Vir has a leg resting on the cemented surface of the culvert. The other is on the ground. His chin cupped in the hand whose elbow is biting into his knee, he looks across the shallow drain at the sand and gravel strewn patch beyond it. Shalu’s anklets have sped over this sandy path seconds ago. The tinkling sound remains in the air like coins tossed up in sunlight. Her girlish laugh skitters like a kite on an April breeze. This child, this gudiya-rani, his and Ammu’s precious princess, will soon be a woman, married and sedate. He hopes her laughter will not vanish. He hopes the spring in her steps will not slow down to that of a stream clogged with human debris. He hopes…
“I am a good son.” And, the thought, first a tug at his heart strings, is already a menace tapping at his shoulder. Are you really? Are you Vir?
Vir turns with a jerk of his shoulders. The voice dissipates into a banshee laughter echoing and echoing, pulling the gloom of dusk into a tight spin around Vir. The whites of Ammu’s eyes flicker. She stands at the doorway, an enamel mug of hot ginger tea balanced on a chipped China saucer. Vir walks towards her, wordlessly takes the offered drink. He wants to lean against her arm. Feel her calloused hands soak up the fever bursting from his forehead. He knows Ammu has been watching him closely these past days. Too closely for comfort. Should she ask him a question, Vir will snap back. He is the man of the house after all. But she doesn’t. And Vir feels twelve years old again.
The house had been full of wailing. That was the norm. But within the folds of that wailing lay another tone, the one that comes not as a send-off for the dead, but as a harbinger of ill – the birth of a girl child. Grief upon grief is how an old woman had described it. There was sympathy in her pronouncement and a slice of schadenfreude. Vir had erupted in fury at the wailing women folk, and the wall of men around them, dispersing the chillum smokers along with the khaini chewers. His half-man voice cracking above them as he yelled and ranted.
“Ammu has me! Ammu has me! I’ll crack open your heads if you call my sister abhagan. She’s not! She’s not! I’ll burn you witches alive! I’ll…”
It took more than two men to carry him away, kicking and screaming. Strangely nobody rebuked him for disrespecting the elders. Maybe they considered him head of the family already. With Bapu gone just days before, the thirteenth day ceremony yet to be fulfilled, and this new calamity, as they put it, the birth of a hairy girl child. Perhaps the men took pity on Dulari Devi, and spared the then twelve-year-old Vir.
Vir tries to finish the tea quickly and scalds his mouth in the process. He hands her back the mug, taking care not to make eye contact. He returns to the culvert, as if meaning to go somewhere, and it’s just a pause on his journey.
“Bhaiya! Bhaiya! Where are you?” The voice pierces Vir like a silver arrow. He almost rejoices in the pain slicing through his heart.
Shalu runs here, runs there, no different from her feisty four-year-old self playing her favourite “blind-fly-buzz-buzz-who-can-you-touch-who-can-you-touch” game. She lifts up her long orange and green skirt, letting the yellow chunari trail behind her. Her new silver anklets tinkle and clink as her feet flit over ground kicking air. Vir watches covertly, hunched over the culvert, as if he is still urinating beside its stumpy and inadequate privacy.
Shalu is glowing. Like a woman who has fallen in love for the first time. But she doesn’t know any man. She is as pure as the Ganges. The glow on her face is that of a girl who will soon become a bride. It is the glow of innocence, and also faith in the world – that everything is right with it. Her wedding has been fixed. The groom is a good boy with a steady job. Not bad looking either. Vir knows he couldn’t have found a better match. Yet, a hungry crow pecks away at his heart, his mind, his senses.
Shalu sounds breathless. She sounds excited. She probably wants him to see her new bangles. Admire her wedding sari, the gold earrings and necklace; her shiny new slippers. The red lipstick and bottle of maroon nail polish. Vir bought them all for her wedding; he knows what they look like. But Shalu wants him to see them with her. Be excited for her. Stand beside her and listen to her chatter. Admiring these gifts with him is her way of thanking him. her joy is like an endless waterfall, creating rainbows in the sky.
Vir has bought other things for her wedding as well. A motor cycle for the groom. A silk kurta-pyjama set and a watch. He has collected one lakh rupees from various sources for the dowry for a steep interest. And there are the presents for family members of the groom. The utensils. The rent for the horse for the groom. The cost of the feast. Vir has got everything worked out. He has made lists, and lists within the lists. He has checked and ticked each fulfilled item. His Shalu’s wedding has to be flawless. As flawless as her. His Shalu’s in-laws must have no reason to be angry with her. Not any that he can take care of.
Vir hears her. But he remains in the same position near the culvert. Ants scurry in a line before him, taking away miniscule bits of a dead lizard. The dead creature diminishes one tiny morsel at a time. Vir’s heart winces. It seems like Shalu was a tiny baby only yesterday. He remembers the scrawny hairy new born thing that she was, and the horror of the women. He remembers with a clarity that stings even now. He can still taste the salt from his mother’s silent tears. But nobody had seen what he had, what he could see. That his baby sister was golden. Instead, they muttered amongst themselves that she had brought bad luck. That she had fed on her father’s soul in order to be born. They said she ought to have been left to die or thrown into a well. And then they stopped saying things because Vir screamed at them. Again and again, until his voice cracked. He became the man of the house from that day onwards. With a boy’s muscles, and a boy’s terrified heart, and yearning for Bapu, he took on the mantle of ‘head-of-the-house.’
Baby Shalu. Vir was, is, more of a doting father than elder brother. Enrolling her in the local girls’ school, even though he couldn’t complete his own schooling. Getting a masterji for her singing lessons after school. Drawing books and water colours because she loved to paint. A litter of three motherless kittens for her to bring up, because she had cried when she heard their hungry mews. And Ammu would scold him. Say he was spoiling her. She was a girl, who would have to be married off sooner than later. And Vir had brushed it away. Let the inevitable day arrive and he would meet it.
Shalu soon, thankfully, shed her baby down. And then she grew a pair of thick and shiny plaits. Ammu would say that Shalu had to be trained to be a good girl. A marriageable girl who knew sewing and cooking. And Vir would smile. Ammu was no better herself. Shalu, born when they were still mourning Bapu, is the lamp that lets its golden light fall on them both. She is the one they both dote on, equally, but in their own different ways. Now barely nineteen, the light of a thousand stars shining from her eyes, she is to be married. It is an occasion that calls for happy tears.
Vir shudders. He cannot share his terror with anyone. He must keep his secrets inside him. Deep, deep inside. Even as they start to devour him. Bit by tiny bit.
“Here you are Bhaiya! Sitting by yourself again! Why bhaiya? Are you missing me already?” Shalu laughs and pulls his hand. “Bhaiya,” she cajoles. “Come home. I’ve made a new painting. Fabric painting. A big one. Come bhaiya!”
And Vir lets himself be pulled up. Pulled along. Shalu behena. He could fight a hundred demons for her. Cross the seven seas to get her whatever she wanted. Instead, he could be the very reason for her downfall. Her destruction. An involuntary tremor passes through him. His eyes sting. Vir steadies himself. Blinks and looks away. Shalu is too excited to notice. Thank God.
Ammu isn’t fooled. She doesn’t know what it is. But she knows it’s there. Unseen. Stealthy. Like the hurar. The phantom beast that picks out its prey during chilly winter nights. She ruffles Vir’s hair. Hands him another mug of tea, and sits down next to him. She is so proud of this dutiful son of hers. He’s never let her feel her husband’s absence even once. Even when he was a little boy. His hopes of becoming a commerce graduate had gone up in smoke that fateful day. And, he’d taken up a job at a garage, while she began selling cow dung cakes. He used to study at night initially, but as the work load grew his books increasingly remained on the shelf. Tired, dirty and hungry, in the evenings, his only joy had been his little sister. From errand boy at the garage to trucker’s assistant, until he finally became a truck driver himself. And then the proud owner of his own truck. And then another, and now he was even thinking of going into the taxi business. It had been a long hard climb for Vir. But he’d done it. It helped that he was good with numbers. That he was not an easy man to cheat.
Vir had made sure his Ammu didn’t have to sell cow dung cakes anymore. He’d brought so many comforts into their lives. Gas stove, colour TV, even a pedestal fan for their veranda! And he’d saved money for Shalu’s wedding. Her Vir was a good boy. Even their neighbours had to admit that Dulari devi the unlucky widow was blessed with an angel for a son. Vir had brought respect for them, in their locality, among their biradri. But lately, he seems troubled, preoccupied. Too preoccupied, thinks Dulari, and an involuntary shudder passes through her. A nameless fear walks its icy fingers down her back.
Dulari wonders, but doesn’t dare ask him outright. Vir is the head of the family. She has to respect that. She’s tried different ways to coax out his troubles, mostly with offerings of his favourite dishes, but Vir clams up in the nick of time. He recedes into a private room, so far inside him that no motherly probing can pry it out, lift him up from there. When the mood passes, Vir acts like nothing happened. And Dulari has to be content with that.
Vir drinks the tea, and busies himself with Shalu’s trinkets. He dives into his own heart and feels around, but finding little joy in it, he retracts dejected. His life must be receding, fast. And the thought angers him. The long roads uncoil behind him like black venomous snakes. Like a movie action scene replay in slow motion, he sees the bottles tossed out of the speeding truck. He relives the hurried deals, the furtive encounters. Vir trembles. It’s all too late already. Now Vir is the lizard and the ants are inside, eating him up, bit by bit. There is no telling when it will begin to show. He can’t think of the consequences. It’s too much. The idea of Shalu being rejected is too horrifying. Vir breathes sharply, almost drinking up the air. He tries to focus on Shalu’s patter. Vir lays down on the charpoy and listens, a half-smile playing on his lips. Her voice has a lulling effect on him. Soon he falls asleep.
Vir dreams of Shalu’s wedding. He’s sees her looking radiant in her wedding finery, surrounded by family members and friends. Someone announces the groom’s arrival. Vir goes out to meet the dancing crowd leading the groom on a horse. The groom’s face is covered by a veil of jasmine flowers. There are happy people all around him. It’s a happy scene. Vir feels overwhelmed with emotion. Love for his new brother-in-law wells up in his heart. Love and a little pang in his heart. Now the man behind the fragrant veil will be the one to care for his little Shalu, not him. Not anymore. Afterwards, it will be to this man that his Shalu will run. He is the one that she will look up to, listen to with wide eyes. Vir stirs in his sleep. The man unveils his face. The crowd draws closer, and lets out the usual oohs and aahs. But Vir freezes. Isn’t that Jogesh, his mentor? The one who taught him all the tricks of the trade, including the place where the girls were cheaper?
Vir’s sleeping body judders, every cell straining to be free. Dulari places her hands on his forehead, his cheeks. He is warm, but not feverish. Vir stirs. He sniffs like a dog in his sleep, frowning, as if trying to remember something. Dulari’s hands still carry in them the scent of dried cow dung. She hasn’t stopped making the cow dung cakes. Except that she only makes them for home use these days.
Dulari’s gas stove is for everyday use. She has a small chulah, light and portable. She lights it during Chhat Puja and other festive days, and also for her Vrath days, when the food cooked has to be unsullied and uncontaminated. But today she has made rasiya for Vir and Shalu, even though it is an ordinary day. Food is the language of comfort and solace as far as she understands. And in the past, it had always worked. It had always managed to draw her children in, and herself too.
She looks at her son and sees her husband’s face and form in him. She had believed him to be unlike his father. He used to be a mason, a raj mistri. Sometimes his work took him away for a few days, though not often. After the trips he would return with gifts, but a strangeness about him would repel her. Not that she had any choice. Even so, that feeling of revulsion was a private luxury she allowed herself. Men don’t speak of the worlds they inhabit, and then they expect the women to toe the line. But Dulari knows how much a woman can absorb and later dispel with her menstrual flow. She knows how elastic and strong the soft tissues of a woman can be. She had forgotten, however that her Vir too was now a man, and not her little son anymore. She wishes he had married. But he had been adamant. Shalu had to be settled first. He was an intense boy and now he was an intense man. His suffering showed. In that he was unlike his father.
His sleep, now thinned by his mother’s presence, makes him alert, and still. Wakefulness stiffens his body. He cannot relax until she goes. When she does at last, he turns. Faces the wall. He stares into the pale blur of the lime washed surface floating up from the dark bowl of night. A woman laughs inside his mind. He raises his head in shock. It’s so real, he is sure for a few seconds that he heard it coming from outside. Which one of them was laughing at him now? But why would they laugh? He was never their tormentor. Just another customer seeking pleasure. And he had been careful. Always, hadn’t he? But he can’t remember clearly now. Had there been a lapse? Just one day? And was that enough? He had visited a doctor in a faraway town, during one of his many trips. And had returned again for the tests. How long could he hold on? Should he stage an accident a few months after Shalu’s wedding? It had to be perfect. Those insurance guys were crooked bastards.
Happiness. Everything had to be lit up with happiness. This house, Shalu, Ammu, and he. Yes, most of all he, Vir, had to wallow in it. Not just pretend. He had to live the part. For months if necessary. No one must know. No one must suspect. Not even the women in his life. Especially not them. Should he? Now? What difference would it make? He may as well extract what he can from life. And then when the day arrived, he would will himself. That same will that had seen him through the years…Vir breathes. The sharp lime smell tickles his nose making him sneeze.
“Beta, have something to eat now.” Dulari’s voice arcs through the room.
Vir sits up. “Hanh Ammu, I’ll eat with you.”
He goes to the courtyard to wash his hands. The smell of hot littis and chokha stoke no fire in his belly, but he goes to Dulari and lets her serve him. Shalu plonks herself down and grabs a piece from his plate. Vir is thankful he hasn’t started eating yet, not made the food jootha. He eats well enough for Ammu to relax and in turn eat her meal in peace. And later to sleep contented. She will wake up before first light. Like she has done all her life.
As long as he is there, Vir tells himself, she must never be sleep deprived. After her marriage, Shalu would no longer be his responsibility. But Dulari? Vir is full of self-doubt again. Then he splashes cold water on his face. He has to work on his plans. He has to. But first things first. He must fix up the band party for Shalu’s wedding. The first one had quoted an exorbitant rate, but the second one wasn’t up to the mark. He would have to work out a decent compromise.
There are so many things still left to do. Loose ends. The wedding had to be perfect. Perfect, he tells himself. And it’s not just a note to self, it’s an admonishment. Let the wedding be smooth. Let Shalu begin her new life without a shadow. Let ammu shed her motherly tears of happiness when she bids her daughter goodbye. He must think of nothing else until it is over. After that he would work out his strategy. Vir steps out and stands beneath a dark sky lit up with stars and streaking comets. The distant honk of a heavy vehicle rises and falls like a breath. Vir inhales. Tomorrow. It’s a day beckoning him from the future. It is not the day after today. But the day after all the wedding rituals and formalities have ended. The day after all the relatives have returned and the house is quiet like it has never been before. But Vir feels the quiet come in like a swell of water. He feels that future quietude now, a day before their relatives arrive, and the bustle of festivities begin.
Tomorrow is beckoning him with a long bony finger. Tomorrow is swinging its mace in readiness. Tomorrow is waiting for him. For Shalu’s wedding to get over.