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Shanta

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The temple bells had gone silent, just as my marriage had, the chants had stopped and the lamps were blown out by the winds. I descended the stairs that led into the temple tank. The water looked black, it was a moonless night. I dipped myself into it, and then up again, down, up, down, down, down…

**********************

“Shanta!” Amma screamed. “Wake up! It’s your wedding day!” I sat up straight. So it really is happening, I thought, as I rolled up my hair into a bun and sat on my bed, looking out of the window at the quivering reflection of the Shiva temple in the temple’s tank. The colours of the gopuram seemed even more vivid with the sun’s beams falling directly into the water. A priest dipped himself in the water – up, down, up, down, up, down and walked towards the temple door. The chanting of eeshwara’s name echoed through the streets. I sat at my window looking at men and women of the agraharam walk toward the temple gates.

In a few hours, this window, the sights, sounds and comfort of my mother’s house would no more be mine.

Amma rushed me out of bed and into the backyard. The women in the family surrounded us, while Amma oiled my hair and yellowed my body with turmeric. “Your long hair should shine and your face must look like the sun,” Amma said. “Sambu should see how we care for his bride.”

Sambamurthy, the mention of his name made my heart skip a beat. “The man is a prodigy,” my father had said, minutes before he came to see me two months ago. “He is a singer and an actor, one of the first in south India, all at 22 years,” Appa had claimed proudly. The latter was considered quite blasphemous, but his cutting his first music record when he was 13 years old sealed most rumour-mongers.

I am 13 years old now, I thought. And what have I to show for it?

Two months ago, when I was asked to sing at the traditional ponnu paakardhu, for the groom to accept me as his bride, I choked right in the middle of a verse in my eagerness to impress this man. But Sambu continued the verse and we sang the rest of the song together, not once removing our eyes from each other. When the song ended, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “I will only marry her.”

Our two-storey house was lit up with a hundred lamps. Nothing was as bright but the temple across the street. When the ceremonies were over, the goodbyes said and the tears shed, Sambu grabbed my arm and whisked me into his black Ford, the only man to own one in the entire Madras Presidency. I felt the pride rise in me.

Sambu’s house, its walls and windows felt alien. Our own home was modest, built right at the heart of the agraharam. Amma told me that it was built by my great grandfather. It was an old house and its walls spoke to me about my ancestors, every article in my house had a past. Sambu’s house was new, British influenced and modern. It had shorter walls, fans and lights. The furniture was sleek, unlike our ancient teak wood ones, and the bathrooms were inside the house. How strange I thought.

But, there was nothing to be afraid of. Amma had trained me well. She told me that in the house Sambu’s father was the boss, in the kitchen his mother was the boss and in the bedroom, Sambu was.

After the family elders were asleep, Sambu took me into his room. The bed was decorated with white and orange flowers; its smell reminded me of Amma’s hands, stroking my hair till I fell asleep.

Sambu’s hands reached out to the back of my head. His fingers played around with my bun, until my hair fell loosely over my shoulders. He then slid his hands down to the hook that fastened my blouse at the back and undid it, while his other hand gently removed the sari pallu from my shoulder.

I had never felt pain and pleasure at once, like this, with a man on top of me. Sambu moved like the song he sang with me when we first met, gently caressing me. I closed my eyes and lay still. Amma had not trained me for this, but it was the bedroom and Sambu was the boss.

The melody continued every night.

*********************

One morning, I fainted in the kitchen. Sambu’s mother told me I was pregnant. She rushed to her Krishna idol and prayed for a son.

I began growing bigger, but started seeing lesser of Sambu. “My role as Chanakya leaves me with no time for you,” he explained one night. Sambu said he would be the first actor in the south to try shooting outside the studio. “The studio is too artificial for an artist like me,” he said. When Sambu didn’t return at night, I knew it must be his films that kept him away.

After almost two months since that night, I heard his Ford engine roll into the gate. Dressed as usual in his spotless white shirt and trousers, Sambu got out of the car holding a box of 555 cigarettes, and puffing on one. Sambu never smoked! That’s new, I thought. I met him at the door. He grabbed me by my hand and hurried into the bedroom. He did not even pause to greet his mother. “What’s the matter?” I asked him.

Sambu pushed me on to the bed, “Nothing you need to know,” he said. This time, his fingers didn’t bother to play with my bun. One hand tore open my blouse while the other lifted my sari up from my heels. There was no melody this time, no rhythm. There was no pleasure this time, only pain. But it was the bedroom and Sambu was the boss.

His mother woke me up. My head felt heavy. When I sat up, I saw the mattress was soaked in blood. Sambu had left. I heard her mumble, “What sin did you do in your previous birth Shanta!” “Lord Krishna, forgive her and give us a son!”

For two years after the marriage, those painful nights continued. Sambu had begun to scare me. He was becoming an animal! When I resisted, the violence only increased. There was no music left in my head, and there was no love in his eyes.

When I conceived again, I asked Sambu’s mother to send me home to Amma. Amma told me it was his films that worried him; that Sambu was not a changed man. I only wished I could catch a glimpse of the old Sambu.

*****************

My window and its view of the Shiva temple made me forget the pain of Sambu’s absence.

In the evenings, as the sun began to set, Amma would take me to the temple. We would sit at the tank; enjoy the chatter of people, the chants of the priests and the smell of camphor. When the gopuram’s reflection in the water faded with the setting sun, Amma and I walked back home.

Indu was born in Amma’s house, in the same room where spent my childhood. She was a beautiful baby. “Aren’t her eyes like her father’s?” “Her hair is like Shanta’s.” “The colour is definitely Sambu’s”… Where was Sambu? Appa was losing patience and faith in Sambu. “What kind of man leaves his pregnant wife uncared for?” Appa said. I sent a prayer to Shiva to bring Sambu home.

It was time to leave Amma again. Sambu had not been home in months, his mother said. But his letters told us he was fine. In one of our replies, after conveying his mother’s messages, I wrote, “If you don’t come more often, you will not see your daughter grow.” I hoped he would be home in time for Indu’s first birthday. She had already begun to take her first steps.

Sambu’s reply never came. Instead, we received a telegram from Sri Perumbudur, where Sambu’s film was being shot.

Car accident STOP Sambu dead STOP Body recovered STOP Come to claim STOP

Amma came home. “Shanta, we are leaving. You need to come.” Sambu’s mother tried, “You must be a good wife.”

I didn’t go. When the cremation was over, the rumour-mongers had plenty to say. “There was another body in the car, it was a woman!” “He was never with Shanta; that explains it!” “What will she do now?”

Was Sambu really with another woman? Wasn’t it his films that kept him away? Why were people talking? How did Sambu ruin my life? He seemed such a nice man when I first met him, even Appa had approved of him.  May be there was another woman! How have I been so stupid that I didn’t see it earlier?

Sambu had left so much unanswered that in death, he made me hate him and hate myself. I refused to see his body; I refused to see my own. I threw the mirror out of my window and left Indu with Amma. The voices and the people and their pitiful eyes sickened me! I locked myself in Sambu’s room and covered my face with a black cloth.

I didn’t count the hours or the days. I didn’t realize when I ate. After forty days, when the mourning was over, Sambu’s mother had the door opened. She took me into the backyard, oiled my hair and yellowed my body with turmeric.

She then dressed me in white and called the barber in. “May your soul be one with Sambu’s,” she said. As the barber’s razor touched my head, Appa walked into the house.

“Shanta is an intelligent girl! I will not have you ruin her life,” he said. “I will put her back in school, she will study and she will work and earn. Her place is not in your kitchen!”

Appa took me home. It was six in the evening. The sun was setting and the temple’s reflection had begun fading from the tank’s water. The temple bells had gone silent, just as my marriage had, the chants had stopped and the lamps were blown out by the winds. I descended the stairs that led into the temple tank. The water looked black, it was a moonless night. I dipped myself into it, and then up again, down, up, down, down, down…

Up!

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The Seedling

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Ankur woke up. The golden beams of the rising sun leaked through the thatched roof of the hut.. It was time to wake her little brother, fill water, cook and then run to the camp to make bullets. Kishan Bhau’s anger was not a good way to start the day.

Ankur prepared a meal of red ants, first boiling them in water and then allowing them to simmer. Jodu had brought in two pots of water. After years of living by themselves, the children worked like a well-oiled machine. Ankur was left with a little brother to take care of after their mother’s death. They never knew their father.

Ankur was born amidst gunshots and mine blasts in a dilapidated hut in a small village in Chattisgarh. Her mother’s screams of labour were silenced by the explosions outside, her blood shadowed over by a dim kerosene lamp. Before she was wiped clean of the blood, even before she could drink her mother’s milk, she was bundled in a basket and thrown over her mother’s shoulders to flee to safety.

After her mother’s death, the war camp adopted Ankur and her brother. The Comrades believed they would make good soldiers. By the time she was 12, Ankur had faced ten wars, filling bullets and bombs with explosive material. It earned her food for herself and Jodu. She never thought it a burden, it was liberating.

When the meal of red ants was ready, she served a portion to her brother and packed the rest for Kishan Bhau. As Ankur and Jodu were leaving their home, they saw a woman, dressed in a white cotton sari, with a thin blue border walk towards them. Her black hair was tied back in a low knot; her eyes were covered with large round glasses. She had a hook-like nose, the sharpness of which was softened by a big round bindi at the centre of her forehead.

Ankur was instantly cautious. She knew about these women. These women took children like them away, to educate them, to turn them against their own people. Ankur would have none of it.

“Humko nahi padna!” she said even before the woman spoke. “Humko ladna hai, we want to fight.”Ankur saw the shock in the woman’s eyes.

The woman spoke after a moment’s silence. “A good education will give you a good life in the city, in a big building,” she said. “You could own a car.” The woman told them their lives would be wasted in the war.

Ankur was firm. Her jaws tightened with anger. Ankur didn’t want money, she wanted to fight.

She felt a sudden tug at her skirt. It was Jodu.

“Di,” he said. “Humein car milega, we’ll get a car. Mujhko padna hai, this is not our war.”

Ankur looked down at her brother’s large eyes. No. She wouldn’t let him go. He was all she had. But she couldn’t refuse him either. She turned to the woman. “Kahaan jaana hai, where do we go?

*************************

School was a burden. Her body was fitted into a uniform, her wild hair was oiled and plaited and her back was hunched with books. In class, when her teacher asked her what she wanted to become, Ankur stood up and said, “Miss my name is Ankur, it means seedling. But one day, I will grow into an immense tree, a soldier. My war will always be against this country!”

The class fell silent. Ankur sat back in her seat and let her mind drift. She was never made for the four walls of the classroom, she thought. She was made for the jungle, for the liberty it offered, for the war.

A sudden loud noise, an explosion stirred Ankur out of her trance. And then screams. The commotion came from the room down the hall. The children were screaming, crying and running. The teacher pushed them out of the classroom. There were girls and boys flowing into the hallways, some were bleeding, others limping. Ankur dodged broken glass and window grills.

The next thing Ankur knew, they were in the school’s courtyard. Where was Jodu? Other children from his class were already in the courtyard. Her eyes looked desperately for Jodu. Ankur was shaken more than she could imagine. She needed to find Jodu.

There were limbs strewn all around the school courtyard. She stumbled upon a severed head, a torn pair of shorts, fingers, toes… As she avoided the particles that were once human, she tripped over the body of a small boy, crushed under some rubble.

The brown hair, the grey eyes… this was Jodu! Ankur couldn’t move. Why would Kishan Bhau do this to them? They were his children too. She stood there lifelessly staring down at Jodu’s limp body. As she reached out to Jodu, another blast threw her towards a wall.

The walls were losing shape and melting down. As Ankur tried getting up, she noticed a large red wave of blood gushing towards her. It knocked her down and swallowed her.

When Ankur woke up, she saw a man with soft eyes, sitting on a cane chair reading a book. The evening sun brightened his kind, old face. It was the headmaster.

Ankur sat up. “Jodu?” The man pointed to a bed beside her. Jodu was alive and awake.

Ankur sprung out of her bed and onto Jodu’s. She felt her hot cheeks being moistened by tears. She had never cried before.

“This is not our war,” she said as she hugged Jodu tightly… this is not our war!”

 

(All characters are fictional, but representative of the realities of the lives of such kids)