01 January 1970
#WeekendReads

Short Story: The Milestone

The first time her mother told her someone would come to see her the next day, she felt an unknown but pleasant sensation course through her body. All her friends were already married.

The Milestone
The Milestone Getty Images

Her parents had started looking for a boy for her as soon as Poornima completed her graduation. Two years down the line, she was about to complete her Master’s programme in Hindi Literature, and still no suitable boy for her. Or maybe it was the other way round.   

The first time her mother told her someone would come to see her the next day, she felt an unknown but pleasant sensation course through her body. All her friends were already married. That night, she kept on thinking of the man she would marry. A tall, sturdy, sharp-featured smiling man appeared in her dream. He plucked her from the bed and flew into the sky. They flew over villages, fields, ponds and canals. He told her stories of the places he had visited. She sang him poems from her books. She woke up in the morning with a beaming face and an ecstatic heart. 

As soon as she was up, her mother asked her to get ready for the visitors who could arrive any moment. She bathed for a long time with a song on her lips. Not sure why but that day she felt shy touching her own body. An attractive woman, in brand new clothes, with makeup on her face, smiled shyly at her from the mirror. Her mother hurriedly put a black dot behind her ear lest some evil eye cast a spell on her.    

Decked up, she was asked to wait for instruction to come out. From the window, she saw four people in the sitting room - three of them elderly people and one young one who she assumed could be her man. ‘Hmmm. Okay looking, no patch on the man from her dream,’ she thought. 

After some time, her mother came to her room and quickly arranged sweets, salty savouries, a teapot and a few cups on a big tray. She gave it to Poornima and asked her to follow. 

As she entered the room, her mother introduced her to the visitors and asked her to greet them. Normally a confident girl, Poornima’s throat became as parched as the sunbaked soil of the village pond in summers. She just nodded her head in their direction, no words came out of her mouth. 

Sensing some problem, one man asked, ‘Is she goongi?’ Annoyed, her mother tried to cover for her, ‘No, no. She is very shy’ (anyone who knew Poornima would have died laughing hearing this). 

The same man continued, ‘Beti, what is your name?’ 

‘Poornima,’ she was able to utter with some effort.  

‘Oh, in that case, let me guess, you must have been born on a poornamasi, the full moon day,’ the man said and laughed uproariously at his (apparently clever) joke. 

‘Yes’, said Poornima sharply, forcing the man to abort his laughter midway. 

Her mother completed the sentence for Poornima, ‘She was born on a Kartik Poornima, a very auspicious day. And that is why the name Poornima. She will bring good luck to the family she is married into.
 

You must have been born on a poornamasi, the full moon day...
You must have been born on a poornamasi, the full moon day... Getty Images

’ 

It worked like a prompt for the next man. He asked, ‘Then, you must have also trained her in household chores? Can you cook?’ 

Again, it was her mother who responded, ‘Yes. Yes. She is the one who does all the cooking here. In fact, all these snacks have been prepared by her only, with no help from me. She can also stitch clothes. She singlehandedly looks after our buffalo and her baby. She does all the household chores without even being asked. Very obedient girl. She never says no to anything.’ 

‘Good to know. Otherwise, these educated girls are too proud to even step in a kitchen,’ he exhaled a deep breath. An indication that he had wrapped up his part of the interview. 

Her mother was exhorting the guests to eat some more and extolling the virtues of her daughter, in the same breath. Her father did not speak much except a word or two in support of her mother. Her brother as usual was not at home. Must be playing cricket somewhere. After India won the World Cup the previous year, he, like every young man in Haryana, wanted to be a Kapil Dev. 

Having had finished even the last morsel of the sweets and salty savories, the third man asked her to walk from one corner to the other in the room. All the time when she was walking, she could feel the eyes of the three elderly men on her. She felt naked, their eyes stuck on different parts of her body. The young one just sat there with his eyes fixated on the floor for most of the time, only to lift them occasionally when someone spoke. After she had walked across the room twice, her mother instructed her to retire to the other room. 

Her parents and the visitors kept on talking for some time. And then the visitors left.  

She sensed something amiss in the air after they were gone. Poornima tried to talk to her mother but was rebuffed. No meal was prepared in the house. When she inquired, her mother got angry, started cursing her, and let out that she was not found suitable for the man. 

In the first instance, she did not understand what her mother meant but slowly she realized that she had been rejected by the young man’s family. Poornima did not feel as bad as her mother because she had not really liked the man. However, as the day passed, she started feeling inadequate about herself because whoever she met showed pity on her, and blamed her luck for what had happened. She wept silently several times in the night and did not feel like getting out of bed in the morning. 

This cycle went on for several months - people would come to see her, she would be dressed up, exhibited in front of the visitors, and questions asked about her skills and expertise in household chores. She felt as if she was enacting an unpleasant role in a play, knowing in advance the end of the play and the fate of her character. Every episode of this play took something vital away from her. She started remaining silent, keeping her thoughts, dreams and hopes, to herself, and to her diary. After another such rejection, an entry in her diary read: 

‘The worst place to live in, is a broken heart, 
A place stitched with aches, 
Most times, 
It is a reminder of a place it could have been. 

All things said and done, 
Only you know what you need when you are there,
An open space, 
A seashore, a vast field,
Or a mountain as high as the Himalayas,

To open your heart 
To someone, to anyone,
Someone here or up above in the sky, 
You need someone out there, 
At least out there, if not here
To hear you cry.’

As people say, ‘life is like a river; it never flows flat’, Poornima found work to keep her busy, a rare blessing in an otherwise depressing time. 

An epidemic broke out in the village. One after another cattle started falling sick. The sick ones incessantly drooled from their mouths. Lesions on feet and mouths scarred most buffaloes and cows, inviting swarms of flies, causing further discomfort, and leading to nonstop whining and writhing. The animal husbandry department rushed a doctor to the village Nimri, Poornima’s village, to control the outbreak before it spread to other villages.  

Sharad was still in the middle of unpacking his luggage when a girl entered his room, located at the back of the hospital; a tall, lanky girl with long flowing hair. So lost was he in looking at her that he forgot to respond to her greeting. He heard her saying something about ‘villagers calling it Mata ka prakop, the curse of Mother Goddess when in fact, it was khur-moonh rog’. 

On hearing ‘foot and mouth disease’, he regained his senses, and said, ‘Í guess I know about the disease.’ 
‘Yes, of course. You are the doctor of animals,’ the girl responded as she realized her folly of going on and on without mentioning the purpose of her visit. She did so without any further delay, ‘I came to ask you to come to our house to look at Bhoori. Both Bhoori and her son have fallen sick.’ 

‘Bhoori? Who is Bhoori?’ He asked. 

Seeing his confused expression, she told him, ‘Do not worry. Bhoori is our buffalo.’ 

Lying on his bed, Sharad kept thinking about her after she was long gone. How much she had changed in the last two or so years since he had met her at the village well. She had scared him, he smiled to himself thinking about that chance meeting.   

Poornima was at the village well to fetch water. As she lurched forward to pull the bucket, someone, at that very moment, had held her from behind. 
Startled, she had sharply turned around on her heels and yelled, ‘Why did you do that?’

‘Did what?’

‘You held me’

‘So what?’

‘But there?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘There’

‘There, where?’

‘There’

Miffed and clueless for not being able to understand his mistake (or the ‘there’), he had turned his back to her and started inching his path, knocking the dust with the fronts of his shoes. He had barely marched for a few steps when he heard her saying, ‘Hey you? Have you read Vijaydan Detha?’ 

He had halted. As she approached him, she had said, ‘I know you will keep the pigeons under the basket and the eggs in your pocket, and then you will hold me from the back, and touch me there’. Confused, he blurted out nervously, ‘I do not know what you are saying. I don’t know any Detha’. 

Not knowing what to do and say next, he adjusted his rug-sack on his shoulders and started running (well, almost). ‘Padho, padha karo, you should read’, her laughter had carried these words to him as he started sprinting even faster. 

The incident brought a smile to his face. 

The next morning at her home, he found her tending to a calf. He immediately asked her to stop applying oil on his toes. The calf laid listless and offered no resistance as he applied to medicine, a greyish ointment, on his feet and mouth. Once done with the calf, he turned to the buffalo and repeated the same procedure. After administering injections to both of them, he turned to her, ‘Now I am here. Let me handle the medication.’ She mixed the red powder in water as per his instructions and sprinkled it on the floor. 

Sharad attended to livestock all day long, going from one house to another, with Poornima helping him with one or the other work. Every house had the same story – all the livestock – buffaloes, cows, bullocks, goats, pigs – was sick. The very sick ones were segregated from the rest and were treated in the veterinary hospital, a dilapidated building outside the village, next to the village pond. Sharad and Poornima made two rounds of the village – in the morning and evening. They took breaks at the hospital in between these trips. Exhausted by all the running around, they would fall asleep at the slightest hint of the bed. 

It did not occur to her why and at what exact moment she became part of all this, going from house to house, tending sick cattle. It also did not occur to her parents why and how she became the helper of the doctor sahib.  They were for sure glad to see her busy and happy. But it did occur to her that she did not find it awkward to sleep on his bed in his room in the hospital. And it did occur to the villagers that Poornima was with Sharad all the time. 

One day when they were sitting on the bed in his room, Sharad held her in his arms. Neither spoke anything. Then, after some time, Sharad kissed her forehead and she smiled back at him with blushing cheeks. After some time when Sharad leaned into her, she stopped him. Sharad straightened himself, got up and started preparing tea. She kept looking at him. When he gave her cup of tea and asked whether she wanted to eat something, she smiled and nodded in negative. They sat huddled in each other’s arms as they sipped tea. Sharad said, ‘So, who is this Vijaydan Detha?’ Startled to hear this name, she asked, ‘Who? How come you mention Vijaydan Detha out of the blue?’ 

‘You don’t remember? It was you only who mentioned it to me?’

‘When did I do so?’

‘That day on the village well, remember? When you were about to fall and I had pulled you back.’

‘What?’ As she recalled the incident, her face turned crimson. ‘You remembered? Why did you not tell me? Oh

My God, this is so embarrassing.’
‘I did not tell you because I thought you must have recognized me,’ he said. ‘Moreover, you looked so beautiful that day that I lost my tongue.’

Poornima blushed. She wanted to say something but Sharad cut her, ‘So who is this Vijaydan Detha?’

‘He is a writer.’ 

‘Tell me some story by him,’ he said as he held her against his chest. 

She caressed the cup with her fingers and started, ‘There is this story about a woman who is married but lives alone because her husband works and lives somewhere afar. A ghost falls in love with her. He takes the form of her husband to stay with her.’ 

In between her narration, she got up with a start, ‘My goodness, this has become dark outside. I must go home now. I lost the track of time in all this.’ 

He held her and asked her not to go and stay with him for the night. She smiled and said, ‘And what will happen when people would come looking for me?’ 

‘Well, you can always spin them some story by Mr. Detha.’ They both laughed. 

‘Okay. At least tell me if the woman in the story knows that he is a ghost, not her husband, and if she loves him? 

‘Yes,’ she replied.

‘Yes in response to the first question or the second?’ he implored.

‘Both,’ she kissed him on the forehead and left. 

After a long time, Poornima felt different. She felt wanted. She liked the way Sharad cared for the cattle, tending to each one with great care and affection. She liked the way he took the more onerous and tedious tasks on himself. She liked his touches – soft, affectionate. He seemed different from the men who had come to see her. 

She realized that she had started having dreams in her sleep, happy hopeful dreams. And the man in her dreams was someone she recognized.

The days passed but the disease was too stubborn to go away. Though they appreciated the efforts of Sharad (and Poornima), the village elders decided to take their own measures. They knew that it was Mata Ka prakop, the wrath of the Mother Goddess. They had angered the Mata through their wrong deeds, and the disease was her way of telling them so. 

The village elders held a meeting and ordained that the only path to absolution was to mend ways and propitiate the Mata. The whole village was cordoned and cut off from the rest of the world, with no person leaving and none entering the village. All families in the village along with their livestock moved to a make-shift arrangement to live under the open sky, outside the village, next to the village pond and chaupal.  The make-shift accommodation was a mirror image of the village. The upper castes occupied the place immediate around the havan kund, made on a mound of sand and mud, in the center of the make-shift arrangement. The cattle place was near the village pond, a little away from the residential places of the upper castes. The accommodations for the lower castes were a little further away from the cattle place. People sat around the mound during havan times. The holy fire from the havan was taken every four hours in earthen containers to fumigate every nook and corner of each house with the aromatic smoke emanating from the containers. 

Sharad and Poornima made themselves extremely busy that day. As there was no one in the village, it was a good opportunity for them to disinfect all the houses and cattle places in the village. So tired they were after the day-long effort that they fell asleep by the evening. When they got up, they ate something at the community kitchen. Then they went to the cattle place for wound dressing and medication. After they were done, they decided to take a stroll. 

Talking about the village, disease, their life and their future, they reached the old temple. Though wrecked by the vagaries of time, the building, bruised and battered here and there, stood heroically straight and tall. It was a full moon night, the night of the poornima. The temple floor was awashed with soft milky moonlight.  

Sharad sat on the stone floor, adjacent to the garbhgrih, the sanctum sanctorum of the temple. Languorously, Poornima walked up to him, bearing the most beautiful smile in the world; a smile as beautiful and as affectionate as the smile of a mother shining on her newborn. He held her by the waist and kissed her on her belly. Poornima threw her head backward and giggled. He pulled her on himself, caressing and kissing her quivering body. Rage took over them. And then there were two souls together, under an open sky, bathed in milky moonlight, bound into one by sweat and heavy breathing.    

Lying next to each other, Poornima remarked, ‘We look good together. We will make a good couple.’ Sharad half-turned towards her and asked, ‘Who do we resemble from your stories? ‘Laila-Majnu. No. No. Like Radha and Krishan. No. No. More like Meera-Krishan. No, not them either,’ a cold shiver coursed through her body as she thought, and she sat up straight.   

He asked, ‘What happened? You alright?’. To which she replied, ‘yes, I am fine.’ Are these names coming to my mind a bad omen? Is destiny not in favour of our being together? Several thoughts flashed in her mind. His tight embrace soothed her nerves, to some extent.        

Miraculously, from the very next day, the cattle started recovering. And within a week, the epidemic outbreak seemed like a distant memory. Their rounds around the village became less frequent but not their forays in the veterinary hospital or beyond, into agricultural fields or the old temple. On these forays, she had told Sharad about the weird behavior of her parents asking her to remain at home and the prospects of people coming to see her again for marriage. Sharad would hold her tightly and tell her not to worry because they would soon be living together away from their villages for the rest of their lives. 

With the outbreak under control, Sharad went back to Chandigarh to join duty there. She started feeling his absence the moment he bid her goodbyes. Though she knew that they would soon meet but everything – her Bhoori, the pond, the hospital, crop fields – reminded her of him. Every now and then, she took out the watch, a gift from Sharad, and looked at it fondly.  
 
Exactly after a week since Sharad left, she got up early. She had not been able to sleep properly since Sharad left because the decision to run away, to leave everything behind left her conflicted. She knew that once done, she could not hope to ever return to the village. But she also very well knew that the cycle of people coming to see and rejecting her would start again if she stayed put. Her parents would never agree to their marriage. Was love not good enough a reason to be with someone? Does one have to first ascertain the caste or religion of the other person before giving emotions a go-ahead?

That day, as planned, she got up in the early hours. She wanted to get out of the village before anybody woke up. She wore the watch and kept her bridal dress in her bag and left the house. Through the thick wheat crop, by the sugarcane fields, she walked 12 kilometers to reach Ghadholi bus station, the designated meeting place on the Grand Truck Road. She stopped in between to put on the bridal dress as Sharad had asked, wrapped a thick shawl over it to hide it from prying eyes, if any.  

There she was, at the decided meeting place. Reached well in time, at a little before 6 AM.  Since then, she sat at a milestone, a little away from the bus station, with her bag in her lap. Poornima looked at her watch. She caressed it tenderly. She had worn it for the first time that day to give Sharad a happy surprise, and because it was a special day for them. 

It was almost 8. With the sun ascending on the horizon, her hopes were getting dimmer. Where is he, he should have been here by now, she thought as she sat on the milestone that read Chandigarh 170 KM Delhi 60 KM, with arrows pointing in opposite directions.

(Dev Chaudhury is a former UN staff; he worked for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) from 2015 to 2021.)