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AN UNRESTORED WOMAN
Neela, on the night she learned of her husband’s death, sat under the banyan tree outside their hut and felt an intense hunger. It was on the night of the train accident. No, not an accident, she corrected herself. Not at all. She felt this same hunger on her wedding day. She was thirteen years old and she sat on the altar wearing a sparkling red sari and the gold mangal sutra around her neck—thin, even by the reduced standards of the impoverished northern village—and tried desperately to silence her growling stomach.
The hunger on her wedding day might’ve been caused by the tempting mountains of food stacked around her. Fruits, coconuts, laddoos, twisted piles of orange jilebi. She’d never seen so much food; her mouth watered. She hadn’t eaten since early morning and that had only been a meager helping of rice and buttermilk. Neela eyed the bananas and mangoes piled on the plate between her and the priest. He was reciting Sanskrit prayers. Her new husband, who sat beside her, wiry and dark like a dry summer chili, was turned away from her, talking to a man she didn’t recognize. In truth she hardly even recognized her groom. Her red veil obscured him from view. Besides, she’d only seen him once before; she’d stolen a glimpse when he’d sat talking with her father, both of them bent and pecking over the details of her marriage like two crows over a piece of stale bread.
Her father had said it was a good match; he’d given her future husband—who was twenty-four years old and owned a tea shop catering to the commuter trains between Amritsar and Lahore—two cows, a trunk full of pots and pans, a bag of seed, and a green woolen blanket. Even the thickness of the gold necklace had been negotiated. Babu, her groom, had scowled at its flimsiness and had only been appeased when Neela’s father had said, “Look. Look at that girl. Strong as an ox. She’ll bear you no less than ten sons!”
Neela stared at the plate. She obviously couldn’t eat one of the mangoes but why not a banana? If only she could sneak it from the plate then she could manage peeling it under her veil. Her bent head would hide the chewing. She extended an arm forward surreptitiously. Then a little farther. She sighed. It was just beyond her reach. Someone would notice. She pulled back, weak, hungrier than ever. The plump yellow of the bananas called to her. Their smooth skins were the edge of a sunrise. They were the voice of her mother. She’d died giving birth to Neela but Neela had imagined her voice many, many times, flawless and brave and cool like the banana skin. Just then the priest shifted his legs and jostled the plate. What luck! It bumped closer to Neela. This was her chance. Her arm darted out, plucked the outermost banana, and whisked it under her veil. The first bite slid down her throat and into her empty stomach. Her eyes widened with delight just as her husband’s had when he’d opened the trunk full of glistening pots.
* * *
The details of the train wreck trickled down to Neela. First over the news wire, heard by the men of the village over the transistor radio in the home of Lalla, the village elder. Neela had once seen this famous radio—the only one among all of the neighboring villages. The smooth wooden box with the mysterious voices spilling out of it was placed on a high shelf and protected from dust and insects by a velvet cloth; even Lalla’s wife was forbidden to touch it. He brought the news to her mother-in-law, whom Lalla came to see as soon as the news program ended, just before dinner. Neela was hungry; she was about to set out three plates when he told her the news. “Those ugly Muslims,” he said. “They would torch a train full of children as long as they were Hindu.” Her mother-in-law, nearly blind, kind and gentle compared to most mother-in-laws Neela had heard stories about, had only looked up at Lalla with her sad, unadorned eyes and said, “Every mother will tell you: that train was full of children.”
The events, as Neela peeked from behind the bamboo screen separating the main room of the hut from the kitchen, followed many of the stories of madness in the months after Partition. The train had been traveling its western course, the last evening run to Lahore. Babu had gotten on with his kettle of tea at Wagah and that was the last anyone had seen of him. The train had been ambushed a few miles outside of Wagah by a horde of Muslim men. They’d torched each of the cars one by one, back to front, as if lighting a row of candles. “My son’s body,” Neela’s mother-in-law asked slowly. Lalla shook his head. “They were laid out like rows of roasted corn,” he said indecently. “No one can tell them apart.” Then he rose to leave, handing her mother-in-law something Neela couldn’t see. “Enough for both of you,” he said, closing the door behind him.
* * *
The next morning Neela’s mother-in-law bathed, dressed in a crisp white sari (the only color she was allowed to wear as a widow), and conducted her daily prayers while Neela heated water and the few drops of milk they could afford for tea. Then she waited. She was fifteen years old. And now she too was a widow.
Her mother-in-law, bent by a long and pitiless life, entered the kitchen. She sat in her usual corner on a thin reed mat and looked at Neela. Since Partition the cataracts in her gray eyes had ripened like winter squash, burrowing into the hollows of her wrinkled brown face. They brimmed now with tears. “My child,” she whispered. Neela couldn’t tell if she was referring to Neela or to some memory of her son. Then her mother-in-law reached up and brushed at Neela’s face. The gesture was blunt, nearly cruel, but she managed to wipe the kumkum from Neela’s forehead. The crimson powder drifted down and a few specks landed in Neela’s cup. They floated on the surface like tiny red islands on a dirty sea.
“Finish your tea, beti,” her mother-in-law said. “Then we’ll take care of your hair.” Neela nodded. She would soon be bald. She would never again be allowed to use kumkum or anything else to adorn her face. She would not be allowed to grow out her hair or go to the temple or to ever wear anything but white, the color of death. Even the thin gold mangal sutra she slid off her neck and handed to her mother-in-law, who buried it deep in the bag of rice for safekeeping. Though none of this Neela minded, not very much, not as much as she’d minded the nights with Babu.
* * *
They hadn’t been so bad in the beginning. He’d seemed just as shy as she was when he’d reached for her in the dark. There had been blood and a little pain but that had soon passed. It was only after a few months that Babu had become rough. Tugging at her sari, pushing himself inside her, slapping her if she resisted. She knew it was her duty, a part of being an obedient wife, and she bore it without a word of complaint. But what she didn’t understand was why he never spoke to her. Why he ate his dinner without a word. Even when the jasmine bloomed lush and fragrant in her hair, and she served him tea in the evening shade of the banyan tree, he’d hardly look at her.
“Will you build me a swing?” she’d once asked, a year after they’d been married. “It could hang from there,” she’d said, pointing to the lowest branch of the tree.
He’d looked up toward where she was pointing, into the wide cover of green, leathery leaves and hoary branches and said, “Swinging is for monkeys. Are you a monkey?”
Neela thought of monkeys and of bananas and realized—with a clarity that was surprising in its force—that she recognized the man sitting in front of her no more than she had on their wedding day.
On some afternoons, while her mother-in-law slept through the heat of midday, Neela cried from loneliness and dread. Night was drawing close. And she missed her playmates, most of whom were now married. She also missed her father but knew that when he’d kissed her on the forehead after the wedding the tears in his eyes had not just been from sadness but from relief: he’d married off his last daughter. In the midst of her tears Neela sometimes found herself peering down at her stomach, willing it to grow; at least then she’d have someone to talk to. Someone to hold.
* * *
By the time the puja was conducted and Neela’s hair lay in a pile, coiled like seething black serpents on the dirt floor of the hut, it was early evening. The leaves hung dusty and exhausted on the banyan tree. The sun hissed and spit as it neared the horizon. Neela was watching it from the doorway when her mother-in-law ushered her inside. A pair of Babu’s pants, hung from a nail beside the door, brushed against her newly shorn scalp and made it tingle. Neela thought of an army of ants scampering across her head and smiled.
Her mother-in-law looked at her. Her hand trembled as it reached for Neela’s. How different they were: Neela’s moist and smooth, her mother-in-law’s tough and wrinkled like dried dates. She was crying again. “We’ll drink this tonight,” she said, slipping a thick bottle into Neela’s hand. The bottle was made of dark brown glass—the color of a piece of chocolate she’d once eaten as a child, given to her by a wealthy uncle who was a clerk in a dry goods shop—and filled with liquid. “What is it?” Neela asked.
“Something to make us sleep,” her mother-in-law said.
And Neela understood. Her father-in-law had died years ago, she’d never even met him, and now Babu was dead. What good were two women, two widows, alone in this world?
“Lalla said it would be quiet, peaceful, like falling asleep in a mother’s arms,” she said. Neela bent her head and wondered what that might feel like, to fall asleep in a mother’s arms.
* * *
Neela woke the second morning after her husband’s death with a pounding headache. She was groggy; her muscles ached. She was confused. Her mother-in-law had drunk half the bottle then handed it to Neela. She’d sipped it, not more than a drop or two, and held it in her mouth. Neela had waited till the old woman had closed her eyes then run to the back of the hut and vomited. She’d then slipped into the kitchen and buried the bottle in the bag of rice. Now, in the grim morning light, she turned to look at her mother-in-law. Her chest was still. Neela reached for her then snapped her hand away. Her mother-in-law’s body was cold. Her eyes were open and lifeless, staring in the direction of the banyan tree.
Lalla came by later in the morning. He did nothing to hide his disgust. “You fool,” he scowled. “You think that bottle was cheap? You spit it out, didn’t you?” He eyed her with a cold stare. Neela wrapped her palloo tighter around her shoulders. “No,” she said, “I didn’t spit it out.” Her face grew warm. What if he asked to see the bottle?
“Give me your mangal sutra,” he finally said. “I’ll see what I can do.” Neela went to the bag of rice and dug her fingers into the kernels. How pleasant: the cool of the rice. Her hand first grazed the solidness of the bottle. She kept her expression unchanged; Lalla was watching her. She wriggled past it until she found the necklace. When her hands came up they were coated in a thin dust as if hundreds of butterfly wings had brushed against them. She handed Lalla the necklace. He returned an hour later and told her he’d secured passage for her on a bus headed for a nearby camp. It was set up by the Indian government, he said.
“For what?” she asked.
“For items that are useless,” he said. “Like you.”
* * *
When the bus pulled into the camp, some four hours after it’d set off from Attari, Neela noticed the small handwritten sign posted on the gate: CAMP FOR REFUGEES AND UNRESTORED WOMEN. District 15, East Punjab. Beyond was a row of tents. She was assigned to a small, dirty cot in the largest of the tents. Neela set down her bag, containing only her mother-in-law’s white sari so that she’d have a change of clothes, and a pair of socks and chappals for when it got too cold to go barefoot. She looked around the enclosure. It was filled with women, all wearing white and all of them bald. It was funny, the rows and rows of shiny heads, and Neela smiled despite knowing that all of them, including herself, were supposed to be in mourning.
She met Renu on the first night. She was Neela’s age, maybe a year or two older. Her wide eyes were lustrous and pretty even under her shorn head. She was as thin as a reed and Neela realized they’d been assigned to the same cot due to lack of space. Renu took one look at Neela and burst out laughing. “Do you know you have the silliest bump on the top of your head?” she asked. Neela shook her head. “Haven’t you looked in a mirror since your head was shaved?” Neela shook her head again. “It looks like a hillock in my old village,” Renu said. “The one our temple is built on.” She pulled a handkerchief from her bag, knotted it into a wide dome, and balanced it on Neela’s head. “There,” she said. “Now you have the temple too.”
They were inseparable after that. They ate together, did chores together, gossiped together. They played among the tents and fetched water from the nearby well in the mornings. Sometimes they slept holding hands. Renu told her about her husband. He’d been a farmer. They’d had three acres and a pair of goats. The Muslim mob had burned everything, including her husband. Renu said this with tears in her eyes and Neela knew she should feel sad for her but she didn’t. She did feel awful that her husband had died but she was also glad that he had; how else would they have met?
* * *
During their fifth night in the camp Renu and Neela lay on their cot talking in whispers. Since the camp had no electricity or kerosene they slept soon after their dinner of one thin roti and a small spoonful of potato curry. Most of the other women were already asleep. Renu had snuck in an extra roti for Neela, and she nibbled it while Renu talked about their lives.
“What will we do?” she asked.
“We could cook,” Neela said, taking a bite of the roti. “And clean. My sisters do that for rich families in Amritsar.”
“But we’re just villagers.” Renu breathed. “Who’ll hire us?”
“I’ll take care of you,” Neela said, thinking of the gold mangal sutra she’d handed over to Lalla.
There was silence. Renu sighed. “It wasn’t the actual, you know, chum chum that was nice. It was how he held me afterward.”
Neela stopped chewing.
Renu looked at her in the dark. “Didn’t yours?”
“Put the roti away. I’ll show you.” Neela stuffed the remaining piece into her mouth. “Lie on your side,” Renu said, turning onto her back and slipping her arm under Neela’s while guiding her toward her shoulder until Neela’s head came to rest against her neck. “Like this,” she said.
Neela closed her eyes. The warmth of Renu’s neck, the scent of her body, left Neela aching. Hollow. It was a feeling she could not describe. Though she could describe what it was not: it was not lonely, it was not sad. It was keenly felt but it caused no pain. It was not the skin of a banana. Nor the leaves of the dusty banyan tree. It was not hunger, not anymore.
* * *
On Neela’s ninth day at the camp Babu came to fetch her. She was ushered into the tent by one of the camp administrators. “Your husband is here,” the woman announced.
“That’s impossible,” Neela said. “He’s dead.”
The woman nodded toward the far end of the tent. And there he was, exactly as Neela remembered him: dry and depleted as if he’d been left out in the sun too long. She blinked and blinked and then she felt faint. It couldn’t be. All the blood drained from her body. She heard a distant bell. She realized it was coming from within the camp, announcing lunch. She thought of all those women dressed in white saris, bald, smiling, filing into the mess tent. She was not among them. Her mouth filled with the bitterness of the liquid in the dark brown bottle. “But I thought—”
“I was never on that train,” he said. “A whole week in a cell without a window. Stripping a man just to see if he’s a Muslim. Lying, telling me my mother is dead. Those bastards, they’re no better than animals.”
He reached for her absently, as if reaching for fruit on a high branch. For fruit he barely wanted to eat. It occurred to her in that moment that her husband had not died. He had not. And that her life had taken yet another turn: she was no longer a widow. Neela also knew that from then on she would remain a fruit her husband didn’t really want to reach, that he would watch ripen and fall with only a vague and stolid interest. She heard the laughter of the women in the camp. The sound came to her as if through a long and airy tunnel. She listened for Renu’s. What reached her instead was Babu’s voice saying, “Get your things. The bus leaves in ten minutes.”
* * *
This time the bus ride seemed much longer than four hours. Neela was crushed against the window on the women’s side of the bus. A fat mother with both children perched on her lap sat next to her. The older of the two children—a boy who Neela guessed was two or three—kicked and dug sharply into Neela’s thighs. When Neela asked the woman to watch her boy’s legs, she turned and glared at Neela and said, “Watch yours.” Neela strained her neck trying to spot Babu, but he was too far back, on the men’s side.
Near Rangarh the woman and her children disembarked and an old woman with gray-blue hair sat next to Neela. She held a small bundle in her lap close against her chest. Even on the dusty and crowded bus Neela could smell the clean, scrubbed scent of the old woman’s skin, with only the slightest hint of sweat, almost pleasant, in the din of the bus. Neela turned and looked out into the endless landscape of dirty fields and sparse, drooping trees. She closed her eyes. When she opened them the sun was setting; she must’ve dozed off. She noticed the old woman with the gray-blue hair leaning toward the man in the seat across from theirs, in the opposite aisle. He too was old. Neela pretended to be adjusting the bag at her feet to hear what they were saying. “They were plump, for the season,” the man was saying.
“We should’ve bought more,” the woman said, “I could’ve sent pickle to the girls.”
The old man leaned closer. Neela realized they were husband and wife. “Rajan’s coming by next week for the receipts. I’ll tell him to bring another bushel.”
“I thought he got them last week.”
The bus bounced over a pothole. The old woman hugged the bundle closer.
“Did you take your medicine?”
“No, not yet,” the old woman replied.
Neela turned toward the window. The landscape was the same though the wind had changed direction. She thought again of turning, looking for Babu, smiling, but she didn’t. She only screened her eyes, shielding them from the dust.
* * *
The hut was just as she’d left it. Babu’s pants still hung from the nail by the door. The reed mats were still folded neatly in the kitchen. The bag of rice stood untouched. Even the banyan tree looked as if not a wisp of wind had troubled it in the nine days Neela had been gone.
For dinner that night she made rice and dal and subzi with the eggplant Babu had purchased at the market on their way home from the bus stop. After they’d eaten she made two cups of tea and took them out to the banyan tree. Babu was sitting cross-legged beneath it. Earlier she’d noticed his eyes glisten with tears when he’d discovered that the police hadn’t lied: his mother was dead. He’d stood at the door, stolen one quick glance at Neela then left the hut without a word. Now he was bent over something she could not see. When she handed him his tea she saw that it was her mangal sutra. She sat down beside him.
Babu took a sip of his tea. “I’m glad I found you,” he said.
Neela turned to look at him. He was? A sudden warmth flooded her. Her fingers gripped the cup tighter as her thoughts tumbled and tripped over each other. She’d been wrong. He cared for her after all. He’d been lonely too. He just hadn’t known how to show it but now he would. Now they’d show each other.
“That’s the only way Lalla would give the mangal sutra back,” he continued. “He said, ‘Why do you need it? She’s gone.’ You should’ve seen the look on his face when I told him I’d found you.” He finished his tea and held the empty cup out to Neela. “Hope that hair doesn’t take long to grow back,” he said. “Your head looks like a melon.”
That night Babu took her, as Neela knew he would. Then he turned over and went to sleep. She lay awake for a long while afterward. The night was quiet, interrupted occasionally by the chirping of crickets, the wail of a dog. They’d moved their reed mat outdoors because of the heat. The branches of the banyan tree swayed in the hot wind and Neela lay in the dark, looking into them. How long had it stood there? Maybe hundreds of years. She thought of her mother and wondered whether she’d been cradled in her arms for even a moment before she’d died. She thought of her father. She even thought of the old lady on the bus with the gray-blue hair and the scent of her scrubbed skin. Then she thought of Renu. The plans they’d made, the cot they’d shared. She felt her eyes warm with tears. With hardly a thought, almost as if the decision had been waiting there all along, Neela rose soundlessly and walked back into the hut. She dug her fingers through the bag of rice and lifted the dark brown bottle out of the kernels.
And so there was one thing that was different: the color of the bottle no longer reminded her of the color of chocolate. Now it was simply a bottle, the thing it had always been.
She went back to the reed mat and lay down next to Babu. He was snoring lightly. She looked again into the branches. They fluttered and hummed with her every breath. The stars beyond spun like wheels. The branches reached down and just as she closed her eyes they gathered her up onto their shoulders and held her as she had always dreamed of being held. As she would never be held again.
Copyright © 2016 by Shobha Rao