glass towers, but Srikant knew that not a day passed when Purushottam did not miss Nawegaon. While Purushottam spent most of his day supervising the labourers, Srikant kept an equally watchful eye on his older brother. Noticing that Purushottam had checked his watch again, he strode up to him and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“You leave dada. I’ll stay here.” Purushottam turned around and smiled.
“No Srikant, don’t worry. I’ll handle it. You sleep.”
“Dada, I’m not here to sleep while you…”
“Please dada. I cannot watch you so exhausted.”
Srikant adjusted the shawl around Purushottam’s shoulders, made sure he was completely covered, and said: “Plus, Sakina vahini must be waiting for you.”
Even after all these years, the term sounded odd.
Sujata vahini would have been alright, or Sangeeta vahini or Shalini vahini, but Sakina plus sister-in-law was like maalpua plus modak. Strange. The kind of combination that would certainly upset the stomach, his mother would have argued.
Yes, Sakina would be waiting for him. She would probably not have eaten dinner either. In their little world, stripped of titles and ideologies, the differences melted. But they had paid the price; at least Purushottam had. When Purushottam had broken the news to his family, they had fumed, then threatened, then cajoled and eventually banished him. There was no place for a Muslim woman or her lover in their world. Even if the lover happened to be their darling older son, even if they knew that he was a thousand-fold above any other man in Nawegaon. Purushottam. The best among men. Banished by his family, his village. Deserted by them all.
By all except one man. Or rather, one boy. Srikant. He was barely out of his teens then, hastily married off, lest he too foolishly gambled his heart away. But he had followed Purushottam to Dubai, where Sakina’s family arranged work for them. In Srikant’s eyes now, Purushottam saw the same reflection that had been steady since the time they were children. That same adulation, the desire to please Purushottam, to follow, to submit, to sacrifice, and yet to protect, to defend. A lover’s blind passion and yet a mistress’ careful distance. Devotion. Nothing else mattered. Not the risks, not the losses, not his mother’s missing pickles, father’s indulgent gifts, not the village children running after him coaxing him to stay.
Not even his nervous bride who had stared at the scene through the ominous patch of black on her pallu.
The cousins said it was stupidity, the neighbours said it was madness, his father said it was business — dirham he had muttered through clenched teeth. Urmila had nothing to say. Not that anyone asked her.
She stands staring at the faithful wall that has been her outlet all these years. Every inch of it is painted now. Red, blue, orange, pink, purple… the priests, the family, the guests, the clothes, the food, the thermocol pillars and the huge artificial toran. Everything but her face and his. Urmila picks up the thali that contains her food and then, emptying it all on the floor, she wipes the steel plate with her pallu. She brings it up to her face and stares. This cannot be her. So thin? Her cheeks sunken, her forehead creased, her eyes mad?
At least it cannot be her then, she reasons. No, that was fifteen years ago. Or thirteen? She must have been rounder. Yes, she’ll paint herself more curvy. And the hair will be pulled back in a huge bun, not like the little ball of thread it resembles now. Even the fingers that hold the garland will be fatter, the nails painted. Her eyebrows will be shaped and her lips will be fuller, and her nose less protruding, her ears more delicate. Like a princess’.
Someone begins to unlock the door. Is her lunch plate being taken away so early? They do not usually pick it up until it’s time to bring in dinner. Who could it be at this time? Then noises fill her ears. Sounds she remembers hearing in some forgotten eternity. They are back, they say. They’ve come! Our Purushottam’s here… and Srikant… Of course it’s all forgiven now! Purushottam’s brought us a grandson… after all these years… someone to carry on the father’s name. Of course we insisted that the boy follow his father’s religion…
The smell of ghee lamps and milk sweets hits Urmila. Colours and sounds zoom by her door, bustling, screaming, crying. She sits on the only stool in the room. Urmila hugs herself, digging her fingernails into her arms, unable to bear the sudden assault on her senses.
A man enters. One she has never seen before. Or has she? He walks towards her, his eyes blinking rapidly, adjusting to the darkness inside. The noises don’t stop. They are children after all… parents forgive… he looks just like his grandfather… How many people are there? How big is this house?
Who is this man to enter just like that? Why is his jaw so familiar? Why is he walking so slowly?
She gasps. It is the rectangle of brown.
Her head hurts as she opens trunk after trunk of yesterdays, each smelling of naphthalene balls. His bare torso, his hair, his fingers, his mouth that never smiled. More yesterdays tumble out. His smell, his stubble. But most of all, his absences. Where was he when she refused to believe he’d gone? When she slept and slept for a whole week hoping to just tumble into oblivion? When she fought with them all to retain her colours? To preserve the green that spoke of his presence? The green circles that linked her days to his.
He strides towards her, searching her face. She turns away and faces the wall. Her eyes fall on the lone white patch on the wall. The space reserved for him has been vacant for too long. The sight of the emptiness, the whiteness of the missing groom hits her like a slap. The first tear in years runs down silently.
She stands still, his presence scorching her back. The seconds pass and neither speak. Finally, Urmila turns and walks outside the open door, staring straight ahead, refusing to look at all the family scattered around.
Srikant follows her out. Once outside, she turns to look at him, to memorise the features that have eluded her all these years. Ten seconds. Then walking back in, she stands at the doorway.
She raises a hand, gesturing him to stop. Urmila takes a step back. Then slowly, very slowly, the door shuts. It is locked. This time from the inside.
If it weren’t for the din of celebrating relatives, Srikant would have heard the soft clink of green bangles falling on the hard floor below.
Pervin Saket’s short fiction has been published in Kalkion, Page Forty Seven, Katha, Ripples, Perspectives and others. She has written a collection of poems, A Tinge of Turmeric, and her poems have featured in Kritya and The Binnacle. She is now writing her first novel.