Fiction, Vol. 6.4, Dec. 2012
Rajani hears her mother talking to someone outside the door, chatting excitedly about a movie that is coming to their village after a long gap, about a good robot against a bad one, both played by the same hero. Rajani picks up her mirror and stares at the unforgiving reflection. She wishes her mirror was broken. Her friend Pari’s mirror is cracked, and it makes one eye appear larger than the other, skews her brows, elongates her normally round face, and even distorts her lovely smile. Rajani’s mirror is oval, with a J-shaped green handle that fits snugly in her little hand; it is not broken, yet Rajani can see the disfigurement that has plagued her from birth.
Usually she doesn’t look into the mirror straightaway, but peeps into it, peering first at the crown of her head that comes into view, the jet black hair that her mother oils every day, telling her that it is long and thick enough to pull two bullocks, then at her large eyes fringed with generous lashes, and slowly at the ugly curve of her upper lip that arches like an errant wave, exposing some of her front teeth. Rajani brings the mirror closer to her face, and runs a finger over the unwanted ridge that almost touches the edge of her right nostril. She blocks it wistfully with her palm, wishing she had a conventional face like her parents, like Meena, her 8-year-old younger sister, like other children she knows.
Rajani is nine. Her parents treat her normally, never discussing the deformity in her presence, but reminders come in many forms: gazing strangers on the street, taunting classmates—especially boys who call her othkati, meaning cut lip—and those wicked reflective surfaces.
She places the mirror back in one corner of the small bedroom in their thatched mud house, cushioned behind a gray pillow, and darts out the door, ignoring her mother’s calls to not stay out for long. “Rajani! They say it might rain in the afternoon,” her mother screams. Without turning, Rajani bounds around the bend and along the gravel street, her pigtails leaping behind her round head, picking up pace as she passes a group of snickering schoolgirls. Rajani has stopped going to school, refusing to sit quietly while the normal-looking world around her takes pleasure in mocking her uniqueness. Rajani had flung the blackboard duster at a jeering boy one day, delivering a bloody cut above his left eye. She was appalled at the teacher’s reaction, which to her was blatantly unfair; he had punished her and not the boy, while the whole class watched in hushed glee.
She now roams the streets unfettered, her parents having decided to not push her into doing something that upsets her so much. They have other things to worry about: flooded rice fields that are breeding explosive clouds of mosquitoes, preparing for Rajani’s sister’s wedding to the 11-year-old son of the local tailor, and an outbreak of a viral disease that has been killing or maiming young children in surrounding villages.
A turbaned ice-cream vendor, his steel canisters weaving in his hands, slows down on seeing Rajani, his potential customer, but she runs by purposefully, passing shapeless clusters of huts, brick-walled cement-splattered houses of wealthier farmers, a noisy scrap metal shop where an elderly man and his son beat down a part of an iron gate with their serious hammers, a pair of startled goats, a woman in a parrot-green sari feeding hay to her cows. A teenage boy in a tight red shirt comes tearing down on his bicycle, and on spotting Rajani, rings his handlebar bell in a series of sharp blasts.
Just outside one of the huts, a little isolated from the rest, Rajani stops and stares at a woman. She is sitting in the doorway with her son, who toddles after lazy pigeons that barely bother to hop away. Rajani waits for the woman to look up, then walks up and crouches beside her. Shanti, a widow in her late teens, has been living alone with her son since her husband was killed in a road accident. They were married when she was ten and he was fourteen. Rajani’s mother had told her that Shanti’s in-laws kicked her out of their house, leaving her helpless with a little boy and no assets. They didn’t expect the truck driver who had run over Shanti’s husband to be caught, and the courts to decide quickly and handsomely in her favor. Since then she has had the courage to turn her repenting in-laws away, to the wrath of many in the village. She even declined an unexpected wedding proposal, preferring to sacrifice the vermillion on her forehead for freedom. Rajani likes her, perhaps because she doesn’t talk much, because she lives with flaws, alone and defiant, fighting slur and slime. Also because Rajani’s mother is fond of her and wishes she could do more for Shanti without fearing what others might say. “She is still just a girl,” Rajani’s mother has often remarked. Sometimes Rajani seeks her in the fields where she works, and spends time watching her hands fly smoothly through tasks. It is usually Rajani who prattles away while Shanti listens, nodding at intervals.
Now, after chattering about the new wedding saris that have arrived for Meena’s wedding, garnished with little diamonds of sutured glass that cast flecks of sunlight on the ceiling, and the dark shade of lipstick that her sister was trying out, Rajani leaves, promising to return soon. She heads toward the marketplace. She often likes to escape into the obscuring chaos of the bazaar, where people are too busy making choices or peddling their wares to ogle at her; where the noise, strangely uplifting, smothers the bantering, phantom voices of schoolkids that Rajani still hears; where most reflecting surfaces are blurred in dust; where distractions drop anchor in rich splashes of color.
Today, there is an extra bounce in her step. She will meet Darshan and his 3-year-old daughter, Banu, who sits at the more peaceful edge of the marketplace, and where the unruly jangle segues into the sudden calm of the woods. It is not that Darshan is not inundated with customers; his clients, mostly women, are hushed and reserved, and it helps that he doesn’t bawl like the others for attention.
Rajani cranes her neck to make sure they are there. Darshan comes to this market once a week, sometimes twice, but Rajani did not see him last week. Now, she is thrilled to spot Darshan standing next to a hooded woman hunched over his merchandise, and Banu perched on a large stone nearby nibbling at something from a paper cone. Darshan is a bangle-seller. On his large four-wheeled cart sparkle rolls and rolls of glass bangles bursting with myriad colors—crimson, cyan, green, ochre, cerulean—arranged in layers of different shades and patterns. His clientele sit on a four-foot wooden bench next to the cart poring over selections, pondering over combinations, haggling over prices, giggling, and admiring hands that clink with glassy color.
In addition to bangles, Darshan sells combs, metal trinkets, purses, toothpaste, toothbrushes, artificial jewelry that looks genuine, photo frames, tiny glass containers for keeping sundries like sindoor, and more recently, perfumes. He sells what women in these villages secretly desire, what they see in magazines and on TV. He sells diversions that keep women from fixating on deficiencies, from crying over fate and losses. He has competition but towers over everyone else in the sheer variety of his goods and his own inherent charm. People like him because they know his story and see him as their own: bereaved, and quietly suffering. His wife died when Banu was just a few weeks old. Instead of tucking himself into a languishing corner and abandoning his duties, he redoubled his efforts, added new assortments to his wares, and has been raising his girl singlehandedly. To the villagers, he is that rare symbol of resistance, albeit a fleeting one; in redoubling his endeavors he has chosen to be a traveling bangle-seller, shuttling between villages, camping at friends’ houses overnight, and taking trains to nearby cities to stock up.
He greets Rajani with a smile, and asks Banu to share her peanuts. “I have something for you today,” he tells Rajani, digging into his cloth bag. He hands her a holographic postcard of Lord Krishna where the images appear three-dimensional. “You can see the Lord moving in there,” he says, a glow of anticipation in his eyes. Rajani brings it close and peers at Lord Krishna painted blue, a large golden crown on his head, one hand holding a flute, and another around his soul mate, Radha. They smile beatifically, a glowing halo around their heads.
Rajani moves the postcard back and forth, and then looks up at Darshan questioningly. “He is not moving.”
Darshan crouches beside her and shifts the angle of the card delicately. “Look at his eyes and right hand,” he says, and repositions the card again.
A half-smile sneaks on to Rajani’s face. She plucks the card from Darshan and repeats the move herself, a short cry of conquest escaping her lips. She does it again and again. “He is blinking!” she exclaims, her eyes widening. “His hand is moving, too!” For the next hour, Rajani sits by Darshan’s cart, enamored by the play of colors and depth in the postcard. Banu beside her is equally beguiled by Rajani’s reactions, while Darshan sells his wares and explains the aural powers of his colorful bangles to captive customers.
The source of Darshan’s proficiency in chromatic influences is an old book, dust lining the cracks of its spine, pages yellowed and well-thumbed. When business slows down, he pulls it out of his bag and reads again, sometimes aloud to Banu and Rajani, those lyrical Hindi words reminding him of his father who, a bangle-seller himself, knew the pages by rote, and loved to expound the theories in his baritone voice.
Orange liberates you from addictions, from the stress of wanting something badly, of wanting something that you know will churn you like a storm roiling a helpless ocean. It soothes your nerves and coaxes you to see beyond desire, to look at things that, until now, were invisible to your myopic eyes.
Soon, it is almost two in the afternoon. The sun sends down splinters, and the bazaar is almost empty. Under a large oak tree, leaning against its trunk, Darshan, Banu, and Rajani rest. The father and daughter are asleep, but Rajani is still enthralled by her new possession. She scans the scene again: a pretty cow against whom Krishna and Radha lean, and the blue moon in the distant background. Darshan told her a few minutes ago that Krishna and Radha met as children, and Radha, with her looks and immense love, continued to engage Krishna for decades. Rajani now asks herself if that is why her sister Meena, still just a child, is getting married so young. She is one year younger than Rajani but beautiful, and lucky to be born complete. She doesn’t have to hide behind bushes when faced with approaching boys, or sit at events with a rag covering her mouth. Meena and Rajani love each other but unlike other siblings in the village, they don’t spend much time together, with Meena in school most of the day and choosing to play with her own friends. Meena will soon have her own Krishna, thinks Rajani, who she will pamper, who will tell her how pretty she is. At an angle, Rajani glimpses the silhouette of her own reflection in the postcard, but ignores it, focusing instead on Krishna and his composed smile, avoiding those unwelcome thoughts that come when she looks at herself.
Rajani turns to Darshan who is snoring, his mouth sputtering gently, his white turban, now unwound, shielding his eyes. She fondly remembers the day many months ago when her father had introduced her to Darshan, little Banu wailing in his arms. Darshan had looked at her differently, unlike other strangers, like he was greeting a normal girl; his eyes didn’t hesitate at her lip and his brows didn’t arch questioningly. He had placed Banu willingly in Rajani’s hands and let her swing his daughter on her hip, which, to Rajani’s delight, distracted Banu and stopped the crying. Nowadays, she talks to him openly about her imperfections, and he responds casually as if they were discussing a bruise on her knee. After they leave the market, Rajani usually goes home and counts days, waiting for Thursdays, when she can smile and play and be just another nine year old.
Rajani wishes Darshan would come to the bazaar more frequently, but knows that he travels to other villages to make more money, and often to the city. “Are cities really that big?” she had asked him once. He had nodded in response, and his eyes glazed over as if an interrupting thought had tugged at his mind. Then he talked of Mumbai, a city, he said, that was bigger than others he goes to, bigger than anything the mind could ever imagine, where markets are so huge children who get lost are often never found, where there are rides that carry them high into the sky in giant spheres, from where you could almost smell the clouds, from where people on the ground seem like undersized puppets. “They say the clouds smell of coffee,” he had said, and they laughed. That was the first time Darshan talked about Guru, his older brother who works in Mumbai. Many years ago, before Banu was born, he had promised to find a job for Darshan and call him over. But having changed jobs himself, he had urged Darshan to stay patient, and wait for the right moment.
“One day you won’t find me here in this market,” Darshan had said wistfully. “Assume then that I have gone to Mumbai.” Seeing the light fade in Rajani’s eyes, he put his arm around her shoulder and said, “Once I settle in, I will send for you. I have heard of doctors there who can mend your lip and make you so pretty you will have to beat drooling boys away with a stick.” Rajani had giggled, her shoulders hunching in embarrassment.
The afternoon sun loses its bite, and the market fills up with people again. Rajani watches two young women beam at Darshan while he helps one of them run her wrist gingerly through a splashy selection of bangles. Rajani has always seen him lively yet respectfully indulgent around women, making them feel good about buying something for themselves. She pictures him with his wife, loading both her hands with a rich set of bangles all the way to the crook of her elbows, whispering something in her ears as she smiles shyly. Rajani’s mother had told her once that Darshan’s wife was a pretty woman with an easy laugh. Also that when they smiled at each other, they looked so inseparable that the entire village was convinced, when she died suddenly of pneumonia, that someone had cast a sinister eye. Rajani wonders if he still thinks of his wife, selling things all week that perhaps she herself would have loved to own.
Now, Darshan tells Rajani about a street play in the adjacent village that he plans to take Banu to. He thinks she will enjoy it, and asks Rajani to run quickly to her mother for permission if she wants to join them.
The actors are all in red, which reminds Rajani of school uniforms. She has rarely seen so many children gathered in one place, exulting and clapping. To her relief, she recognizes no one. Large barrel-sized dhols hang from a white rope around the necks of two of the performers who drum passionately with thick bamboo sticks. The exaggerated dialogs are interspersed with dhol beats, which seem to be exclamation points, highlighting specific messages, not-so-subtle hints to the audience for applause. With every beat, Rajani and Banu join the crowd in saying, “Ha!,” an exercise they find uniquely entertaining. One of the smaller actors comes forward, makes funny faces, and mock-scratches her sides, triggering a wave of amused cheer. Banu is in tears of laughter. “Is she supposed to be a monkey?”asks Rajani. Darshan nods, then points out that the person behaving like a monkey is actually a boy. “Really? She looks like my sister, Meena.” Rajani is fascinated. Darshan explains to her that all actors playing girls are in fact boys.
Rajani wonders whether Meena would have enjoyed this street play. They hardly ever have activities like this in their small village. “Will you come to Meena’s wedding?” she asks Darshan. “It is just two months away.” He nods. That evening, on the way back from the play, Rajani asks Darshan if he thought she would ever get married. “I might turn fifteen or sixteen and still remain unwed, she remarks. ” In response Darshan talks about girls in the cities who don’t marry till they are well beyond twenty. “Not marrying as a child is actually a good thing. That way, you have more time to yourself, to play with Banu and escape to the marketplace without being questioned,” he says, smiling indulgently. Rajani cannot tell if he is telling the truth or just saying things to retrieve her lost smile, but she feels reassured, her hand firmly in his tight grip, little Banu quietly walking by her side.
Rajani spends the whole week with the Radha-Krishna postcard under her pillow, looking at it once in a while to make sure she has not crushed it under her weight. She discovers new details in the postcard: the crested head of a peacock peeping from behind one of the bushes, yellow butterflies flitting on blades of grass near Radha’s feet, and two milk-white swans nuzzling under a waterfall in the far left corner of the picture. Rajani wonders how she could have missed these before. She puzzles over the details; were they already there or had they appeared overnight by some divine play? Mother always talks about God’s hand in everything. Perhaps these appearances are secret missives, one-on-one messages from Lord Krishna himself. She places her mirror on the floor at the angle of the wall and steps away from it, looking at herself imitating a monkey. Then she inches closer and rolls her eyes and blows her cheeks, making funny squealing noises. She hears giggling, turns around, and sees Meena’s amused face at the window. Half-smiling and embarrassed, Rajani makes a shooing gesture at the window and rushes towards her sister, who disappears in a flash. Through flimsy spider webs on the rusted bars of her window, Rajani watches Meena scurry along the small gully that snakes behind their hut, her little bare feet dislodging loose gravel. Rajani cannot imagine that Meena will be married off soon, her mischievous laughter gone forever from the house.
Come Thursday, she sprints to the market like always but doesn’t find Darshan and Banu. She waits until late afternoon but they don’t show up. Week after week passes without any sign of them. She asks her mother if she knows anything, but her mother shakes her head. Rajani is so dejected that her father comes along one day to help her, perhaps to try and ask around. But no one seems to know. The village is abuzz with the recent deaths of three young children, and everyone is convinced that the strange killer virus has moved to their midst from neighboring villages. Two doctors arrive from the city and talk to villager elders about the precautions that need to be taken. An older man dies from the virus, then a young pregnant woman.
Rajani grabs her postcard from under the pillow and runs to the rice fields to see Shanti. The normally chirpy girl squats quietly on a barren plot of land next to the fields, and watches Shanti dehusk rice, her oily-faced son secured to her back. The boy, hooded in a white rag, squints into the sun, his head bobbing as Shanti bends and picks up a pestle. Banu was perhaps his age when she first saw her, thinks Rajani. It is humid yet breezy. With the pestle Shanti pounds the shelled rice against wooden boards to loosen the husk, then stands upright and, with a quick sweep of her hand, pushes the rice onto a large blue cloth fastened to the ground with rusted clamps. The heavy rice collects below in a small heap while the wind punts the separated chaff sideways. The small dry hulls waft like strange insects, some latching onto blades of grass, some arching in the air before settling reluctantly on the ground. In the distance, a farmer walks on an earthen dike with his two water buffaloes, their black skin glistening in the sun. Shanti works till late afternoon, and then asks Rajani to join her for lunch.
“I haven’t seen Darshan and Banu for weeks now,” says Rajani. “Do you think they miss me?”
Shanti pats her head and nods. Then she tears a piece of chapatti, dips it into a container of daal, and hands it to Rajani. They eat in ponderous silence. Rajani finds the daal spicier than what her mother makes, but says nothing. Shanti smiles at Rajani as she takes a swig of water from a plastic bottle. Shanti’s son sits next to them punching little holes in the mud with his fingers. When Shanti returns to work, Rajani runs to the oak tree at the edge of the market. Sitting in the shade, she looks at her postcard; her reflection in the postcard seems more prominent today, the silhouettes scarier, and she is unable to focus on Krishna and Radha. In a small cluster of dead leaves, she notices a turquoise bangle. It is cracked but she wears it anyway. It is too big for her wrist. Banu must have played with it, she thinks.
Turquoise heals; like a wet patch on cement ground that weakens and shrivels in the face of conquering sunlight, your pains will dissipate. In its place will emerge elation, slowly, like new skin, pressing your mind to forget that there ever was agony.
Another week passes. Today is Meena’s wedding ceremony. Everyone seems relieved that it was not canceled or postponed due to the virus. Wearing painfully executed masks of make-up, Meena and her husband look older than they are, dazzling in their bright attire. Last night, Meena had hugged Rajani and cried, holding her in an unusually long embrace. A Hindi film song is now playing loudly in the background. To Rajani, the hubbub seems more intense than at the market, noise bouncing off the windowless walls. Rajani is sweating in a stiff new dress. Everyone comes to Rajani and hugs her: her mother, father, her neighbors, even Meena’s in-laws. Rajani looks sad, but it is not what everyone thinks. She hasn’t even concealed her mouth with a cloth this time. Except for Shanti whom she met yesterday, Rajani has told no one that somebody has taken her Krishna postcard. Two days ago, she forgot it under the oak tree, and it disappeared. She has looked for it everywhere.
Now, Rajani looks toward the door. Perhaps Darshan and Banu would surprise everyone by showing up. Maybe they found her card and would come to return it to her. For some reason she doesn’t believe the recent rumors about Banu and Darshan. In this climate of dread and disease, she thinks everyone in the village has become paranoid.
She is certain that Darshan and Banu are in Mumbai, Darshan having found work, content and busy. She pictures them roaming the crowded marketplace, colorful, embroidered dresses floating on thin ropes outside the shops. Then, Banu sitting on the giant wheel, rising and screaming till her head breaks through a cloud. She would find out whether clouds smelled of coffee.