It was impossible to get home on time that day. Crowds on the streets, police vans rushing to and fro, food stalls and shops on fire, the fire engine’s siren rising and falling, everywhere the sound of running feet. How could we step out? But Rajni insisted that our aunt would worry so somehow or other we had to get home that night. We were total strangers to the place, hardly knew our way around; in our frightened state we were sure to get lost. Nobody knew us and whom would we try to find? When the holidays began, we thought we’d come for a visit, and now we were caught up in clashes and riots. When we started out we had told my aunt that we’d come straight home after seeing the film; we wouldn’t linger at any food-stall or restaurant to eat or drink. My aunt knew her son Bhanu only too well. Every time we went out he’d treat us in style in a restaurant. But we knew it would be nightfall so we’d promised to follow our noses straight home. We had to reassure my aunt a dozen times before she agreed to let us go to a cinema hall so far away. Rajni and I were even willing to go to the nearest cinema hall and see whatever was going. But Bhanu insisted, “Nothing doing. This is the film that we are going to see, never mind how far away it is.”
The spectators scattered rapidly. We had just about reached the road when the sight of people running in all directions brought us to a halt. A shopkeeper told us to get away via the railway level crossing. That was the way everyone was going. But don’t think of walking. Five auto-rickshaws refused to take us, and then one stopped. We crammed ourselves in, trembling with anxiety. At least that was better than walking. The driver was a smart chap, swerving this way and that, turning and speeding away at the first sign of a crowd or stone throwing, he brought us as far as the level crossing via ‘Kothi’. Only two days ago, Bhanu had brought us to this area; he’d had something to do there. The poor rickshaw driver was a really decent fellow, though of course he did have to come this way in any case. Otherwise he’d have said an absolute no too, just like the other five.
What a good thing it would have been, I felt, if we hadn’t set our hearts on this film. In a city, one can’t be sure of anything. One moment everything’s fine and the next moment there’s a violent clash, shops down their shutters, people are out on the streets. If one is caught up in it there’s no one to send a message home. In a strange place nobody recognizes us — neither by face nor by name.
As we approached the railway crossing, I had kept my eyes tight shut. Three or four people running in the opposite direction kept signalling to us to turn back. One even came right up to us and drew his hand over his throat to indicate what was happening ahead. It was from the rickshaw driver that we learnt all this; we ourselves had almost lost consciousness. We were lying like gunny-bags in the rickshaw, with our eyes mostly tight shut, and when we couldn’t stand that any more, peeping out and looking around. Two things were stuck in my mind, something fearful was happening and we must get home as quickly as we could. Our legs were shaking, palms drenched with perspiration. Even a fellow like Bhanu had stuffed his handkerchief in his mouth and was turning from left to right, utterly dazed. We could feel his elbows digging into us but he couldn’t speak. I vowed I’d offer a coconut to Ambamata. Once in our village when Pani couldn’t be found, a coconut had been promised. Then Pani was found in the pond and though she’d swallowed a lot of water she was saved. Kaki would definitely thrash Shanti, in place of Bhanu, since Bhanu couldn’t be touched. It was these two who were so enthusiastic about going to a cinema theatre so far off, not Rajni and myself. As I was revolving this in my mind suddenly the rickshaw stopped with a jerk.
Far off we could see a train halted on the tracks. There was such a sea of heads bobbing up and down that we couldn’t understand a thing. We kept the rickshaw behind some stalls near a bend and hid there crouching. The mob had surrounded the entire train and they were dragging out people from the last compartments. Groups of five — ten — twenty-five people were rushing towards the train shouting. We heard two piercing screams and we couldn’t help looking. There were just nondescript people in the crowd but I caught a glimpse of the faces of two young men who were on our side of the mob. Long loose locks of hair, stylish moustaches, one thin and light-complexioned, waving his muscular arms in the air, the other squat, a shirt with a check pattern, a handkerchief tied round his wrist, and — enough, that’s all I saw, saw it though I didn’t want to. They too leapt into the melee near the last compartment. After that I couldn’t make out much when Bhanu suddenly pulled me away and clapped his hand over my eyes. I could scarcely see anything but caught a glimpse of what was happening. Clinging to the bars of the train several people were pulling at something. Then suddenly clothes were flung into the air. I felt sure they were girls’ clothes and they were flung out of the door of the compartment. The screaming was fit to split the heavens and we thought our breathing would stop. Nothing happened. Even at this distance one could make out the two young men because of their dark checked shirts.
How we managed to reach home that night, how we soothed Kaki who had collected the whole neighbourhood around her with her weeping and how we lay all night speechless with eyes wide-open in terror, it would be better not to speak of. Then we read about it all in the papers, enough photographs which would make your head swim. Who knows how they had managed to take those photographs. Kaki had hidden the papers to prevent us from seeing them but Bhanu got hold of them and showed them to the rest of us. After that till the day we returned we never stepped out of the house. Just didn’t feel like it.
Since then we did not see Bhanu and Shanti again till we met again yesterday. Manekfoi’s daughter Amba’s engagement was fixed and our aunt sent word that this was something the children would enjoy so we should be sent immediately and the rest could follow at leisure. We took the 12:30 bus. All the way we had a jolly good time. What with ‘antkadi’ and other noisy games we felt we had barely boarded the bus when we were out again. Amba was decked out in all her finery. There seemed to be something shiny stuck to her cheeks, something like gold and silver embroidery. Her lips were a bright pink and she had made her hair into a large bun in which she seemed to have planted a whole garden. Her sari was a turmeric-yellow, not at all pleasant. She was putting on a bashful act but actually what she wanted was for someone to give her a chance to start on the subject of her husband and her new home. We didn’t ask any questions on the subject. In any case I was getting a headache from the time we arrived.
Manekfoi just kept repeating endlessly that if Sharda had only been able to find as good a match as Amba had, both could have been married off at the same time. My poor mother must have let her words slip in at one ear and out at the other. I was pretty irritated but to whom could I complain? After all there was an engagement taking place in the house so I’d have to keep my mouth shut. If I went and said something on such an auspicious day people would assume I was jealous. If someone had a mind to, they could interpret one’s words any way they chose. Manekfoi imagined that her Amba was pretty so she was bound to get the very best. That’s why there was such a fuss over the engagement. Otherwise people don’t do so much even for a wedding. So many people were engaged in preparing the meal! The boy’s family was from the city so they had to be honoured. Nothing was ordinary or routine. Special cooks had been engaged.
Bhanu and Shanti mixed with everybody in their usual style and ferreted out every detail. Where does Amba’s fiancé work? How many people are there in the family? What’s the house like, what’s the locality like – they inquired about every detail. That’s the kind of fuss that suits them. And constantly humouring Manekfoi as they went along.
Oh wonderful, what a good match for Amba…that’s the kind of thing they’d repeat. I couldn’t put up such a show of rejoicing and so everyone concluded that she’s jealous because things haven’t worked out for her so why would she say anything? Still I went and sat beside Amba. Praised her gaudy sari. What else could I do since she wanted to be praised? There was some joking, teasing. Quite a number of girls were around. I had henna applied to my hands, wandered about. At about five, the cars and tempos with the boy’s party arrived.
The first person we saw was Amba’s mother-in-law. What a pumpkin! We, that is Bhanu-Shanti-Rajni and I, and some others started giggling, of course glancing around as we did so. Manekfoi glared at us but who cared? Does one often get a chance to have such fun? But then Shanti and I were deputed to attend on all the women from Amba’s new family. We were worn out boiling round upon round of tea and filling up plate after plate of snacks. All the men were seated outside and there was time yet for the ceremony so we wanted very much to go and have a look at Amba’s husband. But we couldn’t get away from serving the guests. I went in to Amba a couple of times. She was making out that till the very last moment her preparations didn’t give her leisure for anything else. Since she’d had her make-up done so long ago there were patches on her face by now, white and pink. Now if one tried to tell her so, it would be misunderstood. They’d imagine that I couldn’t bear the sight of Amba’s good fortune so I saw everything crooked and said things crooked. Well, let her look the way she did. Her mother could worry about her. Nothing I said would carry any weight – so I kept quiet. But that brazen Bhanu brought a mirror — Just see for yourself. Then Amba was on the verge of tears as her face was quite spoilt. With great effort they made her up once more. Radha helped since she’s good at all that. Manekfoi came around several times, urged us to hurry. And then asked me, don’t you want to get dressed? Do you want to stay like this? If you feel like it, wear one of Amba’s saris, there’s a pile of new ones. There’ll be something to go with your blouse. I said no — said I was ready, dressed. Felt vexed. It’s Amba’s engagement, why don’t you just dress her up and do as you please? Why do you pursue me?
At the time of the ceremony I just felt like getting away. I went and stood in the kitchen pretending I had some work. As it is I was thoroughly bored. Just then I heard shouts summoning me. Manekfoi deliberately does this kind of thing. Won’t let one be, can’t rest till she’s shown one what she wants to. Since she called me I had to go. I went along; she must have thought she’d show that Sharda, what a fine fellow she had found for Amba, let her be jealous. As it is she had said more than once in front of the whole house, good boys were not wandering around, one had to be on the look-out and our Amba was such that she’d be approved immediately. Fortune favours her, just the first set of negotiations and everything was fixed up.
Of course nobody spoke openly but I had to listen to snide remarks till I couldn’t stand it anymore. Thought I’d go and watch the ceremony — might get some peace. At least they couldn’t keep showering me with the same remarks. How coy Amba made herself out to be, her eyes fixed on the floor. Then I saw Amba’s husband. He looked impressive all right, a handsome moustache, rather long curly hair.
–And my heart missed a beat. He wasn’t the same fellow, was he? Whirling his arms around in the crowd, rushing towards the train — he had passed before my eyes so swiftly that I couldn’t be certain. Besides we had been so terrified, my eyes weren’t even properly open to note every detail clearly. But the thought hammered away at me, he’s the same, the same, no one else.
– He’s the only son, the girl’s going to rule over the household all her life. Works in a factory, earns well….
Sweets were distributed. Then it was time to serve the meal. I was terribly disturbed, thought I’d call Bhanu or Rajni, ask them. I don’t know why but I couldn’t. Perhaps they hadn’t seen him as I had seen him, not then, not there.
I just couldn’t tell anybody anything. It was much wiser not to and what could I tell them? Neither Manekfoi nor anybody else would respect my motives; if I said the boy was not suitable for Amba it would be evident to them that I was blazing with envy. I didn’t want things to go well with Amba so I took to throwing stones. I kept watching Amba. Every little while she’d pass her hand over her new bangles and then touch the heap of flowers she’d arranged on her head. She’d straighten the end of her sari and peep at that fellow, smirking.
And he was gazing fixedly at Amba, unblinking. That terrified me. I felt unwell, dizzy. I saw clothes flung up in the air, Amba’s yellow sari among them. I realized it was fear that made me imagine this but I couldn’t have said what exactly I feared. My mother even asked me — “Why do you seem so stupefied, is something happening to you?” Manekfoi laughed sarcastically, forebore to say that this is what happens to young girls who get left out when they attend someone else’s engagement. That’s what’s happening to Sharda, is it necessary to ask?
Then I thought I could be mistaken. How could one tell? This boy might be someone else, young men with moustaches all look alike from a distance. I might be deceived. I hadn’t observed him carefully, had I? And even when one has seen a person, known a person properly can’t one make a mistake? I had known Kailas properly and yet…so one couldn’t rely too much on the sense of sight, could one?
I hugged Amba and came back. It was a good thing no one noticed that my eyes were moist.
Translated from Gujarati by Shirin Kudchedkar.
HIMANSHI SHELAT. Commenced her writing career in the 1990’s. She has so far published four collections of stories, a novel based on the life of Amrita Sher-Gil, Platform No.4, an outcome of her work with the children who frequent railway platforms and Victor, which is an expression of her love for animals. She gave up her job at M.T.B.College, Surat, where she had been teaching English and seemed to have decided to eschew fiction for social service. But she has returned to fiction, having recourse to the mode of fantasy in her latest collection of short stories. She has won many awards which include the Gujarat Sahitya Akademi Award and Central Sahitya Akademi Award for Andheri Galiman Safed Tapkan and the Gujarat Sahitya Parishad Award for Antaral.
SHIRIN KUDCHEDKAR. An eminent feminist critic, was formerly Head, Department of English, SNDT women’s University, Mumbai. director of the Canadian Studies programme at the SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai. She was the editor of the Gujarati section of the two volume Women Writing in India,edited by Susie Tharu and K. Lalita. She has taught English for forty years and is an experienced translator. Has also edited a number of anthologies of poetry and literary criticism.