Lata breathed hard as she ground into the lumpy cotton pillow in an attempt to pleasure herself. Tucked under a thick blanket, she made as little movement as possible even though she was alone in the room. The wooden floorboards amplified even the slightest shuffle in the quiet of the night. She thought of her husband but the memory of his clumsy and indifferent touch dispelled her ardour instantly. Throwing away the covers she flipped onto her back and looked at the high ceiling that was blackened over time with soot from the kitchen fire. She ran her eyes along the length of the bulky logs that formed a wooden framework for the stone-tiled roof. If one were to hang oneself from it, she thought, it would hold up very well. Or if the house were set on fire, it was fortified with so much wood, it would blaze to the ground in no time. The fire crackled and popped in her head as she pictured the smoky charred remains. She chided herself, wondering why such a thought came into her head at all.
She still felt overwhelmed by the rich subtle aroma of rosewood furniture in the house, which she knew had been got with much trouble from the plains. She inhaled deeply, trying to recall the sharper smell of cheap unpolished pinewood of the low ceilings in her parents’ house, a smell intertwined with a constant yearning she felt for her home, and sighed, knowing well that in retrospect she remembered only the warmth and pleasures of her past life, forgetting completely the anxieties that came with poverty and having three younger sisters.
She looked at her reflection in the mirror of the heavy oak cabinet. Only her large doe-like eyes were visible in the darkness. She touched her soft cheek and ran her hands down the curves of her body and suddenly feeling suffocated with the unquenched fire in her groin and thoughts of blazing flames in her head, she threw open the widow.
Resting her chin on the windowpane she closed her eyes and took a deep sip of the cool night air, wanting to loosen that knot of despair that had sat tight in her stomach for so many days. It had been a month since her husband had left for his army posting at the border, to a non-family station. He had gone away a couple of weeks after their marriage and would hold that posting for at least another year.
Opening her eyes she looked at the jacaranda tree standing in the gently sloping landscape, its pale flowers gleaming in the moonlight. Surrounded by darkness the tree stood absolutely still as if it was hiding several mysteries in its fold. It was at that point that she heard grunts from the lower room. At first she was alarmed. Was it a panther on the lurk? But what followed were soft moans. She cringed instinctively, realizing that it was her in-laws making love in the room downstairs. She listened for a while and when there was no doubt about the source of the sounds she closed the window stealthily, as if afraid of being caught in the act of snooping. Covering her face again she tried to block those sounds from her head.
She was accustomed to getting up at the crack of dawn for as long as she could remember, even as a young girl when she had several chores to finish before school. But that day, embarrassed about the previous night’s unintentional eavesdropping, she was reluctant to face her in-laws and lay in bed till she heard them finish their morning tea and open the front door. She was relieved when, through the crack in the window, she saw her father-in-law walking down the slope towards the motorable road with a rifle on his shoulder.
When she went into the kitchen her mother-in-law had taken her seat for the day next to the main choolah. In her late forties, Savitri had a clear complexion and strong features. As Lata stole a look at her stoic face she imagined her in the throes of passion. The thought was amusing and uncomfortable at the same time and would stick in her head all day. Savitri handed Lata a glass of tea while looking out of the window. She never looked directly at Lata, instead her gaze would always be in her general direction. Initially Lata thought it was because Savitri was a very private person. But it didn’t take her long to understand that it was because she had no real interest in her, as if Lata as an individual did not matter to her. There was hardly any conversation between them except of a functional nature - the chores that needed to get done, the cow’s foot that needed medication, or the rice that needed to be threshed. Whenever Lata tried talking to her about her maika she would turn away and busy herself with something. But while reticent, Savitri had a way of being domineering and Lata had learnt to live by her rules.
Savitri informed her that her father-in-law had gone to the neighbouring village for a few days. Leopard attacks on humans had increased in the recent years due to massive deforestation and Hukum Singh often assisted the forest department in hunting down these man-eaters. For this purpose he kept a licensed rifle at home, inspiring awe in the villagers. As a wood contractor he spent a lot of time in the forest and hunted gamebirds and other small and big prey. He had bought the villagers’ silence by gifting them small game now and then. Lata had to learn to skin, clean and chop the game which he brought home as Savitri disliked that task.
After herding the cows to graze in the pasture for the day, Lata didn’t head back immediately. She went into the shaded alcove of the flourishing jacaranda tree which was nurturing under its spread a profusion of life. She sat on a rotting tree trunk that lay on a mauve carpet of fallen jacaranda flowers. Above, the branches of the tree formed a pretty mesh against the blue sky. She had not seen these trees in the higher mountains where she came from and these summer blooms had delighted her. The trees were usually found along hill roads but this particular seed had wandered far from the road, found its way into these fields and finding an available plot had built a home. The last time she sat here village women, on their way to the forest to cut wood, had told her in hushed tones about Malti Amma, long dead and gone, who, having indulged in an indiscretion in her youth, had buried her illegitimate child under this very tree, as soon as it was born and still alive. Perhaps that particular uncharacteristically twisted branch of the tree had been nourished by the baby’s flesh, Lata thought with macabre fascination as she looked up at the canopy against the sky. Then getting up reluctantly she headed back to the sacks of rice that were waiting to be threshed.
Before her marriage Lata’s friends had been envious of her. They had thought she would accompany her husband in his postings and have a life of relative leisure. No village girl wanted to stay in the village after marriage as it meant a life of unending hard labour and of toiling under that harsh sun which burnt away their beauty too early. Lata was not sure if this arrangement of her having to stay back in the village had been explained to her family before marriage. The match had seemed so good that her parents had not asked too many questions.
Hukum Singh was the biggest wood contractor in the region and was easily the most affluent man in the block parishad. Of his two children his elder daughter was settled in Delhi, and his son, Aalam, was a jawaan in the army. He was the sole heir to his father’s business but Hukum wanted him to get hardened and trained in the army for a few years before joining his business.
Given Lata’s delicate beauty her parents had ambitions for her beyond what their status would ordinarily allow. However they were surprised and delighted by the proposal from Hukum for his son. The match was facilitated by one of Lata’s cousins who worked under him. Envious neighbours had whispered that a poor bride was being sought out for Aalam, one with simple expectations and who would fall in line with their ways.
When Hukum Singh and his wife Savitri Devi came to their house for initial talks, Lata was in the backyard consoling her schoolmate Chandan. After getting out of school Chandan was one of the few boys who had gone as far as Nainital, a posh hill station in the region, to attend University. Sending children so far was rare for the poor villagers of these parts and it meant that Chandan’s parents saw a future beyond farming for their son. When he came back from college for the first time, his newly gained swagger gave him the confidence to declare his undying love for her. Lata’s beauty had always needed a suitable admirer and a town-returned Chandan’s interest in her was a reaffirmation of the moniker the local boys had given her, Aishwarya Rai of block Kapkot.
They sealed their romance with kisses stolen deep in the fir forest, in dappled light under tall deodar trees. In the ethereal quietness in their portion of the universe, broken only by the soft mysterious swishing of tree tops, those sweet kisses had seemed enough, and had promised a life of unending ardour and satisfaction. They were waiting to tell their parents till Chandan finished college and got some sort of a job. Lata did not want to stay in the village, she wanted to see the world. Now she was convincing Chandan that she would not buckle under any amount of pressure and agree to the proposal, however rich the family was, and satisfied with these assurances he went away.
As she served tea to Hukum and Savitri, her heart began to sink. She saw that they were a dignified and handsome couple, such as she had not seen in her life and certainly not in her home, and snubbing them would seem completely outrageous to her parents. And when Hukum declared that they did not want any dowry she felt a chill go down her spine, for now there was no conceivable way in which she could refuse this proposal. She had three younger sisters and she knew how worried her parents were at the prospect of getting all of them married. A day after their visit and a sleepless night later, she had conveyed to her parents, who valued her opinion, her willingness to meet the prospective groom. The meeting did not happen as Hukum was against such modern trends but he promised to send a photo of Aalam at the earliest.
Though jilting Chandan lay heavy on Lata’s heart she saw the effect of the proposal on her parents and family – her father would be smiling foolishly to himself all day and her mother would vocally fantasize about the beautiful grandchildren she would have. For several nights Lata’s pillow soaked up cold tears and muffled anguished cries, absorbing the remorse she felt so keenly.
But soon, with the arrival of Aalam’s photograph, tall and dashing in his army uniform, the thought of Chandan, hanging around the village marketplace in his shiny shoes and bright clothes, began to arouse pity in Lata. And pity was no recipe to battle the rising ardour she felt for Aalam. As the wedding had to take place within a fortnight, before Aalam’s leave from duty expired, Lata did not have much time to indulge in guilt for breaking Chandan’s heart. But it would linger, and later, on those lonely autumn afternoons, it would come back to create a storm in her life.
A few days before the wedding it transpired that while Hukum Singh, a man of few words, had not made any specific dowry demand, he conveyed the message that “what was appropriate should be given” and that the marriage arrangements “should be in keeping with their standing in society”. Lata’s father had agonized about what would be appropriate and took a small loan from his neighbours to do the best he could. He was nervous and completely on tenterhooks throughout the wedding proceedings. Lata felt pained to look at his gentle face strained with anxiety, his small frame standing so obsequiously next to the full-bodied Hukum. Lata’s entire family was of a smaller softer grain compared to her husband’s family. The groom’s family made no comments about the dowry or arrangements and Lata’s father had taken that to mean that he had done okay.
Lata was a picture of delicate beauty, despite the hurriedly put together and locally sourced bridal finery and trousseau. While she sobbed helplessly bidding her parents farewell, her father looked immensely relieved as he bundled her off into a decorated jeep.
Sitting next to Aalam she looked out of the moving jeep at the receding vista of her village, an immense sadness wrenching her heart. Those forests where she had spent so much of her childhood gathering wood and picking berries … she could smell the fresh stillness of mornings shared with Chandan … was that him standing high up on the hillside, that flash of an orange shirt? She could not say. The jeep took a sharp turn and the hillside was not visible anymore. Soon motion sickness took care of her sorrows and after throwing up every morsel in her stomach she fell into an exhausted sleep. The jeep moved down the winding road, a small dot on the back of the white serpentine road that uncoiled endlessly and soon disappeared into the folds of the mountains.
When she woke up they were moving through warm pine forests. The roads had more traffic which whizzed past with a blast of film music. Her mood had lightened and she stole a look at Aalam’s handsome sleeping profile and smiled to herself.
Aalam’s village was on a gentle hillslope on the bank of the same river that rushed down the steep mountains past Lata’s village and settled into a languid flow in this flat open valley. The land was moist and fertile, the fields looked riper and fuller than they did in her village.
She was surprised to see that her new home, while a confident portrayal of an affluent household and much larger than other village homes, was not modernized at all. It was a traditional stone and slate construction without the flowery and colourful embellishments that cement houses allowed for. The insides were heavily fortified with wood but still had mud coated walls. She could not appreciate the traditional wood carving on the doors and windows and the dignified bare simplicity of the house. Coming into money a little late in life, Hukum insisted on living rustically as he had till then, with only a fridge, tv and motorcycle to count for as urban comforts. A motorable road did not come right up to the house and one had to walk about half a kilometre on foot to get to it. It was separated from other village homes by a large fruit orchard and broad terraced fields where they grew wheat and rice.
That night Aalam did not speak to Lata at all. He hurriedly turned off the lights before clumsily groping at her in the dark and after making love to her fell into a deep slumber. Lata made awkward attempts at having intimate conversations with him in the next few days but he just proved to be dull and unresponsive. Lata noticed that he cowered in his father’s presence and that his mother Savitri was overly protective of him. Hukum had an imposing personality and even Lata instinctively shrunk away and became silent when he was around. He never so much as raised his deep low voice but his eyes, under the heavy full brow, were sharp and piercing. Lata became aware that often when Hukum was speaking to Aalam, in his characteristic drawl, he was berating him about something and Savitri, also speaking in her normal tone, was defending him fiercely. Lata found this to be more disturbing than a loud altercation would have been. Seeing her strong-bodied husband reduced to a quivering child by a mere taunt was very disturbing for her and somehow this kept her passion for him alive for some time.
A few days later Hukum was taunting Aalam more openly because he was complaining about having to go back to duty. When Lata understood that she was not to accompany him and that it would be a year before he would come back, she stomped off into her room, signaling to Aalam with urgent looks to follow her. She had to wait for a long time before he came. She clung onto him and cried bitterly. He kept repeating that he did not want to go back himself, that he hated his job, but he refused to acknowledge, even for a moment, her hurt and disappointment. Lata threatened in harsh whispers to return to her maika. The next day, as if anticipating her defiance, Hukum bought her a set of gold ornaments from the biggest jeweller in the vicinity. It was a heavy gold choker in a traditional design with two matching gold bangles. Even though Lata would have preferred a lighter piece in a modern design, she recognized its worth and was flattered to have been wooed into compliance. Savitri who rarely betrayed any emotion otherwise looked very displeased and refused to acknowledge Lata’s presence for a few days.
On the night before he was to leave Lata found Aalam sulking in their room. She shut the door, sat down next to him on the bed and put her arms around his neck. She had just begun to shower tender kisses on him when Aalam grabbed her roughly, switched off the lights and ripped off her clothes. As Lata went through the motions in the dark, all the tenderness and passion that she had to bestow remained locked in her heart.
With Aalam gone Lata found herself immersed in a routine which was not very different than the one in her home. Cooking and all the chores of the kitchen were Savitri’s domain while the rest of the household work was left for her to do. Help was only hired for harvesting the crop. Aalam’s sister had taken care of household chores till her marriage a few months ago and that explained the urgency in getting Aalam married during his short leave. The help that was hired in the interim period was relieved soon after the wedding. It was hard to say if they tenaciously hung onto a simple way of living as a matter of frugality or as a matter of humility. For home wear Savitri had two worn out saris which she alternated. Even Hukum wore worn out clothes at home only changing to respectable ones when he was going out on work. All the shiny and bright clothes that Lata had got tailored were uncomfortable to wear around the house but she was bashful about asking for new ones just yet.
Soon, with so little communication with anyone, Lata’s effervescence began to wither away. She sought to interact with the village women but that was difficult because the house was a little cut off and mainly because Savitri disapproved of it. Wary of that uneasy silence which pervaded the house she would go into her room as soon her work was done. Because of Aalam’s posting the family could not call him. Lata waited for his calls but he always called on his father’s mobile and asked to speak to her only after he had spoken to his parents. Only cursory conversation was possible with Hukum hovering not too far away. She spoke to her own folks every other day but was very careful not to display any trace of disappointment.
Hukum got back earlier than expected from killing the man-eating leopard. He had hunted two jungle fowls too and handed them to Lata for skinning. As they ate in the dim-lit kitchen he told them about the leopard whose last kill was a young boy out in the jungle with his goats. They had used the boy’s body as bait and hidden a trap near it. It was an easy one and someone from the forest department had shot the leopard dead as soon as it was caught. Lata saw Hukum’s body tense up in anger when he gave this information, as if he had been robbed of the pleasure of putting that fatal bullet through the animal. But on hearing this Savitri, who had been wound up since he left, seemed to relax and breathe easy. Lata had heard from the village woman, on their way to the forest, that Hukum had injured and trapped a man-eating leopard in a cave in a neighbouring jungle the previous year. He refused to kill it immediately. He camped near the cave and watched over the tortured animal for a few days as it growled dangerously in frustration and grew weak of its bleeding wounds. Finally the forest department got wind of it, stepped in and forced him to shoot it down. Lata watched Hukum closely as he ate his meal now. His clean cut face did not betray that brutality. But it was those eyes. She had seen that flicker of cruelty in them when he ruthlessly belittled Aalam and could imagine that they glinted with the same fire when he tortured the poor leopard.
When Aalam called that night she went into a corner and whispered to him, asking him to promise that he would not leave his job. He said nothing and instead asked about the rice harvest. Later at night when she opened her window for fresh air she heard them again, Hukum’s grunts followed by Savitri’s softer moans. Somehow she felt more disturbed by them that day than she had the first time.
The next day there was a photograph in the newspaper of Hukum and the forest officials with a dead leopard tied to a stake. He sat in the sunny courtyard looking at it while Lata threshed rice, sweating in the late morning heat. Savitri came out with a katori of mustard oil and began to massage Hukum’s naked torso. Lata stole a look at them, noticing his muscled arms, his lean torso and images of his body writhing over Savitri’s, of him thrusting into her kept coming to her mind. He caught her looking at him as she served him coals for his hukka. She hurried away guiltily, afraid he had read her mind. She had become aware of his agile gait, that of a skilled hunter which gave him a such a light step that you would often not hear him enter the room till you saw him. His presence, which seemed to fill the house, began to disturb her even though she hardly had much interaction with him. Sometimes she felt his watchful gaze as she went about her chores with a vigour that belied her delicate frame.
Unused to the heat in these lower climes, she needed to take a short rest in the afternoon as summer set in. She would look out of her window at the village women on the opposite hill laughing and shouting as they worked in the fields. The fields on this side lay quiet, golden with the ripe wheat crop. This landscape that had seemed so luscious when she first came now seemed desolate. The high sun made everything look parched and jaundiced. As evening fell sounds from across the hill ceased and the patches of deepening shadows looked eerie, arousing a sense of despair in her. She reasoned with herself that it was only for a year, and then she would be out of the village and be with her husband. But deep down she suspected that was not how it was going to be. Aalam on the phone had started sounding like a complete stranger to her. She looked at herself in the mirror as she combed out her long brown hair. There was only herself to take pleasure in her beauty.
After her short rest she would step out into the stone courtyard which burned bright in the high sun. Against it her slim silhouette could be seen working unflaggingly till evening, threshing, pounding, cleaning, washing, flogging out all unnecessary thoughts from her head. When evening came she would go into the forest and call in the cows.
Savitri refused to let Lata go home as was customary a couple of months after marriage. So instead her father and youngest sister visited her. Lata was eagerly awaiting them, thinking of how badly she wanted to feel like her old self for a few days. But as soon as they arrived she was stung by their restraint and awkwardness. Her sister had cut off her beautiful long hair to a bob in preparation for this important visit and it pained Lata to see her thin shoulders hunched up in diffidence all the while she was there. She only spoke in whispers at night when she was alone with Lata. Savitri was gracious in receiving her father’s gifts from their fruit trees – plums, wild apples and walnuts – but apart from initial pleasantries she did not speak to them. Lata hardly had much time with her father as he would keep Hukum company. Lata felt embarrassed to see him so eager to please and reduced to a constantly smiling, pitiable sight. Hukum did not demand reverence but he accepted it very naturally. Lata wished that her father would believe that his kindness and gentleness gave him some importance and a place in this world. Lata could never make them feel comfortable in a house where she herself never belonged. The visit proved to be a strain on her as her younger sister watched her like a hawk, to report to her mother Lata’s standing in this household. When they left she felt a mixture of relief and sorrow. She knew that they would never be part of her world and after their visit it felt like a phase of her life was over, such as she had not felt when she had got married.
Alone again at night she lay awake and thought of Chandan after a long time. Even though he seemed so insignificant now she recalled his passionate kisses as she pleasured herself. Despite the heat she did not open the window at night anymore.
The monsoon was heavy and it brought much-needed relief from the heat. It caused rivers to flood in different parts of the hills and Lata was concerned for her parents’ village which experienced heavy landslides every year. Here the rains painted a coat of green on the gentle slopes and threw a splash of blackish brown into the river. Every morning a spray of white mist covered the valley which would only dissolve with a heavy downpour. Lata enjoyed the change of scenery for a few days but soon the wild monsoon blooms, the coat of droplets on blades of grass, the moist breeze began to make her gloomy. The women did not go to the forest in the rains and she had absolutely no one to talk to. She was relieved when in autumn the sun returned with a reduced intensity.
Hukum and Savitri needed to go to Delhi to see their new-born grandson. There was some discussion about whether Lata should accompany them but Savitri decided against it as hired help never took good care of the cows. Lata was dismayed and for the first time got up in anger and walked off to her room. Savitri acted as if she had not registered her reaction but the next day Lata found a new sari lying on her bed – an appeasement from Hukum. He also made sure to stock the house with Lata’s favourite sweetmeats before they left.
It was calming to have the house to herself. The hired help Basant, a poor relative of the family, was to come at night to stay in the house and help out in the day if necessary. The village women had resumed their trips to the forest and she called them over and served them tea in the courtyard. They told Lata about the annual mela in the neighbouring village and it was decided that all of them would attend it together.
Basant came in for the day to be around the house. Lata took a lot of care and time to get ready and rightly so as all the women were in their brightest clothes. She wore the jewellery and sari Hukum had got for her and that day she felt like a ‘bade ghar ki bahu’, even though she had a nagging feeling that she was playing truant. After a long walk to the bus stop the women got into an overcrowded bus to reach the fairground.
Thousands of villagers had thronged the ground which lay in a cup of hills. Lata was like a child, trying out every accessory that was being sold, eating from every food stall and getting on every ride.
And then there he was, leaning against a stall, looking at her with hurt eyes as if he had been waiting for her a long time. Lata broke away from the other ladies and rushed towards Chandan. And like an old song he brought back, in an instant, the remembrance of home. She stopped short of hugging him and instead held his hand, battling the gush of affection mixed with guilt. He feigned surprise and indifference. He told her that he had left his studies and taken up a clerical job in Nainital Bank. She noted his sober clothes and the moustache that he wore uneasily on his soft face.
She suggested that they take a ride on the ferris wheel. He gallantly bought the tickets and a stick of candyfloss for the ride. Her heart skipped a beat as the wheel swung into motion, as if some possibilities had opened up in that moment. As the wheel climbed up he squeezed her hand tight and all the misery of the last few months streamed down his face and dripped in warm drops onto the back of her hand. She felt immobilized with the compassion that welled up in her heart. She looked at his bowed head and tears slipped down her own face. As the ferric wheel swung up and down they continued to hold hands in silence.
On the bus ride back Lata sat away from the other women, wanting to be lost in her thoughts. She put her head out of the window letting the cool air sting her warm cheeks. The setting sun had a bolder hue that day and the darkening hillsides a softer embrace.
It was quite late when she got back and a worried Basant was pacing around in the courtyard. She left him to lock up the house and immediately went into her room. She lay on her bed looking out at the clear autumn night sky, listening to music, humming along, lulled into a feeling of freedom after a long time. Later she undressed in front of the rosewood cabinet mirror, taking time to look at herself, her long beautiful hair, her translucent skin. She must see him again, she thought, smiling to herself. He had told her that he had come all the way to the mela in the hope of seeing her and that he was staying with an acquaintance in a nearby village. She messaged him to come and see her in the forest near her house. In his display picture he had his arm around a joker with a white face and a large red nose, sitting on a bench wearing yellow overalls. She was very impressed when he informed her that it was a photo outside an American restaurant on a visit to New Delhi.
She waited for him at the edge of the forest. When he was in sight she began to move ahead and he followed at a distance. No one from the village came into this part which adjoined Hukum Singh’s property. But a pine forest with its long bare trunks, sparse foliage and a complete lack of ground flora made her feel exposed. Every step, as she led him deep into the forest, was laden with anxiety. She found a bend near a stream and seeing that it was well covered from view with large rocks, she relaxed into its secrecy.
The kisses were sweeter than she remembered. Revelling in his adoring gaze she lay down on the rocks and looked up at the sky. The straight bare trunks of the pine trees seemed to converge and through the neat clumps of foliage that capped them sunlight filtered onto Lata’s blissful face. Isn’t this all that she wanted, she thought, to have the complete adoration of a man? As evening began to set in she became nervous and left hurriedly, instructing him to wait a while before heading out.
The next day she sent off Basant to the fair giving him a handsome tip to enjoy the day. Chandan had been unsure about coming over to the house but agreed when she assured him that her in-laws would be away for at least a couple of weeks. She was nervous too, but also intoxicated with a flush of passion. She got up really early and finished all the housework. For the first time she had the feeling that the house belonged to her. Chandan came, not through the main village, but through the forest route and entered the house from the backyard. He immediately took a tour of the house and was quite surprised at its lack of modernization. He seemed more confident of himself that day. She stood behind him as he looked at photographs hanging on the wall, of her in-laws and of her and Aalam.
She then drew him into her room where they made love all day. They ate on her bed and later she served him tea in the best tea set taken out of the large wooden box in the kitchen. They talked about the old days and she caught up on all the news of their friends in the village.
Sometime towards late afternoon she heard a faint sound. Panicking she peered out of the window and called out to Basant but there was no response. She put on her clothes and took a cursory look around the house and convinced that it was just a gust of wind went back into her room, not even bothering to shut the door.
Chandan lay on the bed, head propped on his elbow, looking increasingly withdrawn as the day went by. She began to sing the Lata Mangeshkar songs he had loved to hear her sing in the old days, hoping to elicit the same intensity of adulation, but she could sense him slipping away.
When he gathered himself to leave in the evening she hung onto his neck wanting to draw some kind of promises from him. He broke her grip with a strong shake of his head and stepped away. Lata’s spirits began to sink. Putting on his clothes he began to tell her about his girlfriend who was also his colleague, that they planned to get married soon, that she had done her graduation and passed a bank exam, and that therefore she held a higher rank than him. Lata was stung with this sudden revelation and asked him if he would tell her about what had happened between them. This did not count as betrayal, he replied, and turned away.
She followed him out into the courtyard. Bitter disappointment had dulled her alertness and she did not register the sound coming from the kitchen. Her body trembled with humiliation when Chandan sauntered down the slope, never once stopping to look back. As she turned to go into the house she saw a thin wisp of smoke rising from the cracks between the ceiling stones.
The bolt of shock felt like a punch in her stomach. Had Basant got back early? Did he see anything? Her mind was racing. She would tell him it was her cousin who had dropped in and that she was showing him photographs in her room. She climbed the stairs nervously and slipped into her room. With shaking hands she pulled out photo albums from her cupboard and scattered them on the bed. Then gathering the cups and plates, she put on a nonchalant air and moved towards the kitchen, humming a song and casually calling out to Basant.
The long kitchen was almost completely dark. A shaft of light coming in through the open window was a smoky column because of the kitchen fire. She peered into the darkness calling out to Basant again. All she could see was a flash of a metal ladle as it caught the light. All she heard was the sound of it stirring and that of her heart pounding. She called out again in a frightened whisper and took a step towards the choolah. By then her eyes had adjusted to the darkness and she discerned a tall form crouching over the fire stirring a pot of rice. Her heart first lurched violently, then became a blob of ice. A tongue of fire leapt up and lit Hukum’s face. The tray in her hand clattered to the ground. Hukum did not look up but blew into the fire causing embers and ash to fly. She stood still for an interminable stretch of time, barely breathing. She understood then that the faint sound she had heard earlier was of him entering the house in his characteristic silent manner.
Hukum rose slowly to his full length and moved into the smoky shaft of light. He struck a match and lit a bidi blowing more smoke out of the window. And then he turned his grey brown eyes to look at her.
She backed out of the kitchen and stumbled into her room. When the ringing in her ears subsided all she could hear was her own breath, as if it was outside her. Time crept at a painful agonizing pace. She heard every shuffle, every creak, every footstep in the house. The house that had belonged to her briefly was a torturous prison now. When Basant came in at night she crept to the door and strained her ears to catch their conversation. She gathered that Hukum had to come back early at the request of the forest department to hunt down a man-eating leopard in the vicinity.
She lay awake for many hours and fell asleep at some point. She shivered through the night but did not bother to cover herself. The sound of the cows being brought in woke her up. She realized she had left them out all night. She wondered how she should proceed with the day and after tossing many thoughts around eventually decided to brave going out into the courtyard.
Hukum was cleaning the cowshed. She could feel his eyes on her but they did not speak. She tentatively went about her usual routine, all the while watching him with tense anticipation, like a wounded animal waiting for the hunter to make a move. She wondered if he would go for the leopard hunt but by evening she knew that he had found his kill at home.
As she lay in her bed at night, she heard him coming into her room. She did not turn as he lay down behind her. Her body became cold and immobile. He pulled down her salwar and she felt a dry hard thrust into her as his rough hands slid up to her breasts. His stubble scraped her soft nape and his grunts numbed her senses. She lay still even after he went away not bothering to get up and clean herself. His strong tobacco breath lingered on till morning.
Autumn slipped into an early winter without warning. Hurried preparations had to be made for fire logs and cow fodder before the frost could dampen and spoil the necessities. Hired labour stocked the storeroom and cowshed with stacks of firewood and built ‘lutas’, tall mounds of hay around a long stick, for cow fodder. Lata applied herself to the chores around the house with a blind fervour tiring her body to extreme exhaustion. This ensured that after enduring Hukum, who came into her room every other night, she fell into a deep sleep. She refused to think about how she had started responding to his touch on those cold winter nights or about the fact that she had stopped menstruating.
Savitri had not commented on the prized broken tea set when she came from Delhi. It was hard for Lata to tell how much she knew as she herself had stopped making eye contact with anyone. She didn’t even look at herself in the mirror now. She would not sit and eat with them, but ate in her room or in the courtyard. She completely avoided the village women and spoke very little to her parents and sisters. She knew they were worried about her but she couldn’t bring herself to placate them. Her father had called Hukum who assured them that everything was alright.
Lata had hoped to miscarry by exerting herself excessively but when winter gave into summer she could not ignore the large bulge of her tummy. Aalam had called to inform them that he was coming home soon on his annual leave. Deciding to bring Savitri into the situation Lata went into the kitchen when Hukum was not at home. She stood showing her bulging profile and called out to her in a rough, rude voice. Savitri looked at her stomach and then, with fearful eyes, looked at her directly for the first time. But she said nothing and turned her back on Lata.
The next day Lata cornered Hukum in the cowshed and forced him to look at her bulging stomach. When he didn’t respond immediately she shoved his shoulder impatiently. He turned his cold eyes on her and told her to take care of it before Aalam arrived, striding out of the cowshed and into the fields.
She stood rooted to the spot for a while and then went into the work shed to prepare for the operation. She had already tried drinking ajwain water, had shaken her belly with her hands, but to no avail. She hardly cared about how dangerous her plan could be considering that she was far gone into her pregnancy.
When she went into the cowshed that night the cows mooed in protest. Not bothering to be quiet she lay down on a pile of hay and readied herself, feeling nothing except the need to get the job done. She took a saria, a long metal rod with a pointed tip that was used to dig into the earth, and inserted it into her vagina. She repeatedly pushed it in with as much force as she had the courage to muster.
She lay for hours in the cowshed, groaning in pain. She could hear them shuffling in the room above. Savitri came into the cowshed with tea and water early in the morning but left immediately, not wanting to participate any more in Lata’s shame. Hukum had left early for work that day. It was only by afternoon that she miscarried.
She gathered everything into an old blanket including the bloody foetus which she thought moved for a few seconds before going still. Leaving the bundle in the cowshed she went into the bathroom to clean herself thoroughly. Disregarding that she was ‘untouchable’ for a few days and could not go into the kitchen, she served herself a hearty meal and ate it sitting right next to the choolah. Her hair was unkempt and she had a wild look on her face. Savitri peered in and rushed away in a panic as if she had seen a demon.
When dusk fell and after she heard the women going back from the forest, Lata picked up the dripping bundle and walked down to the jacaranda tree which was in bloom again. The saria was now used to dig a deep hole into the mauve carpet of fallen flowers.
She unwrapped the bundle to empty out the contents into the earth. But all at once something stirred in her heart after a long time and she stopped. Even though it was summer the night air was chilly. She swaddled the dead foetus carefully with the blanket again before laying it down in the soil. She looked up at the canopy of the tree against the inky sky searching for that twisted branch that had taken life from Malti’s baby all those years ago. Everything seemed alive for a moment. She sat in the still summer night for a long time thinking of absolutely nothing. She then covered the grave with soft dark earth and light mauve flowers.
She locked the door and windows of her room and slept continuously for the next two days. Savitri knocked on her door a few times but she did not respond. She remembered that Aalam was to come the next day. What were they going to do with her? What lies would they tell Aalam about her? She could hear them conspiring in hushed tones outside her room.
When the house was silent she opened her window and looked out into the moonless night. The soft drone of the crickets, the stillness of the dark shadows and the flat black outlines of the mountains against the sky began to close in on her. She breathed rhythmically. Her eyes were drawn to the tree of the gleaming jacaranda flowers. Except they were not flowers, they were eyes looking up at her, many sets of them. The darkness rushed in to envelop her in its embrace. She shut the window soundlessly careful not to wake the sleeping household.
She looked at the strong log of wood holding up the ceiling. Then she thought of the jerrycan full of kerosene under her bed. Amidst the charred remains of the house they would find only two bodies.
Bela Negi is a filmmaker and writer based in Mumbai. Her work explores the contemporary reality of the Uttarakhand Himalayas, the landscape of her childhood. While she has been writing film scripts for the last two decades it was only during the pandemic that she started writing short fiction. Her stories try to draw connections between the internal landscape of the characters and their external reality, underlining the instinctive understanding that human fate is tied irrevocably to the fate of nature.