Stray dogs began to bark in the street suddenly; so I thought, they were here, those men. This was my chance to eye him closely, to size him up properly. Without wasting a moment, I hurried upstairs and began to peer through the chink in the window. A clutch of strapping men, puffing away at bidis, shuffled in and sat on the cot, that was spread in the courtyard, in a tight huddle, muttering. Some of them gently took off their head clothes while the others simply sat, tiredly wiping sweat off their foreheads with the crook of their index fingers. I glanced nervously through that confusing knot, running my maddened eyes from one man to another to spot him, but to no avail. For one, I hadn’t had a proper lookover during our wedding, thanks to the barricade of the long veil that remained drawn over my face throughout that night. And then, my mother passed away the day after; so, that put paid to my hope of going to the in-laws’. Later, when he formally came to fetch me, father brought up the betrothal ceremony of my younger sister and packed him off saying, “We’ll think about it after that.” So, he would have come only after the betrothal, but, as luck would have it, his maternal uncle, who stayed in our village, passed away suddenly, something that occasioned his visit to our village. He had come along with elders of his family to pay condolence. When father customarily invited the party for tea, I thought, let me seize the opportunity and steal a look. He would be one among the visitors, I knew that much, but how to identify him? Steadfast in my resolve to spot and eye him up to my heart’s content, I made so bold as to keep peeking. However, I didn’t have the guts to open the window, as you’d have made out by now.
Just then bhabhi came up, her toddler at waist and a mischievous look in eyes, “Why Chandan, what are you up to with your eyes glued to the shutters of the window?” Startled, I blurted out “Nobody…nothing.” “Really...? Nothing..?” “Come on now, did you recognize him or not, your man?” she cocked her eyebrows suggestively. I blushed, “Damn you bhabhi, why do you scald the one, already burnt?” “Okay, okay…” bhabhi burst into a ringing giggle and opened the window, saying, “Let me point him out”. My heart skipped a beat as the window was thrown wide open, but the men below were engrossed in their talk, so nobody noticed. Then pointing her slim index finger, bhabhi whispered: “Look, that’s your man.” “Which one?” I asked edgily unable to figure who she meant. “The one whose Adam’s apple looks like a big dry date. Okay, did you see that one, the man who coughed just now?” I saw him cough up, spit out a big gob of phlegm and sweep dust over it with his foot. A rather trusting dog curiously sniffed his way up to him, its tail wagging. He dealt a hard kick in its belly with his right foot, shod with flat-soled native shoes with curled-up tip and cursed, “Scram, you bloody.” All men burst out laughing as the dog scampered away yelping piteously.
Then Narbho, the barber, hurried in, both his hands clutching bunches of hookahs by neck and went around distributing them to men, who looked wilted by the tug of desire for a good smoke. When everyone got busy, puffing and pulling, father called out loudly: “Bring some water, vahu.” So, bhabhi handed over her son to me and went downstairs. I kept peeking out of the window while fondling the baby. Narbho served water to everybody in a brass glass. He, being the latest son-in-law in the family, was offered the glass first. He bent his head backwards as if to look up at the sky, opened his mouth and poured water typically, from above. His Adam’s apple shuttled up and down like a small mouse as he thirstily gulped down draft after draft of glistening water. With his thirst slaked, he applied water to his long bow-like moustaches with his two hands, twirled them mannishly and began to cough. Then, grabbing the hookah on offer, he had a hasty puff or two and said in laid-back manner, his face fading behind the blue wisps of smoke: “Narbho, how about testing your shaving skills today? We’ll sit for a shave in the afternoon.” He kept stroking the stubble on his cheeks dreamily with his free hand and then, almost on impulse, began to pluck stray hairs. He kept pulling at the hookah for a while and stood up. Busily took off his coat, untied one end from his dhoti and almost absently asked Narbho: “Where is the place to pee?” Narbho murmured with a bashful smile, “In the backyard…”
As soon as he left, Narbho lifted his head cloth lying on the cot. Caressing the crimson band that he had skillfully tucked aslant in the folds, Narbho exclaimed appreciatively, “Seems to be very fashionable, that dandy.” He was about to have a go at the green handkerchief, hanging out of his coat pocket, when father checked him: “Don’t Narbho. One shouldn’t snoop into others’ belongings.” Then my uncle approached and declared loudly, for everyone to hear, “Come on. We’re supposed to pay respects to the village head.” Almost immediately, all men rose to their feet, quickly tied their head clothes and walked off funereally. To nobody — goddamn not a soul — did it strike that he was left behind and somebody should wait for him.
The head cloth and the coat, lying on the cot, looked visibly morose. I was holding my ground at the window, firm and vigilant. After a while, he came back and god knew why, but looked straight at the window, his prying eyes dug into mine as he put on his coat. With my heart all aflutter, I somehow managed to gaze back, but something ineffable had already happened to me. He untied the entire head cloth, as if on purpose and began to tie it again, slowly and neatly, his head slightly aslant and eyes digging into me. I felt like running away, but, as there was no one around, I stayed put and returned the compliment.
Through with winding the entire length of the head cloth, he put on his coat, pressed the pleat on the pocket by rubbing his palm over it and did up the buttons. Then almost theatrically brought out the green handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his face. Clasping the stick, whose ends were encased with brass caps, he tucked the handkerchief into his pocket with his left hand. Clearing his throat a bit, he was about to cast a parting look at me when he had a sudden fit of dry coughing. He kept coughing for quite a while, expectorated consecutively and swept dust over the phlegm with his shoes. At last, he raised his head to look at me; my eyes were already riveted on him. A little water had surged up in his eyes but he kept on staring and then, casually walked away. When he disappeared completely from sight, I woke up, almost with a start, from my trance, quickly closed the window and hurried to go downstairs.
With bhabhi’s son astride on my waist, I had hardly got down a couple of steps when I saw bhabhi hastening upstairs. On seeing me, she said, “Where are you going Chandan? Come, come let’s sit for a while.” I grumbled in mock huff, “Bhabhi, why did you make so late!” She rejoined mischievously: “Chandan, whatever happens, happens for good!” Taking her son, who by now had leant almost entirely from my waist towards her, from me, she guided me towards the window with a naughty cock of her eyebrows.
The kid clasped the wooden balustrade of the window and began to beckon the crows, merrily waving his tiny hand, and calling out with ta ta concomitantly. Bhabhi asked, “Chandan, you recognised him, didn’t you?” “Yes, I did.” I said. When I was alone I had kept gazing, but now, god knows why, I began to feel utterly shy about it. My face flushed, I averted my eyes away from bhabhi’s probing gaze. She asked, “He is better than the first groom, isn’t he?” “Who am I to decide about the better or worse?” I replied somewhat resignedly and added, “Whatever I have got from the destiny is right for me!” But bhabhi had got into her element. “What if you don’t like him afterwards?” she mocked. I couldn’t help laughing and said, “Will you change him for another if I don’t like him?” At that, bhabhi burst out laughing and said, “For the moment try using what you have. We’ll think about future in the future. He is a learned wise man, from a cultured family, you see. His first wife died after giving birth to three children and the second he married is you, a child widow.” “The former was with children and I am a child-widow. Wonder if he has any reason to be happy about?” I reasoned glumly. Bhabhi smiled gently and reflected, “Chandan, when did you get started into household life that you claim to know all this? I could have this son only after hundreds of entreaties and urging. He was born a decade after I married.” She took her son into her lap and pressed his head to her bulging bosom.
Just then, the woman in the neighbourhood called out for bhabhi. So leaving her son with me, she went downstairs once again. I took the baby in my lap. He began to press his mouth to my breast. I realised, he had been hungry, so I tried to divert his attention by pointing a peacock on the peepul tree in the distance. It was dusk now and the dark had begun to thicken. Time for lighting evening lamps, but the baby was getting increasingly restive. Hearing him cry, bhabhi shouted from downstairs, “Look after him a bit, Chandan. I am coming after lighting the lamps.” Soon after, a flash of light lit the darkening downstairs and a crimson hue daubed the house. Then, bhabhi came upstairs. Taking her son from me, she taunted, “Shouldn’t you breastfeed the poor thing rather than leaving him whining like this?” At once, she began to feed her son and swivel her eyes naughtily. I could see mischief in those limpid eyes. She would breathe deeply to speak and then muzzle herself up. Having repeated this gimmick several times, she finally said, “Tell me what you will give me in reward if I leak a secret?” I felt like laughing, “Reward as per the quality of services offered.” “In that case, I am going to earn a fortune,” she said gleefully, moved her son from one breast to another, and whispered, “Come closer then.” As I craned my head near her mouth, she relieved her hand that she had propped on her son’s head, clasped my head with both her hands, and cooed, “He has called you tonight.”, and then, she pinched me real hard on my cheek. Each and every hair on my body stood up erect. On finding me dumbstruck, she straight away came to the point, “You will go, won’t you? Now my reward; you must relate everything that happens between the two of you, okay, from A to Z.”
And I was all set to go to him. Done with their share of daily drudge, when everybody in the house was fast asleep, bhabhi woke me up. “Chandan…O Chandan! Come, the woman in the neighbourhood has kept her backyard door open,” she whispered. We shared a common backyard with our neighbour. Holding our breaths, hardly had both of us tiptoed towards the backyard when bhabhi’s son stirred, sending my pulse racing. But then, after turning on his side, he went back to sleep, much to our relief. The night outside was pitch-dark. The beautiful constellation of stars, popularly known as haraniyo for its form like a deer-face, was on the verge of setting. Every soul in the street seemed to have slipped into deep slumber; nothing stirred. Bhabhi got abreast of me and quipped, “Lucky you! See how you got your moment of bliss home-delivered, neatly packed and timely delivered. And look at the ill-fates like me who had to come all the way up here, leaving dear home and parents behind, to taste it. The proverbial holy waters of the Ganges have flowed in, in your case, to touch the devotee’s feet.” Sneaking in through the backyard, no sooner had we reached the back door than she opened it, the neighbouring woman. Craning her neck out, she whispered, “Come”. And at once, we nicked in.
The poor woman was childless. That day, her husband had set out for some work to the neighboring village. Sparsely furnished, the house looked extremely neat, perhaps because only two souls inhabited it. With everything in place, in perfect order, the place seemed to be pining for someone to litter it a bit. The anguish of being childless had eaten into the woman endlessly, it seemed; she looked terribly scrawny. Freshly bedaubed with cow dung, the rooms had a pleasant smell about them, almost like chandan, the sandalwood. On the brass lamp-stand, framed on the wall, a castor oil lamp burnt inconspicuously in the hollow of a palm-size, earthen bowl. A string-cot, covered in blue bedspread, was laid in one corner of the room while a steep flight of steps took off from the other. “Come in, Chandan. God knows why but today I couldn’t sleep a wink, despite all the tossing and turning, you see,” she complained habitually, her tone flat, and then casually held out a small metal snuffbox. Bhabhi took a pinch and began to have deep, noisy sniffs. Meanwhile, the woman left to get some water, probably. On the upper floor, I could hear somebody coughing. Bhabhi told me, “Chandan, make sure, you’re back by early morning.” I kept standing, dumb and downcast, unable to utter even a word in embarrassment. The woman brought a lot of water, a small glass turned over its mouth like a lid, and handed it over to me, “Take this along with you. Upstairs there is a wash area in the corner, you know that.” As if on a cue, bhabhi began to stretch herself theatrically, twisting her torso and upheld arms from this side to that. Mumbling, “Damn it! I feel so sleepy. I’ll take your leave,” she upped and left the place on light careful steps. The woman closed the door behind her and turned to me, “You too have a long night ahead of you. Get going so that I puff out the lamp.” As if being pushed from one side and pulled from another, I took the lota and began to cagily climb the stairs with baited breath. I was halfway through the staircase when I heard a flap of cloth downstairs and saw the room being engulfed by inky darkness. However, I heard a distinctly joyous murmur that rose from the sheet of gathering dark and seemed to echo throughout the house, “Good lord! Can’t thank you enough. That the house of a barren woman should be the site for such auspicious union!”
On the first floor, a kerosene tin-lamp, placed in a niche in the front wall, was emitting wisps of smoke in rapid bursts. Its crimson light washed the walls, plastered with brown native soil, with bright red hue. The room upstairs was swept and dusted clean just like the room downstairs. Both the windows, on the eastern and the western sides, were left wide open. Near the front wall lay a string-cot on which he was seated cross-legged, his face turned towards the window. I gently placed the lota on the bund of the wash area and stood at the window near the staircase, adjusting my pallu.
He rose to his feet, as if unmindful of my presence, took out a bidi from his coat that hung from a wooden peg on the wall and lighted it. Then, he walked straight up to me at the pace of a person who reaches out to take something he has remembered all of a sudden. Standing very close to me, he grunted without looking at me, his voice commanding and gruff. “Come.” Suddenly, a fit of coughing seized him and he craned his neck out of the window to spit. I could hear the gob of phlegm land on the ground below with a flat plop. As he tried to tuck his head inside through the window, his cheek grazed against my head. Without looking at me, he clasped my hand hidden behind my pallu and said again: “Come on.” I walked in tow with him as the metal rings on his fingers dug into and almost crushed my fingers. However, I followed him to the cot without a word. He made me sit near him.
Just then, the dogs in the street below began to bark, creating a nasty racket. I sensed someone from one of the houses in the street come out to shoo them away. He asked, “Shall I close the windows?” “Keep the eastern one open so that we may know by the brightness of the sky when it’s morning.” I reasoned. So, he closed the western window and made straight for the wooden peg to take his coat. While taking the coat, his fancy head cloth, which hung loosely from the coat’s shoulders, fell down. He kicked it into a corner indifferently and sat near me. Then, he busily brought out a packet of cigarettes from the right pocket and a match-box from the left, struck a matchstick and lit one, clenched between his lips. When he took a hard pull at it, I saw the flame blaze up with a burst. His freshly shaven face, crimson red in the light of the matchstick, was laced with long moustaches whose tapering ends were slightly twisted. His cheekbones seemed to have stuck out with age.
Having had ten to twelve puffs on the cigarette, he got up and threw it out of the window and returned to me coughing and wiping his mouth. Taking the cotton underwear off his torso, he flung it in the corner. Propping his elbows on his knees, he began to feel his cheeks and chin with his fingers. “Your barber, Narbho, is quite adept at shaving. Close shave, indeed,” he said breaking the reign of silence. I didn’t respond, simply kept listening, my face downcast. And suddenly he gripped me into his embrace. His face grazed against mine. The stubble left unshaved on his cheeks pricked me. A nasty niff of smoke, emitting from his mouth, overpowered me. Again, a fit of racking cough caught him and he spat a couple of times in the corner of the room. Once again, he turned to me, held me by arms and began to rub his bony face against mine. My heart started throbbing heavily, but I kept sitting, still as before. He tightened his grip on my arms and retorted, “What’s there to be so shy about?” His elbow pressed into my ribs and an involuntary cry escaped me. “O, dear me!” Without caring to say sorry, he said flatly, “Everything is all right.” Feigning a slight huff, I said somewhat crossly, “Let me go to sleep straightaway. Tomorrow morning I will have to return early.” Much to my surprise, he agreed and rose saying, “All right. Let me put out the lamp.” My body was slightly aching, so I stretched out on the cot, but my eyes keenly followed him. He didn’t blow out the lamp at once. Brought out another cigarette and lit it with the flame of the lamp. Then, tucking the ciggy between his lips, he stood akimbo, staring at the lamp. Puffs of smoke curled out from the corners of his closed lips and nostrils as he stood hungrily pulling away. I saw, his back had bent a bit and the rib cage was unusually big. When he gulped down saliva, his Adam’s apple wiggled. The ends of his moustaches had lost their curls and hung loosely down from the sides of his lips.
Finally, he put out the lamp with a whisk of his hand. Utter darkness enveloped the room. I couldn’t judge on which side of the cot he sat after coming back. I was lying with my hand resting on my forehead. All of a sudden, his mouth assaulted me from some unknown direction, his teeth dug into my left cheek. A loud cry escaped my throat. I quickly turned on my side and kept lying clinging to the side-bar of the cot. I could feel his vigorous hand pulling me towards him. But I didn’t budge, so he started pulling me savagely. Even then I didn’t let go of the side-bar I was tenaciously holding on to. So, in a fit of mad rage, he gave a sudden violent jerk and I lost my grip on the bar. Visibly irritated, he spat out, “Why don’t you turn round, you jackass.”
(Translated from Gujarati by Hemang Ashwinkumar)
(Sundaram was the pen name of Tribhuvandas Purushottamdas Luhar (1908-1991), who occupies a special and distinguished position in the gamut of Gujarati literature)