Monday, September 1, 2014

The Arrival

Pic Courtesey :

When Padmini set her foot out of her hut, she did not think twice lest she shed her confidence for what she was going to do. Her life had witnessed a fair share of torment. And it was now time for her to free herself from the woes, scars of which may remain forever, but whose memories she had already left sleeping amidst the rest of her so called family.

She hitched a ride on Grawahi Chacha's bullock cart to the bus station. He eyed her suspiciously. Girls of respectable families did not roam around alone so early in the morning, especially after an eighteen year old was brutally assaulted and left to die the previous year. But when she mentioned something about how the village priest had ordered her to visit the Rambai Temple that Tuesday alone and precisely at that hour to ward off the advances of evil forces on her family, the cart did not stop till they reached midtown, at the doorsteps of the temple. Grawahi Chacha did wait for about ten minutes outside the temple, gnawing carefully on a strand of hay, and making sure the girl was indeed telling the truth. Padmini tiptoed into the temple. It had just a handful of devotees who had come to attend the aarti at the break of the dawn, maybe at the behest of yet another priest who would have probably earned his family's dinner over a discussion on the current affairs in the land of evil spirits. When Padmini had disappeared into the premises, he slapped the whip on the bullock and started towards his destination, making a mental note to meet Padmini's step father and uncle once he returned. By that time they would have picked her up from the temple and taken her back home anyway, he reminded himself.

Padmini waited for almost an hour, then crossed the road and took the first bus to the outskirts. From there walked a couple of furlongs before she got a ride in a share-auto to the station. She rushed into the platform, Samaira would be there, she knew.

As she climbed on the foot over bridge, she thought of her beautiful friend who she met about two years ago when she had travelled to Ujjain, to attend the naamkaran of her Mamaji's first son, who was born after twelve years of his marriage to Meena Mami. They had three daughters before that. Samaira had an infectious air of energy within her. She lived with her family on the first floor of the chawl and Mamaji on the third. As per her, she was the apple of her Abba's eye as a toddler. Only, her Abba had left their home and progressed to marry a rich Begum from Allahabad and now resided with her. So much for that jinn of a lady, he had never come back to meet them thereafter, she had complained.

Padmini had bumped into Samaira on the eve of Chaturthi, when she was rushing down to fill a bucketful of water to wash the puja flowers. For an instant, Padmini had thought she had encountered the much abhorred panauti kati herself, a legendary poltergeist which was kept at bay using bay leaves and jasmine flowers back in her village. But when the fall was followed by a shower of apologies in pure hindi, sans the bitter accent of her village people, she was enamoured by this beautiful person clad in black burqa. Day by day, their friendship grew despite cold stares and momentary dissent from her Mamaji and his folks. When Padmini left Ujjain, she had made a friend for life, and a week full of memories she would cherish for years to come.

It was in that winter that she got her first letter from Samaira. In neat hindi script, Samaira told Padmini how she had been beaten black and blue when she refused nikah to a Pathan in Pataudi. Her pierced nose ring was torn out along with her skin so much so that the nostril had to be held with a meter long cotton chunni so it would stop bleeding. She had had enough, she had mentioned. Her laments in life were as long as her sentences, adorn with deft commas. If only, it could end like those sentences. Padmini cried for her friend, not able to withstand the imagination of the pain she would have underwent. And it was that very night, as fate would have it, that she was dragged half a kilometer in a jeep and taken into the woods to be abused badly and left to die with a severed hand. If only she had died.

When she had regained consciousness, she did not open her eyes fearing that her tormentors would still be around. But the thorny grass that she last remembered being thrown into was no more there. There was a sting of antiseptic in the air and a sound of intermittent beeps which came from something behind her. Before she realised how sore she was everywhere, she went back to sleep yet again.

By the time, Padmini was in the right senses and physically able to reply to Samaira's letter, three months had passed. Padmini poured her heart into words and in whatever possible way she could write, recited the past few horrifying months she had lived to witness. This time it was Samaira's turn to cry. She beat her chest and wept for her friend... in the kitchen, in the bathroom, back in the garden... every place where she would not be asked for a reason why she had a life of her own.

Mid spring, Samaira wrote back from Pataudi. Apparently, there was a baby in her tummy the previous week which was no more there. She had bled badly that morning and hence received a volley of abuses from her in laws for having eaten the paan from an open box. It was nothing less than suicide for pregnant women, they had contended. She had been reprimanded and kept inside the house till she bore again. It was only the maids in the house who showed any sign of sympathy to the bereaving ex-future mother., who was only too shocked to realise the gravity of the matter.

When Padmini was carefully storing her friends letter in her trunk, her mother's husband, drunk and delirious came on to her. When she mentioned this to her mother, she slapped her and told her it was time she took her to the village ojha. Bah, evil spirits!

Then almost an year went by. Padmini mostly worked throughout the day and slept throughout the night, sometimes lying awake and overhearing the conversations between her mother and her husband... his travails to the town and journeys to Kolkata to sell wares.

At the crack of a dawn one morning during the spring, she sat upright and wrote to Samaira. "Im coming to Ujjain. Will you too come?" she wrote in broken hindi. "On the tenth of next month." She thought about it again, and wrote, "I want to live. I want to be free. Will you too come? I will wait at the railway station till  afternoon and head towards my destination thereafter. My friend, will you too come?"

A train hooted and brought back Padmini from her daydream. Reminiscing the past two years, she clenched her elbows tightly and made way to platoform no.6. Her eyes rummaged the crowd. She would not miss spotting a burqa for sure, she told herself. She walked towards the platform her head turning everywhere, her eyes scanning both sides of the station. She had not come. Had she missed receiving any letter from Samaira explaining why she would not come? Her heart thudded aloud, her ears ringing due to the loud clamor of metal wheels on the tracks. She had not come. Was she being held hostage? How far would Pataudi be from Ujjain? Maybe she was pregnant. Yes, that would explain. She had not come. Hope they kept her alive. Hope she was well. Hope she received her letter. Hope no one else did.

The dark brown dupatta was flowing in the air. The lady was clearly restless, uncomfortable, due to what she was wearing, or what she was not, no one would know. But when she lay her eyes on the platform across her, she knew that Allah himself had showed her this way. She rushed across the bridge, her eyes not leaving the woman. She trotted fast, half excited, half heart broken, at the sight of how frail her companion had become. After about half a dozen miscarriages, she herself looked no less than a jinn herself. She took her hand above her head to adjust her burqa, only to realise she wasn't wearing one. This journey dint require one. Nor did the journey henceforth.

When she arrived at the platform, she deliberately slowed her gait and waited for the climax. The frail woman looked so lost in searching for someone that she had not realised she was right there. She stifled a giggle and put her hand on her chest. That moment, the woman's eyes stopped at her. They breathed for a while, imbibing the moment... looking at each other, not saying a word, one with a huge grin and her hand on her heart and the other holding a bag on her left shoulder, her blue tie-and-dye dupatta revealing a stump instead of a right hand.

As they walked towards each other, they knew they were actually walking towards a new beginning. A train hooted and screeched to halt at the platform. Life had arrived.

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