Over the next few weeks I will be posting chapters of my Short Story Collection for your reading pleasure.
Do grant me your honest feedback, liberally!
Here’s the first story, Chinidad
At 15 she was long past marriageable age, plus she was not exactly quiet-tempered and to top it off, her father was too poor to pay a substantial dowry. So it was by Shirdi Baba’s grace alone that a rich family in a neighbouring village had been more than happy to accept her for their son.
She did not lay eyes on her new husband until three days after she had been at her in-laws house, learning what chores were to be hers from her four elder sisters-in-law. She remembered the shock of seeing him, tall but frail, barely able to stand near the bed they would soon share in a room of their own in his father’s house. His eyes were almost listless, his lips barely able to form a smile through his wheezing efforts to breathe, but he was handsome. He landed on the floor with a thump as he tried to step toward her. She rushed to him, and from that moment on, took care of him more like her child than her husband. She oversaw the workers on his plot of the mustard field his father had shared amongst his sons; she cooked, washed, cleaned and did everything else her lazy sisters-in-law decided not to. But she was happy.
Her husband was kind and gentle, telling her amusing tales on the days he felt well enough to talk. And on the rare occasion he was able to move around, ordered field workers to take them to the bazaar for a few hours, where he bought her sweets, bangles and all sorts of fine jewellery. On other days, too many to mention, she wrapped him in warm cloths and applied herbs to his fevered skin. She fed him warmed cow’s milk and sat for hours with his head in her lap, singing softly so he could sleep. Although she never bore him a living child, they had spent six years together.
Now he was dead, and her in-laws were telling her without preamble or sympathy that she would join him on his funeral pyre the next morning and make a proud sati. She closed her eyes briefly, inhaling the scent of incense filling the room where her husband’s body lay. He was wearing his best Banaras silk kurta, and finely woven dhoti. The white of the kurta made him even paler, so she had wrapped a gold kanawar around his shoulders. Despite his brothers’ protests, she had looped his favourite gold hoops through his ears, and fastened his gold bera to his wrist. The matching one he had bought her was hidden in her trunk of clothes, with several other pieces of jewellery he had told her to keep away from his greedy sisters-in-law. He looked as handsome in death as he had in life, if not a little more frail. She longed for his smile, but knew it would not come. Her mother-in-law led her away from her husband’s body and told her to prepare herself for the morrow. Once within the confines of her room, she slumped to the floor, in almost the same spot he had collapsed on their wedding night, and cried till tears refused to come. She cried for the life she had, the life she should have had with a strong husband able to take care of her, rather than the other way around, and for all the love they shared that could never be revisited. She would never again hear his sweet voice telling her tales of Rajas and Ranis in palaces far away, never would she feel his warm hands gently caress her face, never would she return from the field to find he had woven flowers together to decorate her hair. Her husband was dead. Renewed sobs racked her body and she pounded on the earthen floor. It was not fair. None of it was, and now she was going to die a horrible death. Her wails grew until one of her sisters-in-law came to tell her Babuji (her father-in-law) didn’t appreciate her calling attention to herself, and she was making the family look bad by showing more sorrow than her husband’s mother. She quieted, and her sister-in-law left. No one ever angered Babuji.
She curled herself into a little ball and, holding onto the kurta her husband had worn when he died, she fell asleep. “Jaanu!” her husband’s voice echoed through her mind. “Jaanu!” His soft fingers brushed along her cheekbone like velvet. “Wake up, little wife,” her eyes fluttered open and instead of the kurta she had fallen asleep with, she was in his arms. Her husband was alive! “Swami! Everyone thought you were dead! I dressed you myself, how is this possible?” His soft laugh quieted her and he began to explain that she was asleep, and dreaming, and from now onward he would always visit her in her dreams. He told her he didn’t want her to die on his pyre, he wanted her to live and laugh and have the life he could never have given her from his sickbed. He told her to take all the jewellery he had bought her and run away to the seaside, where she could buy passage to another world. “Go now, Jaanu, my pretty little wife, and never look upon this place again.”
She woke in the dead of night, her face covered in tears and her hands wrapped tightly in his kurta. She quickly gathered a small bundle of clothes, and all of her jewellery, and pulled his kurta over herself. She wrapped her hair in a dark orni, and left quietly. She thanked Baba her in-laws slept like the dead! She made her way through the streets like a frightened rat, jumping at the slightest sound. If any untoward character were to come upon her, she would find herself dead or in a dancing house by the morning. She hid behind walls and under roadside vendors’ tables when she heard anyone coming, and thankfully made it to the seaside before light overtook the earth a second time.
At the docks, she met a sweet old lady and her son and daughter-in-law, who were about to board a huge ship to somewhere known as Chinidad, a place the old lady said where Hindustanis could forget their past and become rich. Only sugar cane fields blossomed in that place, the woman said, and Hindustanis had no one to tell them who was Brahmin or who was Sudra, no one to make them poor or rich but themselves. She followed the woman’s directions and bought herself passage to the Land of Sugar, remaining under the protection of the old woman and her family.
Months later she was led off the stinking ship, thin and sick, vomiting constantly because of the motion of the boat, her eyes darting left and right continuously from having to keep dirty sailors away from her skirts. The island, they said, was a place to keep the Hindustanis until their illness abated, as they did not want others on the mainland to get the sicknesses they brought from across the seas. She stayed in a small, cramped hospital for a few weeks, tended by bakra nurses and the old woman who called her daughter. When she was strong enough, they were put on another, much smaller sea vessel, and taken to the mainland: Chinidad, Land of Sugar. She saw green hills and blue waters, heard the songs of birds and looked up into clear skies. Here she would find her future. It was beautiful; the salt scent of the sea gave way to a sweetness that was more than sugar, rich warmth that vibrated out of the earth. As she was led off the boat at the docks, she dropped to her knees and kissed the earth, thanking her for Her blessings. She vowed to never get on another ship so long as she lived.
She was led to another bakra man, sitting at a desk and taking names. She gave him her name, he checked her travel papers, and made her press her thumbprint onto a piece of paper with foreign writing. She wondered what it was all about, but could not make out the strange words the bakra was saying with his leering smile. As she was being led away by a Hindustani man in bakra clothes, who told her she would be assigned to a plantation now, a bakra voice commanded them to stop in the Hindustani tongue. She turned around and looked into the eyes of a tall man, much bigger than her husband had been. His eyes were the colour of the sea, and he wore a hat over his sand coloured hair. A moustache curled over his upper lip, and he carried a riding crop. He continued to speak, “Leave that one Singh, I want her for my house servant. Take her to the plantation immediately and let the housekeeper know she is to start in the kitchen. Bed her down in the Great House as well; I don’t want her mixing with the field coolies.” She looked at him again, but this time his eyes were fixed upon her. He raked them over her body from her orni to her toe rings, a snake-like smile spreading slowly across his lips. A hard, cold lump formed in the pit of her stomach. She looked toward the sea once more, but the boats had returned and the ship was gone. All around her Hindustanis were being herded along to different bakra men, who branded them and sent them to overseers to be taken to their plantations. The old woman and her family were nowhere in sight. She was alone, and she had not dreamt in months.