THE GIRL FROM LUCKNOW
When the cart drew at the public square of our sleepy village, we were under the jamun tree playing a game of marbles. The ground was splattered with sticky purple juice. It was late afternoon, and people were gathering around the lone tea shop. Women were wrangling with vegetable vendors. The square was enveloped in a lazy, happy mood.
We all turned towards the cart to see who would alight. Men inside the tea shop stared through the open door, their eyes smoke-filled. First, an old woman climbed out, a cowl like veil wrapped around her wizened face, her hands full of cane and cloth bags. Her calculating eyes went over all men, even those inside the tea shop. Finally her eyes came to rest on us. Dirty brats, she muttered under her breath.
Then the girl climbed down, gracefully adjusting the folds of her red and golden anarkali. She wore bangles, necklace and earrings. She made a sweeping gesture of her hennaed hand to the forehead, with her head and shoulders bent a little forward, in turns, to every man.
There was a stillness like everyone would burst out laughing. But no one laughed, and we were surprised. We could see at a glance she was our age, but with a more supple and mature body, and we expected everyone to be amused by her antics. The girl had not as much as glanced our way as she followed the old woman.
They stayed in the empty house that had its back to the public square. This house belonged to a widow who had gone out to stay with her daughter in the town. They had rented it from the guardian of the house. A truck full of beddings and furniture came in their wake. And the old woman hired some village women to get it furnished properly.
As only curious children know how, we had a way of digging out information. Her name was Chandni. She had come from Lucknow with her grandmother. She was some kind of dancer, and touring all over west India giving out performances. We were thoroughly awed. We had never seen a dancer before. And on top of it a dancer of our own age and we were very impressed with Chandni even before we had had a word with her.
The old woman had beckoned us over when we were loitering around their house in the hope of a glimpse of Chandni. She asked us grudgingly if there was someone who could beat drums, and was some kind of musician. We said yes, very excited to be spoken to and went to call on the drummer. He took his drums and two men with him and followed us. We stood a little way off listening to them while the fat oily drummer negotiated with the old woman. His men stood picking their teeth, an amused grin on their faces. At last they came to some agreement and the men took the drums inside. The old hag is a sharp bitch, they whispered.
At night when we were readying ourselves for going to the dance at Chandni’s house, we were scolded by our mothers. They said it was bad for girls to go to dances. That it would influence us in a bad way. We retorted that if the performance was given by a girl our age, how could it affect us adversely? Why were our fathers going then? But we were silenced by the sharp glances of our mothers.
In the mornings, we noticed all men’s eyes were red with waking till late hours and watching Chandni dance. We heard she had looked very beautiful in a green and golden dress. She had worn make-up and jewelry, and pirouetted round and round on the stage, looting applause.
In the long afternoons, when our mothers slept, we rambled in the whole village and the house Chandni was staying in with her grandmother had generated our interest. These afternoons were full of sands, heat, dust and the sun shone fiercely over the whole earth. At the edge of the village was a mango grove where we used to go to steal unripe mangoes. But now we only had eyes for Chandni and anytime could be found circling her house.
She had a pear shaped face and almond colored eyes. Her skin was creamy white and her lips full and red. But what held us most in awe of her was her figure, so flexible and carved to the bone. Her dark brown hair was silky and she wore jasmines above her ears. Her clothes were always scented, and with etiquettes and good manners, she looked to us a real princess. We felt our own bodies stunted, our limbs too thin in front of hers. Blackened with too much sun. We admired her and when she as much as smiled at us we felt happy and proud.
The old woman was like a witch in fairy tales. She was constantly on guard and watched us like a hawk. For some reasons, she did not want us to meet Chandni. One day when we stood under her window, Chandni lifted the curtain and peeped out. She asked us what we wanted and when we giggled she smiled at us. Then she cupped hands over her mouth and whispered, come this time tomorrow.
Jameel was a fat, oily middle-aged man with two wives and many children. He was rich and querulous. People tried to avoid him mostly. One of his many faults was that he was very passionate. When he first saw Chandni dancing, it was said, he would not come from there. The old woman had to ask the drummers to throw him out. He punched and swore.
He said he would burn the whole house down if he was not allowed to stay there. By all means, the old woman had replied, but I would call on the police. It quieted him and sent him home. The incident had an additional benefit. It told the people that the old woman was not to be taken lightly.
But the next evening he was the first one to arrive for the dance. He promised to behave decently and pay double. He kept his promise. After that there was no other occurrence of the sort in the house. But he went about the whole village, talking about Chandni, praising her beauty and innocence, sighing over her cruelty in not acknowledging his love.
He professed to be madly in love with Chandni. Said he would go to the desert if she did not accept him as her lover. He composed poems about her and sent her letters and baskets of fruits and bracelets of flowers. The whole village made fun of him. But on the other hand, most of the men were in one way or another behaving in the same vein, irresponsibly and ridiculously.
She led us into her room upstairs. Billowy curtains were draped over the door and windows. On the floor was a flowery-patterned carpet and the bed was canopied. We were absolutely enchanted as we had seen such things only in movies.
There was a dressing table with an egg-shaped mirror, and on it were placed beautiful vials of colorful liquids, and antimony, rouges, mascaras, lipsticks, perfumes. Her drawers were full of soft, silky undergarments. She showed us her dresses; anarkali, lehenga, sharara, bodice, blouses, kurta-salwar; all expensive clothes— we had not had the chance in our whole life to wear a single dress like hers. We gasped with wonder, wide-eyed. And pleased with our reaction, she let us touch them and handle them.
Inside one of the drawers was a pair of very heavy anklets studded with ghungroos. We exclaimed,
‘What is it?’
‘Can’t you see? These are anklets’, she said testily and snatched them from the girl’s hands.
‘How can you carry them? They are so heavy.’
‘What is it to you?’, she snapped, suddenly flaring up. We looked nervously around, but at her angry face. Then she relaxed immediately and changed the topic.
‘Haven’t you seen this white dress?’
She spread a long white dupatta in front of us. It was embroidered with little black threads. She wrapped herself in it to demonstrate to us. It came up to her fair forehead with two strands of hair escaping out of it. She looked curiously small and innocent. She told us this dress she used to wear to Milad.
We were afraid to ask her questions, but she explained there was Milad on every Thursday evening in her neighborhood.
‘We said beads and sang hymns there and distributed sweets afterwards.’
Her eyes alight with excitement, she told us about Lucknow; its castles, ruins, mosques. The afternoon had begun to fade. We prepared to depart as our mothers would have, upon waking, started to look around for us. We asked if we could come tomorrow. She grudgingly said yes. We stood hesitating. Then ventured to ask if she would come with us to the mango grove tomorrow. She looked a little startled at first, then thinking it over, she nodded her head.
‘What about your grandmother? Won’t she stop you?’
She smiled cryptically and said,
‘Don’t you worry about her. Leave it to me.’
The next day we found the door open. On the mat in the verandah the old woman was sleeping. We crept forward stealthily and whispered in low tones, fearing to wake her. Chandni came down the stairs, dressed in a loose kurta-salwar just like the ones we were wearing. She laughed at seeing us huddled and quiet and glancing anxiously at her grandmother.
‘Let us go now. Grandma won’t be up till we are back.’
She cast a final contemptuous glance at her gaping mouth around which flies were buzzing and herded us off.
Not anyone was to be seen anywhere, not even the boys who like us loafed around in the long afternoons— doors were closed and curtains drawn against the heat and the hot gusts of air. We hurried on the burning road, kicking dust that was getting into our hair, eyes and faces. Chandni’s graceful walk had disappeared, replaced by short, swinging steps. Suddenly she broke out into a song, and we were surprised by her sweet voice.
We felt proud when we looked at Chandni’s milky hands, rosy cheeks, and clean hair escaping out of the scarf. While in the past we had felt like thieves we acted like companions of a princess.
Mango grove was shady with short dense trees shaped like umbrellas. We cautiously stood behind a clump of trees and peeped in to see if the guard was asleep. And seeing he was nowhere to be seen we stole forth. We all knew how to climb trees, and to show off in front of Chandini, we scrambled up branch by branch. Quite as monkeys. We plucked off unripe mangoes and threw them on the ground and she gathered them in the polythene bags we had brought. We were conscious of her wistful eyes looking up at us like we had done when she was showing off her room and dresses to us.
We were careful not to pluck too much from a single tree. It would have been asking for too much attention and for making the guard too alert and watchful. We came down slowly and made for the tube well across the field. The sweat streamed all over our bodies and throwing our pilches aside we jumped into the cold water of the tube well. Chandni hesitated for a moment and then throwing caution to the wind followed us into the well. The cold water gave us a pleasurable shock. We shouted in surprise, flailing out our arms. We threw water on each other, ecstatic and glad. Our clothes were pasted onto our bodies and our hair dripped water as we came out gasping for breath.
We bathed for some time and when we came out of the water, soaked and dripping, even the faint warm breeze fanning our bodies felt cool and fresh. Then we sat under the eucalyptus trees that lined the fields to eat unripe mangoes with salt. Chandni started telling us about Lucknow and her life there. About the dance house she learnt dancing in. About paan chewing women and men who came to see their dances. She said they had liked her a lot there. We listened with our mouths agape. She enjoyed talking about Lucknow.
Then she looked at us with a frown, as though seeing us for first time and asked abruptly,
‘Do you get your trousers stained?’
‘Stained with what?’ We asked, suddenly very afraid.
She looked at us with distaste and stood up. She seemed impatient like she had realized at last that she was wasting her precious time with us little brats. We glanced furtively at each other and followed her.
After that without saying anything to each other, we avoided going to her house for some time. We were shy of what she had asked us. But one afternoon when we again found ourselves together, we wandered up to her house. We threw small stones at the window of her room.
The window was open and stones skimmed past to the room. She peeped out, annoyed. We waved at her. She thought for a moment, then signed for us to wait. She came out quietly, her nails were wet with nail polish. Come in—she made us follow her inside. As before the old woman was sleeping. When she stirred at the sound Chandni hushed us and we followed her up the staircase into her room.
She reclined herself on the canopied bed and told us to massage her feet.
‘My maid did not come today.’
Two girls sat down near her feet to massage and one started oiling her hair. She ordered one to apply a honey and milk mask on her face and neck. The rest of us went to the dressing table to look at our faces in the mirror.
We looked dirty and were ashamed of our dust-layered faces and clothes. We were nine or ten girls, roughly the same age, and looked the same too. Suddenly Chandni roused herself on one arm and asked in a sing-song voice.
‘Have you seen me dance?’
‘No,’ we all shook our heads.
‘Our parents do not let us come.’
‘Do you all have parents?’, she asked.
‘Yes. why not?’, we were really very astonished to hear her say this. There was real amazement on her face.
‘My mother died giving birth to my brother. Now we have a step-mother.’ one girl said.
Chandni seemed lost in thoughts. I said,
‘Even if our parents let us, your grandmother would not allow us to enter.’
‘Would you want to?’
‘Yes, please. Chandni’
We said in unison. She promised to do something about it.
Chandni hid us behind the curtains of the dance stage. A bunch of different colored bulbs hung from the ceiling, reflecting off the drummers beating drums. The old woman sat on her divan, a maid swinging a hand fan over her. Men had started to come and sit on the canvas mat spread on the ground.
First they went up to the old woman, salaamed her, gave her gifts and went back to sit on the mat. Jameel was foremost in the row. Chandni came, dressed in a long gharara, and wearing necklaces, rings, and ghunghroo-studded anklets. She bowed and curtseyed and smiled at everyone around, then turned and twisted her body in a seductive way. She pirouetted on her heels, throwing her arms wide.
She looked so lively and full of graces. We held our breath, feeling clumsy and overwhelmed. We could hardly recognize her from the same girl who had gone out to the mango grove with us that afternoon. Jameel stood up and showered flower petals and money notes over her.
She smiled at him, a side provocative smile, and went on dancing as before.
We were the go-between. We arranged the rendezvous between them. Chandni went with us to the mango grove and after some time Jameel appeared. They smiled at each other and turned towards the meandering lane between fields. She gestured for us to wait there.
We were strangely excited and anxious. We should not have feared so much, as there was a grown-up involved and Chandni too was a responsible and clever girl. She knew what she was doing. We dawdled around, feeling foolish. We pinched each other. We gossiped and made fun of our teachers and classmates. But the curiosity about what Chandni and Jameel were up to weighed heavy on us.
We exchanged playful glances, whistled under our breath, and suddenly feeling bold by what was on everyone’s mind we stood up to see where they had gone. We crept stealthily. We cautioned each other to be quiet. A dark cloud moved towards the sun and covered it. It grew less shiny. We ceased to cast shadows. And there was a rustling in the grass. Did we have an idea of what they were doing. Perhaps. A vague one.
The grass came to our knees as we barged into the scene. They were lying side by side on the earth. Chandni had seen us enter. She rose to her feet, dusting her clothes. We saw her stoop down to pick her dupatta and her lips moved in a whisper in Jameel’s ear. Then she sprinted down to us, laughing.
The old woman beat her chest and tore her clothes. She wailed and shouted obscenities. The gate was closed. We stood trembling against the wall of the verandah.
‘What have you done? You shameless girl. You have soiled our reputation and tainted our name. I have kept you like a princess all these years. When your mother died you were only four months old and your father was a sick man for a long time and died six years ago. I fed you both, working like a slave. And in my old age when I thought to rest and eat and sleep peacefully, you go bedding with the first man that asks you. What did he give you for jumping into the sack with him? I had planned to wed you to a prince— ’
‘There are no princes left, grandma’, Chandni said and smirked at us.
‘There are some in Lucknow. Real princes. But what do you care about? You do what you please— ’ she had started afresh.
Chandni gave out all her possessions to us, silk dresses, make-up and jewelry. She said that as she was quitting the business she had no need of any of it. We nodded our heads. She packed a bag with some clothes and bare necessities. She had kept the white dress and was looking at it, lost in thoughts. Then shrugging her shoulders she threw it on the bed and said, ‘take it too’.
She asked us if we would help her one last time. We said yes, why not. Then she told us how Jameel had given her a lot of money that day in the field. That she was going to ditch the old woman and plan to escape from her clutches.
We took our father’s bicycles and loaded her and her bag and carried her to the bus station. While we were waiting for the bus she hugged all of us in turn.
‘Where are you going?’, we whispered.
‘Someplace I shall be happy in’, she whispered back.
‘Take care of yourself,’ she said after some time.
‘You too’, we could hardly hold back our tears. She nodded wordlessly. The bus arrived all of a sudden. She climbed into it. She appeared in the window at our side and waved. We waved back, our throats choked with the unshed tears.
We could see she had lost all interest in us. There was a faraway expression in her eyes and she was thinking of her journey ahead. But we knew we were never going to forget her. We would be talking of her forever and ever.
Sobia Ali is an student of English Literature in India. Her work has been featured in, among others, Atticus Review, The Indian Quarterly, The Bosphorus Review of Books, Another Chicago Magazine, The Aleph Review, Sahitya Akademi's Indian Literature, Gone Lawn, The Punch Magazine, Litro Magazine, Queen Mob's Teahouse, Manawaker Studio Flash Fiction Podcast, trampset, Lunate, Kitaab, The Cabinet of Heed, ActiveMuse, Ombak Magazine, Close To The Bone, Squawk Back, Secret Attic, Indian Periodical, Tigershark Publishing, Melbourne Culture Corner, The Blotter Magazine, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a novel.